Ten reasons why the future of Free-To-Play MMOGs is bright
29 January 2009
To celebrate the launch of the website of Omni-Labs we have decided to write a little top ten article. It lists in semi-random order ten reasons why we think free-to-play massively multiplayer online games (MMOGs) have such a bright future. (Bright enough to set up Omni-Labs and start developing one.) Even we were surprised at how easy it was to find ten reasons, and had to leave a few out in the end or merge several points into one.
Additionally, over the coming few months we will further explore these topics in ten follow-up articles, each examining one of the ten reasons in more detail. Hopefully you will this and future articles worthwhile.
1: Free-to-play is a proven concept
Although it is still often hard to get those new to the concept to understand, there are now more than enough successful endeavours out there to prove the validity of the free to play model. The likes of Dofus and Puzle Pirates (Both roughly 3 million users), Habbo Hotel ($77 million expected revenue this year) are just some of the well known ones, but the model can easily be recognised in the success of lesser-known products such as manager zone (Over 600,000 users).
In other words: the pioneers have shown that free-to-play works and that it can be extremely profitable.
This means we don't have to argue any more about the basic premise.
In fact, there seems to be no cap on how successful they can become if one looks at something like Club Penguin:
The virtual world for kids 6-14 launched in Canada in 2005 and claims 700,000-plus paying members; subscriptions run about $6 a month or $58 a year. The site also makes money from virtual goods and other online merchandise sold through the site. Forbes
Club penguin was sold to Disney in a deal worth $700 million. It is hard to argue with numbers like that...
2: MMOGs can create huge user-bases
Free-to-play and MMOGs are a marriage made in heaven for a number of reasons. The most obvious reason is the clearly recognisable fact that MMOGs can by definition attract the large numbers of customers that free-to-play model thrives on. Whatever alternative revenue model is associated with the free MMOG (upgraded accounts, micropayments, competition money and so forth) it is more likely to succeed with a large user base. 'Large' is of course a relative term; one would require enough users to create the critical mass needed to fuel those financial transactions. MMOGs are geared towards this by definition.
3: MMOGs are also social networking services.
With the advent of applications like Facebook and MySpace the success of social networking sites and applications has been proven beyond doubt. What needs to be understood, however, is that MMOGs provide many of the same forms of social interaction and add extra value by providing virtual worlds and gameplay. Every MMOG is a virtual space that provides a service. Fundamental to that service is gameplay, but it would be wrong to focus on that exclusively. Gameplay is only part of the service and players will lose interest if it isn't accompanied by other things they are looking for. Most of those other elements are based on the same principles as social networking sites. Players want to be part of social groups, clans, classes, corporations. MMOGs make it easy to organise these players and provide opportunities for them to meet up and interact, often via gameplay but surprisingly often through other means like chat channels and community forums.
4: The market is ready, enormous and growing
The combined potential customer base of online games and social networking endeavours is absolutely massive. This isn't to say that we can just grab user numbers for the biggest success stories out there like Habbo, or Maple Story (estimated 50 million users) and add that to the social networking space numbers. What we can do however is look at the size and makeup of the potential market, and see what is currently going on on there. And one of the things that has become clear is that people now have become accustomed to these types of online worlds and spaces. It is normal to have a Facebook entry. It is normal to play a free Flash game. It is normal to buy MP3s via iTunes. And as the market grows up, it is becoming more normal by the day:
At 91 percent, the vast majority of online gaming among kids ages 2 to 17 is free. Boys and kids in higher income households are more likely to fall into the minority group (9 percent) that pays to play. In addition, the older the child, and the more time that child spends on gaming per week, the more likely that child is to pay for games. NPD Press Release
5: Current technology can support it
It used to be conventional wisdom that the tech needed for a successful MMOG would be so prohibitively expensive that only cash-flush companies would even stand a chance of getting it to market. This is simply no longer the case. Technology has caught up with user numbers and this combination of a reachable audience coupled with ease and low price of development has changed things completely. The success of Dofus shows that Flash is now a feasible development platform. It looks great too! Similar numbers exist for Puzzle Pirates which was developed using Java, and at the humbler end of the scale, Maid Marian with games like Sherwood Dungeon seem to be doing well enough. Or what about the great success of a technically simplistic game like Hattrick? Spreadsheet browser gaming is not very sexy to some, but this little game boasts 800,000 weekly logins. These are all platforms that bring MMOG development within range of a far larger group of developers than was the case in the days of strictly huge and complex projects.
