The Business and Design of Free-To-Play Games


Top 10 Free to Play Publishers

[Editor's Note: Before embarking on his own startup, contributing writer Adam Martin was CTO at NCsoft Europe. Adam is a voracious gamer with a professional background split between programming and business. He blogs at T-Machine and can be reached at adam.m.s.martin at]

At, we've spent a lot of time examining how free-to-play (F2P) games work: their advantages, challenges, demographic appeal, etc. But we haven't yet looked as closely at who makes these games what they are and who shapes the future of the F2P sector: the Publishers.

In the online games industry, there are three separate categories:

  1. Who makes the games? (the "Developers")
  2. Who funds and markets the games? (the "Publishers")
  3. Who supplies the games to the users? (the "Operators")

Historically, the core games industry (i.e. retail) has had just two categories: Developers and Publishers. With the advent of online games, a major offshoot of Publishers has appeared: Operators, who take none of the up-front risk of a traditional Publisher and focus instead on capitalizing on the game once it's made (usually by taking it to territories and languages that the original publisher cannot reach).

This article looks at the Publishers: the businesses that take the bulk of the risk by financing the game. If a game is fully developed, and launched, but fails to earn out, the Developer makes no profit but no loss; the publisher, on the other hand, makes a net loss of whatever the development cost was, minus the game's revenue.

Operators don't usually enter the picture until the game has already gone to market in at least one territory, and set an expected level of popularity / revenue, so they have the lowest risk of all. Ultimately, the Publishers have the greatest control over what future games get developed.

For each Publisher, we start with their Name, Country, Incorporation year, and 2008 revenues (as estimated by the company in their latest financial report, or as estimated by me based on similar companies and markets).

1. Nexon, South Korea, 1994, $300m (est)

Nexon is probably the most famous of the F2P publishers, thanks to two hugely successful games - MapleStory (2003) and KartRider (2004) - which have both attracted many tens of millions of players. Although MapleStory came first and has been the bigger global success with over 100 million players internationally, KartRider did much better in its home market of South Korea. Some reports allege KartRider has been played at one time or another by more than a third of the population of the country.

Maple Story (2003)

But it's not just about sheer number of players. Nexon has also consistently made a huge amount of money out of their virtual item sales revenue model, with quoted revenues of $230m revenue for 2005, most of it coming from F2P offerings. Unfortunately, the Korean head office has been uncharacteristically quiet (for a Korean company) for the last few years, with the only good data coming from Nexon Publishing North America, a subsidiary with a games operations office in Los Angeles and an original game development studio in Vancouver, Canada.

Apart from pioneering the use of F2P, it's worth noting that Nexon was also a pioneer of subscription-based online games. They developed one of the first ever MMOs in Asia - The Kingdom of the Winds (1996) (subs). One of the lead programmers, Jake Song, left to be part of a newly-founded company - NCsoft - and develop their first MMO, Lineage (1998). NCsoft is now one of Nexon's major competitors. Lineage for many years held the world record for largest number of players for any MMO, and NCsoft is still an almost entirely subscription-based MMO publisher.

2. Giant Interactive, China, 2004, $240m (est)

Giant Interactive is currently the top Chinese F2P publisher by revenue, although if NetEase's rumoured conversion from subs to F2P for their main games goes ahead, Giant could slip down to a close second. Giant was founded by Shi Yuzhu, who made a fortune from selling diet-supplement pills... and then lost it all when the original Giant Group went bankrupt in 1997. He made a personal comeback with a new company based on similar pills, Nao Baijin ("Brain Platinum") - and an exceptionally aggressive and intensive marketing campaign - then went on to found Giant Interactive in 2004.

ZT Online (2006)

ZT Online (2006)

Which all helps to explain Giant's leading game, ZT Online (2006), which with around 10 million players and an ARPU of over $40 a month generates the bulk of their revenue. That ARPU figure stands out for being around 50% higher than most other operators.

Shi's Nao Baijin pills were helped to huge sales through a massive nationwide marketing and sales team, and for Giant he went a similar route, using a thousands-strong sales team to personally visit the Internet Cafe's around China and promote the game. This contrasts with the other online game publishers and operators, who - like their Western counterparts - generally do their marketing through much cheaper means, such as online advertising and industry events like conferences. According to the company's website, they now have over 3,000 sales and marketing people. It seems fair to say that this is a marketing-lead business, and that we can expect to see Giant consistently getting every ounce of revenue out of its games over the coming years.

