interview


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.

Our selected writer will be capable of creating news with analysis, crafting fact-supported feature articles and conducting insightful interviews. The job can be done from your laptop anywhere in the world, but some paid travel (i.e. to cover conferences) may be involved.

Application criteria:

  • Please provide only one submission. Must be online game or core game business related, not a game review.
  • If you don’t have a submission directly related to the topic, submit your best piece of critical analysis and explain your background/knowledge of the online gaming or core game business.
  • Must have passion for business side of the game industry, be professional and articulate and available to post with consistency and meet editorial deadlines.
  • Regular online writing rates apply, with performance bonuses.

Please review some our most popular posts (here, here and here) to get an idea of what we’re looking for before applying.

Express your interest by sending the aforementioned materials to:

F2Pwriter@gmail.com

Only qualified applicants will be contacted.

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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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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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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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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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Just announced today, “Game Show” seems to be a free to play, ad-supported sports trivia game with daily streaming video content updates. But it’s more than just a game as the game features a live host and prizes for the winners. Game Show launches this fall.

EA SPORTS GameShow allows participants from around the country to compete head to head, answering a series of multiple choice questions related to the world of sports. The live game show host will facilitate each session, streamed over the Internet in real-time. Questions will be presented through a variety of media, including text, audio and video. Players will also be able to track their performance instantly, with prize incentives. The online sports trivia game will also feature customizable avatars and leader boards, with call outs to regional and national winners.

For more, check out the full press release or the last paragraph of this Peter Moore interview for more details.

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