While free-to-play has been the primary business model in Asia for online games the past several years, the West has started to catch up rapidly. Now, so-called freemium games are starting to rise from the ashes of previously subscription-only MMORPGs, one of which is City of Heroes. We talked with Ross Borden Senior VP of Brand & Business Strategy at NCsoft about the new City of Heroes Freedom, promoted in part by this Ayzenberg Group produced trailer!
[a]list: What are you general thoughts on the free-to-play trend which is currently sweeping through the industry.
Ross Borden: Free-to-play online games have been around in the West for several years now but it wasn’t until more recently that we started to see the first subscription-based massively multiplayer online games (MMOs) change their business models or announce upcoming free to play MMOs. We had our first internal discussions about City of Heroes offering a free to play component back in 2007 or 2008, but to be honest it represented too much of a risk at the time because MMO customers had not accepted it yet.
It wasn’t until we had more data roughly a year and a half ago that we felt comfortable making the decision to change. And it wasn’t a quick fix or flip of a switch for City of Heroes. From our own recent successes, we know that it takes an extraordinary amount of planning and work to pull it off well.
[a]list: Do you feel that many NCsoft properties will look towards “freemium” as a primary option from launch?
Ross Borden: Well first of all, every MMO is unique and we don’t believe that “one size fits all” so I can’t generalize for all of NCsoft. But certainly as a publisher we recognize that the MMO space has evolved from only a year or two ago.
For City of Heroes, our primary focus has been and always will be, our fans. Our passionate fans have been with us through thick and thin, and this new business model provides them with options on how they choose to experience the best super hero game on the market. And for new players, the more than seven years of content we’re making available to them for free through Freedom is just a taste of the content that’s to come. The new content and our dedication to our fans are just two of the reasons we feel players will continue to enjoy City of Heroes content for years to come and consider upgrading to VIP subscribers!
[a]list: What ways in making the game free do you feel like City of Heroes Freedom will actually make the game better?
Ross Borden: The game is definitely better than ever. The new model allows us to focus on content and customer experience, delivering more content that’s specific to player interests while providing even more value to our existing VIP Players. It’s even easier to create your own Hero and Villain now. We have introduced a new character creator and a new tutorial that teaches players how to play more organically. With our new Quick Downloader, you can start creating your character within the first 5 minutes of installing the game (as you may know, due to their client-size, it can often take hours to jump into a new MMO). And now that we offer both a free and subscription option, cost is no longer a barrier in playing the game with all of your friends.
[a]list: Make a pitch to me on what City of Heroes Freedom offers that the competition does not.
Ross Borden: City of Heroes used to be the only superhero MMO, and we’ve seen a lot of competition in recent years, yet we still remain the most popular and feature-rich. We made this change from a position of leadership within the superhero MMO genre. We did it to make a successful game even better. I can’t speak for the competition, but we spent well over a year planning the game and service, both for the launch itself and for its ongoing life well beyond launch. Rather than pitching you, we invite you to come check it out for yourself. It’s free!
[a]list: How will you be looking to promote the launch of City of Heroes Freedom?
Ross Borden: We are launching City of Heroes Freedom in stages and also taking an organic approach to promoting it. After our two week VIP head start, we began to let free players into the game, and we brought back our former players under a new “Premium” player status, which comes with additional benefits. Our next phase is our advertising and search campaigns which are about to begin. Ultimately, though, we believe that word-of-mouth will be the most powerful source of ongoing promotion. We have a launched a new Refer-a-Friend program that rewards players and their friends who they refer into the game with 500 Paragon Points each. They can use these in the Paragon Market to buy cool new powers, costumes, etc.
[a]list: What are the player benefits to the a la carte download option?
Ross Borden: You have the freedom to choose the features you want. Our Paragon Market is quite robust with several hundred individual items ranging from costumes, to powers, to services, and consumables. Previously, when we introduced new costume sets, you had to get every piece in the set. It was a tough choice for some of our players because if they wanted just the cape or the gloves, they had to pay more than they wanted to. Now they can get exactly what they want.
[a]list: Is there any chance that Aion might switch over to a similar business model?
Ross Borden: I guess there’s a chance that any MMO could change their business model in the future, but like I said, we developed our strategy for City of Heroes around what’s best for our players, and we couldn’t be happier with their reaction since Freedom launch.
[a]list: How have you talked with your existing community and let them know they aren’t being left behind and that, in fact, things will be better for them?
Ross Borden: We could not have launched Freedom without our community’s support. The entire model was based on the concept of “how can we make the game better for existing customer’s first.” From the very first day of announcement, we were in constant communications with our players on our forums, Facebook, Ustream and Producer’s Letters. In fact, a few months before the announcement, we held a focus group at the studio with some of our players. We shared our plans with them, and received great feedback and suggestions which were directly incorporated into our launch and ongoing plans.
[a]list: Ross, thanks.
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