The Asian Free MMO invasion

There was a time in our history when we thought that Europe, and later, America, were the leading powers of the world in mostly about anything, from military to art and from technology to culture. Unfortunately, reality showed us again and again that we were wrong. From the hordes of Genghis Khan to the high tech society of our days, Asia has proven to be more than able to challenge the western world.

This goes for the gaming industry too. For example, most of the nowadays consoles are Asian… Sony PlayStation 3 and PSP, Nintendo DS and Wii, and so on. As for the rest, they’re all manufactured there anyway. So, it might seem obvious that games themselves are mostly made in the East. Well, for some reason these last outposts of our digital life are still standing. Now let’s try and find out why…

You have to agree that lately, Asian commercial and free MMOs have utterly invaded the market. If you take a look at a list with available games, more than half of them originate from Korea, China or another country around those. Even so, the ones made in the west are still holding up. Unlike technology, which is almost the same anywhere in the world, games are a form of art. Depending on culture, there are certain stereotypes that people are fond of and others that are not too popular. This also happens with Asian games. While the rest of the world would like to see elves and orcs along with gangsters and Star-Wars-like sci-fi, the eastern world is rather different. As you might have noticed, themes like history, manga, along with martial arts and Taoists are very popular.

Of course, it doesn’t mean that there are no exceptions. You can bet there are plenty of Koreans that play WoW because they like it and not just to farm gold, and Europeans who are especially fond of manga culture (myself included) or Chinese ancient history. It’s just that, in general, people in these two main areas have different expectations for a game.

Numbers don’t always mean everything (actually almost never). So the high amount of MMOs coming from the Orient isn’t enough to turn the tables in their favor. One reason for this is quality. Most of them are free to play MMOs with an item mall generating all revenues. There’s no client to buy, no monthly fee to pay, basically no certain future income. That’s why the budget and schedule for many of these MMOs are many times pretty tight. How many times have you not seen games launched with an “open beta” that stay that way for very long, even years sometimes, before they have their official launch? The reason this happens is that in order to finish it, money is needed, and to raise money, it must be squeezed out of customers – you.

Make no mistake though, there are exceptions. Very “western” games, with budgets of millions of dollars have failed miserably, like Age of Conan, for example, which was almost unplayable at launch, and only recently, after many updates, reached the expected quality. On the other side of the world, Aion proved that Asia also can make high quality MMORPG games.

When there are so many games out there, approaching about the same theme, it’s impossible for all to be original. Actually, what really happens is the opposite. There are so many free MMO games looking about the same that sometimes makes you wonder why they have different names. Surprisingly, even these can be very much alike: Heroes of the Three Kingdoms, Kingdom Heroes and Three Kingdoms Online are three new or about to be launched MMOs. All of them are approaching the same historical theme of ancient China, have almost the same name and almost certainly are very much alike regarding the game itself. Of course, that’s not all. Once eastern game developers realized they need a different recipe to “conquer” the world, all they had to do was to copy one or two successful games. So now, not only many of these games are much alike, but they even copy ideas.

OK, by now we basically destroyed Asian games and I’m going to be accused of racism. Before turning the mob against me, know this. Despite that many Asian games are deeply flawed and high in numbers, there are still people who play them. Mainly because they have nothing to lose. As you probably know, most of the games developed by Asian companies are F2P games with an item mall. So giving it a try, no matter how awful friends tell you the game is, can’t hurt. Who knows, maybe you’ll like it. And then you want to become better, finally spending a dime in the item mall to give you an edge, thus keeping the game alive. If the game is a clone of a famous expensive game, that’s a bonus.

Lack of quality, combined with a low playing cost might give eastern games even more advantages. Generally, if you can’t afford to pay a monthly fee for a MMO, it is unlikely that you have a high end PC. So instead of playing games that require a lot of resources, those with older graphics (some even 2D) are ideal. If we take into account that there are a lot of people in this situation, cheap, simple online games get themselves a solid player-base. If they don’t spend money on a monthly fee, it doesn’t mean they are not going to spend any, just a little less. The game production and maintenance also costs less, so a profit is almost certain. The high number of games, although considered a disadvantage from one point of view, might be an advantage from the other, simply because there’s a lot to choose from. Even with a lower quality, the more diverse the offer, the greater the chances of finding something to match your expectations. And since anybody can try them for free, the only cost is your time.

At the moment, the entire MMO world is changing. If a few years ago, free to play (also born in Asia) was considered a mistake and about to fail, nowadays more and more games are switching sides, P2P becoming less and less popular. Even titles like Dungeons and Dragons Online: Eberron Unlimited and The Lord of the Rings Online are doing. There are also rumors that World of Warcraft, the king of P2P, and Star Trek Online are studying the free to play model. The same happens with eastern games which are considered by many just money milking cows. But the truth is that, as in many aspects (economic, social, cultural, etc), Asia is becoming more and more influential and just like the F2P vs P2P war, the battle between oriental MMOs and occidental ones is one worth watching. Beware of the Asian invasion…

by Sicaru Adrian

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