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The Free Zone: More from the Crystal Ball

Columns By Richard Aihoshi on July 26, 2011

More from the Crystal Ball

Last week, I decided to share my thoughts as to a few ways in which the monetization of MMOGs may evolve in the near- to mid-term future.  In case it wasn't absolutely clear to everyone, I did not say I'm for or against any of them, just that I think there's a decent chance each will happen.  The same caveat applies to the results of some more time spent looking into my crystal ball since then.  I think it's quite likely we'll see the two trends discussed below no matter how little or how much I'd like to.

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Increased Market Share for Non-MMORPGs

As a video gamer back in a bygone age, I developed a strong preference for RPGs.  So naturally, when massively multiplayer came along, I was pleased to see that the core play in all the titles I checked out was pretty similar.  Indeed, it took virtually no effort for me to adapt.  However, since I knew that genres such as action and strategy were at least as popular, I always wondered how long the early dominance of MMORPGs would last.

Well, if we arbitrarily stipulate that the contemporary MMOG age begins with Ultima Online, then we're around a decade and a half depending whether we count from project conception, the start of development, launch or some other date.  During this time, it seems reasonable to say that the MMORPG has reigned unchallenged... here in the west.

I recently came upon believable but as yet unconfirmed reports that the Chinese market's current leading title as measured by peak concurrent users is CrossFire, an online first-person shooter published by Tencent.  Developed by Korea's SmileGate, it's said to have exceeded the three million PCU mark.  The game's popularity isn't exactly new; it has been in the top handful for the past few years.  What's more notable though is that it has apparently surpassed the long-time holder of the top rank, Fantasy Westward Journey.

The same company also operates another extremely popular import, Nexon's Dungeon Fighter, which is generally described as a beat 'em up.  So, it seems as if the genre balance in the world's largest market may have shifted to the point where at least two of the top five and maybe even of the top three releases are not MMORPGs.  What's more, this state of affairs isn't unprecedented.  A similar situation previously happened in Korea, lasting a couple of years.

It's certainly possible to question the degree to which games with persistent characters and highly instance-based play actually qualify to be called massively multiplayer.  But if we allow that including them in the category is reasonable, it seems pretty likely if not inevitable that western markets will experience a similar shift.  I don't see MMORPGs fading away by any means, but proportionally, I expect significant change over the next few years.

And that's before I consider the substantial potential I believe exists for the strategy sub-genre...

Increased Prominence for Chinese-made MMOGs

We all know there are lots of them around, but what I'm mainly getting at here is that I expect more individual titles to gain increased awareness.  Think of it this way; despite the fact that there's no shortage of titles, the number of prominent ones is pretty small.  The situation is quite similar when it comes to their respective brand images; not many are well regarded.

Volume alone won't change this situation.  However, competition breeds improved quality.  Imports are still huge in China, but here again, the balance is shifting toward domestic development.  This is natural enough.  If you were a publisher, would you rather operate a popular licensed title or one you own?  Another key factor is that the leading companies have ample financial muscle not just to acquire developers, including some in this hemisphere, but also to establish multiple internal studios and to fund multiple third-party projects.

When I put all the considerations together, I find it hard not to conclude that China will become a major force on the global MMOG development scene.  It will happen gradually, but I think the shift will be enough to gain wider notice before too long.  And as part of this trend, it seems natural to expect some individual games to stand out.

An Interesting Infobit

It seems that Heatwave Interactive is preparing to take Gods & Heroes free to play at some future date.  Based on what the company has said about needing to build the title's user base, I'd guess we may not have to wait all that long.  I haven't played it at all, not even in beta, so I have no personal feel as to how much the design facilitates or hinders such a shift.  That said, I can't help but remember that rumors came my way over a year ago suggesting the game would only stay subscription for a matter of months.  At the time, I didn't put much stock in them, but now, in retrospect, I wonder if I should have.   

The Free Zone The Free Zone Editorials
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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