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Repost: Perfect World Entertainment: Interview with Jon Belliss and Craig Beers

When I wrote The Free to Play, Microtransaction Model, I did not expect companies to be contacting me. Pleasantly surprising though, Perfect World Entertainment contacted me and I had a chat with two Product Managers about their titles (Perfect World International and Ether Saga Online) and the Free to Play model. With every person I talk to, this model appears to becoming more prevalent among developers.

How did you get introduced to the Free to Play model?

I was playing World of Warcraft, but played a free to play game called Space Cowboy Online in my off time. I never envisioned paying for anything in the game though.

What is the history of free to play games?

It started in 2005-06, initially it was Asian companies coming to the United States and releasing titles. They were low quality, low customization, and contained low localization. Since then the free to play genre has come a long way. The titles are much higher quality.

Free to play is like this: You go to a movie theater and buy a ticket from the box office, regardless if you like the movie or not, you paid for the ticket. With free to play, you watch the movie first, and with pricing flexibility, only pay for what is used.

How will the video game industry as a whole respond to this new type of revenue stream?

It was impossible to get coverage in 2005 to 2007. It only really started in 2008 and more now in 2009. More people realize that free to play games aren’t bad in terms of quality. In 2009, continuing to 2010, there are more titles in the pipeline and more competitors. Developers will try to create a game that is even greater to subscription-based model games. Web browser based games are more for the casual free to play gamer. But people who play the free to play games in clients are more of the hardcore gamer.

What is the challenge for free to play to become a household name?

The challenge is for free to play companies to make money, they have to spend lots of money in advertising to gain notice. It’s kind of a Catch-22.

Why hasn’t free to play gain huge popularity?

There are negative perceptions. In the beginning, you had to pay to succeed in a game. Now you don’t have to pay to be successful. All the microtransactions now are for customization and convenience items. The player can still obtain them by playing through the game, but you have to work for it.

Could free to play work on consoles?

It’s working now, with PlayStation Network or Xbox Live you have demos, which is a kind of free to play because you get to test a game before you purchase it. New Street Fighter IV skins is a form of microtransactions. A MMO download for free game could work on consoles.

What is most important to a free to play title, graphics or gameplay?

You can have the most beautiful game, but if no one wants to play it, then it fails. Gameplay is the most important aspect of a free to play title.

How did the company get started?

Companies were planning on coming to the United States as we were setting up, we had contact with individuals in China and went over there to talk about titles. We saw the game quality and hooked up with Perfect World. We setup office in June and launched the first title in 2008. There were a lot of crappy free to play games then.

What separates Perfect World International from other free to play companies?

Perfect World International is focused on growth and the long-term.

Who do you market to, to play Perfect World Entertainment games?

We market to all demographics, new players to free to play and older players who have played free to play games before. We have portfolio titles that attract different demographics. The anime style, like in Ether Saga Online, attracts women and younger players.

Is the main goal for these games to play on the widest amount of user systems possible?

With Perfect World Entertainment titles, you can max out the graphics and make the game look beautiful, but the games are made to be fun on most systems. The specifications are not that high.

How do you keep people interested in these games?

We have weekly content updates and two to three large updates yearly.

Is there an optimal price point for items?

The in-game economy is like the real world economy and we identify the right price points.

Have there been problems with fraud?

It varies company to company. If the methods are there, people will do it, but we watch for it.

Any challenges in localization of the titles?

With Ether Saga Online, the voiceovers were originally in Chinese, and in the beta we changed them to English. That brought a negative response. Players said that the Chinese voices fit with the theme and we found that players were interested in the mythology. We play close attention to see what the players want. We have a multi-tiered translation system that ensures we have the best translation possible.

What is the challenge of bringing titles from Asia?

Many Asian companies are simply porting games, but the Western gaming community differs greatly. At Perfect World International, we have a library of titles to choose from Perfect World Entertainment. So we get to pick and choose the games that fit western tastes as well.

What’s your 2 year prediction of the free to play market?

Major developers and publishers will move toward the market. Battlefield Heroes and Free Realm could be hit-or-misses. From a Perfect World Entertainment perspective, we’re been changing the market, we’re going to change the way people think about free to play. Poor quality is a thing of the past.

People releasing quality content will survive and poor quality will die out. I think many of the initial players will be gone. Graphics will get better and the gameplay style will be more varied. Along with more niche games, like Atlantica Online, which is a turn-based strategy. There will be more free genres. The market right now is 90% Asian company releases, but it may become 50/50 Asian/Western.
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I also asked Jon Bellis (Product Manager of Perfect World International) and Craig Beers (Product Manager of Ether Saga Online) questions about their individual titles.

Perfect World International – Jon Belliss

Describe Perfect World Int. in 10 words

Free to Play game with Pay to Play Quality.

What separates Perfect World Int. from other MMORPGs, free to play or not?

