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The Free Zone: 5, 9, F2P, a Million and More

By Richard Aihoshi on February 08, 2010 | Columns | Comments

5, 9, F2P, a Million and More

Will 5 and 9 add up to F2P?

Late last month, Red 5 Studios issued a brief press release confirming what had been rumored for some time, that it was headed for a downsizing. The statement didn't provide anything at all in terms of details. It said only that there had been a restructuring involving "additional investment from a strategic partner in the online games industry", that some people had chosen to leave, and that others had been let go. A quick glimpse at the company's website shows 32 pictures of staff. I never counted before, but I'd wager there used to be at least 50 or 60.

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Last week, Reuters reported that Chinese publisher The9 has invested in two developers, one being Red 5. The information was attributed to a company source, but it has yet to be confirmed. Coincidentally, Red 5 was formed about five years ago by former senior members of the World of Warcraft team including Mark Kern and Bill Petras, while The9 operated the game in China until it lost the license to NetEase in mid-2009.

If it turns out The9 is indeed the investor, it doesn't take a great leap of faith to think that Red 5's unannounced project will use the item-based revenue model. This is especially true when we remember that the studio previously announced a publishing deal with Korean-based Webzen, which has never managed to establish a strong presence in this hemisphere. In fact, I seem to recall it shut down its US office not so very long ago.

As for what Red 5 is working on, no one officially knows. The aforementioned press release said only that the company is still committed to releasing a "AAA quality, online title targeted for a worldwide release." Actually, this could also be interpreted as pointing toward free to play. After all, what are your chances of succeeding globally if you design your game for the subscription model? Does the phrase "spitting into the wind" come to mind? It does for me.

Playfish's branded property social game

In last week's column, I happened to mention EA's purchase of social game developer Playfish, which was 2009's largest known investment in the virtual goods-related sector. The latter company caught my attention again a few days ago when its president said it's working on a title involving one of its new parent's well-known brands. The news itself wasn't a big surprise, but I wasn't expecting it so soon. Of course, I'm used to thinking of development cycles that are counted in years, not months or even weeks.

This got me to thinking about possible implications social games may have on the ever-expanding MMOG space. Of course, some will immediately protest that there's no relationship whatsoever. Although I'm still trying to get a grasp how they're connected, and how much, there just might be more of a connection than meets the proverbial eye.

STO announces a million

Meanwhile, Atari announced that Star Trek Online's launch surpassed a million accounts in North America and Europe. An impressive beginning to be sure, but we all knew it would sell a lot of boxes, particularly since nicely discounted year and lifetime subscription rates were offered. A bigger question is whether the game will retain a solid percentage of players when their free month ends and they have to decide whether to subscribe. Unfortunately, the last couple of games that broke from the starting gate quickly didn't do so.

I hope this one will fare better. Contrary to what some people have convinced themselves into thinking, I'm not against subscription games. I want all the good MMOG releases to do well regardless of which revenue model they use because every success is good for the category as a whole.

Rumor milling

Even though I pretty much never seek them out, a fair number of rumors cross my desk anyway. Most are easy enough to dismiss, most often because they simply don't make much sense. However, a few are more interesting, even intriguing since they seem reasonable, even likely. So, I thought I'd pass some of them along as they come up. One caveat - you won't see anything where I have solid information as to whether something is true or false. What fun would that be?

Today's first one is that Blizzard's next MMOG will be F2P, perhaps not everywhere, but at least in the majority of the world where it's the dominant revenue model. Since the item-based part of the global market is already larger in dollar value than the subscription segment, and is also expanding more rapidly, it can make one wonder how long the company will choose to swim against the strengthening tide, especially considering half of WoW's so-called subscribers don't pay a monthly fee now anyway.

The Free Zone The Free Zone Editorials
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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