[In this feature, Gamasutra speaks to CrowdStar, Bigpoint, and Gazillion about the opportunities and, in their opinions, increasing necessity to incorporate licensed content in free-to-play games, as a way to build engagement in a competitive marketplace.]
Free-to-play games and big licenses? Until recently, no one would have thought them a good marriage with the exception, perhaps, of kids' games. But some developers who once swore the only way to go was with original IP are having a change of heart.
Indie developer Three Rings, for instance -- a long-time proponent of original IP like its Puzzle Pirates, Spiral Knights, and Corpse Craft -- is working on a free-to-play online multiplayer version of the long-running BBC sci-fi TV show Dr. Who for release later this year.
What would make a developer swing 180 degrees and sign up for its first licensed IP?
Three Rings CEO Daniel James chose not to comment for this story.
However, in Bigpoint's case, the Hamburg, Germany-based developer needed a few blockbuster titles to penetrate the U.S. market... something with higher profiles than the non-licensed, free-to-play games it had released in Germany, like Zoomumba and Farmerama.
Given the fact that the company had been 70 percent-acquired by NBC Universal in 2008, developing F2P versions of "Battlestar Galactica" and "The Mummy" -- both Universal properties -- seemed like a natural.
According to Bigpoint founder and CEO Heiko Hubertz, gamers often abandon F2P games quickly if they don't like them immediately since they have paid nothing to try them.
"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," he says. "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."
In the case of Battlestar Galactica Online, for example, says Hubertz, people who are familiar with and are big fans of the franchise already know the Cylon civilization, they know the different spaceships, they recognize the original music score which is used extensively, and they may be anxious to know how the game plays out.
As it turns out, the space combat MMO became Bigpoint's best launch of all time, with two million registered users in under three months.
Hubertz stresses that, franchise aside, Bigpoint would never have been able to crack the U.S. browser market unless its premier American game had the high-quality and professional look of a console game, which is what U.S. gamers are used to playing.
"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," he says.
While Bigpoint chose Battlestar Galactica as its first license partially because its earlier hit, Dark Orbit, gave it some sci-fi gaming experience. The developer chose The Mummy as its second license mainly because it perceived user demographics to be 50/50 male/female.
"We were aware that females not only like to play F2P games but they also spend money on them," Hubertz adds. "So we decided that, after beginning with a male-oriented title, we would expand to something everybody might enjoy. Especially since The Mummy is also well-known in Asia as well as Europe. It's also much easier to sell virtual items in a fantasy game like The Mummy Online." The third-person isometric action-adventure F2P MMOG is scheduled to launch this fall.
Bigpoint plans to come out with several additional licensed games in 2012, including Universal Monsters, a third-person, multiplayer, action RPG now in early development that features Dracula, Frankenstein's monster, the Wolf Man, and other Universal-owned creatures. But, says Hubertz, Bigpoint won't restrict future titles to licenses.