As usual, quite a few interesting things came across my desktop during the past couple of weeks - news stories, other pieces of information, rumors, etc. The one that grabbed the largest share of my attention was from the Russian-speaking market, which I try to keep an eye on because it's both one of the largest in the world and also among the most rapidly growing. Since the free to play business model is predominant there, it came as a surprise to learn that publisher Mail.Ru has opened a subscription server for Allods Online, the well-known offering developed by a studio it now owns. In order to satisfy my curiosity, I checked to find out more about this situation.
For those who aren't aware, this title's background goes back around 15 years to a strategy RPG called Allods that became a major hit in the Russian-language market. A successful sequel followed, making the property arguably the top domestic one of that period. Under the name Rage of Mages, neither fared well here in North America. Over there, however, even though a third standalone game was never published - admittedly Evil Islands can be seen as a spiritual successor - the franchise remained very warmly remembered for several years until the online adaptation came along.
Naturally, Allods Online was very eagerly awaited, and it has maintained its regional strength. Mail.Ru, which claims to be the leader in the Eastern European interactive entertainment market, ranks the game among the top handful in its portfolio. The others are Warface, Perfect World, CrossFire and ParaPa (a rhythm/dancing release also known as High Street 5), with ArcheAge in the queue to be added later this year.
The market in which the company competes is sizable. The value for this year is likely to be at least in the $1 billion range. It might even be more. Mail.Ru said the online games segment grew 68% from 2010 to 2011. Other sources indicate last year saw another big increase. It was smaller percentage-wise, but this is normal as the base gets larger.
The player base for online releases of all types is more than 40 million.
Returning to the recent news, one point to be clear about is that Mail.Ru isn't making a complete shift. According to the company, one new server was added. There are now 10 in all, the rest of which were and still are F2P. So,while it wasn't stated explicitly, it seems like an experiment. Nonetheless, I was intrigued to know more, such as how and why the decision was made to open it.
Allods Online Brand Manager Serge Nazaroff started off by stating that F2P remains the team's top priority. He said the team regards the subscription server as a new service introduced primarily as an alternative for a portion of the game's hardcore user base. The key change was straightforward, removing the cash shop. Obviously, this eliminates the possibility of purchasing boosters or superior gear, which effectively makes playing time the major differentiator affecting rate of advancement. If anything, it also makes the game a little harder.
While it's easy to understand not offering anything for sale that would provide an advantage, I don't know why Mail.Ru also opted not to sell cosmetic items. Maybe it was just simpler to do so. In any case, as I rather expected, the cost is a little below the $15 per month that's more or less “standard” here. For a 30-day subscription, a player is asked to fork over 390 rubles, which is about $12.90. There's also a slightly discounted 90-day option available for 1075 rubles, around $35.50, which saves roughly 8 percent per month.
Nazaroff credits some of the Russian players for initiating the server. He reports they were able to collect enough signatures to convince the team to give it a try. His colleague, Brand Director Oleg Khazhinskiy, clarified that the petition started in late September and ended up with about 2000 names. Apparently, the timing was fortuitous in that Mail.Ru had already begun to think about a P2P option. That said, he also affirmed both F2P's continuing popularity in the region and his feeling that “frankly, it's the future of online games.”
As I've said repeatedly, I don't see the future of online games belonging to any single revenue model. What I believe will happen - and it also happens to be what I want as a player - is more consumer choice. Given this professional and personal perspective, I'm very interested to see how the Allods Online subscription server fares over the coming months, and whether the time is right for other titles and publishers to follow suit.