The creation of an alternative, Pay-to-Play (PTP) version of ZT may be an example of this. ZT Online PTP (2008) comes with a $2 / month flat subscription, or $0.01 an hour, and no item-purchasing allowed. Where operators and publishers go for parallel monetization, its nearly always the other way around: making available an F2P version of an existing subs game. Indeed, NetEase appears to be doing that right now with their major titles, in an attempt to shore-up the losses in players they've seen, with many of them allegedly moving to ZT.

3. Perfect World, China, 2004, $200m (est)

Perfect World (2005)

Perfect World (2005)

Perfect World (which is the name of both the company and their first MMO) is a Chinese MMO company that has developed and launched seven games in four years. Like all the Chinese MMO publishers, they are young, and yet have seen huge revenues on the back of massive player numbers and rapid, consistent, growth.

Interestingly, their first MMO was a traditional RPG using the subscriptions model, but for the sequel, Perfect World II (2006), they decided to switch to an item-sales F2P model.

Although (like many of the Chinese publishers) largely unknown in the Western world, they established a USA subsidiary in April 2008, and so that may well change fairly rapidly.

For 2008 Q2, their ARPU for paying customers is a decent but not unusual $27 per month.

4. Disney, USA, 1994, $1000m (entire online division)

Club Penguin (2005)

Club Penguin (2005)

Disney is the largest of the US companies making major use of F2P at the moment. Like Nexon, their earliest forays into online gaming were subscription based, with the likes of ToonTown Online (2003), which was also one of the first virtual worlds aimed at children, and peaked at over 1 million subscribers. They later acquired Club Penguin (2005), one of the biggest Western F2P games, acquiring approximately 10 million new users. Outside of children's MMOs they've been less successful, and although they've used F2P in major MMO titles such as Pirates of the Caribbean Online (2007), it's not been so well received, with numerous accusations that the F2P element was too heavily crippled.

TTO pioneered child-safe worlds, with features such as SpeedChat to protect children from other players, whose identity can never be confirmed. To those afraid that F2P worlds allow for "anyone" to play, without any way to identify them, it's worth noting that the subs-only TTO had the same problem, and never completely avoided it. Interestingly, in 2007 Disney switched TTO to F2P.

5. CJ Internet, South Korea, 2000, $180m

CJ Internet has around 23 million people playing games at its NetMarble games portal. CJ Corporation (which acquired Plenus/NetMarble in 2004 and renamed it to CJ Internet), was originally a sugar-producing subsidiary of Samsung, and so the CJ stands for Cheil Jedang (lit "first sugar"). This may sound strange, but is a classic example of South Korean Chaebol (family-owned, government assisted, major corporations with ownership of businesses across a very wide spectrum of unassociated industries).

Sudden Attack (2005)

Sudden Attack (2005)

Their best-known game is probably Sudden Attack (2005), a clone of the hugely successful Counter-Strike (2000). Interestingly, CS's owner, Valve Software, has commissioned Nexon to develop an "official" F2P version of CS for the Korean market, named Counter -Strike Online, due out in 2008.

Elsewhere, CJI appears to have taken a leaf out of EA Sports' book by licensing the MLB (Major League Baseball) club names, logos, and famous players for use in their MaguMagu online Baseball game.

6. Gameforge, Germany, 2003, $100m (guess)

With 60 million users, Gameforge is one of the biggest Western F2P publishers. Although they have never released revenue figures, their quoted 11 million "active" players suggest an annual revenue figure somewhere in the region of $75m - $150m. Given that their games tend to be light browser-based games, I'm guessing they're at the lower end of the spectrum.

OGame (2002)

OGame (2002)

They started off only running their in-house developed browser-based games, with the biggest (around 2.5 million players) being OGame (2002), but in the last few years they've branched out, and now operate several client-based games imported from Asia. One of those, Metin 2 (2007?), was originally launched as a subs game in Germany, and then switched to F2P for the localized versions launched throughout Europe. As a private company, figures are hard to get hold of, but they have quoted an ARPU of $26 for the 1.1 million M2 players in Europe (although its not completely clear if that includes the German subscribers).

