Free to Play: Do Big Licenses Work?

Free to Play: Do Big Licenses Work?

Studios are adopting a new strategy for standing out in the hyper-competitive free-to-play game market: They’re acquiring major properties on which to base their titles. Gamasutra lists a couple of examples in a recent feature about licensed massively multiplayer games: Three Rings, the studio behind Puzzle Pirates, is working on a free-to-play multiplayer version of the hit sci-fi show Dr. Who. And Bigpoint, a studio based in Germany and acquired by NBC Universal in 2008, is developing free-to-play titles based on The Mummy and Battlestar Galactica.

The development process behind these games obviously won’t be as simple as scribbling out the name of a generic fantasy game and writing in “Narnia RPG” with an accompanying trademark stamp, but it’s still worth wondering what these licensed free-to-play games are going to offer. Hopefully, we’ll get more than the mediocre gaming experience that’s common to free-to-play titles: A big name won’t be enough to draw us from the fact we’ve already played a billion farming sims and Civilization rip-offs online. We don’t need more.

If that sounds pessimistic, consider this a Gloom Warning. Think back on the history of licensed games on consoles stretching back to the Atari 2600. There are a cluster of gems, to be sure, but they’re lost in a mire of bad cartoon-to-game ports and digital tragedies like the Home Alone NES disasters. We’ll need to see some hard evidence that studios like Bigpoint and Three Rings will do right by the properties we love–especially cherished sci-fi classics like Dr. Who and Battlestar Galactica. These are properties for grown-ups (disclaimer: said grown-ups may be children at heart), and should be treated respectfully. These are not properties are suitable as as templates for disposable games like “Barbie’ Pony Adventure,” or “Diego Gets a Rabies Shot,” or similar dreck meant to be shoveled on unfortunate six-year-olds.

However, Dan Fiden, the VP of Publishing for Gazillion Entertainment in California, told Gamasutra that gamers should rest easy: The licensed trash that ends up on consoles were developed according to an old formula, whereas the free-to-play market must constantly change, update, and improve–or at least that’s what Gazillion hopes to prove with its upcoming massively multiplayer online game based on the Marvel Universe.

“The current F2P games are constantly being updated and frequently don’t launch in the same way that a package goods game launches,” Fiden said. “For example, we’re not tied to the release of the latest X-Men movie. Tying directly to a specific date isn’t the reason we’re working with this license; that would be a little short-sighted.”

“This is a broad license that allows us to take advantage of lots of opportunities and Marvel events in the movie, TV, or comic world after the game is up and running. Our biggest priority isn’t meeting a certain deadline; it’s making sure the basic game and basic service are as good as we want them to be.”

Theoretically, a free-to-play game based on a popular property can be a huge draw. In fact, brand familiarity can be the crucial element that keeps players coming back to play.

“The developer needs to convince the gamer to stay longer than five minutes, play a bit, and give the game a chance which then makes the likelihood of converting them to a paying user later on much, much higher,” Bigpoint founder and CEO Heiko Hubertz told Gamasutra. “The way we do that is with third-party franchises which the gamer may already know, he’s familiar with the character and the story, he trusts in the IP, and he gives the game a longer shot.”

Hubertz plans to do right by Battlestar Galactica, not just for the fans’ sake, but for Bigpoint’s well-being: Hubertz understands that in order for Bigpoint to break into the American market, it must produce a professional-looking game that would seem at home on consoles.

“So we invested a lot of money in technology, we pegged Unity as our developer engine, we put a lot of extra effort into the look and feel and, in the end, it was well worth it for us,” Hubertz said.

The studios behind some of these big-name free-to-play games say things that inspire confidence, but as far as licensed content goes, it’s easy to have your hopes shot down. While licensed free-to-play games are a good idea in theory–that license is indeed the edge most developers need to get people to notice their games against the tangle of free titles online–it’s best that we wait and see what gets released into the wild before we knock ourselves out celebrating the existence of Dr. Who Online.

About Nadia Oxford
Nadia is a freelance writer living in Toronto. She played her first game at four, decided games were awesome, and has maintained her position since. She writes for 1UP.com, Slide to Play, GamePro and other publications, and is About.com’s Guide to the Nintendo DS.

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