Free-to-play MMO magnate Perfect World Entertainment announced last month that it was launching Arc
, a digital distribution platform dedicated to free online games.
Much like Steam or Outspark's moribund Flint
platform, Arc spans PC and mobile devices with a standalone client, a friends list, and a digital storefront with a payment system -- while all of the games on Arc are free-to-play, most have in-game purchasing systems, and Perfect World means to streamline the process by letting people use a payment method tied directly to their Arc account to buy in-game currency and items.
The idea is to bundle up the Chinese company’s catalog of titles -- Neverwinter
, Star Trek Online
and the like -- and lump them all together on a single unified client, where players of one game are more likely to stumble upon a new title that looks interesting and give it a try.
In Perfect World’s eyes, just leading someone to create an account in a new game is a success because it extends the amount of time they're likely to spend playing games on Arc, which increases the odds that they'll spend money on the platform. Thus, the company is looking to distribute as many third-party free-to-play games on its platform as it can in order to beef up its content library and give players more reasons to launch Arc.
Feeding the machine
“It’s a very symbiotic relationship that we’re trying to build with our partners,” Arc senior product manager Mark Hill tells me in a recent phone conversation. “They get access to our community of dedicated online game players, and in return we get more content on our platform.”
Hill says Perfect World is finding it harder than ever to hold the attention of its players as high-quality free-to-play games become more popular and more numerous.
"League of Legends
, Dota 2
...three of the biggest and the best games in the world right now are free-to-play," says Hill. "Free-to-play game are getting
"Free-to-play game players have more and better options, so its harder than it ever was before to keep their attention."
better, there are more places for people to play them, and the marketing for those games is becoming much more effective."
Perfect World is feeling the pressure. "We need to constantly be setting up those newer games, that newer content," says Hill, because free-to-play players tend to move between different free-to-play games in small groups as their friends get bored of old games or get sucked into new ones. "Once Neverwinter
players start looking for something new, we need to push them into something even newer. Even if a game has been out for a while, like Path of Exile
, it’s still something we want on Arc."
So Perfect World is trying to entice developers into cutting deals to put their free-to-play games on the platform, offering them access to things like basic analytics, payment processing and community management tools, Arc's dedicated marketing budget and it's millions-strong stable of users.
"A lot of these guys are just developers," says Hill. "They don’t have all these marketing tools, they may not want to build their own billing platform, so we’re like...we’ve already built all that, let’s open it up to them and we can expose their games to the specific players they’re looking to find."
The company has already cut deals to distribute games like APB: Reloaded
and Path of Exile
through Arc, and Hill tells me that the platform has been remarkably effective at encouraging the kind of player cross-pollination between games that Perfect World has been chasing for years.
“Before Arc, between 2 and 5 percent -- closer to 2 percent -- of all Perfect World players had ever logged into more than one Perfect World game, which was really too low,” says Hill. “Of the new players that have joined Arc since we launched it [in beta] last year, 25 to 30 percent have played more than one game.”
The disparity isn't quite so striking when you consider that his pre-Arc figure likely accounts for the behavior of tens of millions of players over roughly five years, while the post-Arc percentage reveals the behavior of far fewer people over only seven months or so.
Still, it seems likely that a free-to-play game will see a notable increase in player signups if it gets featured on the front page of Arc for a few days, or advertised to Arc users via targeted emails, something that Hill says Perfect World hasn't done yet and isn't interested in doing -- as long as the rate of player cross-pollination remains high.
And it's only going to get harder for new free-to-play games to get discovered, because as the market continues to grow at a remarkable pace
more and more big names like Blizzard and Bethesda
are going to get involved. Hill hopes that launching Arc will keep Perfect World -- and its developer partners -- afloat in the rising tides of the free-to-play market.
"Free-to-play game players have more and better options, so its harder than it ever was before to keep their attention," says Hill. "But there are few, if any, well-serviced platforms out there that target that audience; we hope to succeed by building one and putting all of these games in front of all our players."