Now that we've reached the mid-point of 2012, I can't help but wonder what the rest of the year will bring, both for the MMOG category in general and for the free to play sector. In this respect, quite a few things are floating around in my head these days. For this iteration of The Free Zone, I picked out the two that follow to comment on.
Guild Wars 2 won't reshape the MMOG landscape
It's not difficult to find people who think buy to play is the way of the not too distant future, and who regard GW2 as the title that will establish this type of business model as a major alternative to both subscription and F2P, or perhaps as a replacement for the latter. Indeed, it seems certain that those who hold this opinion will expound it repeatedly as we move toward the late August launch date announced last week. But will what they're hoping for actually happen, or will it turn out to be wishful thinking, largely by the same people who, not so long ago, could be seen saying over and over that F2P would never be viable in this hemisphere?
As a consumer, I prefer the B2P model over subscription. Why wouldn't I? If I can get months or maybe even years of enjoyment by simply buying a game, I'd much rather avoid paying the same amount up front plus a monthly fee. That said, it still costs less to download a client than to purchase either a retail box or a digital edition. What's more, it's not a straightforward one vs. one comparison. If I lay out $60 for a B2P offering, never mind up to $150 if I opt for a collector's edition, I'm likely to feel disappointed unless it holds my attention for some number of months. With F2Ps, I can fill the same amount of time with multiple releases, which means that each one doesn't have to keep me playing nearly as long, particularly since I can drop back in whenever I like.
I anticipate that GW2 will be a well-made, fun game. Accordingly, I expect it to sell a substantial number of copies. However, it will require more than this for it affect significant change in the MMOG space as a whole. Let's say it manages to hit two or even three million by the end of the year, figures that seem achievable if somewhat optimistic.
Would this be enough to make other publishers alter the way they plan to monetize projects already in development?
While such a scenario isn't outside the realm of possibility, my gut feel tells me it's rather unlikely, especially within a time frame as short as six months. Longer-term, if we gaze forward a couple of years or more, I'm inclined to think B2P will have made a place for itself in the market. That said, I expect most versions will incorporate multiple ways for players to make optional purchases and payments - maybe even more than many F2Ps currently have.
Asian investment in western companies will continue
This topic returned to top of mind status two weeks ago when it was announced that Tencent, the gigantic Chinese Internet concern / MMOG publisher, has acquired an unspecified minority stake in Epic Games. This might not have roused my interest to the degree it did were it not for the fact that the same company previously bought Riot Games in two stages, the first of which involved - you guessed it - the purchase of a fairly small share.
The second step was to gain full ownership. While the cost was over $400 million, Tencent still had plenty more in the bank, and there was no obvious reason to believe it would back off from going after any other attractive targets. So, now that it has taken a small position in Epic, it's not a great stretch to wonder if this was done as a possible first step too.
An even bigger question is what the other cash-laden Asian companies might do to keep pace. Will Shanda, Giant, Nexon et al stand by and do nothing while Tencent buys into and perhaps takes over what is not only arguably the world's leading engine maker, but also the creator of the hugely successful Gears of War property?
As I've said before, one gray area is the seeming dearth of obvious targets. However, just because companies aren't in play doesn't mean they won't be available if the right offer comes along. Indeed, there had been little or nothing to suggest any portion of Epic was for sale.
I'd be shocked if Asian publishers such as but not limited to the four named above aren't actively searching for more acquisition opportunities in the west. Realistically, I think it's merely a matter of time until the next investment or purchase is announced. Will it happen within the next six months? Were I a betting man, I'd put my money on the under.
And here's a closing thought from out in left field. During the past few days, speculation has arisen in the financial media to the effect that Vivendi is looking to divest its majority interest in Activision-Blizzard. Its 61 percent share is currently valued around $8 billion. Neither Tencent nor any of the others has a war chest of this magnitude, but this only rules out a straight cash purchase. There are other ways.