GamerDNA: A brief look at free to play games

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June 10th, 2009
GamerDNA: A brief look at free to play games
By Sanya Weathers for GamerDNA

When you're the market leader in MMO games, you can afford to do a little innovating – though not so much as to disturb or ruffle the customers you've already acquired. When you're making a top drawer MMO with thirty million dollars of other people's money, you can't afford to innovate. Refinements, sure. But no big risks.

So where's the innovation? These days, you see it in the free to play genre, and its close cousin, the "freemium" game. Both of these games make their money from microtransactions. In order to get a customer to fork over a microtransaction, these games require customers that are vested into the world.

But free to play means the player has invested nothing but the time spent downloading the product. And there's a perception among some industry professionals that "easy come, easy go."


Here at GamerDNA, we've been tracking many of the free to play games for a long time now, and we can shed a little light onto player behavior. We've chosen to focus this article on four titles: MapleStory, Shaiya, and to a lesser degree Runes of Magic, and Dream of Mirror Online (henceforth known as DOMO).

First of all, how do users engage with a free to play?

MapleStory has, by their own reckoning, 92 million registered accounts around the world, with six million of them here in North America. The game launched in Korea in 2003, and 2005 in the USA. Shaiya (published by Aeria at the end of 2007, same as DOMO) numbers are harder to pin down, because the publisher does not differentiate between titles. Their website says Aeria has five million players. Neither MapleStory or Shaiya has released any statement on how many of their accounts are active. Runes of Magic, being the newest entry of the four, announced in March of this year that they launched with 700K active players. But there have been no announcements since.

Here's the activity level among GamerDNA members:

There have been a number of GamerDNA features recently where we demonstrated that much of the market opportunity in the MMO space involves meeting niche needs. People check in with EVE every day, for example, but their playing sessions themselves are often short. That kind of behavior pattern is actually terribly lucrative for the subscription based game studio, because players are paying the subscription fee without sucking up lots of server resources. The reverse pattern – logging in rarely, but playing for long stretches when logged in – is also lucrative for the same reason. The worst subscriber for an MMO in terms of costs is someone who logs in for several hours every day... the exact customer most of these games design to capture.

(As a side note, has anyone identified the best kind of free to play subscriber? Is it someone who plays every day, and therefore has more chances to run into content that is only for people who pay? Or is it someone who only plays sporadically, and therefore is more interested in paying real money for virtual advancement? Just wondering.)

Our four free to play titles are showing no disconnect between the number of days their players log in per week and the number of hours per session. MapleStory players log in the least and for the shortest amount of time. Shaiya players log in the most often and play the longest. Even allowing for the much larger numbers playing this title, it's clear that it's not as sticky as some of the other titles in the niche.

Being sticky right off the bat is important for any title. We looked at how a specific sample of players engaged with the different games over the course of the first five weeks they played. MapleStory and Shaiya represented the extremes of the spectrum (Runes and DOMO were in between, and very similar), so we've focused on those two for this next illustration.

The number of times in a week that new players log in rises for the first three weeks, and then drops off. MapleStory in particular is a perfect curve that peaks in the middle. Playing time per session also peaks for MapleStory at the three week mark, and then drops dramatically. Shaiya, on the other hand, levels off in terms of number of sessions per week – and the number of hours per session trends upwards, leveling off at the fifth week at a fairly high figure for an MMO.

Just from these charts alone, I would guess that MapleStory is the very definition of "easy come, easy go." Looking at how devoted Shaiya players are to their game, with patterns very similar to major subscription MMO playstyles, are free to play consumers really all that different from typical gamers?

Here's what we did to see. We looked at all kinds of games to see what percentage (of our GamerDNA community as a whole) played them. Then we looked at which games were played by at least 10% of the populations of our four free to play titles. Finally, we calculated how much more likely our free to play consumers were to play these titles compared to the general population, and ranked the results.

(By "we," I mean Steve Sopp – the source of all the data behind every one of the GamerDNA features. These stories could not be told without him.)

There were eight titles that appeared on all four lists, and there is a definite pattern to them. In alphabetical order:
You can make a pretty good case for "playing a free to play game predisposes you to a willingness to play other free to play titles." But bear in mind the degree of likelihood varied wildly. Take Flyff, for example. MapleStory players were nearly three times more likely to play Flyff than the average GamerDNA member. Shaiya and Runes of Magic players were just shy of twice as likely. And DOMO players were more than four times as likely to play Flyff as the general population.

The reason for this variance is clear once you really explore those games, and that reason takes us back to the opening line of this article: Innovation. For all the surface similarity, these games have all tried something new with their design and gameplay. The games don't play the same way, and will therefore appeal very differently to the players of different games. Obvious truth, but if there's one thing we've learned about MMOs since GamerDNA's inception, truth is rarely obvious... or backed up with publicly available data.

The most interesting thing about the lists was actually the pattern breakers. For instance, DOMO players are ten times more likely than the average GamerDNA member to play Audition. The players of the other three games in our sample are no more likely than average to play such a thing. Runes of Magic customers are slightly more likely to play a subscription MMO than the average GamerDNA member. It's too early to say what this means for certain, besides the fact that the marketing for the title was definitely targeting the players of traditional MMOs. Runes of Magic players are five times more likely than the average player to boot up The Chronicles of Spellborn.

DOMO players are definitely an outlier. They are so much more likely to play their top thirty games compared to the baseline that the thirtieth game on the list (for them, #30 is Silkroad Online) is still being played two and a half times more than the general population. You can't say that being an Aeria customer is the deciding factor, either. The other Aeria game in our sample, Shaiya, is an outlier in the other direction. The bottom ten games on Shaiya's list barely register as outside the norm, with tiny variances.

We cannot draw too many firm conclusions from one look at four free to play titles. But I think it's safe to say that the free to play MMO marketplace's innovation is creating a degree of success previously unknown in the genre – and with the right combination of features, capable of racking up the same kind of numbers as traditional subscription products.
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