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The Free Zone: Will FireFall Rise or Fall?

Column By Richard Aihoshi on April 23, 2013

Unsurprisingly, there was no shortage of news, rumors et al in the MMOG space during the past couple of weeks. As sometimes happens, the one that most got me thinking probably went unnoticed by a lot of our readers, who are more interested in specific games than in the industry as a whole. For better or worse, however, they're not always completely separate topics, no matter how much we might like them to be.

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Red 5 majority owner The9 loses $45.7 million in the second half of 2012

Witness this site's hype rating of about 8.2, it's safe to say that there's a good amount of interest in FireFall. As a result, last week's news that The9 reported a rather significant loss for the last six months of 2012 definitely caught my attention. Readers who watch the industry may recall that the Chinese publisher acquired a majority position in Red 5 Studios just over three years ago, apparently paying about $20 million. Accordingly, I can't help but wonder if the situation that produces the latest financials will impact the upcoming game in some way.

This is because the numbers look bad enough to raise questions as to whether The9 can simply carry on business as usual. Net revenue in the second half was $8.2 million, a drop of 51% from the preceding six months. This led to a loss of $45.7 million. But that's not all. For the entire year, the total was about $82.5 million, and if we go back one more semi-annual period, we can add another $35.3 million. That's $117.8 in a year and a half. Granted the company made a lot of money while it held the WoW license for China, so it undoubtedly had pretty deep pockets. However, considering that contract ended back in 2009, how much can be left in the bank?

Since FireFall is pretty far along in development, I'm not concerned that it might be canceled. On the other hand, is it possible the game will be pushed to market before it's completely polished and ready? Obviously, I hope this won't transpire. Red 5 CEO Mark Kern played a major role on WoW, so he's very familiar with the concept of “when it's ready”. As to whether this approach will be followed, I suspect your guess is may be as good as mine. But for what it's worth, my gut won't let me rule out the possibility it won't.

This news also brought forward other questions about the game that had been lurking in the dusty depths of my mind. Right up front, of course, are the ones about its potential for success. In our hemisphere, to what extent will the fact that it's an MMO shooter limit its audience given the category simply hasn't caught on here like it has in Asia. Even if FireFall turns out to be outstanding, how likely is it to rise to an entire new level of popularity? Is that even possible any more, or is WoW destined to be the last title that will ever achieve such a feat?

This particular obstacle is basically non-existent in the Far East, but there are others. For instance, there are games with huge, well-established followings. It has intrigued me for years that this factor is often given what I consider insufficient weight when people assess how new titles are likely to fare. I've never seen anyone credibly argue that community isn't crucial. So it seems logical to assume, at least in general, that it's not easy to lure players away from entrenched competitors. But how often do we see people who seem to assume they will leave in droves whenever something new and shiny comes along?

To illustrate this point and to apply it to FireFall, is it more appealing visually than the dominant category leader in China, Crossfire? Of course. Will it be a better game? That remains to be seen, but let's assume it will. If so, can we safely assume it will wrest the latter's position away from it? Hmm, maybe not. Indeed, I'll be quite surprised if this happens.

Don't get me wrong; I'm not predicting FireFall will fail, either on the other side of the world or here. What I am saying is that just like countless other highly anticipated MMOGs, it faces a monumental task in terms of attaining a level of success that will make the pre-launch hype appear it was justified. And what if The9's financial situation means it will be tempted not just to launch sooner than necessary, or but also to cut corners on its marketing budget, customer service, etc.?

I hope my fears are shown to be completely unfounded, and that FireFall's place in the global MMOG landscape is determined solely on the basis of its merits as a game. After last week's news, I can't say I'm completely confident this will happen. 


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The Free Zone
Richard Aihoshi has been writing about MMOGs since the mid-1990s, always with a global perspective. As a result, he has observed the emergence and growth of the free to play business model from its early days in both hemispheres.

He is the former Editor of RPG Vault and his column, focusing on free to play MMOs, appears on MMORPG.com every Monday.
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