Speaking to a Chinese audience he recognized as pioneers in new game business models at GDC China on Tuesday, ex-Blizzard VP, Flagship CEO and Cryptic Studios design director Bill Roper discussed the challenges and changes in today's online gaming market.
"I've been involved in both some amazing successes and disheartening failures and both of those, I think there's a lot to learn from that," said Roper, before launching into a discussion of his personal history, including his successes at Blizzard and the disappointments of Hellgate: London.
The key to success, said Roper, is in catering to gamers with more than just content -- knowing "both the kind of game and how they want that game."
Roper's first trip to Asia came on the back of the success of StarCraft in Korea -- he went to Seoul in 2000.
"Even though I was only in Seoul for a few days, it was immediately apparent that gamers across the Pacific Ocean were very enthusiastic and dedicated about games... This was a time when the Western market and developers' exposure to Asian gamers and games was limited to console companies," he said.
He also admired the government's support of its fledgling domestic gaming industry. "That's something I wish we'd learn in the West -- we do have a lot of business opportunities... But very few are focused directly on gaming. I've always loved how there's a focus on gaming and recognizing that specifically."
Saying the Korean response to StarCraft amounted to a "surprise success" he gave Blizzard credit for taking that success and learning from it. The company's devotion to scope, polish, and accessibility, as well as tools and reasons for players to be social with one another, arose from that success, he said.
"Once we saw what gamers liked and how they played and how they wanted to get games, we did the smart thing -- we did the best to feed those desires," said Roper.
Not Following That Plan
However, though Blizzard's formula is well-recognized as working, Roper cautions it's no so easy to replicate. He'd know, given the fate of his own company, Flagship Studios, on the back of Hellgate: London.
"We had an idea for a game that got all of us very excited, so we went down the road of starting a new company and a new product," said Roper. "I wish I could stand here telling you we rose to great heights... But we didn't. But importantly, while we made our share of mistakes along the way, we learned from them."
Though the game was not an unmitigated disaster, said Roper, "our successes were overshadowed by a real anger from gamers when we didn't provide what they wanted, and as importantly, how they wanted it."
At the time of the game's launch, Roper's team pitched free-to-play as the business model for the game after observing Asia; this was rejected by Western publishing partners, resulting in the confusing hybrid model the game shipped with.
"We wanted to offer a free online play model and support the continuation of the game with microtransactions... At the time this was incredibly controversial with our publishing partners. The model was greatly unproven in the West," said Roper.
"That was the core downfall of Hellgate: London -- we should have chosen a single simple solution," Roper said. "It was more a failure of timing than anything else, in terms of not being able to take advantage of something that we had learned by looking at the Asian gaming market."
Fast-Forward Three Years
Said Roper, three years on, "the microtransaction model has made great strides in the U.S. and UK. Subscription models are in decline... The industry is expecting a huge shift."
While "many of these revenues are coming through the casual games space," said Roper, "Dungeons & Dragons Online is a prime example of a game that now gets held up... [as] the potential of this in the core gaming space."
"As a subscription game," said Roper, DDO "was on its last legs. They had nothing left to lose; they were going to be shutting down all their servers. So they decided to jump into the free-to-play concept fully committed."
The result? 500 percent increase in revenue in the first six months, turning the game "from a not viable product anymore, to a good product."
Turbine deserves a lot of credit, said Roper, but "my only issue is that I don't think it was an innovation -- it was the same thing that had been happening here for four years before that. And by tuning it for their game and their market, is where the success came."
While still at Cryptic, Roper wrote a proposal to turn Champions Online from subscription to F2P. "There was a lot of interest and support for that at Cryptic and they were driving to do it... I'm very happy to see that idea was finally supported by Atari and is in beta testing."
The Marriage of Game Design and Business Model
Like many, Roper sees it essential to consider F2P monetization as part of the core game design. He said that while the team had considered doing a free version of Hellgate as well as a subscription version, it would not have been possible for this very reason.
"First and foremost, the game must have a design that supports the model. The game must be segmented [into free content and paid content]... But the free players can't feel slighted in the process. There's an importance for us in that we have to make the game that way and recognize the differences in our market."
In the U.S., said Roper, "We're used to the all-you-can-eat model, but the current trend is to go a la carte. The idea... of paying for additional content as you need it has become more ideal in the U.S. and UK."
Thanks to innovations like iTunes and DLC on consoles, western gamers "have become used to and desirous of getting additional content for a reasonable price." Said Roper, "The games that have succeeded in this area are the ones that have been designed with the idea that they will sell additional content to players, and they ask players what kind of content they want."
But be careful -- "In the core gaming market, Western gamers will show up at your door and yell if they think something that you held back ... They will think you had it done but you held it back so you could sell it later." When it comes to considering the two elements, he said "I don't think you an look at one without the other anymore."
Approaching F2P as a Western developer used to subscriptions, "It's like when you're been in a relationship for a long time and you start dating again... You realize that the rules have changed."
And the same goes for getting funding for your game: "It is not enough anymore to just come and say you have a great idea." On the other hand, "you can't just say you have a great business model. You need to show as you're a developer you understand how the two pieces go together." You need to show "here's what I'm doing in the gam design that ties into that."
The Future of F2P
"As we move forward we need to continually look at what each other is doing," said Roper, as Eastern and Western markets experiment with new strategies. "Not every idea will translate, because there are wonderful differences in our cultures that will filter into our games."
However, said Roper, "Games are... a universal language. I have played with people from all over the world... We don't share exactly the same life experiences or culture, but we share a love of games and our desire to have fun playing them."
And further, "The creation of those games should be as universal as our love of playing them." And as creators move around the world and share their expertise with different teams, "we continue to learn and share with each other."