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Richard Aihoshi's Free Zone: Trends I'm Watching

There are few things on the horizon that Richard Aihoshi has an eye on. He runs us through them in this week's column.

Trends I'm Watching

Since the entire free to play category doesn't have good visibility in the game media, it's not surprising that many people, even within the industry, know little about what's going on within it. This is so for a combination of reasons. A significant one is that the amount of hard data available is rather limited. There are research reports, but they cost thousands of dollars, and aren't intended for public consumption. In addition, the little information that is out there simply doesn't get much exposure.

As a result, we only tend to see a small portion of what's going on in the F2P space. It's kind of like an iceberg, with only the tip being visible. But out of easy sight - and therefore largely out of mind - there are lots of interesting things going on. This week, I thought I'd talk about a few that I consider notable.

Non-fantasy and non-RPG MMOGs

It's undeniable that there's significant, even huge superior potential in other themes and genres. This is instantly clear if we look at the leading edge in this regard, which is Korea. When we do, we see shooters, strategy, sports, music and more. And turn-based isn't considered abhorrent either.

Here though, we have yet to see how much impact these other categories will have. In the case of shooters, the few we've seen haven't achieved much prominence. Ndoors' Atlantica Online, a turn- and NPC squad-based strategy MMOG, has apparently fared well, but it has only been out since late 2008, plus it's only one title.

New target demographics

This factor also applies to subscription releases, but is weighted toward F2Ps because there are more that are suitable for audiences other than hardcore gamers. They range from lighter MMORPGs such as MapleStory through to basically the entire advanced casual and casual categories, and into the realm of social networks that might not even be considered games.

The child and youth segment is one that's drawing greater attention from publishers these days. Interestingly enough, a couple of the more visible releases, Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean Online and KingsIsle's Wizard101, have hybrid revenue models with free areas plus subscription.

Known properties

While not exactly constituting a tidal wave, some free to play titles based on established properties have started to appear. Actually, Disney has one, Toontown, that has been around for a few years now. Some others we can expect to see before long are Hello Kitty Online, YS Online - Call of Solum and Shin Megami Tensei Online. Allods Online is another, although it previously used a different name in North America, Rage of Mages.

You probably don't consider any of these to be the same class with franchises like Star Wars, Star Trek or the DC superheroes. I don't. That said, what properties would be comparable? Few if any. However, all those I've named do have some degree of name recognition to help induce trial. And realistically, what more could a publisher ask for?

Larger projects

As little as two or three years ago, a sizable development budget in Korea or China meant a few million dollars. Now, although reliable figures are rather hard to come by, it's a pretty safe bet that if we haven't already seen the first F2P that cost $10 million, we won't have to wait much longer.

And what are some of these titles that cost more to make? In Korea, "big five" member CJ Internet has two. Prius Online debuted very strongly there late last year, and the other is the aforementioned YS Online. Russia is getting in on the act too. Nival Online's Allods Online is easily the biggest MMOG developed there to date; the company has stated that a budget figure of $12 million. And closer to home, let's not forget SOE's recently launched Free Realms.

More self-publishing

Companies that can afford to spend more to develop an MMOG are more likely to have sufficient financial resources to self-publish in the west, especially in North America, which is a less diverse market than Europe. This approach obviously involves greater risk than licensing, but offers the potential to make more money, and also the chance to gain experience that can be applied to launching and operating additional games. Since the F2P market here is expanding rapidly, there's certainly incentive to enter it with a direct presence while the current window of opportunity is open.

Curiously enough though, there's a form of disincentive in the fact that China is growing at an even faster rate. When a company has to choose where to allocate its resources, some are choosing to focus there rather than here. It's hard to blame them.

There are other trends and factors shaping the F2P space, so the above is by no means an all-inclusive list. In addition, new ones can emerge at any time, so I'm watching for them too.

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 every Monday.
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