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FreeToPlay.biz is looking for an insightful industry commentator to join our team. FreeToPlay.biz covers social games, online games and virtual worlds for industry insiders. For more info on who we are, see the “Who is” section of this site.

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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.”

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I’ve been a bit remiss in putting general news stuff out there, so let me catch up in a quick and timely manner:

1) I’ll be at GDC next week, Sunday the 17th to Friday the 22nd. I’m giving a talk called “The Power of Free-To-Play” (GDC chose the Anthony Robbins-esque title) at the Worlds in Motion Summit on Monday at 2pm. I’m up for coffee with any interested parties, so email me if you’re one of them.

2) I’ll be at SXSW in Austin, March 8-11. Michael Smith (CEO of Mind Candy) was kind enough to invite me to be on a panel called Casual Multi-Player Online Games: Serious Revenues, along with Nabeel Hyatt (Conduit Labs), Jeremy Liew (Lightspeed Venture Partners) and Joe Hyrkin (Gaia Online).

3) Lastly, I left Relic in early January after three great years with the company. Since then, I’ve been doing some design & production work on a variety of exciting free to play projects. So for the time being, you could call me a hired gun.

I hope to see some familiar faces at GDC and SXSW. Take care!

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NCSoft the MMO giant has credits that include the massively popular Lineage, Lineage II, Guild Wars, City of Villains/Heroes and the upcoming Tabula Rasa. But Dungeon Runners, one of only two free-to-play games from NCsoft, is unlike most of their other products. DR is based on a tiered subscription model, where users can play for free, or opt to pay a monthly subscription ($4.95) to access upper level content.

Free To Play spent an hour with Dallas Snell, NCsoft’s Director of Business Development, discussing Dungeon Runners, the free to play model and the future of NCsoft. Dallas has been a prominent figure in the games industry since 1983 having to contributed to over 20 titles during his time at Origin and EA. After a short sabbatical from gaming, Dallas returned to the industry in his current role based in Austin, Texas.

The earliest version of Dungeon Runners began as a different project entirely back in 2001, before being put on the back burner, where it remained until 2002 when it was dusted off to be a game titled Exarch. That too was eventually put to rest until Dungeon Runners was resurrected in its current incarnation about 18 months ago. Today the team consists of over a dozen internal employees with a heavy contingent of art outsourcing.

The decision to resurrect Dungeon Runners and make it a free to play game (versus a full retail MMO) came from NCsoft CEO Robert Garriott and Chris Chung, the former ArenaNet General Manager, who operated out of Korea at the time and therefore had early exposure to the free to play model. Chris is back in Austin now and looking to push NCSoft further into casual MMO development, replicating the success of Korean companies like Nexon.

There’s been speculation that NCsoft chose subscriptions as the primary revenue model in Dungeon Runners due to a belief that North American players preferred that model to microtransactions. However, that was not the rationale for the subscription decision. Instead, Dungeon Runners’ optional subscription fee was chosen simply because a microtransactional model wasn’t yet set up in the Dungeon Runners code base. To remedy that, the team is currently working on getting microtransactions running within Dungeon Runners before the game is launched in Korea.

Dallas made frequent mention of NCSoft’s embrace of “Web 2.0” development philosophies. In particular, NCsoft’s use of the free to play model, Dungeon Runners as a testing ground for future products and the company’s strong commitment to reducing barriers to entry for all NCsoft products were all offered as proof of the company’s Web 2.0-ness.

Dallas often referred to Dungeon Runners as an experiment, saying that although Dungeon Runners currently utilizes subscriptions, within a couple of months in-game advertising will become a part of DR. In fact, the ads are already in the world, but visible only to testers, NCsoft and Double Fusion (the in-game ad provider). F2P.biz was asked not to reveal how the ads will be implemented, but expect an announcement from NCsoft soon. If all goes well with the ad experiment, Dallas says NCSoft will consider the possibility of scrapping Dungeon Runners’ subscription fee all together.

On the other hand, by their own account NCSoft is seeing higher than normal conversion rates with their current subscription set up, so perhaps Dallas won’t be so quick to abandon it.

What are those great numbers?

Among active users (online within the last month), Dungeon Runners has a high free:paid ratio – i.e. there’s a larger proportion of paid to free users than among most f2p games. Dallas cites Runescape with a 5:1 ratio (free to paid, online at any given time), and says that DR is hitting 3:1, or after content updates, as high as 2:1.

Additionally, NCsoft expected a monetization rate of 1-3%, but their numbers are reportedly “significantly higher” [Dallas declined to give a specific number]. Dallas claimed not to know the cause of the higher monetization rate, but one contributing factor may be that the large majority of in-game activities or items are available only to paid users. Dallas acknowledged this and went on to say that the dev team is strongly considering raising the ceiling for free users as currently only 1-2 hours of free play will result in players hitting the ceiling with respect to what they can get for free.

