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Free to Play in 2010

Richard Aihoshi Posted:
Columns The Free Zone 0

Except for anyone who is stuck in denial or a hermit, it was impossible to avoid seeing that 2009 was a positive year for the free to play space here in North America. Naturally, as we enter 2010, I'm eager to see what lies ahead over the next 12 months. In a similar vein, I'm also curious to learn what other people anticipate, especially those whose positions in development and publishing give them different perspectives from my own. While communications of this nature can often take place off the record, some members of the industry did agree to express their thoughts and expectations for public consumption.

Jeff Lujan is the CEO and founder of True Games Interactive, which currently has Warrior Epic in live service and Mytheon in preparation to begin closed beta, reportedly within the coming weeks. He believes the latter "will provide gamers the same quality experience that they find at retail," a goal that doesn't seem out of reach considering Petroglyph is an established western studio with a solid list of titles to its credit. Applying this focus on a broader scale, he also expects that several other offerings from various companies will contribute to raising the bar for F2P releases.

Chris Lee, CEO of Ntreev USA (Trickster Online, Pangya, Grand Chase), echoes this sentiment, stating that "more good, quality F2P games will be introduced, which will contribute to the sustained growth of the market in North America." Chris Keswani, Marketing Manager for Uforia (Mercenary Wars, Three Kingdoms, Red War, Nostale), makes it unanimous, citing this as the continuation of an important ongoing trend.

However, there may be less agreement on another aspect of 2010's new releases. Lujan feels we won't see as many imports. Keswani's opinion is that we can anticipate "quite a few games coming to the market from China and various countries in Europe that have been strong on the consumption part of the equation, but less so on the development side."

Meanwhile, Lee envisages another factor already evident in the market gaining more momentum, namely increased participation by major publishers. "I think we will see some of the large industry players get more involved in the F2P sector in 2010," he states. To support this prediction, he points to recent history including EA's purchase of major social game developer Playfish, its release of Battlefield Heroes, and SOE's launch of Free Realms. While not offering any reasons, he mentions Ubisoft as a possible new entrant.

Lujan joins him in anticipating more from the big boys. "I am interested in how major publishers that have traditionally relied on retail for revenue will continue adapting to free to play. I think 2010 is the year we will see many of them at least put their toes into the water, if not take the full plunge. It's just a business model and gaming space they can no longer ignore."

Not surprisingly, all three expect continued growth. Lee brings up the casual and social game categories as key drivers. "As typical non-gamers have more chances to experience them, they will want better content and graphics as well as more interaction with other people. Since the F2P space provides all these things, it will become their next advanced choice in 2010."

Keswani focuses on the quality factor combined with the ever-increasing number of available options. He believes that "as free to play titles improve in quality, the console and packaged PC crowd will gravitate towards them." At the same time, he recognizes a major associated challenge, stating that although more choice is a good thing overall, it makes finding great games that don't have serious marketing budgets behind them more difficult.

Other platforms are on Lujan's mind too, but in a different context. Like a number of other companies, his is working toward what he refers to as "true integration of micro-transaction gaming across the PC, console and mobile devices." Lee has his own take as well. He hones in on browser-based releases, believing they will attract interest across the entire spectrum of players, from the very casual through to the hardcore.

Another area where Lee thinks we may see progress is the handling of large client files, which he regards as a sizable barrier. While not actually predicting any solutions, he does express an interest in new technologies that aim to stream games on demand via broadband. Notably, they would eliminate the need for expensive graphics cards by running in browsers and on TVs, thereby granting tremendously broad accessibility.

Of course, I'm also interested to know what knowledgeable online gamers think this year will bring, and look forward to seeing your predictions, reactions and other thoughts.


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.