Interviews

Interviews
Interview: Acclaim CEO Howard Marks and Free-to-Play MMOs

Dana Massey | 27 Dec 2007 20:51
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9Dragons
9Dragons

For game analysts, journalists and fans, companies like Acclaim are often hard to get a handle on. Since the company's rebirth in 2005, CEO Howard Marks has set out to bring a traditionally Eastern vision of MMORPG business practices to the Western market. He's on the vanguard of a new trend in the genre, but one that eschews the traditional measures of success. People can't count box sales, Acclaim's games don't sit in Wal-Mart and there are no subscription numbers to speak of, the games are not only free to download, but free to play. Yet, despite their lack of press and sexy statistics, Acclaim and a half dozen other companies have carved out extremely profitable games that reach far more players than the average MMO people see on the shelf at GameStop.

CEO Howard Marks recently took the time to talk to us about his company, its four games and how they've helped bring variety to the business of MMOs in North America and Europe.

"[Our business model] is not yet, I would say, mainstream," Marks said. His games all follow a single motto, they're free-to-play. It's a marketing buzz word that sounds great, but obviously doesn't mean Acclaim runs a charity organization.

"In general, people get the concept that we need to make some money and the ads in the game support the gameplay," Marks noted.

What "free-to-play" really means is that all Acclaim's games are free to download and can be played without the player ever laying down a dime. In 2Moons, for example, the company makes money through in-game advertising that appears in the user interface. In 9Dragons, players can play for free, but also can buy upgrades and customization items securely through Acclaim.

Marks emphasized through that the company is committed to actual free-to-play. One common consumer complaint with the model is that while some games advertise their games as such, many build in an artificial gameplay wall where a player basically is forced to buy items or coin to progress in the game. He says that none of Acclaim's games do this, nor will there ever be any artificial walls.

2Moons
2Moons

The model has been the standard in South Korea and across Asia for several generations of games, but North America and Europe have steadfastly stuck to a box sale, followed by a monthly subscription fee. Both systems have merits - just ask Blizzard - but over the last several years, the number of new and successful subscription MMOs has dwindled, while the less visible free-to-play market has steadfastly carved out a large niche.

"It's getting there, you have Runescape, Dofus, MapleStory," said Marks, listing off there of the most successful examples of this model. Each game has millions of players and embraces some form of free-to-play. Of the above, only Runescape has a subscription option, but it is combined with free-to-play. By contrast, no pure subscription based-game other than World of Warcraft - and while it boasts 9.5 million players, many of them are in Asia and not under the subscription model - has cracked the one-million mark.

Acclaim has carved out its niche through the adaptation of Eastern games for Western audiences. Their two major MMORPGs, 9Dragons and 2Moons, were both originally South Korean. Unlike many of their competitors though, Acclaim is a fully Western company, based in California. Marks often clarifies that his company fully adapts these games, they don't just translate the words, they hire North American designers and writers to tweak the mechanics and re-write the stories.

2Moons is the most traditional of Acclaim's four MMOs and entered full service only three months ago. Since then, it hasn't received a lot of press, but the numbers dwarf those of many games that have. It has had over one-million registered players in three months. But therein lies the problem for analysts. That doesn't mean there are a million players actually playing, simple a million people who have registered and could have played. Marks said that roughly 10% of registered accounts are active players, but that is still 100,000 players, which is a number many subscription-based titles would love to have.

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