6: They are relatively affordable to produce
Point 5 brings us neatly to point 6: It can now be said, with some confidence, that it is possible to create a commercially successful and even good-looking MMOG without spending millions of dollars. For all the brouhaha around Habbo Hotel many people seem to forget that it was originally developed by two Finnish students on a shoestring budget. Sherwood Dungeon runs on 6 servers at $200 per month. The fact that it is no longer necessary to employ hundreds of people for years on end, and then maintain a live team of similar proportions means that (and this is crucial) relatively small user numbers are sufficient to turn a good profit. A Lost Garden blog entry opines the following numbers on these "Village Games".
Lost garden: A village game requires total investment of roughly $250,000 over an 18-month period. In essence, you are paying for the salary of the development team plus miscellaneous marketing and server expenses. At 18 months, your game starts making enough money to pay for your monthly expenses without having to go begging. A village game with 3 to 4 employees needs to maintain a customer base of roughly 6000 to 9000 users.
Those are numbers that put MMOG development squarely in the affordable bracket.
7: Free-to-play MMOGs Can focus on quality and niche appeal
Because of the nature of MMOGs and their development some interesting advantages come to light. One of the most important aspects of MMOGs is that they are often all about community. The developer sells a service, based on a virtual space that the users want to spend time in, to a community of players. Generally this means that the developer is in direct contact with the users themselves through user forums and the like. This is a huge advantage! Furthermore, these same people see themselves as stake holders. They actively WANT to participate in efforts to improve the experience. In the new ecomomy of free online entertainment it is no longer feasible to simply build it and hope that they will come. Instead, because free online entertainment content is ubiquitous, the developer must focus on quality and the needs of the players. That is the only way to differentiate the content from others and to stand out in a sea of mediocre or pointless free entertainment. Additionally, the developer can focus on a type or flavour of content that simply isn't available, and create niche appeal. This is good for both parties. If the developer is smart enough to listen to what the players want, and smart enough to see where their wishes aren't being met, then they have a massively effective market research tool right at their fingertips. Not many other businesses can claim this.
8: User generated content
Speaking of utilising customer feedback, why not go all the way and incorporate user generated content? Since MMOGs are all about community anyway, and much end game content is fuelled by social factors, user generated content is a perfect fit for MMOGs. In some cases this the secret of the game's success. Although not free-to-play, Eve Online's universe works well because it facilitates all important in-game actions to be instigated by players. Where the success of user generated content really impresses however is in the rampant success of Second Life. They recently received $11 million in funding and claim that:
Second Life has grown to over 165,000 residents with an economy worth over US$60mm per year. With thousands of Second Life creators building more complex and engaging content, we are rapidly moving toward a mainstream global market," said Philip Rosedale, CEO of Linden Lab. "The support of Globespan confirms what everyone who has experienced Second Life knows ?the metaverse has arrived, and is growing quickly. Linden lab press release
9: There are many revenue streams open to free-to-play MMOGs
It is surprising how little emphasis this rather important point is given at times. It is nonetheless one of the most important factors in realising the great opportunities that exist out there for developers. Rather than listing the many ones I can think of I will link to an excellent post already written by the people at freetoplay.biz. listing their Top Ten revenue Models. And that list isn't even exhaustive; they have, for example, excluded spinoff content based on the IP like animated shows (Dofus), books (No doubt Warhammer Online) and who knows what else.
10: The market is screaming for new and non-derivative content
This last reason is somewhat controversial as I don't have any data to back this up. Nonetheless I am going to express my views on this anyway. As a game developer myself I am always keen to listen to what the actual gamers themselves have to say about a subject. And one subject that is popping up more and more is that people are suffering from clich? fatigue. How many Tolkienesque MMORPGs have to fail before it is understood that that market is cornered by the big hitters? Same goes for SciFi MMORPGS with nearly identical grind-driven play mechanics. At the moment many companies and investors are blinded by the incredible success of some huge games.
Alex May says:
Trying to make a small FTP game in order to compete with World of Warcraft is like setting up a small burger joint in order to compete with McDonalds: Completely pointless.
Instead of imitating them in a pointless attempt to "compete" with the likes of Blizzard we should listen to gamers and see what they want. And already it seems clear that they DO want to play free-to-play MMOGs, but NOT if they are soulless imitations of games they have already played to death. They want quality online experiences and in many cases that means that the experience has to be new and fresh. Something that really shouldn't be a difficult proposition considering all the possibilities open to online games.
And that's it.These are ten random reasons why I feel that free-to-play MMOGs have a bright future. This doesn't mean that it is easy to create a successful one, but in my opinion it does show that there are plenty of reasons why there is cause for optimism. Hopefully our own Project T, when launched, will be as successful as some of the examples I quoted.