When it comes to massively multiplayer online games (MMOs), there’s World of Warcraft, and then there’s everything else. Since the roleplaying game first launched in 2004, it’s dominated the category, gaining as many as 12 million players at its peak and seen off countless rivals along the way.
It’s a juggernaut of gaming, and because it has players’ time and investment - and receives plenty of updates - it just keeps on going. Most developers aren’t competing in a zero sum environment, but the monthly subscription model and huge commitment needed to level up in an MMO mean that players don’t want to play or pay for a second one, let alone switch.
That’s been a problem for many contenders to the throne. BioWare’s blockbuster MMO, Star Wars: The Old Republic, launched in late 2011 and quickly acquired 1.5million paying subscribers, only to see that number drop into the six figures soon after: the creators of Mass Effect have struggled to attract hearts and minds since.
So when Cryptic Studios set out to make Neverwinter, an MMO set in the fantasy Forgotten Realm setting of other classic titles likes Baldur’s Gate which launched this week, the team knew from the get-go that they couldn’t compete directly. The answer? Make it free, Cryptic Studios chief operating officer and executive producer Craig Zinkievich tells Red Bull UK.
“We truly believe the traditional MMO box + subscription model is no longer valid in most markets and most cases. Free-to-play just makes more sense when compared to subscription,” he says.
“Think about it this way, as a gamer, what do you subscribe to? Maybe cable? Definitely phone...Internet, Netflix, Xbox Live, WoW? A dozen other things?”
During the team’s research, the studio surveyed 60,000 MMO players: 86 percent of them paid for one game, while only six percent paid for two.
“That means in order to reach 92 percent of the market, your subscription MMO has to be one of the two best games out there,” says Zinkievich.
“Having to beat those established games-as-a-service just to sustain oneself is downright crazy. So, no boxed subscriptions for us. It just doesn't make sense anymore.”
The Los Gatos, California team of 175 built Neverwinter from the ground up to be free to play, like many successful new mobile and tablet games, making it as easy as possible for people to download and start exploring the city of Neverwinter: as one of five classes, it’s up to you to unravel the mystery as to why hordes of the undead are rising and laying siege to the land of Faerûn.
“Free-to-play itself strips away all barriers to entry. There's no cost. There's no box,” says Zinkievich, though he admits the term also has negative connotations - low quality, lots of content locked away unless you fork out.
Neverwinter isn’t a nickel-and-diming sort of game that bullies you into paying to get ahead: you can progress all the way up to level 50 without having to hand over a penny.
“I understand that it carries a stigma, which was perhaps well-earned, but ours is also not the traditional pay-to-win free-to-play game. Everything we sell is entirely optional and, further, can be obtained with in-game currency...This is the first AAA MMORPG to be free-to-play at launch here in the West, built from the ground-up to be free.”
Zinkievich and his team have figured this out the hard way, however, after having to convert two previous MMOs, superhero RPG Champions Online and Star Trek Online, to free-to-play models after failing to pull in and keep enough paying players the WoW way.
“We realized that building and launching a free-to-play game from the start was definitely the way we wanted to go,” he says. “Make a fun game. If people want to pay for something, they will. Don't force it.”
Neverwinter, which has been in public beta since April, is not to be confused with another classic RPG series, Neverwinter Nights. “We're not trying to be Neverwinter Nights 3,” he says. “We're a very different game in the same universe. I hope that we're looked upon as fondly, certainly, but I have no expectation that we'll be directly compared.”
It’s not just because it’s an MMO, and the Neverwinter Nights games were single player adventures: Neverwinter stands out for its new feature which lets gamers create and share their own missions, LittleBigPlanet style.
“The Foundry allows players to create their own quests and campaigns and then directly integrate them into the persistent game world. No hassle, no digging through forums looking for install files and no having to set up private servers to check something new out.”
It’s hard to imagine Blizzard, the creators of World of Warcraft, turning to crowdsourcing to add more to the world of Azeroth, but that’s exactly how Cryptic hopes to make its mark with Neverwinter.
Would Cryptic also consider bringing Neverwinter to free-to-play’s natural home, the tablet in your bag and the phone in your pocket, we wonder? Zinkievich won’t rule it out. “We consider everything,” he says when pressed.
It would certainly help the Neverwinter team avoid a direct battle with Blizzard for gamers’ precious time, and as Zinkievich stresses, that’s the last thing they want.
“Frankly, we’re not trying to compete with World of Warcraft. Anyone whose goal is ‘lighting in a bottle’ is not being realistic,” he says.
“Don’t get me wrong, we’d love to have the success WoW earned over years of hard work. But, our immediate goal is simple and attainable: operate a fun game people like to play and want to come back to. We make that game free so, if it is fun, there's no reason not to play and come back.”
With 1.5 million players already doing just that during the beta phase alone, it looks like the team at Neverwinter might just have found their niche. Here’s hoping.