Free for All: Free-to-play and mobile at GDC Online, part 1

GDC Online information screenshot
GDC Online was fantastic this year. Really, it's great every year, but I found more bits of goodness this time around than ever before. It's simply my favorite convention, possibly because it's aimed more at press and devs than at fans. There's a wonderful lack of loudspeakers booming dance music and only a handful of booth babes. In other words, GDC Online is quieter, smaller and more professional than a typical fan convention. For a grumpy old gamer like yours truly, it's heaven. I can actually talk to developers without having to scream over music.

What did I find, and what excited me this year? A lot. We've already written up or recorded many interviews so far, but I wanted to take this week's Free for All and MMObility to recap the stuff that truly got me excited.

Let's get to it... there's simply too much to see!

Free for All Freetoplay and mobile at GDC Online, part 1
Innogames

I love Innogames. It offers so much variety of gameplay under one roof it's ridiculous. You're into strategy? Perfect; it has games like Grepolis and its newest title, Forge of Empires. The studio also offers semi-social games like the underrated Lagoonia, an intriguing island sandbox.

Let's start by talking a bit about Grepolis, one of the first two original Innogames titles. It sets players down on a secluded island but can easily become a free-for-all combat paradise. Innogames is slowly trying to catch all of its titles up to a cross-platform categorization, and Grepolis now has a toolbox available on app markets. While the actual app version is still coming, there is a mobile-optimized web version that can be accessed from mobile browsers. Tribal Wars, another early strategy title, also utilizes the web-optimized version, so be sure to check that out on the go.

Forge of Empires screenshot
Forge of Empires is a beautiful city-builder that allows players to move through the ages by accessing different technologies. This one is Innogames' most successful launch to date, and it's well-built for mid-core to casual audiences. The game really offers some varied content, from classic city-building to a turn-based combat experience. I've only just started playing with it, but I am already impressed by what I have found.

Kartuga screenshot
We were really at the meeting to talk Kartuga, a sea-faring MMO that Massively covered at E3 this year. It's Unity-based, which means it's a pretty game, and the combat is also fast-paced and a bit brutal. Players control customizable ships using either the keyboard or click-to-move. This is a great one for those who want an action-based game with intense 2-to-16-player battles.

While not really an MMO, Lagoonia was at GDC in full force. I enjoyed the game initially when it launched some time ago, but honestly, I found it a bit hard to get into. Now that the game's initial stages have been tweaked and the flow of the game has been smoothed out, I've been enjoying the heck out of it. Basically, you find yourself on a desert island after a plane crash, and you need to follow a series of linear quests to find other people, items, and eventually new technologies. I tend to follow my own path much of the time, something that the game encourages as well. Although the game was designed by a woman and designed "to be attractive to a woman" (whatever that means), I was surprised to hear that half of the players are male. I'm not sure I understand how wrecking on a desert island is something a woman might enjoy more than a man, but either way, the game is a blast.

PerBlue logo
PerBlue

I've talked before about the Parallel line of games from PerBlue, an indie developer that has grown by leaps and bounds over time. Not only did I meet with someone from the team, but the CEO, Justin Beck hosted a panel called Bootstrapping 101: How College Kids Built a Thriving Game Company in Under Three Years. Unfortunately I had to miss the panel, but I have seen many of the details and information from it. It's wonderful how quickly PerBlue has grown, but I can say that the reason is obvious: The team has stuck to its guns and put out a great product with a unique twist. All of the studio's titles are location-based mobile games that can be accessed in a number of ways. I can be at the local mall and check in to Parallel Kingdom, teleporting my character to my current location and finding all sorts of monsters to slay and treasure to find.

Parallel Mafia is similar, but the style of the game is much different. Instead of fantasy-based creatures and places, you will find cyberpunk, futuristic mafia thugs and massive weapons. Parallel Zombies takes things one step further and allows players to control their avatars with an on-screen joystick. Whereas Kingdom and Mafia are more like slower-paced strategy sandboxes, Parallel Zombies is a fast and furious shooter that still utilizes real-life locations.

Parallel Kingdom screenshot
Recently PerBlue has decided to reinvigorate the playerbase of its most popular and original title, Parallel Kingdom, by hosting specials and events like a screenshot contest and the introduction of new boss mobs. Kingdom is a pretty advanced game, allowing players to form actual cities based on their real-life locations, to fortify these areas against attack, and to join up with others in the hopes of growing the city further. The developer makes its money mostly by selling in-game swag and boasts 1.5 million user accounts and 15,000 daily active users. While the numbers continue to grow, I wonder what could stop the formerly tiny developer from eventually becoming a giant. I enjoy its later titles, but I'm glad that its developers recognize and nurture the playerbase for the original title that put them on the map.

The Dark Eye logo
Herokon Online

What can I say about Herokon Online? First, I had no idea it existed or that it came from the fantastic Dark Eye RPG world. You've heard of Drakensang Online? Well, that's the same IP, so expect some pretty great things from the Flash-based Herokon Online. Games like Herokon Online are why I get so excited to go to an event like GDC Online. It was an unexpected surprise, and I predict some pretty huge things for this one.

It's going to be a free-to-play title that boasts hand-painted artwork that is warm and unique. You'll find classic RPG elements like stats, leveling, and weapon loadouts, but you'll also find something that you really can't get in too many games, especially browser-based and mobile titles: Players will be able to download a tool, created by the developers, that will allow the creation of player-made missions and areas... for free. Once a player has created something and tested it out, he or she can upload it for approval to the official website. If it gets approved, it will become an actual part of the game, will hold to the standards of the developers, and will mean that there will always be fresh content to play through.

The game has character customization, beautiful artwork, and sweeping music. It's definitely a AAA mobile MMO and takes the genre one step further. The fact that it is based on The Dark Eye, one of the most popular fantasy IPs around, means there will be a lot of players and a massive set of lore to pull from. I watched a play-through video, and I have to say that the animations and character models were beautifully done. Eventually the developers will replace the character models with more three-dimensional versions, but the beautiful hand-painted artwork of the world and backgrounds will remain.

The game will feature some standard systems like leveling and questing but also allow players to bargain with NPCs, play tavern games, and pickpocket. After release, it will be available across all devices and utilizes GPU acceleration, so it will be suitable for high-resolution displays. Expect it by the end of the year.

Herokon Online screenshot
The was the last GDC Online in Austin this year, something that depresses the heck out of me. I love going to the event and love finding so many fantastic games from all genres, payment models, and markets. As a mobile and free-to-play fan, I have to say that the rest of the year and 2013 will be massive for this type of gaming. You can quote me on that.

I will continue my coverage in this week's MMObility. There was just too much to talk about for one article. I could have easily used each game as an entire story, but I wanted to get it all in while the time is right.

Each week, Free for All brings you ideas, news, and reviews from the world of free-to-play, indie, and import games -- a world that is often overlooked by gamers. Leave it to Beau Hindman to talk about the games you didn't know you wanted! Have an idea for a subject or a killer new game that no one has heard of? Send it to beau@massively.com!
This article was originally published on Massively.