US Market Gets Taste of South Korea's Free Computer Game Model

by VR Sreeraman on Oct 3 2008 5:57 PM

The US market, which is dominated by videogames sold on packaged disks or by online subscriptions, is slowly taking to free computer game play that is a rage in South Korean.

Seoul-based "free-to-play" computer game titan Nexon on Wednesday blasted into the US videogame arena with a "Combat Arms" online first-person shooter title that makes its cash from optional "micro-transactions" by players.

"Combat Arms had a great beta run, with players of all levels loving the fast-action FPS game play and in-game community features for ranking and challenging other players," said Nexon America spokesman Min Kim.

The game makes its money from players that buy animated helmets, outfits, emblems or other virtual items to customize in-game characters.

To keep the battlefield even, players earn experience or advanced weaponry by skill so people essentially can't pay for power.

"People can't buy uberguns to get a tremendous advantage," Kim said while demonstrating the game for AFP in San Francisco earlier this year.

US videogame powerhouse Electronic Arts (EA) has started investing in free play and is putting the finishing touches on a "Battlefield Heroes" war game supported by in-game transactions instead of up-front purchase prices.

"We expect it to be the world's largest PC (personal computer) action game," 'Battlefield Heroes' franchise executive producer Ben Cousins said while showing AFP the game recently at EA's offices in Northern California.

"It's a Web project as much as it is a game project. It's what you love and are addicted to about Facebook and what you love and are addicted to from 'Battlefield' smashed together."

Free online shooter games encourage multi-person play in which people form teams, share performance rankings and fight with or against each other.

In a bit of turn-about, EA is tailoring a version of "Battlefield Heroes" for the South Korea market. Early last year EA paid 105 million dollars for a 19 percent stake in Seoul-based online gaming company Neowiz.

Nexon introduced its hot online offering "Maple Story" to the US in 2005 and saw annual revenues here triple after it began selling pre-paid game cards in US stores two years later.

Kim says people prefer prepaid cards to tying credit cards to ongoing subscriptions to online role-playing games as is the case with popular "World of Warcraft."

Kim says personal computers have become a natural gaming forum as people spend massive amounts of time online at social websites such as Facebook, MySpace and YouTube.

"As people live more in front of their computers they are looking for other ways to interact online," Kim said.

Free games are reportedly played by more than a third of South Korea's population.

"I don't think we are going to get more than a third of North Americans playing our games, but I think there will be some pretty big numbers," Kim said.

"We have those big boys taking our business model and fleshing it out in a Western way."

EA says it believes "Battlefield Heroes" will be a "cross-over game" that lures new people into videogames.

Startups and established game makers including Japanese goliath Sony are venturing into the free computer game market, according to DFC Intelligence analyst David Cole.

"It looks like it could be very big," Cole told AFP.

"It's one of the things everybody seems to be looking at. The challenge is it is a very new model and it remains to be seen whether customers used to a free model will be tight when it comes to actually spending money on it."

The free play model is tempting in a US market where packaged video games typically sell for 60 dollars each but has to compete with gamers devoted to consoles, according to Cole.

"Obviously Nexon has been the biggest success with the model so people are looking at them as a potential leader," Cole said.

The free play model "changed everything" about designing a computer game because the program needs to be simple enough for typical machines and inexperienced players, according to Cousins.

"The game needed to be easier to get into," Cousins said of 'Battlefield Heroes.'

"It's a bit more forgiving than a 'Call of Duty 4' where you go around a corner and get shot dead. Packaged goods are great, but we also need to modernize."