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The Free Zone: From Russia With No Monthly Fee

Interviews By Richard Aihoshi on September 25, 2012

During the past 15 years, the vast majority of what I've written has been published online. I've never aimed at print, and, unsurprisingly, can count my credits without running out of fingers and toes. As a result, it came as a surprise when I received a completely unsolicited invitation a couple of months ago to write a guest column for a game magazine, especially since it's not even an English-language one. So, if you should somehow happen to see the current issue of Igromania, the industry leader in Russia, you'll find a few of my thoughts within. 

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Given that I was tasked with offering its readers a North American perspective, it wasn't a leap for me to think it might be interesting to turn the tables here. So, for a perspective from the large and rapidly growing Russian market, I decided to solicit the opinions of Gevorg Akopyan, review section editor for Igromania. To find out what currently interests him in the MMOG space, I left our communication as open-ended as possible rather than asking him about any particular sub-topics.

The first thing he brought up was even in Russia, where it's the prevalent business model, many hardcore gamers, who are mainly male, think free to play titles are primarily for women and children, largely “because most of them either don’t know anything about games and so are willing to play any cheap crap, or they just can’t afford to buy a subscription.” Hmm... in this regard, his country doesn't seem immune from a similar misconception to one we see pretty regularly here.

Gevorg immediately points out that this perception isn't true. Indeed, he states that lots of Russian men, even in the key age 25-40 audience, spend both time and “quite a few bucks a month” playing their favorite F2P releases. As an example, he cites the exceptionally popular World of Tanks. Presumably with tongue in cheek, he states that it “makes so much money Wargaming could send a man to the moon every Tuesday.” 

Whether he meant this literally or as a humorous exaggeration, he clearly does believe F2P games in general don't deserve the degree of negativity their detractors ascribe to them, and also that they're getting better overall with each passing year. As if to emphasize this, he names multiple examples, “For instance look at Warface (developed by Crytek Kiev), Panzar: Forged by Chaos (quite a unique MMO-action made on the Cry Engine 3 by Russian studio Panzar), League of Legends, Ghost Recon Online, Battlefield Heroes and others. These are all decent games with nice graphics and solid gameplay. Of course, if you spend a buck now and then, they'll be more fun, but nonetheless, it’s completely up to you; you can easily enjoy all of them for free.”

Continuing on, Gevorg then notes that “if an F2P game is really good and its in-game purchases system is done right so it doesn’t discriminate against non-paying players, gamers will readily spend their money.” In this regard, we seem to be in complete agreement. When people perceive enough value in their overall game experience, they will voluntarily pay to enhance it. They don't - as the haters repeatedly suggest – mindlessly empty their wallets because they can't think for themselves. Serving up examples once again, he points us back toward World of Tanks, and also at CrossFire. That he brings up the latter is very interesting. Maybe he knows what many observers in the west don't, that it may now generate the most global revenue of any MMOG - and yes, I'm including World of Warcraft.

Also front and center for Gevorg is something I noted a few columns back, Crytek head Cevat Yerli's disclosure that after completing Crysis 3 and Homefront 2, his company will direct its entire attention to developing for the F2P sector. A key reason for this shift is the fact that Warface's debut in Russia has been even more successful than anticipated. It remains to be seen how this title will fare elsewhere. However, I can't help thinking it's a sign of a changing tide in the industry, one that will bring more well-established studios into this space.

In this vein, Gevorg doesn't seem completely sold on the process we've seen a number of times now where games are converted to F2P. The example he's currently wondering about is no surprise. “We’ll see how BioWare will manage with Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, though I remain rather skeptical - to make money from a free to play game, you need to have a very reasonable monetization system, and it’s really difficult to create one this fast. But we'll see.” 

And looking ahead, our Russian market expert's view of the future doesn't seem so different from my own in that we both see F2P continuing to gain market share. However, he's willing to go even farther than I am. “I’m sure that games with a subscription are history,” he concludes. “There will be no more massive hits like World of Warcraft. It’s the end of an era.” I won't make this same prediction. But we'll see. 

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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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