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The Free Zone: Free to Play in 2010, Part Two - What's in a Name?

By Richard Aihoshi on January 11, 2010 | Columns | Comments

Free to Play in 2010, Part Two - What's in a Name?

After last week's column was published, I received a couple more opinions from contacts within the game industry. Since they added some breadth to the topic, I decided to extend it to this time as well.

Sean Kauppinen is no stranger to the MMOG space. Among his extensive credentials, he acted as Frogster America's interim CEO for the launch of Runes of Magic. Currently heading his own consultancy, International Digital Entertainment Agency, he believes F2P will benefit from the rise of social games as some of their users seek alternatives that augment the interactive side by offering more play value. Considering the example he cites, Farmville, reportedly has over 70 million accounts, even a small percentage would mean a lot of new players. Naturally, he expects titles offering the familiar social tools and touch points that games have on Facebook to benefit first and most.

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Kauppinen also thinks the industry has reached a stage in the maturation process where some consolidation is likely. While he doesn't go as far as naming likely candidates, he apparently envisions the possibility of acquisitions. "Free to play companies are very adept at the digital distribution model," he states. "I can see this being an attractive component for traditional publishing companies looking to have direct access to players as well as a less expensive method of distribution."

It seems that Jonathan Belliss, Product Manager for Perfect World International, disagrees on this point. In his opinion, "Greater acceptance of F2P means more users. This will result in more money, and that will lead to in more competition. If 2009 is any kind of indicator, it's fair to assume a lot of new players will be popping up in the market. These new companies will be both large, existing publishers and startups."

Meanwhile Kauppinen's focus is on the former companies. He predicts more that are currently using just the subscription model will add F2P. "It's really about flexibility for the players," he reasons. "Just as offering more payment methods raises the likelihood of people purchasing premium content and items, additional business models increase monetization, and that means more content for all users."

Belliss does concur that the North American industry is maturing. Over the past four years or so, he feels it has moved out of its infancy, when "almost any F2P publisher was able to make a killing, or at least scrape by in terms of revenue." During this time, he notes that game quality gained greater importance, a direction he regards as even more significant in 2010, and the strength of companies' publishing platforms became a key determinant of success.

Another area he foresees as continuing to receive more emphasis is customer satisfaction. He reasons that the F2P market still has a comparatively low barrier to entry, but also to exit, with " the next good game only a URL away", a situation that will accentuate the focus on user retention as the segment becomes increasingly saturated.

Internationalization is also in Belliss' crystal ball. "I think that in 2010 and beyond, we're going to see a healthier mix of F2P games developed in China and Korea as well as here in North America," he predicts. Alongside this, he is looking for the differentiation between western and Asian MMOGs to fade a little as titles are increasingly designed with global intentions in mind.

What's in a name?

I've never understood why certain people seem to be so stuck on repeating the opinion that the name Free to Play is inaccurate. As I understand it, the basic and perhaps sole premise behind their thinking is the assumption that players who opt to purchase items gain advantages. This appears to ignore the fact that those who don't pay a cent represent a solid majority; in the range of 80 percent on average is probably a reasonable estimate. Aren't the games free for them?

It may come as a surprise to some that I've never been completely sold on the name. However, any quibble I have with it is pretty minor. So, it's difficult to comprehend why the term causes some individuals to react with indignation. It's almost like they feel threatened. I also can't help but wonder why they never seem similarly offended by the way that millions of Chinese WoW players who don't pay a monthly fee are counted as "subscribers". Why do they object to one usage they deem inaccurate, but not just as strenuously to another that's arguably even more so? And if the F2P designation is so horrible, how about suggesting alternatives that would be better? It would be nice to see something of a constructive nature, not just the same complaint time and time again.
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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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