Further to NCSoft’s recently announced plans to release free to play content on the Sony network, Dallas talked about his company’s goal of becoming “device agnostic” in order to break down the segregation of gamers between platforms. NCsoft plans to build their own cross-platform community service, with friends lists, inter-game messaging, and other features similar to Xbox Live. NCsoft also intends to release desktop, facebook and mobile widgets to extend gamers’ experience.

According to Dallas, NCSoft thinks of Dungeon Runners as a “MMO light” or a game that straddles the gap between casual and core gamers. In Dallas’ opinion, the success of products like Runescape makes it likely NCSoft will develop even more accessible games – perhaps even browser-based – to further minimize the barriers to entry.

With 40+ data probes plugged into Dungeon Runners, NCsoft approaches the product as a testing ground for ideas to be built into other games. The probes measure everything from time played, rewards frequency, item usage, leveling curves and dozens of other useful metrics. Outside of the game, account-level metrics are tracked in a publisher module that will allow NCsoft to track and analyze a single player’s activities across all their products.

In Dallas’ eyes, retail may soon become “extinct” with digitally delivered gaming ruling the day. He spoke candidly about the struggles facing music and film and how games are uniquely structured to develop their own delivery solutions. To that end, products like Guild Wars and Dungeon Runners are blazing trails for NCsoft.

Finally, as already mentioned, a recurring theme from Dallas was his commitment to lowering the barrier to entry in all NCsoft products. As evidenced by their free to play experiment, NCSoft strategy is to grow their customer base as widely as possible, then monetize the largest possible proportion. Most flatteringly, Dallas said his officemates all had printouts of F2P’s article, Top 10 Ways to Reduce Barriers to Entry, and were treating it as a white paper of sorts.

Thanks to Dallas Snell for his time and to Opal Lertutai, NCsoft PR, for setting us up.

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Apologies for the lack of updates lately. Kid #2 is mere days away and we’re moving house in a week. Very busy.

I was catching up on my feeds today and decided to buckle down and plow through this interview with Kwari’s Marketing Director. I don’t even know where to begin with Kwari. It’s certainly not “Free to Play” as you can’t so much as fire off a round without first purchasing ammo.

Worse yet, every time you absorb a shot, money is deducted from your account. So when you start the game with nothing but an unloaded gun, you’ll quickly soak up enough bullets to deplete your account by several bucks. At this point you can choose to either stop playing altogether (to save money) or purchase ammo and health in order to stem the tide of cash flowing off your credit card. This is not a compulsion loop, it’s a repulsion loop.

One of the more interesting aspects of this game is how it will avoid being classed as a game of chance (i.e. gambling) and legislated out of existence. Cue giant speech about why they’re a skill-based game:

Al King: It’s absolutely about player skill, and that’s a very important point for us in many ways. With all the changes in legislation as far as poker-related websites are concerned, it was very important to us that we got rid of any elements of chance or randomness and make it a skill-based game. We’ve already been classified as… well, we haven’t been classified as a skill-based activity because there is no such category in the UK where VAT (Value Added Tax, a form of tax applied to all purchased goods levied by most or all European governments) but we haven’t been classified as ‘gambling’ which does have it’s own form of status over there, and that’s a big achievement for us. We’ve also been classified by the banks for credit card use as ‘non-gambling’, so we’re fine in the UK and in the key European territories. When it comes to the USA we basically have to take our case on a state-by-state basis and say ‘Here’s what we are, here’s what we do, we’re being gracious, transparent and responsible about the whole thing.’ Fundamentally we are skill-based, we’re not gambling, but we are subject to the same laws that cover gambling, and so we just need to be patient about the speed we can roll out in North America, but we’re hopeful that we can get running in some key states in the first half of ‘08.

Ironically, after all that, a few paragraphs down Mr. King discusses one of Kwari’s unique features – something called a “Cash Bomb”:

Al King: There’s also another feature – which we know we won’t have ready for launch, but we want to implement it asap – called the ‘Cash Bomb’. It might look a bit like the Pill, we’re not sure yet, but we do know that it will hang around in the game world and maybe move around like a little sentient robot and players will shoot it. The reason why is that after a number of shots, it will explode and all the cash in it will go to the player who scored the shot – it might be $10, $100, or $1000, maybe more. The cash bomb will be completely funded by the shots the players fire into it. So you might be running around the map looking for someone to shoot, and you run across the Bomb, and you reckon ‘It’s only going to cost me a few cents’, so you fire a few rounds into it. And most of the time, nothing will happen, but every now and again someone will get lucky and the bomb will explode, and whoever got it will see coins and bills all floating towards them and their in-game account will go up by a nice chunk.

