As you might imagine, writing a weekly column involves constantly keeping my eyes and ears open for information and ideas that might serve as topics. While doing so, it's not unusual for things to catch my interest that I end up not discussing because they never quite make it to the top of the priority heap. This can happen for a wide variety of reasons, but as I always dislike just letting subjects slide silently into cyber-oblivion, I decided to kill two proverbial birds with one stone.
FreeStyle Street Basketball is a sports MMOG I first saw around five years ago when I attended the GSTAR show in Korea. Developed by one of that country's "big five" publishers, JCE Corp, at its Tech Tree studio, it's built around instanced three on three play, with persistent characters that have a variety of stats. Some readers might recall that Vivendi released it here in North America in the spring of 2006.
The service was shut down about a year ago. All I could do on my own was to speculate why, but I had the chance to ask JCE Senior VP David Kim, he provided one reason, saying that it was a timing issue. Speaking in retrospect, he felt it was too early to compete effectively against more conventional console titles. I'm not sure the situation was so simple. For instance, while it might not have made a big difference, do you remember a strong marketing and PR effort for the game?
In any case, it seems pretty safe and obvious to assume FreeStyle wasn't a major success. This made me curious when JCE decided to re-enter the market, albeit in a different manner. Rather than having a full North American presence and service, it was made available in July through the company's global portal, Gamekiss, which launched early this year. According to Kim, the servers are in Korea, with relays and download locations in the US, and customer service staff in both countries.
Of course, I wondered why JCE feels there's enough potential to bring the game back to this market at all, and also what it regards as the main obstacles to success. Kim stated that its appeal derives from the fact it's very different from conventional basketball games, not just for its three on three play, but also for its underlying spirit of youth and freedom. As for hurdles, he first cited the need for more impressions and trials, then also noted that due to the high costs of marketing here, the company is looking to promote the game through partnerships.
I'm interested to see how FreeStyle will fare in its second coming. It's certainly popular in the Far East, which accounts for the vast majority of the more than 80 million registered users. Although I'm not a fan of this widely used statistic since it's not an accurate reflection of how many people actually play or how much, very few games reach this level.
I'm also curious to see how Gamekiss will address the high marketing costs that Kim noted. Frankly, I believe many free to play publishers tend to lean too heavily on methods and strategies better suited to boxed games with brick and mortar distribution. That's a potential topic for another column, not this one, but I do wonder how well JCE will be able to avoid this trap.
In my recent column on the lack of western coverage of the ChinaJoy game show, I also mentioned my similar expectation for its Korean counterpart, GSTAR, which will take place in November. There are those who feel neither is highly relevant here since many titles that are exhibited ultimately don't enter this market, and that if this is taken into consideration, they both get adequate or even good exposure.
This point of view isn't unusual, but I don't subscribe to it, largely since my interests are more global than most people's. It's true many games shown don't come here. However, there are quite a few I first saw at GSTAR at least a year or two before there was any indication they'd become available in the west; FreeStyle happens to be one of them. More importantly, I learned a lot about key trends that have shaped the worldwide MMOG space over the past few years, and well before I would have had I not gone.
At the moment, it looks like I won't make it to GSTAR this year. I'm lucky enough to have Korean industry contacts I can tap for information, but it isn't even remotely the same as being there in person. I'll hope to see better coverage by western publications, but am not particularly optimistic in this regard.
For reasons I'm only partially aware of, the show has had issues in terms of complete support within the domestic industry. One consideration is that the hall, while modern and spacious, is located outside Seoul - about 30 minutes away from the close side, but much longer from the other side of the sprawling megalopolis. Since most of the publishers and developers are concentrated there, a site within the city would be more convenient. Nonetheless, GSTAR is a very significant event within the scope of the global MMOG space, so I'm still hoping something unexpected happens that allows me to attend.