Perfect World International
has a wide variety of features that help differentiate it from its direct and indirect competitors. First and foremost being a robust character customization system. During the character creation process, players are provided with an extensive toolset that allows them to customize every aspect of their character. The level of detail is incredible, allowing players to change the shape and sculpt their face to either mimic their favorite celebrity, or even recreate themselves in-game.

Other than the character creation process, PWI features an in-depth Territory War System. The world map is broken up into 44 different territories. Guilds compete for the ownership of these territories weekly Territory War matches that support up to eighty versus eighty.

How do microtransactions work inside Perfect World Int?

Players can purchase cash shop items in-game via a GUI or Cash Shop Interface. Additionally, players can purchase cash shop items from other players via an in-game auction house system, player vendor system, or traditional/normal trading.

Most notably, players can save up their dungeon loot, then proceed to the auction house and purchase our micro-transaction currency. This allows non-cash shop users to gain full access to all items in the cash shop without spending a dime.

How would you market the game to a non-MMO gamer?

If you mean in terms of messaging, I would say that PWI is a great game for non-MMO gamers. The game is easy to play; the style is completely different from traditional MMORPGs. The game world isn’t based in orcs and elves, it’s completely different from most other “Western” MMORPGs. So regardless of whether you love or hate MMORPGs, I highly recommend you try the new flavor that PWI provides.

How is the community response in Perfect World Int. to microtransactions?

The response has been incredible. Unfortunately, I can’t go into numbers regarding exactly how great the response has been. What I can say is that Free to Play gamers have been waiting for a high quality MMORPG to sink their teeth into, and people who are totally unfamiliar with the concept of Free to Play definitely find our waters to be warm enough to wet their feet in.

Ether Saga Online – Craig Beers

Describe Ether Saga Online in 10 words

An anime MMO that’s accessible and appealing to MMO players.

Has the art style changed the gameplay dynamics from Perfect World Int?

Any changes in gameplay mechanics hasn’t been the result of the different art style. However, the anime art style has changed how a player interacts and perceives the world. Since things are more cartoony, it allows us to strength the imagination to endless limits. All of the various monster models immediately clues you in that things are more wacky than in real life, and it’s a refreshing change of pace from the usual rats, wolves, orcs, etc found in typical MMOs. Additionally, we have crazy mounts like a donkey you ride backwards, helicopters made to look like a wooden boar, and even motorcycles on fire.

How does Ether Saga Online differ from other MMORPGs and/or Perfect World Int?

Ether Saga Online has several features that are unique or enhanced from other MMOs. First, there is an auto-route system. Click anywhere on the map, and your character will intelligently move to that location. It’s a vast improvement over the typical autorun system that will make your character jog in place when you hit a tree. It won’t play the game for you – you will be routed into areas with mobs that will attack you on sight. The auto-route system is also tied in with the quest system so you can route to quest NPCs and objectives.

The pet system is another aspect that makes ESO stand out from other MMOs. All classes have a combat pet, which level up and gain skills. Players can also meld pets together to increase their stats and abilities. Going hand in hand with the pet system is our transformation system. Obtaining a monster card allows the player to transform into that particular monster. Both the pets and transformations are useful in the game because there are nine monster types in the game, each with strengths/weaknesses against others. Players can pick the pet/card that would give the player an advantage in a fight.

Additionally, players can fight while mounted on ground mounts, and there are flying mounts that can be used everywhere on the map with no level restrictions. There are several other defining features for ESO that players will have to find out for themselves..

What draws players to Ether Saga Online?

The aesthetics is definitely one of the biggest draws to Ether Saga Online. Its anime style is appealing to a wide audience of players. Players who are either new to the MMO genre or turned off from other MMOs find ESO to be a breath of fresh air.

However, the game isn’t only meant for new MMO players. The gameplay has many layers with varying levels of complexity that are suitable for experienced MMO players. Tons of quests, instances, and the crafting system are all there for people who have played MMOs in the past.

Additionally, the pet system is one of the key draws as well. It’s fun to explore the world and capture all the monsters in the world. There’s a Pokemon-like aspect to the game that will attract another set of players who may not be interested in farming instances for gear and money. They can trade their pets to other players, opening a new market in the economy.

What are the future plans for Ether Saga Online?

There is a lot in store for ESO in the future. We’re announcing PVP instances for 6v6 matches. Players can join matches to win dominance points, used to purchase gear in the game. There will also be other rewards that will be announced at a later date. We will also be releasing PVE content in the form of new instances over the next few months. We also have plans to increase the level cap along with new quests and content this summer.

In short, while we can’t announce everything we’re working on, the future is bright for ESO players.

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I would like to thank Jon Belliss and Craig Beers for taking time out to talk to me and Laura Mustard, who found The Free to Play, Microtransaction Model interesting enough to contact me about it.

Check out Perfect World Entertainment.