In the interest of playing devil's advocate, I thought I'd throw out 10 reasons why free to play might be slower to succeed in the Western world as it has been in Asia.
While I don't necessarily believe all of these will inhibit F2P's growth, one of the slides in my GDC presentation this year is to do with the challenges F2P faces - so this should help fulfill that requirement.
1. Virtual Property "Ownership"
The term 'virtual' may not have a strict legal interpretation, but if anything it means that the thing being described is NOT whatever comes after the word 'virtual.
- Ginsu Yoong, Second Life’s legal counsel, Linden v Bragg
Despite virtual property's ill-defined legal status, developers have had no qualms about starting byzantine in-game economies driven by the exchange of real money for virtual land, clothing, furniture and much more.
Some developers, like GoPets CEO Eric Bethke, have attempted to get out in front of the virtual property legal issue by defining their own "Avatar Bill of Rights." But most of us have not been as proactive and instead seem content to leave it up to the courts to decide how to define and deal with our users' virtual property.
As precedents regarding virtual ownership are set, the growth of some F2P products may be curtailed as the legal burden of dispensing virtual property increases.
2. Slow Broadband
On the issue of net speed, there remains a huge disparity between North America's broadband ISPs and Korea's military-grade internet provision.
The net effect is that free to play games like Maple Story can take 1-3 hours or more to download in North America, while Korea's 45mbps network cuts the same download to a paltry 10 minutes or less.
It’s fair to say that we won’t soon be getting such high download speeds - but the North American market might have already found a way around the issue. With the launch of streaming game services like InstantAction and the proliferation of Flash as a full-blown development platform, downloading entire game clients become less and less the norm.
3. Poor Advertising Strategies
Some products in the F2P sector have come to rely heavily on advertiser support in order to keep their offerings free for the majority of players.
A recent OMMA article that claims advertisers are taking the wrong approach when handling virtual worlds. And as the populations of virtual worlds appear to be prematurely plateauing, advertisers may be starting to sweat.
But there is hope if advertisers change their strategies to suit the unique challenges virtual worlds present. As Worlds In Motion put it:
...themed events, branded avatar clothing, and representative personality appearances are finding success and opportunity in worlds like There, Habbo and vSide.
4. MMO Overload
From Maple Story to Silkroad Online, there is no shortage of MMOs in the free to play space. In the same vein, there is an abundance of virtual worlds such as Second Life or Kaneva. It seems as though the vast majority of new free to play game since 2005 have been virtual worlds or MMOs.
Perhaps it’s the very reason that these games have proliferated in the free to play market; MMOs and virtual worlds are inherently more inclusive than an FPS. Still, it would be a shame to see the free to play space flounder due to constant reiteration of the same genres and themes, turning away players seeking a different experience.
Of course, games like Kwari are looking to change that, but it’s too early to tell just how well they will catch on.
5. Rising Development Costs
With more prominent developers announcing plans to take advantage of the free to play model, the days of games fueled by ramen noodles and nights in the basement could, once again, be history. EA's upcoming Battlefield Heroes is the latest big budget free to play game, signaling that the big publishers aren't content to sit back and let Far East imports eat their lunch.
If the consumer makes the jump from 2D to more advanced 3D graphics, it could mean the end of the visually rudimentary worlds and Flash-based free to play games as market leaders, making way for the mainstream big budget games.
6. Second Life Slowdown
Second Life is the Apple Newton of virtual worlds. It was here first, but isn't the best representation of the potential of virtual worlds. However, it still occupies a place in investors' minds - akin to a coal mine canary, warning of impending danger.
And while investors took note as Second Life soared to the top, they're noticing its decline as well (active user hours were down 5% in November). There is concern among some that Second Life's time might be up, and that’s not a good sign for potential investors in the free to play space.
7. Watered Down AdverWorlds
With their lower barrier to entry and great potential to spin money, an slew of less innovative products are beginning to hit the market. Hardest to ignore are adverworlds like Build-A-Bear, Rush Zone, BeBratz, BarbieGirls and their ilk - marketing spend thinly disguised as entertainment.
The consumer's willingness to pay money for virtual items in a world where their avatar is little more than a target for advertising will be tested by products like these.
8. Unsanctioned Secondary Markets
Then there’s the issue of gold farming. With websites like IGE operating independently of game developers and establishing secondary markets for game currency and items, it’s not just traditional MMOs that are being subjected to this kind of treatment anymore.
What’s worse, while gold farming might fuddle with World of Warcraft’s player-driven economy, some developers believe a secondary market allows players to skip the middleman altogether - a potentially fatal issue for free to play games who survive on item-based revenue streams.
The recent launch of publisher-sanctioned Live Gamer is a step in the right direction for devs and pubs looking to reclaim lost revenue.
9. Limited Payment Methods
We have hanging on our wall a user who sent a $5 bill in a $15 fedEx package.
- Craig Sherman, Gaia Online
While other territories enjoy a plethora of tailored-to-the-consumer payment methods, North America has embraced relatively few.
SMS would surely be nearly as popular a payment method here as it is in Europe if our carrier surcharges weren't in the range of 50% a transaction. Landlines - an expensive but very secure payment option in China - might also be popular with some services.
GoPets has 90 different payment systems worldwide, catering excellently to foreign payment preferences. Nonetheless, consumers still have trouble getting money into their favorite North American games.
10. Kids Only Games
The current offering of free to play games caters nearly exclusively to the under-25 set. An NPD study released last year showed that while 91% of online gaming among kids aged 2-17 is free to play, by the time those kids graduated high school, the boys had moved to sixty-dollar console games and the girls dropped out of gaming entirely.
In the core gaming arena, Nintendo has found a way to appeal to young and old alike. Free to play's appeal among adults relies on the proliferation of products that do a Nintendo-quality job of bridging the age gap or target older demographics only.