Top 10 Free-to-Play Growth Killers

Top 10 Free-to-Play Growth Killers

In the interest of playing devil’s advocate, I thought I’d throw out ten reasons why free-to-play (F2P) games and free online games in general might be slower to succeed in the Western world than they have been in Asia. While I don’t necessarily believe all of the following potential business problems, issues and concerns will inhibit free online games’ growth going forward in 2010 and 2011, each of them represents a significant challenge that free to play online gaming faces, and all aspiring developers or publishers in the space should be aware of.

1. Virtual Property “Ownership”

The term ‘virtual’ may not have a strict legal interpretation, but if anything it means that the thing being described is NOT whatever comes after the word ‘virtual.’

– Ginsu Yoong, Second Life’s legal counsel, Linden v Bragg

Despite virtual property’s ill-defined legal status, developers have had no qualms about starting byzantine in-game economies driven by the exchange of real money for virtual land, clothing, furniture and much more.

Some developers, like GoPets CEO Eric Bethke, have attempted to get out in front of the virtual property legal issue by defining their own “Avatar Bill of Rights.” But most of us have not been as proactive and instead seem content to leave it up to the courts to decide how to define and deal with our users’ virtual property.

As precedents regarding virtual ownership are set, the growth of some free games products may be curtailed as the legal burden of dispensing virtual property increases.

2. Slow Broadband

On the issue of net speed, there remains a huge disparity between North America’s broadband ISPs and Korea’s military-grade internet provision.

The net effect is that free to play games like MapleStory can take 1-3 hours or more to download in North America, while Korea’s 45mbps network cuts the same download to a paltry 10 minutes or less.

It’s fair to say that we won’t soon be getting such high download speeds – but the North American market might have already found a way around the issue. With the launch of streaming game services like InstantAction and the proliferation of Flash as a full-blown development platform, downloading entire game clients become less and less the norm.

3. Poor Advertising Strategies

Some products in the free games and free-to-play sector have come to rely heavily on advertiser support in order to keep their offerings free for the majority of players.

A recent OMMA article claims advertisers are taking the wrong approach when handling virtual worlds. And as the populations of virtual worlds appear to be prematurely plateauing, advertisers may be starting to sweat.

But there is hope if advertisers change their strategies to suit the unique challenges virtual worlds present. As Worlds In Motion put it:

…themed events, branded avatar clothing, and representative personality appearances are finding success and opportunity in worlds like There, Habbo and vSide.

4. MMO Overload

From MapleStory to Silkroad Online, there is no shortage of massively multiplayer online games (MMOs) in the free to play space. In the same vein, there is an abundance of virtual worlds such as Second Life or Kaneva. It seems as though the vast majority of new free to play game since 2005 have been virtual worlds or MMOs.

Perhaps it’s the very reason that these games have proliferated in the free to play market; MMOs and virtual worlds are inherently more inclusive than an FPS. Still, it would be a shame to see the free to play space flounder due to constant reiteration of the same genres and themes, turning away players seeking a different experience.

Of course, games like Kwari are looking to change that, but it’s too early to tell just how well they will catch on.

5. Rising Game Development Costs

With more prominent developers announcing plans to take advantage of the free to play model, the days of games fueled by ramen noodles and nights in the basement could, once again, be history. EA’s upcoming Battlefield Heroes is the latest big-budget free to play game, signaling that the big publishers aren’t content to sit back and let Far East imports eat their lunch.

If the consumer makes the jump from 2D to more advanced 3D graphics, it could mean the end of the visually rudimentary worlds and Flash-based free to play games as market leaders, making way for the mainstream big budget games.

About Adrian Crook
Adrian Crook is a game consultant and 15-year industry vet. He’s produced and designed award-winning, million-selling products on platforms from console to Web. A veteran creative producer, he’s as comfortable writing a social game GDD as doing biz dev and strategy work.

1 Comments

  1. i would to see this on the ps3 and its so addicting played since july and im still not bored with it

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