If this year’s Gamescom had a particular theme, it would be the increasing popularity of mobile, social and free-to-play games. The free-to-play market in particular is absolutely huge right now, growing exponentially by the month as startup companies and traditional games publishers alike all want a piece of the pie.
That puts European publisher Gameforge in something of a dominant position - with the hyper-popular TERA
, free-to-play Aion
and the upcoming Raiderz
in its MMO portfolio, it’s hard to argue that the company is well-positioned to become a leading force in gaming’s dynamic new age.
At least, it would be if the games press at large reported on these kinds of experiences. “It’s still difficult for us to convince media to report about free-to-play games, that’s true. Particularly in the UK, that’s not that easy because the UK media seems very centred on console games, on retail box games business and not so much on these new trends,” said Gameforge’s director of corporate communications, Axel Schmidt.
Carsten van Husen
“Although there are many players in this space, I have the feeling that UK media are not taking notice that there is a big swing in the market. And I find that quite unfortunate because in our view, free-to-play doesn’t necessarily mean bad quality.” Schmidt adds that such games can have high production values, pointing to its in-house MMO Runes of Magic
But while the fantasy RPG genre accounts for the majority of Gameforge’s titles today, it was not always the case. The publisher started life developing browser-based strategy games - a market that it continues to pursue with Ikariam - but since joining forces with fellow German studio Frogster it has angled towards the creating and licensing of MMOs that rival the likes of Blizzard’s World of Warcraft
“It seems to us that player engagement is much higher in fantasy MMOs than in other genres,” Schmidt revealed, explaining the decision to re-focus its publishing efforts. It seems that gamers are turned off by the prospect of free-to-play, however - something that has puzzled the exec. “I am always a bit surprised that people complain about turning games free-to-play. In our view, that’s the fairest business model you can offer.
“You don’t need to invest any money to get access to the game, and everything is voluntary. Nobody is forced to pay anything, or to stay in the game. Our responsibility is to make the games good enough that people are spending money on a voluntary basis. That’s just fair - you don’t then have to spend fifty bucks to buy a box or subscribe to a monthly fee.”
Carsten van Husen, CEO of Gameforge 4D - a sister company that handles the licensing and publishing of MMOs from other companies such as NCsoft’s Aion
and Bluehole Studios' TERA
- agrees. “I am a friend of the free-to-play model for the same reasons. There’s a price-demand curve that exists. But, we are agnostic to different publishing models. Whether it’s packaging a game in a box, shipping a client for free or selling as a download, we’re open to these things.”
Gameforge hopes to turn the perception against free-to-play around, but why was that negative perception there in the first place? Schmidt suggests that it could be down to bad experiences with past games that have not been well balanced. Gameforge’s goal in all of its titles, he added, is to avoid adding microtransactions that mess with a game’s core balancing.
Vanity items, virtual house furnishings and other bonus items are offered for a price, and that’s as far as the company is willing to go. “Balance is a very sensitive thing for players, and if they have the feeling that a game is fair, or that they are being treated fairly, then they may be willing to stay,” he said. “But that’s our responsibility as a publisher to take care of that.”
Gameforge’s arsenal of fantasy MMOs may all appear to be cut from the same cloth, but according to the exec the only thread running through all of its games is the fact that they tend to cater to core gamers in different ways. TERA’s
open, action-oriented combat system based on the Unreal Engine 3, Aion’s
conventional gameplay system and Raiderz’s
emphasis on character development... each title has a particular hook that aims to reel in every kind of fantasy RPG nut.
But the number of titles it has is no accident. Schmidt revealed that it has to keep creating new products and upping its game in order to stave off increasingly fierce competition. “The market is getting so competitive that we have made a strategic decision to only produce premium MMO games, or invest particularly in that field. Budgets are getting higher and higher, but expectations from players is growing too.
“The free-to-play market is now also clouded by other big major players,” Schmidt continued. “They have recognised that there are huge revenue streams that you can tap into there. Indeed, the days where any game could be published on a free-to-play model and see some success - those times are over, in our view.”
Proof, if any were needed, that not only is the free-to-play model becoming an increasingly dominant one in the games industry, but that it has already matured in a similar manner to that of traditional games development, with publishers beginning to hedge their bets on sure-fire hits. The internal spend is also growing - to make the games, run and market them, and provide extra services like support and infrastructure.
But for all of its growing up, there is still room for further growth in the free-to-play market. In particular, the ability to take a game and localise it for practically every country on the planet makes companies like Gameforge much more nimble than traditional box-game publishers. Even then, there are challenges.
“The Asian market is very closed,” Schmidt said, echoing similar comments made by other MMO developers in the past. “You have a lot of government regulation in countries such as China. You can’t just go in there - you need a government license, government stamps, a local partner to run your games... Korea has different tastes to Europe, too, and it’s a very competitive environment with many different existing products.”
North America is becoming a lucrative market for the company, but it has plans to make a bigger impact in the future. Perhaps most interesting is Gameforge’s push into emerging markets in countries such as South America, North Africa and Eastern Europe. Polish versions of the publisher’s games have proven to be particularly successful, and the exploding interest from Arabian nations has added a whole new dimension to free-to-play’s potential growth.
With that in mind, is the sky the limit for Gameforge? “Although we’re very excited about all of these different markets... there will always be a ceiling, even if you include all of the citizens of South Africa and the rest of the world,” van Husen concluded. “We are quite successful in South America right now, but already Brazil is starting to develop a very competent scene of competitors.
“The business model, and the global market for it, is getting bigger. But nobody is resting on their laurels. There is no hope for a free lunch, or a guaranteed home run, so easily in this market anymore. Everyone’s reaching higher, and out of that more and more players will appear to compete with.”