Last week's column occasioned some responses that ran contrary to my opinion that relatively few people realize the first 12 words in Dickens A Tale of Two Cities, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times", do not comprise the novel's entire opening sentence. For instance, one reader contended in the comments thread that I'd be surprised how many are familiar with the larger context. Frankly, I hope my assessment was inaccurate. It would be great if a major proportion of the general population or even of the online gaming audience is well read enough to know this.
In any case, I got to thinking about some things within the MMOG space and the free to play sector that, at least in my opinion, fall short of being universally known or even common knowledge.
F2P isn't necessarily a Korean or Asian invention
I'm unaware of any credible reports or claims as to the origin of the item-based micro-transaction revenue model. It may not even be possible to assign the credit to a single company, game or person. That said, a fairly common perception does exist that F2P originated in the Far East.
This may not be completely correct. It's hard to be certain anymore, but I think the first time I heard about an MMOG with neither an initial purchase price nor mandatory monthly fees was back around late 2000 or early 2001. It was Project Entropia, now known as Entropia Universe. MindArk announced it right around a decade ago, and within about a year, also revealed its intention to utilize such a business model. Suffice it to say, the latter aroused more than a hint of skepticism.
Where the Swedish-based company got the idea to adopt this direction is unknown to me. What I can say is that virtual item sales already existed in the MUD sector. So did the concept of for-profit companies not charging for game clients. One example that springs to mind would be Achaea, Dreams of Divine Lands. It was released around 1997 by Achaea LLC, which later became Iron Realms Entertainment. If neither of thee names rings a bell, you may be aware of spin-off Sparkplay Media, which was established to develop and publish Earth Eternal.
So, it's possible to make a reasonable case that F2P originated in this hemisphere.
China is the world's largest MMOG market
In view of the huge population, it might seem pretty obvious that China has the most players. However, the context in this regard isn't necessarily well known. As recently as two years ago, the US had the most Internet users. The reason was simple. The vast majority of Chinese weren't connected. This is still so, but as more infrastructure has been built and awareness has risen, the proportion is shifting.
According to the China Internet Network Information Center, that country took the lead in 2008, reaching almost 300 million users. Last year, the total rose nearly 30 percent to 384 million. Since this figure represents only 28.9 percent penetration of the total population, there's still plenty of room for growth to continue at a rapid pace. The same source says approximately 246 million people play online games of some type, and as of mid-2009, classifies 55 million as online gamers, although I haven't seen how this term is defined.
As for dollar value, China's Ministry of Culture has stated that the country's online game industry's total revenue last year was just under $3.8 billion, an increase of 35.9 percent. The MMORPG category dominated, representing nearly $3 billion. Figures from market researcher iResearch put the Chinese online game market at 27 percent of the global total in 2008, trailing the US by two points. It seems pretty reasonable to conclude that China rose to the top rank last year. And if not, it's difficult to dispute that it will happen in 2010.
Several F2P games have surpassed a million PCU
Looking back just 24 to 36 months ago, only a few titles could lay claim to this distinction. One was not F2P, World of Warcraft. The two others certainly fit the theme of this column since they were hugely popular in China but unfamiliar to most western MMO gamers - NetEase' Fantasy Westward Journey and Giant Interactive's ZT Online.
Both have continued to increase their active user bases. Fantasy Westward Journey topped 2.5 million simultaneous last August, and a sister release, Westward Journey Online II, has hit 1.1 million. ZT Online has kept pace, exceeding 2 million. But the million-plus PCU club now has more members, all in China. Tencent has Dungeon & Fighter (over 2 million), FPS Cross Fire (1.6 million) and the casual QQ Dancer (1 million). And since I've not seen recent numbers from some major publishers, there are probably more. For instance, Shanda may have a couple with the Mir2 and Woool franchises.
There are certainly more "who'da thunk it" topics out there. I invite readers who are aware of any to share them in the comments thread.