Richard Aihoshi's Free Zone: Out of Site, Out of Mind II
How F2P MMOs fit within the editorial mandate of most outlets and talks with some of the leaders in this field, including Sean Kauppienen of Frogster America and Jonathan Belliss of Perfect World Entertainment.
A couple of weeks ago, I put forward the opinion that the North American free to play sector is far larger and much more important than the level of exposure it receives in game publications. I understand all too well that regardless of business model, previewing and reviewing MMOGs takes more time than other genres, which means doing so isn't cost-effective. However, using that as a justification to accept and extend the status quo doesn't sit right with me since there are other ways to provide coverage of a category that is unquestionably a primary driver of industry growth.
Perfect World has more than 50 million registered accounts worldwide, including more than one million in North America, where its publisher is Perfect World Entertainment, a subsidiary of the title's creator, which is based in China. Jonathan Belliss, the Product Manager for the international version, believes the situation is starting to get better, although even the latest higher-quality generation of games is not receiving sufficient attention. He also says the main reason for the improvement in exposure is "probably because the major players in the free to play industry have started throwing some serious advertising dollars around."
Runes of Magic is one of the titles that make up the above-mentioned latest generation. As Interim CEO of Frogster America, Sean Kauppinen was responsible for launching it in this region. An industry veteran with several years of experience in the MMOG space, he knows that the current situation has its roots several years ago. Thinking back five or six years ago, to a time when he was with SOE and thus working within the subscription model, he recalls that "there was even a stigma about covering MMOs in the gaming press. It was almost as if they considered the MMO players to be a different kind of gamer - like somehow console gamers were the jocks of gaming, and they were the geeks." It's certainly not difficult to see an updated parallel in the present day, only with F2P players now cast as the geeks.
Kauppinen cites casual games as another category where, although the mindset is changing, the game media has not kept up with the broadening of the overall market. And he sees the result as self-detrimental. "I think on a lot of levels the core gaming press is losing some of its importance with regard to games," he states "since the audience has grown exponentially over the last several years, and it's not just 13 to 30 year-old males playing them."
In a seemingly similar vein, Belliss asks if major game publications regard covering F2Ps as being within their editorial mandate. He believes it should be their duty to cover material they consider relevant for their readers, and wonders "In the modern economy, with people pinching every dollar they can, how are free to play games not more and more relevant?"
Going further, he feels some major media outlets even have rules against covering F2Ps, and that such an attitude reflects a mix of stubbornness and laziness. He does understand they don't want to waste their time reviewing undistinguished games, but considers it part of their job to sift through those in order to find the ones worth covering.
All three of us agree, although perhaps to differing degrees, that a key reason for the current dearth of F2P coverage is the way quite a few early titles arrived in North America. "Poor translation, bugs, themes that didn't connect with the audience - these were all things that plagued the first wave of free to play games a few years ago," says Kauppinen. But he continues by pointing out that the media still retains such an image when "in reality, they couldn't be further from the truth when looking at today's crop."
Kauppinen agrees with Belliss that the amount of exposure is increasing. He feels free to play will have its day in the sun because it's a great business model with a lot to offer players. He also concurs on the main reason, stating "The ad dollars will help at the media publishing level in getting them to notice there's a new player in town and it has deep pockets." As for a time frame, he suggests it might take a couple of years for the core gaming media to figure things out and get on board.
I hope he's right, but quantity of coverage is only part of the question. What about quality? That's a related but different and very large topic I won't even attempt to tackle today.