Gameforge is particularly interesting because by focussing on rapid, high-quality localization of games to different languages (they claim to have localized into 25 distinct languages already) they've successfully moved from simple game developer to a major importer/operator of South Korean games. This is almost the opposite of Acclaim, but they've done it more slowly and until last year self-funded, so they appear to be taking the slower, harder, but more defensible and lucrative approach.

7. HanbitSoft, South Korea, 1999, $65m

HanbitSoft came to fame in 1999 for being the South Korean distributor of Blizzard's multiplayer (but non-MMO) StarCraft (1998), a best-selling game in USA/Europe, and one of the biggest-selling games ever in South Korea. SC was monetized as boxed retail sales only, with no ongoing revenue stream, and in South Korea became (and still is) a major competitive sport, with two TV channels running their own live SC leagues.

Granado Espada

Granado Espada (2007)

However, right now HanbitSoft is probably best known outside Asia for being the main publisher of the failed Hellgate:London game from the now-defunct, ex-Blizzard-led, Flagship Studios. They're one of the few companies in this list to have made a substantial net loss on funding games, and it's interesting that this happened with a game that most closely bridged the game between "traditional mainstream Western action game" and "F2P MMO". Hellgate had a troubled development and probably failed for many reasons, but one of the frequently cited complaints was that the monetization model was neither F2P nor subscription, but a mix of the two. This appears to have fared poorly.

In May 2008, T3 Entertainment, best known as the developers of Audition Online (published by Yedang Online), became the largest shareholder in Hanbitsoft. This may be T3's first move into being a major publisher in their own right.

8. Bigpoint, Germany, 2002, $25m (est)

Bigpoint has been through two name-changes, starting out as "m.wire", a self-publishing developer of browser-based sports games such as IceFighter (2003) and Soccer Manager (2004). In 2005 they underwent a change of name to better reflect this specialization, becoming "e-sport", before switching the company name to match their gaming portal - - in 2007. Their portfolio now is diversified away from sports games.

Bigpoint may appear at first glance to be nothing more than a smaller version of Gameforge (see above), with around one third of the annual revenues, and half the number of players, and a narrower portfolio (unlike GF, BP hasn't started to operate any Asian games, nor branched out into client-based online games). That changed earlier this year when the 3 main VCs (all low-end investors) exited in a buyout split between the CEO, another VC fund, and ... NBC Universal, selling 70% of the company for $110 million. The link with NBCU has already started to show, with their SCI FI channel website now carrying two item-based F2P games from Bigpoint (although not exclusively). This buyout made clear the company's intentions: they swapped a group of small European funds for a 35% stake from a mainstream USA-based entertainment giant (more than $15b a year in revenue).

There are also signs that they may be one of the first wave of companies to get F2P games on PlayStation 3. To date, all games distributed via the PSN store have been allowed free demos but with extremely limited functionality. Now, along with demoing one of their games running on a PS3, Bigpoint's CEO has stated that their games will be available on console "with free registration as usual, and ready to play right after download".

That gives Bigpoint two major relatively untapped markets for their style of F2P, and with their powerful media partner, they may yet leapfrog Gameforge and secure a large chunk of one or both of those markets.

9. Frogster, Germany, 2005, ? (Frogster's IR website is offline)


Spellborn (2008)

Over the past ten years there's been a clear trend for the young, fast-grown, cash-rich South Korean online game companies to look for their next round of growth in the West, and so establish subsidiaries in Europe and the USA, starting with NCsoft's acquisition of Destination Games in 2001. Frogster is one of the first companies to actively reverse that trend by taking wealth generated in Europe and the USA, and establishing a subsidiary in South Korea. This subsidiary is managed by a previous General Manager of Gravity, a Japanese online games publisher (non-F2P).

Originally formed as a management buyout of a standard middle-tier PC games publisher, Frogster has been focussing on repurposing as a pure MMO publisher / operator, and spun off it's conventional PC games division in 2007. Like a couple of operators and publishers, they've been switching or parallelizing their subscription games over to F2P, e.g. in 2008 they added an F2P server to Bounty Bay Online (2006).