Hate to nitpick here, but that sounds exactly like a slot machine to me. Not much skill involved in running by, randomly shooting (aka inserting quarters) and hoping the bomb explodes and showers you with cash.

It will be interesting to see where Kwari winds up as a lot of what they’re doing appears antithetical to free to play or even game design principles in general.

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From a Gamasutra interview with Nicholas Beliaeff, Sony Online San Diego studio head… here are a few quotes:

On reducing barriers to entry:

We’ve got a lot of streaming going on, and we’ve reduced the barrier to entry for players. There’s no big download, and no credit card required. We’re really excited about that.

On multi-platform development:

For us as a company moving forward, all of our MMOs in development have a console component.

On min specs:

Whenever you’re making a game and are proud of it, you want as many people as possible to play that game. In the PC world, the lower the machine spec you can get, the bigger potential audience you have, and the more chance you have for people to look at your work.

On Free to Play:

If you look at some of the free to play games like Club Penguin and RuneScape, it’s a huge market. If you look at the actual numbers of people playing RuneScape, there may actually be more people playing RuneScape than there are playing World of Warcraft.

Interestingly, Nicholas and I met in 2001 when I was pitching a product of mine to him and Trip Hawkins at 3DO.

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The following 10 revenue models allow some or all of their associated game or virtual world to be played for free. The ordering is quite unscientific and I’m sure I’ve missed something obvious or messed up a detail. I leave it to the internet to correct me.

1. Virtual Item Sales
A well familiar revenue model first established in Korea and now the dominant model in Asia. Nexon – makers of KartRider, MapleStory, Audition and more – are widely seen as the leaders in this area, doing $230M of gross revenue in 2005 (the most recent year for which they’ve released figures), with 85% of that revenue coming from virtual item sales.

Virtual item sales is the practice of allowing users to purchase functional, decorative, or functional & decorative in-game items for use in and out of gameplay. A virtual item system usually uses two currencies – an attention currency (users earn virtual money via in-game activities) and a real money-based currency (users buy virtual money using real money). Typically, 5-15% of users opt for the latter currency and the influx of real world money is what provides the virtual item sales revenue stream.

What’s so compelling about virtual item sales is the unlimited ARPU (average revenue per user). According to Daniel James, CEO of Three Rings, some hardcore Puzzle Pirates users have poured more than $10,000 apiece into the game via virtual item purchases. To reach that contribution level via a World of Warcraft-style $15/month subscription would take a user 55 years.

While extremely shaky sources peg the overall size of the virtual item sales market at $1.5-2B this year, without an NPD-esque measurement organization there’s no way to verify that number.

2. Subscription Tiers
Runescape, the Java MMO from Jagex, is one of the leaders in the tiered subscription space. A tiered subscription model allows users to play the core game for free, but those that desire access to elite weapons or other game content, must pay a small ($5/month) subscription fee. Over 1 million of Runescape‘s 6+ million users have opted into the tiered subscription program, grossing $60M annually for Jagex.

Dungeon Runners, an NCsoft free to play MMO, offers a similar $5/month subscription package that affords players access to the elite items, a bank and the ability to stack potions. It also gives subscribers server queue priority.

3. Advertising
Several different forms of game-related advertising revenue streams have popped up in recent years. Firms such as Massive, IGA and Double Fusion do big business in in-game advertising for clients such as EA, Activision, THQ and Microsoft. Game ad agencies typically serve up static ads (ads that ship with a product and never change) or dynamic (ads that are updated in real time via the net) within game products that are contextually appropriate for advertising (i.e. sports, racing, or contemporary shooters).

The size of this conventional in-game advertising market is currently pegged at $100-200M, according to well-placed industry sources. However, the number and quality of games with dynamic advertising enabled is escalating dramatically. So much so that Yankee Group predicts the in-game ad market will reach $732M by 2010.

But other, more emergent forms of in-game advertising have been at the forefront of enabling free to play. Examples include:

4. Real Estate or “Land Use Fees
Second Life is the biggest legitimate player utilizing this revenue model whereby virtual land is sold leased to individuals. Monthly lease fees range from $5 to $195, depending on the size of land in question. Users may also purchase their own island for a one time fee of $1,675 in addition to a monthly fee of $295.

Approximately 70% of Second Life’s revenue comes from land sales and maintenance fees. Of course the virtual land ownership revenue model doesn’t come without headache, as the Bragg vs Linden suit has proven.

Entropia Universe uses land auctions as a revenue stream, but a recent headline-making $100,000 land sale has been called into question as the successful bidder is an employee of Entropia‘s developer, MindArk.

