Dark or Light

F2P at E3 2012

Richard Aihoshi Posted:
Columns The Free Zone 0

Any serious western gamer knows that this year's edition of the E3 trade event will open its doors today, probably quite soon after this column is published. As usual during the weeks leading into it, a considerable amount of media attention has gone to a small number of titles that will be shown there. However, there are differences too. Among these is the admittedly subjective feeling I have that the overall level of anticipation about the show has fallen from where it was five or 10 years ago.

If this assessment isn't completely off the mark, one contributing factor may be the increasing prominence of free to play within the industry as a whole. This isn't necessarily a great fit with the show's roots. I'm referring to the fact it's owned and run by the Entertainment Software Association, which is basically a lobby group comprised of the major western game publishers. One key reason it was created was to provide a venue where the member companies could put their upcoming games in front of the buyers from what was effectively the only distribution channel at the time, brick and mortar retailers.

So at the very least, it's not hard to feel E3 isn't fully set up to reflect the F2P sector. Real and online stores would undoubtedly love to capture a larger share of the substantial and rapidly growing revenues it generates. However, there's little reason for F2P publishers, who have prepaid cards but no boxes to sell, to put a lot of effort and money into courting them at the show.

The other main reason they might want to appear is to get more media attention. But that's not as straightforward as it may seem. A key factor is that publications tend to focus on the aforementioned high-profile titles since putting up articles about them pulls more eyeballs. While this is understandable, it means the most other games can realistically hope for is limited.  As a result, it's questionable whether the money and effort they have to invest to be in E3 is cost effective. My overall opinion is that it's not. I've seen a few exceptions over the years, but the odds of being one are pretty slim.

That said I'm definitely still interested in this year's event, which I'm not attending, for various reasons. One of these is my curiosity as to what it might mean that NCsoft isn't listed among the exhibitors. The company has gone off-site at least once before, but that was before it went primarily F2P / freemium, and it seems doubly odd considering the impending arrival of GW2. I'll be surprised if anything becomes public that isn't PR spin, but any unofficial feel I can get will be more than I have now. For what it's worth, another intriguing absentee is Funcom. And while Valve will be there, it appears DOTA 2 won't.

Being an RPG grognard, I couldn't help noticing that SOE has picked up Wizardry Online. It's already out in Japan, the home market of developer Gamepot, but I haven't seen much about it there, either positive or negative. I don't know if the property retains any meaningful pull from two decades ago when it was part of a “big three” alongside Ultima and Might & Magic. In addition, I wonder how well it can reflect its party-based roots. Nonetheless, I'll have my eyes open to see what the reactions are like to this one.

Although I only play shooters on occasion, I'm also interested to see the response to Planetside 2. Persistent online shooters gained considerable traction in Korea several years ago. Since then, I've wondered when and to what extent the west would follow. So far, they've largely flown below the radar, although they're more popular than they may seem. I don't know enough about SOE's entry to predict whether it might be the one to boost the entire category's visibility in this hemisphere, but along with Trion Worlds' Defiance, it probably has a better chance than any of its Asian-made counterparts.

One gray area about the latter is that it's supposed to launch next spring alongside its companion TV show, which raises the question as to whether development is and can stay on track to meet this target with a polished release. I also don't know what if anything to make of the company also being about to go live with End of Nations, which doesn't seem to have made a particularly big splash.

Another title I'll be watching even though it's not my personal cup of tea is World of Warplanes. The main reason is simply that I wonder if Wargaming.net stands a decent chance of reprising its success with World of Tanks. And the last one I'll mention is one that seems much more up my alley. It's Otherland, an adaptation of Tad Williams' sci-fi property. The concept is certainly appealing, but seems like a relatively complex, difficult one to implement. Even with the author's reported participation, I can't help but wonder how well it's likely to meet the fans' expectations, which are, of course, shaped by the books, and thus not likely to make much allowance for compromises due to the current state of development and technology, etc.


Richard Aihoshi

Richard Aihoshi / Richard Aihoshi has been writing about the MMOG industry since the mid-1990s, always with a global perspective. He has observed the emergence and growth of the free to play business model from its early days in both hemispheres.