10. Zynga, USA, 2008, ? and Social Gaming Network, USA, 2008, ?

For the final entry, we're going with something a bit different: not one company, but two, and not based on revenues, but on market and consumer base. And both companies are less than a year old. There's a reason for this: unique in the F2P world, they've both risen to fame (and around 50 million users each) on the back of other people's hosting platforms in the guise of Social Networking sites, especially Facebook. They're included as a pair because, to be honest, there's so little to distinguish between them.

WarBook (2008)

WarBook (2008)

They represent a second wave of disruptive F2P businesses, thanks to that tie-in with the major Social Networks; without any partnership deal, in less than a year they've achieved user figures - as high as 18 million active - that are a notch faster again than the super-fast-growing Chinese F2P publishers. We're seeing them uncharacteristically early - it took the games industry a good 5 years to even notice the existence of games like Runescape (now running at well over 1 million subscribers). So it's no surprise that things like revenue levels are unquoted and relatively meaningless for these two - those will become established over the coming year or so. What we're looking at here is very early businesses whose only direct, clear, measurable value (and indicator of probable lasting success) is the huge audience they command. These are almost typical web businesses, not games businesses, but the expectation among many is that with hindsight we'll look back and say that they were the start of the new combined web + games industry, which is widely expected to eclipse traditional games.

Of course, they could easily sputter and fail (although it's quite hard not to be profitable when you've got tens of millions of users), so they're here at number 10.

Notes on inclusion

Direct revenue comparisons are difficult

Approximately 1/3 of publishers don't publish their revenues, and another 1/3 don't separate out their F2P revenues from their other revenue. The most accurate known figures are quoted for each company, sometimes these are F2P revenue, other times it's an aggregate including non-F2P and even non-games revenue.

Many Operators think of themselves as Publishers

There are different definitions of "Publisher", and the line between the two is often blurred. I've tried to include only companies who are are substantial publishers by the risk definition given above, but some publishers may have been accidentally categorized as operators. A followup article will look at the companies who are primarily Operators.

Companies have to be mostly F2P

Several major companies with large revenues have been excluded because the vast majority of their online-game revenue comes from subscriptions. Only companies that gain the bulk of their revenue from F2P, or have made major switches from subs to F2P, are included here.


Top 10 Conferences for Free To Play Followers

I spent a couple hours today pretending I had infinite time and money to attend free to play-relevant conferences the world over. The result is this list of the top 10 conferences for those who want a crash course on F2P development and a slew of contacts in the sector.

Over the last year, there's been a deluge of new virtual worlds conferences, but not all are created equal. So in addition to sorting on quality, I decided to sort for those that were at least partially geared toward English speakers.

Some of the following conferences occurred in the past, but have been included in the hopes that they become annual affairs.

1) Virtual Goods Summit
June 22, 2007 - Palo Alto, California

The Virtual Goods Summit is a one day conference focused on the emerging market opportunity for virtual goods and economies. Once restricted to the world of online gaming, virtual goods and currencies are beginning to influence the development of social networks, community sites, and many other new and exciting markets.

The Virtual Goods Summit was a one day affair at the Annenberg Auditorium featuring a series of one hour panel discussions and presentations. Notable speakers included the CEO's of Gaia Online, Three Rings, Kongregate, GoPets and K2 as well as the Director of Business Development at Nexon. The topics discussed included virtual goods as the next big business model, industry success stories and the forces driving user adoption.

Check out's summary of the Virtual Goods Summit.

2) Virtual Worlds Forum
October 23 - 27, 2007 - London, England

Our pan-European virtual worlds confex connected brands, major corporations, digital and virtual worlds agencies, media and entertainment players and games companies, technology suppliers, analysts and commentators, lawyers, regulators and venture capitalists and all those harnessing the power of virtual worlds to engage with clients, suppliers or customers.

The Virtual Worlds Forum lasted two days and was by no means focused just on games. The keynotes and panel discussions we're about many things including brand recognition, corporate opportunity and revenue possibilities. Panelists included Paul Hemp- Senior Editor, Harvard Business Review; Ginsu Yoon- SVP International, Linden Lab and Thomas Bidaux- Director of Product Development, NCSoft Europe.

Check out Wonderland's summary of the Virtual Worlds Forum.

