Richard Aihoshi's Free Zone: It's Different Across The Pond
Exploring the myth that both the Eastern and Western MMO markets have homogeneous desires from their games.
Despite the huge and rapidly growing number of people who comprise the free to play audience in the western hemisphere, there's still a lingering perception that it's a Far Eastern phenomenon, and just a secondary market here in this half of the world. As an extension of this inaccurate simplification, each of the two regions is quite often treated as relatively homogeneous.
This too is a fallacy. The west isn't a single market. While it may be convenient to assume North America and Europe are similar, that doesn't make it so. I'm definitely more familiar with F2P here than across the pond, so to investigate the differences, I enlisted the aid of Spencer Chi, who is the Operations Manager for Aeria Games Europe. In this role, he oversees Shaiya and Shin Megami Tensei: Imagine Online in Germany, France and Turkey, and is also responsible for investigating other European territories. Before that, he worked in the US office and launched three MMORPGs in the North American market.
In case the name doesn't ring a bell, Aeria Games is a leading free to play publisher, with a large, diverse portfolio of titles that includes the two already mentioned plus Last Chaos, Dream of Mirror Online, Twelve Sky, Twelve Sky 2 and at least three or four more. Founded in 2006, the company has offices in the US, Germany and Tokyo, and a community said to number more than six million; this number presumably refers to registered accounts.
Europe is significantly more multilingual than North America, with the western portion perhaps being more so than the central and eastern regions. As a result, quite a few gamers there are capable of playing in English. However, just offering one language isn't the optimal approach, and might even be seen as presumptuous by members of the target audience.
What may not be completely obvious is the amount of work required to localize a game. Chi says this typically involves translating anywhere from 500,000 to a million words of text, an amount he compares to the entire Bible. If that yardstick isn't meaningful for you, if this column were daily, I'd have to write one every single day for three years to reach a million.
Basically, it's a lot of work - and not as simple as some might think. "Translating well is as much art as it is science," explains Chi. "Our translation team has to know there's a difference between intelligence and wisdom depending on the context, and in how many things that mean the same are expressed by different characters." I'd call this localization rather than translation, but no matter which term you prefer, it's not difficult to find examples of poor or mediocre work in the in-game English we see here. Now just multiply that to account for versions in German, French, Spanish and more.
There are also some significant differences in getting the word out to build awareness and interest. "In the US, we send game sites information, and they're usually pleased to publish it for free because it provides interesting content for their users," says Chi. My take is that this is easier for Aeria than for less prominent publishers, but regardless, it's not the same for anyone in Europe. For instance, he cites the key fact that "there are a lot more marriages between game publishers and media companies, so it's difficult to get onto a competitor's main channel."
Not surprisingly, Chi also reports that "pulling players in is done differently. In general, American gamers check out the video and decide if they want to download. In Germany, we provide more information such as detailed guides and online tutorials. We've seen that players there prefer to be more informed before deciding whether to download." I'll leave it to you to assess how this statement, although obviously a generalization, reflects on the nature of the US MMO audience.
Logistically, a notable difference is that the language-based audience segments are geographically small. As a result, they typically don't span as many time zones. This means peak usage times like after school and early evening are the same for most users, which impacts things like how many times events have to be repeated. Whether this makes anything easier or just different is questionable given we're still talking about multiple versions plus having and scheduling GMs who speak the various languages necessary to run them.
According to Spencer Chi, North America and Europe also share some essentials. One is that success depends on the overall quality of the experience, including service and support as well as just the game. Of course, players in both regions want publishers to listen, to be responsive and to provide titles they will enjoy. "They want quality games for free," says Chi.
There's actually a lot more we can examine with respect to F2P in Europe. For example, both Eastern and Central Europe have their own characteristics. Unbeknownst to many, both regions have a lot going on that may make them worth discussing in future columns, especially if I can round up appropriate experts to augment my limited knowledge of them.
For now, however, good gaming until next time, whether free to play or otherwise.