Warrior Epic is a new free to play online RPG being developed by Possibility Space, a company founded by Gage Galinger and Feng Zhu; a pair that share a wealth of experience between them, from Starcraft to Gears of War.
As a free to play game it comes across as competent and quite polished, and it’s just leaving closed beta. Essentially a dungeon crawler, players own a great hall that stores their characters and serves as a meeting place for quests.
There are a number of different warrior classes (and some that must be paid for), but the hook is a sort of metagame wherein players can choose to harness the spirit of one of their fallen warriors as a power for their next warrior. It’s well scoped and well designed to be a free to play RPG, but what’s most interesting is how they plan to handle paid content and digital downloading.
While the usual cosmetic items are part of the plan, Warrior Epic is taking a refreshing stance towards satisfying both free players and paid players – a problem Flagship’s Hellgate London ran into when they offered paid players better gear, bigger inventories and faster travel times.
Brice Lukas, Community Manager for Possibilty Space had this to say about sustaining that balance:
“In Warrior Epic you cannot purchase power or progress. The best gear and items can only be obtained by playing the game. There is also no exchange of earned items with paid items. So anything that a user buys with real cash cannot be obtained with in-game currency.”
One of the things a player can purchase (for a small price) are buff items that will help players get through dungeons and closer to the real loot.
“Each mission in Warrior Epic is designed to be roughly 15 minutes long, and the number of these buffs you can carry is limited, so they will not unbalance the play.”
Last but not least is Possibility Space's distribution model, what the company has dubbed “Download on Demand”. Players register on the site and then download a small .exe file that will stream content from seed servers. The whole system is similar to torrents and is expected to allow the game to be quite portable. Since account information is stored on the seed servers, players can download the same .exe on any computer, which is run from the folder it’s in rather than needing an install.
We’ll have to wait and see if Warrior Epic proves to be a game that lets players download and start playing within minutes, but it’s safe to say that players will appreciate the lack of usual hoops to jump through. The more players get exposed to a free to play game the better, and with an approach like this there is a good chance that a significant amount of players will at least consider getting involved enough to start paying for items and warriors.
“Our intention is to expose a much larger set of people to the fun of online gaming. We want to take all the fun parts of games that hardcore gamers enjoy, and package those up in a product that everybody can experience. The key behind this is to lower the barrier to entry.”
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.
OnNet USA is the American subsidiary of OnNet Korea a developer of multiple free to play online games. The American branch of the company acts solely as a publisher through their portal site Games Campus.
Today, OnNet releases their newest game, a free to play third person shooter titled Manga Fighter. We spoke to YJ, Manga Fighter's Producer, about the project and the free to play model in general.
What is the relationship between OnNet Korea and OnNet USA?
OnNet Korea is an software developer creating search engines and other similar products. OnNet USA is an online publisher of free to play games. They're two different ideas with two distinct identities.
OnNet USA opened it's doors three years ago with the launch of our golf game Shot Online.
What did you learn from that experience and what has been carried over to Manga Fighter?
We weren't very well organized which was a big challenge so this time out we made sure to have the proper management in place. That's the real risk area with a project like this you need excellent management.
The other important lesson concerning constant content updating. With a free to play game and a virtual goods revenue model you have to make sure that there is always new content for the players. We found that to be the key to player retention.
It's hard to discuss MMOs without mentioning secondary markets for virtual goods and currency. What are your thoughts?
We're very aware of the secondary markets and the emerging issues associated with them. At this point we're taking a neutral stance and kind of waiting to see what the industry trend as a whole is.
Why have the global launch of a manga style game with the virtual goods model in America. Why not use the Korean market where both of those things are more mainstream?
Well in a lot of ways this is a new game for any market. It's a fast-paced third person shooter aimed at a younger audience and there's not much out there like that. We believe the US is a great testing ground for our new content.
Just three years ago, some declared the free to play model wouldn't work. Today it's beginning to get big. It's not quite mainstream yet but we're heading in that direction and America is a huge potential market. There are a lot of gamers in America.
What about the release cycle. OnNet ran two beta tests and a boot camp? What was that?
The Boot Camp was just a term for our third beta. In fact even now that we've opened the game up we still haven't implemented all the commerce aspects of the game. This is more like an open beta and then we'll see how the market responds before launching the money aspect.
What kind of marketing has gone into the launch of the game?
We haven't done any big budget marketing campaigns but viral marketing has worked well for us. We're also mailing collectible cards to players with a code on them. The code unlocks premium content in Manga Fighter and down the road we're looking at getting these cards into retail outlets.
The other thing we're excited about is the possibility of getting some famous faces from the rest of the manga universe in game. I can't release any details yet but we're in discussion with some major publishers.
Thanks for your time YJ and good luck with the launch of Manga Fighter.