3) Virtual Worlds Conference
April 3-4 2008 - New York; Autumn 2008 - West Coast

Virtual Worlds Conference and Expo helps businesses harness the power of virtual worlds to engage with their customers, partners and employees. The event follows our sold out Virtual Worlds Spring New York conference.

Speakers from this year's conference included Paul Yanover, VP and Managing Director at Disney and Anthony Zuicker- creator of CSI. The event featured hundreds of speakers overall and some major corporate support. This year six streams will be available with an emphasis on the financial and operational aspects of virtual worlds. Where as some of the conferences on this list are art or design orientated the Virtual World Conference seems to be strait business.

4) Game Developers Conference
February 18 - 22 2008 - San Fransisco, California

If you are going to attend one industry event in 2008, this is the one. The core objective of this year's conference is to promote Learning, Networking, and Inspiration. The GDC team has been working hard to create the most exciting and compelling conference yet. Most notably, we have adjusted the timing for the call for papers forward to ensure that we're presenting you with the most up-to-date topics facing game developers today. You won't be disappointed.

The GDC isn't exclusively interesting to free to play followers but in the wake of E3's fall from grace this is the game industry's flagship event.

Also at GDC is the Worlds in Motion Summit debuting this year, an event focused on virtual worlds. was asked to speak at the Worlds in Motion Summit and as a result, Adrian Crook will be presenting a primer on the F2P revenue model at the event. Also giving talks are Raph Koster, Nabeel Hyatt, Eric Bethke, Min Kim, Chris Romero and others - making this a great conference for the F2P sector.

5) Indie MMO Game Developers Conference
March 29 - 30, 2008 - Minniapolis, Minnesota

IMGDC is a venue for Independent designers and developers to come together to share ideas and learn in all areas related to MMOGs. IMGDC 2.0 has positioned itself to be an even larger venue with three fantastic tracks covering design, development and business aspects of Indie MMOGs. The present is a time of MMOG giants, but the future lies in the hands of the passionate Indie developers. Do you have the passion?

2008 will be the second year for the IMGDC featuring presentations from Richard Bartle author of Designing Virtual Worlds, Raph Koster and Gordon Walton who was previously VP/Exec Producer at Sony Online Entertainment, Maxis, Origin Systems and Kesmai Corporation.

Check out Gamasutra's summary of the Indie MMO Conference.

6) South by South West Interactive
March 7-11 2008 - Austin, Texas

The SXSW Interactive Festival features five days of exciting panel content and amazing parties. Attracting digital creatives as well as visionary technology entrepreneurs, the event celebrates the best minds and the brightest personalities of emerging technology. Whether you are a hard-core geek, a dedicated content creator, a new media entrepreneur, or just someone who likes being around an extremely creative community, SXSW Interactive is for you!

Though SXSW doesn't provide a ton of events catering specifically to the free to play crowd, it is a phenomenal collection of creative people working in emergent digital entertainment fields. Couple this with the fact that the event is part of North America's largest music festival and party and attendance seems like more than a good idea.

Check out Throwspace's summary of SXSW.

7) Austin Game Developers Conference
September 5-7 2007 - Austin, Texas

The Austin Game Developers Conference attracts over 1,100 attendees and provides educational, networking, and business opportunities for game development professionals driving the $11 billion videogame industry. It is the a global forum where programmers, artists, producers, game designers, audio professionals and others involved in the development of interactive games gather to exchange ideas, network, and shape the future of the industry.

Austin GDC has become synonymous with MMO design due primarily to the city's deep MMO development scene. The conference features talks and panels focused on free to play, "Web 2.o," MMO development and micro-transactional revenue models.

8 ) Online Game Developers Conference
May 13 -15 2008 - Seattle, Washington

Building on the great success of the 2007 conference, OGDC 2008 will expand the plenary sessions from two to three days, and feature a wide range of keynotes, sessions, and panels, giving attendees new views of the online game universe—everything from an overview of the latest business, product, and legal developments to in-depth looks at scalability, player psychology, and in-game economic systems.

This event features Erik Bethke, founder and CEO of GoPets; Alan Crosby director of global community relations at Sony Online and Steve Goldstein of Flagships Studios. 2007's OGDC was a good start - hopefully 2008 is a big step forward.

