Richard Aihoshi's Free Zone: Why Publishers Importer Older MMOs
Many "new" free to play MMOs that arrive in North America have been out over seas for years. Aihoshi looks at why this happens in this week's column.
There's no denying that quite a few free to play games arrive in North America after they have launched elsewhere, most often in Korea or China. In some cases, the time span between these two events can be measured in years, a fact that certain observers seem to delight in pointing out whenever possible, even generalizing it as a knock against the entire category.
Whether this is fair is primarily a matter of individual opinion, but it always comes up to some degree, which means any publishers that decide to import older titles have to expect it. They also know it's difficult, even effectively impossible, to change the minds of many people who hold this viewpoint. Obviously, these factors aren't enough to deter the ones that go ahead anyway.
In order to explore why companies feel it's worthwhile to bring older releases to this market, I contacted one of them, GamepotUSA, which recently launched a western version of The Legend of Mir 2. Developed in by Korea by WeMade Entertainment, this 2D sprite-based game has been around for several years. It certainly achieved a solid measure of success. For example, it was arguably the first major hit in the Chinese market, where its peak concurrent user numbers reached hundreds of thousands back around 2002 to 2003. At that time, it may have been the world's most played MMOG even though it was largely unheard of in this hemisphere.
Speaking in general, GamepotUSA's Thomas Lee pointed out that certain older titles simply haven't had the chance to test out the market in this region. So, while companies like his are sometimes characterized as thinking "Eh, whatever, let's port this over", their major concerns are how well the games will fit their target audiences here, and how much longevity they're likely to have.
He also recognizes the risk that mediocre judgments and mismanagement can damage the image of the entire F2P category. To help avoid this, his company looks for games that are fun. "That’s the whole core," he states. "I don’t think people will play something just because it's free. It has to be fun; otherwise it’s eventually going to fall on its face."
Of course, what's fun isn't necessarily the same depending on the target audience. GamepotUSA, which is apparently looking toward importing a selection of titles, understands that the market isn't as straightforward as it's sometimes made out to be since games can fulfill different preferences. "There’s no reason why you couldn't play an FPS, then hop into Mir2 for some hack and slash action," says Lee. "The segmentation is there, but we believe that as long as the game is fun, it will appear to both."
Does importing older games offer any significant advantages? The key one appears to be maturity. This means things like a stable client and lots of content, although the latter can be something of a double-edged sword since players may expect everything that has already been released elsewhere to be available right away, or at least to have updates go live more rapidly than the company plans. In addition, it should be easier to obtain art and other assets for marketing and promotional purposes.
As for barriers, Lee cites an aspect of technology that may not be readily apparent; the disconnect between saying a game is easy to play, but then requiring people to download a sizable client. Of course, he also brings up graphics. In this regard, since older releases don't have leading-edge visuals to tout, he looks for superior art direction that sets it apart, saying that "If the game is fun, with a great art style, it stands a solid chance of success. Honestly, people just want good games, something fun to play. So, I think they'll take an older game that's still fun rather than a new one of lower quality."
That said, Lee's goals for Mir2 seem perhaps optimistic, but not completely unrealistic. "As long as the game is entertaining for our players, develops mind-share for our company, and shows that we're able to provide quality games, it will be a success," he affirms. "Sure, four million registered players would be nice. However, I'll take a few hundred thousand loyal, happy players any day." He continues by listing "classic Diablo-type PvE and PvP gameplay with social elements, constant events, and great support" as key elements that will help achieve this level.
It remains to be seen how well the game will fare. Thomas Lee appears satisfied with the early results. He reports that an enthusiastic core community has formed, and that lots of updates are coming to help it grow. Considering Mir2's past success in the Far East, I think it will be interesting to watch how it does here half a decade later, and I'm also curious to see what else GamepotUSA plans to offer in this region.