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The Free Zone: Winter is Coming… And It’s Web-based

Column By Richard Aihoshi on April 10, 2012

It's only natural that at any given time, certain things in the MMOG space grab my attention or arouse my curiosity more than others. In this respect, I realized long ago that I think differently from most people because I'm just as interested in market trends, the global landscape, the industry, the development process, etc. as I am in individual games. This is reflected in these topics that have been on my mind recently. 

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Winter is coming... and it's web-based

Game of Thrones has a place in today's column for a combination of reasons. One is that it reflects a trend I started talking about three or four years ago, where more known non-game IPs would make their way into the F2P sector.  This one is pretty hot at the moment, thanks to the major boost in visibility provided by the TV series that premiered a year ago. For those who don't know, its name and that of the upcoming MMOG are drawn from the first book in author George R.R. Martin's series A Song of Fire and Ice, which encompasses five enormous volumes so far. The sixth is in progress and a seventh has been announced, but since fans had to wait six years for last year's A Dance with Dragons, there's certainly reason to wonder how soon the next one, The Winds of Winter, will actually be available. 

Be that as it may, a second major reason for my interest in the upcoming MMOG is that it will be web-based, which ties into another industry direction I began seeing some years back, one that I believe will be a major factor in shaping the future. Like it or not, accessibility is a significant determinant of a game's realistic potential audience size.  This encompasses multiple factors, including but not limited to the hardware requirements and ease of entry. That said, client-based titles tend to exclude more possible players via both.  In terms of the latter, web-based offerings are simpler to install, and since the game will be F2P, it won't have an up-front monetary barrier to trial.

I'm also intrigued by the possibility that the nature of the property might make it a better candidate than some others for adaptation into an MMOG. Well before LotRO launched, I suspected it wouldn't fully capitalize on the massive popularity of Tolkien's IP even though it gave every indication of being solidly made. My primary reason was that the books are about the ring quest, a sweeping, captivating saga. As a non- or casual gamer fan of the property, I'd want to be closely involved in that tale, with its small group of characters. However, Middle-earth Online would have been a more accurate title for the game since it only takes place in the same world during the same time frame, which I regarded from the get-go as a far less appealing proposition.

In contrast, A Song of Fire and Ice involves a much larger cast of characters; so many that a fair number are killed off without the overarching narrative skipping a beat. Don't get me wrong - the story element is central to the books.  However, it contains many more threads, so although the IP is a long way from being a sandbox, the game may face a lower hurdle in this respect than did LotRO. On the other hand, the team at Artplant might have a more difficult task in capturing the multi-faceted, shifting, politically complex feel of Martin's world.

China is still coming...

I've yet to see figures for 2011 I'm willing to take completely at face value.  However, it's abundantly clear that China was once again the primary driver of growth in the global MMOG market. It looks like last year's dollar value there will be up by between 15 and 20 percent. What's more, if the P2P sector (basically WoW) declined, which seems like a reasonable assumption, it would mean F2P grew by a larger amount than the overall total. 

Since Chinese publishers still have a lot of room to continue growing domestically as the government builds out the Internet infrastructure, they're only gradually increasing their focus on the west. In this respect, last year brought a couple of visible events, Tencent's purchase of Riot Games and Perfect World's acquisition of Cryptic. It's difficult to predict if similar opportunities will arise in 2012, but if they do, I think there's a very good chance the buyers will be from China. 

What's more, I can't help but think that as those companies direct more of their attention toward this hemisphere, they will give more consideration to starting their own studios here. Whether this will happen by year end is highly speculative, but when one publisher takes this step, I wouldn't be surprised to see others follow.

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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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