Check out MMORPG's summary of the OGDC.

9) Gartner Symposium ITxpo 2008
April 6-10 2008 - Las Vegas

Each year, Symposium/ITxpo: Emerging Trends is founded on a framework of six megatrends that Gartner sees as critical to how business and technology will evolve in the near and long term.

A mere sampling of the trends and technologies we’ll focus on includes:

  • User Generated Content
  • Social Networking
  • Community Source
  • The Metaverse
  • Relationship Assets
  • Hyperconnected Enterprise
  • Collective Intelligence

Gartner attracts a different crowd from the game-centric conferences listed here. Typically, Gartner attendees come from the IT or VC worlds. The value of Gartner attendance lies not in the curriculum, but in your fellow attendees.

10) DigiWorld Summit
November 14-15 2007 - Montpellier, France

The 6th Video Game seminar as part of IDATE’s DigiWorld Summit 2007, is organised with financial support from the City of Montpellier. A host of opportunities have opened up over the past two years: the development of serious games, Massively Multiplayer Games and persistent universes, online capabilities incorporated as standard features in home consoles, the emergence and growth of mobile gaming, the development of online poker that's been as swift as it has been surprising... All constituting innovative technologies and ways to play which, in this era of growing convergence, involve or induce an overhaul of business models.

I'm sure I missed some relevant conferences, so if you can think of any leave a comment for our other readers.

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Virtual Goods Summit 2007 – Videos, Top 10 Notes, Raw Notes

Virtual Goods Summit 2007 - Conference Videos

As has already been reported on several sites, the videos from June's inaugural Virtual Goods Summit at Stanford are now online. Thanks to the organizers for making the videos freely available - I wish more conferences did this.

I took a heap of notes at the Summit, so why not share them now as well, both in "Top 10" and raw format.

My Top 10 Notes from the Virtual Goods Summit:

1. James Hong of
On HotorNot, users can purchase a $10 rose to send to other users. The rose dies 2 weeks later. HotorNot figured there were three value propositions inherent to a real life rose: the flower itself, the gesture of giving it, and the trophy effect of having received it. HotorNot figured that for virtual roses, 2 out of 3 of those values weren't bad - and they were right. The $10 rose is HotorNot's highest priced item, but it is still their best seller. James Hong said re: price elasticity, "It's not impossible that if we raised the price of the rose, we'd sell even more."

2. Paul Thind of Habbo Hotel
Habbo puts spending caps on every payment method to control economy & keep parents happy - so users can spend money only on 2-3 set days of the week.

3. Craig Sherman of Gaia Online
Gaia has three full time people on staff whose job it is to open envelopes filled with dollar bills and coins because people are desperate to get money into their accounts but can't find a suitable payment method.

4. Min Kim of Nexon
Average user lifetime in a Nexon game is 2-4 years; Audition, Nexon's newest game, is 50% female; Maple Story and Kart Rider are 20-30% female.

5. Tim Stevens of Doppelganger
The typical console game would not benefit from virtual item sales because of its lack of a continuing connection with its audience. I.e. the game launches, everyone buys and plays it, then most if not all of them leave very quickly for the next game. The community doesn't grow and care about their presence in the game long-term.

6. Daniel James of Three Rings
The average Puzzle Pirates user spends 2.5 hours per day in the game. Some drop in and leave, but others spend up to 9 hours a day in-game.

7. Raph Koster of Areae
Regarding preventing and tracing fraud: "You need to serialize everything - so you can trace the path of a virtual coin right back through to its minting."

8. Kyra Reppen of Neopets
Neopets builds their item packages and costs around a template metric of $10-15 per complete outfit.

9. Kevin Efrusy of Accel Partners - Facebook's VC
The Facebook gifting service was just an experiment. A third party will use the newly-launched Facebook Application Platform to deliver a far more successful gifting solution. He said if he were an independent developer, he'd be working on that right now as he believes it is a huge opportunity.

10. Eric Bethke of GoPets
GoPets users are 80% female, one third of whom are in North America. Users are spread throughout the 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s age groups. Interestingly, GoPets highest ARPU is from the low 30s age group.

All of my raw, totally unedited notes from the Virtual Goods Summit, after the jump.

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