NCsoft quite likes Europe. The Korean MMO giant has been making a lot of noise across the continent in recent months.
In August it took to Gamescom to announce unique online adventure Wildstar, before revealing almost all the details for its anticipated Guild Wars sequel. And it gained a host of press coverage as a result. Guild Wars 2 then went to Eurogamer Expo, and was named game of the show. As PR goes, that’s not bad going.
“Europe is really important to Guild Wars 2,” says Randall Price, who works as SVP of global business and legal affairs at ArenaNet – the studio behind Guild Wars. “50 per cent of our Western sales are in Europe. That’s how much focus we want to give to this market, and UK is extremely important to that.”
The producer at NCsoft’s Carbine Studios Jeremy Gaffney was more unequivocal: “Europe rocks, it is freaking huge.”
STATE OF PLAY
A lot has changed in the MMO space since we last sat down with NCsoft. Free-to-play has become the norm, EA is planning to take on the entire market with Star Wars: The Old Republic, while the dominant World of Warcraft has seen a dip in its subscriber numbers. Is the sector still as vibrant as it once was?
“I think it is purely natural what you are seeing with World of Warcraft,” says Price.
“A lot of the things that we are doing with MMOs is making them much more accessible. We are now at a point where we are making combat fun. It is no longer about pressing one key over and over. We are creating these wonderful online worlds, with strong communities, and making them more attractive to a broader audience. You could say more games are becoming massive multiplayer games. We are completely bullish about it.”
Wildstar looks like it could be the sort of product that has a wider appeal. It is still a core RPG, but its combat, its animated style (it looks like a Pixar movie) and humour is likely to attract the broader gamer.
Gaffney adds:?“What is cool about the MMO industry is that it rewards good gameplay. As a developer you are supposed to create good content. In MMOs, gamers respond to that by continuing to play.”
In the world of MMOs, sequels are a rarity. Some of the most promising new products are entirely unique IPs – Wildstar amongst them.
In fact NCSoft has a reputation for developing entirely new brands.
“When we first launched Guild Wars it was something new, and Aion two years ago was a brand new IP,” says Véronique Lallier, MD of European publishing for NCsoft. “All of our companies are about creating new IP and immersive worlds.”
Gaffney adds: “The MMO space is a good state for new IP, it takes a long time to build them, fans are craving the next cool thing. The MMO industry – more than the traditional boxed games market where sequelitis comes into play – is somewhere where new IPs get checked out.”
In fact developing an MMO sequel can be the real challenge. Getting a fan of Zelda to buy the next game is pretty straightforward. But coaxing an MMO player to leave a world they’re still engaged with and upgrade is a different task entirely. Is this an challenge for Guild Wars?
“I don’t see it being an issue,” says Price. “There’s millions who’ve played Guild Wars and are surrounded by it, and they can’t wait for anything that we reveal about the next game.”
The publisher has yet to announce how it will charge customers for Wildstar, but consumers of Guild Wars 2 only need buy the box. All other revenue is generated via micro-transactions – much like the first title.
Price admits that one of the main reasons Guild Wars was such a success was because they “sold a box and maintained no subscription.” So are the days of the subscription model numbered?
“People do subscribe to things, like mobile phones, so there is room for subscription,” Lallier points out. “NCSoft is very good at proposing games and business models for each different territory. For instance in Korea consumers don’t buy the game, they just pay a subscription. In the West it is not so clear, everything is changing quickly. There is room for subscription if you have a very good game.”
For all the changes in the MMO space, one thing that has remained the same is its core platform – the PC. Successful massive online games in the console space are few and far between. But there is the sense that console gaming is getting there – albeit slowly.
“The console is built as a social experience,” continues Gaffney. “It is ten feet away from you, playing with your buddies. It is not what you do with an MMO. But there are things we can learn from console games, such as simplicity of gameplay combined with depth, that’s what the big MMOs are doing now. “There’s room to experiment on consoles and there will be successes.”
WHAT ABOUT MOBILE?
NCsoft recently purchased mobile specialists HotDog. Meanwhile, ArenaNet has its own extended experience team that is working on mobile. For all the talk of consoles, could the mobile market be the future platform for MMO developers?
“It is important for us to look at experiences beyond the PC,” says Lallier. “What is the platform for us? It is the internet. Any device that allows for internet should be able to work with our games.”
But for all the talk of new platforms, NCsoft’s focus right now is on its two big upcoming projects. Wildstar and Guild Wars 2 certainly look the business. But the MMO business is a tricky one. The gap between a smash hit and a flop is a small one. But with weaknesses starting to show in World of Warcraft’s armour, the NCsoft will hope one of its big two titles can be Europe’s next big MMO.
“We build a lot of MMOs,” concludes Gaffney. “We have experimented with a bunch of different business models, we’ve done games targeted at small areas, we’ve done mass market games. That helps. But it’s a hit based business. If you have a big success it’s a lot different to a medium success.
“But people are waiting for the next big thing. And we are all interested in being that next big thing.”