5. Merchandise
In what’s become a phenomenon of Furby proportions, Webkinz plush toys and their associated Webkinz World have taken the pre-teen set by storm. Users purchase a $15 Webkinz plush toy at retail and enter a secret code to activate the associated virtual character in Webkinz World. Beyond the retail plush toy purchase, there are no additional fees for playing in Webkinz World.

Two million Webkinz toys have been sold since April 2005, with more than 1 million of those users registering their pet online. That’s more than US$20M in retail sales in just 24 months. Products such as Bratz/Be-Bratz are quickly jumping on this bandwagon.

Another successful merchandise-based revenue model is collectible card games, or CCGs. Neopets launched a CCG in 2003 and just this week MapleStory became the latest free to play game to go this route, announcing a partnership with Wizards of the Coast. Consumers purchase real-world MapleStory collectible cards that come with codes redeemable for exclusive in-game content in the MapleStory MMORPG.

6. Auctions & Player Trades
In June 2005, Sony set up Station Exchange on select Everquest II servers. Station Exchange facilitates player to player trade of in-game items – including the provision of an escrow service – in return for a 10% closing fee as well as listing fees ranging from $1 (items and coins) to $10 (characters).

While Station Exchange recorded only $274K in net revenue in its first year of limited release, it was enough for Sony Online President John Smedley to declare it the future of RMT. Read the SOE Station Exchange whitepaper for more.

Entropia Universe – a world in which virtual items actually decay with use and require real money to repair or replace – utilizes first party auctions as their primary revenue stream. This means that instead of merely facilitating player to player auctions and taking a cut (a la Station Exchange’s eBay model), Entropia auctions items directly to their players.

Entropia items sell for ludicrous sums, with rare weapons auctions closing at $26,000, land auctions for (allegedly) $100,000. The May 2007 auction of five in-game banking licenses brought in $404,000, total. Ironically, Entropia takes no fees for player-to-player auctions.

In the wake of this success, watch for third party virtual item auction houses such as Dan Kelly’s Sparter.com to offer developers and publishers a cut to ensure the (exclusive?) cooperation of their products.

7. Expansion Packs

The best known example of expansion packs as a primary revenue model is the Arenanet product, Guild Wars. Likened by Richard Garriott to a series of fantasy novels, Guild Wars relies not on monthly subscription fees for its revenue, but on the sale of successive expansion packs for $29.99.

The game’s creators argue that the thin-pipe origins of their technology allow their game to be run far more economically than competing titles, enabling this no-subscription free model.

Over 3 million people have purchased the previous three Guild Wars products (Guild Wars, Guild Wars: Factions and Guild Wars: Nightfall) with those numbers set to surge again with the release of Guild Wars: Eye of the North on August 31, 2007.

8. Event or Tournament Fees
Netamin’s free to play, ad-supported Ulimate Baseball Online uses event fees as an additional revenue stream. UBO‘s Pay to Play tournaments cost $5 per player to enter and offer cash prizes up to $4,500.

Shot Online, a free to play/virtual item sales golf MMO, also charges users to enter tournaments.

Third parties such as Valve’s Tournament.com and Groove Game’s Skillground.com are getting into the pay to play tournament scene as well. These sites charge charging entry fees for game tournaments for games such as Half-Life 2 and Counter-Strike.

9. TrialPay
At the recent Virtual Goods Summit and again at the Seattle Casual Games Conference, I bumped into representatives from TrialPay. TrialPay is a third party facility that allows customers to pay for products (i.e. games) by trying or buying from advertisers.

What this means is that when you go to pay for a casual game or purchase virtual currency, you can instead select from a demographically targeted list of special offers. Trying or buying one of these offers – from merchants such as Avis, Geico, Vonage, etc – allows you to get your game purchase for free, as the offer merchant has paid the game provider for acquiring a new customer on their behalf.

TrialPay claims that this allows game developers to earn more per user, as some offers pay game developers upwards of $50 per user (as opposed to the $20 a casual game might normally charge).

Someone from TrialPay can jump in and give me a more relevant example of their system’s use in the game space, but all I could find was a casual games company called Dreamquest Games.

10. Donations
Clocking in at last on the list is of alternate revenue streams is player donations. Raph Koster recently blogged about meeting up with the Kingdom of Loathing guys at ComicCon in San Diego. Raph reported that while KoL‘s revenue is “definitely indie,” their primary revenue stream of player donations is a sustainable one.

According to Wired, the donation revenue has allowed creator Zack Johnson to quit his day job and hire six employees to help improve and maintain the product.

That’s what Maid Marian founder Gene Endrody would call a “lifestyle business,” but I suspect most of us wouldn’t scoff at it or any of the above revenue models.

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