In an online game panel at San Francisco's ongoing MI6 marketing conference featuring representatives of Three Rings, Nexon, and Outspark, Gaia's Craig Sherman quipping that, compared to the 800 million teenagers willing and able to play online games, World of Warcraft's claim to 10 million players was "not a success."
The panel brought together Daniel James of Three Rings (Puzzle Pirates), Andrew Sheppard of Outspark (Fiesta), Min Kim of Nexon (MapleStory) and Craig Sherman of virtual world Gaia.
The session was kicked off by moderator Mark Friedler of BioGraph Games - noting that in the business race between console games and virtual worlds, the latter was more "long tail," adding that there are Gaia employees whose sole job it is to open snail mail envelopes full of cash people send for in-game items.
Sherman explained that Gaia was in between a social network and a game, with full friend networking as a virtual space with an economy. "It feels like a platform for creativity and for hanging out with your friends," he said. "It's like the 21st century version of a mall."
Friedler asked the panel how their business model differed from retail products, with Nexon's Kim saying free-to-play was still not yet mainstream in the U.S. like it is in Asia, and is often associated with lower quality.
"It's really about educating them in the business model," said Kim. "We're not at the mercy of the retailers, so we can market on our terms."
Three Rings' James added that the user subscription model was one of the biggest differences, but added that "we believe it to be the superior business model going forward."
But, Friedler asked, how do you market free games? James answered that it was a challenge, and that online portals in the U.S. largely focused on $20 downloadable games, not virtual worlds. On top of that, Three Rings recently put out Puzzle Pirates at retail with Ubisoft, but didn't see much success.
Kim added that the ongoing and real-time nature of online games means developers can adjust campaigns over time - rather than a single static launch campaign. Sherman added that the multiplayer aspect helps enormously with networked and word-of-mouth campaigns.
Moving on to what the panelists were doing to drive stickiness and revenue per user, the panel noted that the word 'casual' was one that didn't get used much around their respective offices.
Said James, "It's casual in terms of accessibility and getting into the experience, but once you're there... it's not exactly casual," with Kim saying Nexon had stopped using the word because "...we think it's dangerous."
Sherman said Gaia actually might be a little more casual than the other panelists' work, adding that spaces like Gaia's were "a little less immersive; you can multitask and do other things while using them." They had the potential to be bigger, he added but also probably less monetizable.
But, he offered, compared to a high budget game like World of Warcraft with its player base of some 10 million people: "There are 800 million teens in the world. That's not a success."
One important aspect of that audience, though, said the panel, was their financial limitations. Said Kim, "There's a whole audience of tweens and teens out there who want to engage, but don't have access to plastic," adding that free-to-play games have room to grow there.
Sherman agreed, concluding, "Free-to-play online worlds are the future."
[UPDATE: A quotation previously attributed to Outspark's Andrew Sheppard was in fact from Gaia's Craig Sherman. The story has been updated to reflect this.]