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Evolve or Die

Greg Tito | 14 Jul 2011 10:30
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The evidence Kern investigated is overwhelming. Lesser-known titles, or those games concentrating on a younger audience, have gained substantial popularity in the last decade. Take Runescape, for example, which launched in 2001 and now boasts over 10 million players, more than 1 million of which are paying customers. Sony Online Entertainment has seen so much success from Free Realms that CEO John Smedley has experimented with a free-to-play version of one of the old guard of MMOs, EverQuest. Other publishers have had success converting from the subscription model to free-to-play, with Turbine's Lord of the Rings Online and Dungeons & Dragons Online being among the most well-known. Cryptic and Funcom have followed suit and the games that have switched models seem to enjoy moderate success.

The perception, in America at least, is that if you are giving your game away for free, then it must not be very good.

"I think they are probably more than a moderate success, but nobody wants to say it publicly. You don't hear public figures from successful free-to-play companies operating in the West like Nexon, Turbine, Riot, etc.," Kern said. "I would suspect it's because they found they are onto a good thing and don't necessarily want to wake up the larger publishers to the fact."

Luckily for the companies smart enough to evolve, competition among free-to-play MMOs is low because American publishers don't want to see the dollar signs on the wall. "We've gotten into this mode where games are so expensive that nobody is taking risks or fully engaging new models. Larger publishers are essentially shepherds of a model that they've been optimizing since the developers started it," Kern said. "You have executives now, not visionaries, and they are very good at maximizing the existing model. Ask them to think outside the box and they can't, even if their future livelihood depends on aggressively evolving."

Kern had to work aggressively to get his own team on board with the free-to-play model. "It was an uphill battle. The then CEO of Red 5 and our CFO both felt that free-to-play wasn't profitable and even if it were, that we had nobody with expertise to develop it," he said. "That sounded like an opportunity and a challenge to me, but to be honest, it seemed like a huge risk to most everyone else."

The people at Red 5 who disagreed with Kern believed in the stigma of free-to-play MMOs. The core gaming audience often seems to disregard such games as child's play or not worth their time. I myself am guilty of having been excited about an upcoming MMO only to dismiss it after discovering it was free-to-play. The perception, in America at least, is that if you are giving your game away for free, then it must not be very good.

"What we're trying to do is change the perception out there that free-to-play games are B-games or C-games," Kern said. "We asked ourselves: Why not release a top-quality game under this model? There are free-to-play games out there making hundreds of millions of dollars per year on this model. That is more than enough to support top quality development."

What seemed so clear to Kern was a hard sell for the former executives of Red 5. No one likes to take risks, especially when people have invested millions of dollars into a project. Kern's dedication to the free-to-play model almost caused his dream company to fall apart.

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