distribution


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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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.

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Back in May, Chris Anderson, WIRED editor-in-chief and author of 2006’s much-buzzed-about “The Long Tail,” announced his next book. Due out in 2008, the book will be titled “FREE” with any one of the following subtitles:

1) FREE: The story of a radical price (zero)

2) FREE: How $0.00 changed the world

3) FREE: How companies get rich by charging nothing

4) FREE: The economics of abundance and the marketplace without money

5) FREE: The past and future of a radical price.

Having read Chris’s original Long Tail article in WIRED and being subjected to endless recitations from his book over the last year, I’ll wager a guess that “FREE” will be equally influential. Chris is writing “FREE” not only about games, but from a pan-industry perspective – which means by this time next year boardrooms the world over will be dreaming about how they might make more money by giving away their product free of charge.

Since October, Chris has started using a “free” tag in his blog posts, which gives us a glimpse into the type of content that might be included in the book. It’s worth checking out.

On a related note, I found an interesting post entitled “There’s No Money in The Long Tail of the Blogosphere” over on Read/Write Web today. It makes the excellent point that the long tail benefits the aggregators of long tail products much more than it does the makers of said products. Although the “products” discussed in the article are blogs and their associated authors, you can see the parallels for games.

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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 F2P.biz’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. FreeToPlay.biz 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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B-Side reprinted this article on 5 Alternative Revenue Streams for the Music Industry. (I’d link to the original article, but B-Side “cited” the source without a link, so I can only link to their repost.)

In any case, the article outlines 5 revenue models for the faltering music industry. They are:

  1. Free (ad or sponsor supported)
  2. Pay What You Want (donations)
  3. Pay By Popularity (price increasing with popularity)
  4. Subscription (Rhapsody style music services)
  5. Music Tax (ISPs add tax to offset industry losses = bad idea)

The article puts forth these revenue models after asserting that “iTunes isn’t the answer,” but I’d say that it’s a darn good start. iTunes was at least partially responsible for weening me off music pirating entirely (kids and declining music savvy also deserve credit). And while some of us in the game industry like to snicker at “old media” such as music and its antiquated business practices, the game industry is behind the music business in at least one way:

The iTunes model hasn’t been applied to games yet.

We’re still out there trying to get people to buy the whole album, rather than just the tracks they want. Services like Steam and episodic games like Sam and Max are great steps forward for the industry, but neither one allows consumers to instantly purchase and enjoy only the portions of the game they desire, like iTunes did for music.

One way to stop people loading up their Nintendo DS’s Revolution R4 card with 100 pirated games from BitTorrent is to give them all those games “for free” and charge a capped micro license based on which games they play and for how long.

For instance, if I play 10 minutes of Pokemon, 2 hours of Touch Darts and 50 hours of Puzzle Quest*, I would then be billed something like 10 cents, $1.20 and $20 (or whatever the cap for PQ would be). Couple that with electronic distribution’s removal of COGS and you’re right back to the same profit margins you already enjoy (on titles that cap out), with the added benefit of monetizing lesser played titles that would otherwise have been pirated.

While this may be new for traditional AAA games, casual games already have a fledgling version of this model courtesy of Double Trump’s Micro License scheme. Their PlayOn Arcade site has the details, for those interested in creating an iTunes-esque service for big budget, retail games.

* These are actual figures. I finished Puzzle Quest. 🙂

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From a Fortune article, EA CEO John Riccitiello had this to say about the free to play business model and how it will affect traditional retail games.

Riccitiello says the $31 billion gaming industry will suffer if it doesn’t start to reevaluate its business model. Game executives at Sony (SNE), Microsoft (MSFT) and Activision (ATVI) must answer some tough questions in the coming years, like how long they can expect consumers to pay $59 for a video game. Riccitiello predicts the model will be obsolete in the next decade. [Ed: emphasis mine]

“In the next five years, we’re all going to have to deal with this. In China, they’re giving games away for free,” he says. “People who benefit from the current model will need to embrace a new revenue model, or wait for others to disrupt.” As more publishers transition to making games for online distribution, Riccitiello says he expects EA will experiment with different pricing models.

As a colleague just said to me in an email, “It’s encouraging to see they (EA and big publishers as a whole) recognize the issue”.

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From this post on NCsoft’s Dev Corner, Richard Garriot discusses NCsoft’s plan to build free to play console games.

PS3 NCsoft games would incorporate “traditional subscription models, micropayment systems and free-to-play games with membership options,” according to the CEO.

Elsewhere in the post, Garriot indicates we might see the first NCsoft PlayStation 3 game by Christmas of next year (2008) – a product that sounds likely to be a re-use of one of their existing IPs, i.e. City of Heroes, Guild Wars or Dungeon Runners. He notes that original IP console games will take 2-3 years (i.e. 2009/2010).

Garriot also suggests that NCsoft intends to start a new studio to handle console development, but more likely is that the work will be farmed out to existing studios, not a new one.

“…We are also looking at specific projects that we may house in other studios. This includes our Austin offices or our other currently existing studios. Console game development won’t just be at one single location,” he added.

Garriot hints that Xbox 360/XBLA is not NCsoft’s first choice for their F2P products due to the restrictive nature of Microsoft’s Live infrastructure. Aspects of my earlier post, The Economics of a Free To Play Console Game, may be relevant here as I examined the feasibility of doing a F2P XBLA game.

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