Free-to-play games are just becoming viable in the U.S., but it’s a well established market in China, Korea and nations in the region. While there’s a temptation to bring over successful games from China, there are multiple considerations over what appeals to the American audience and what elements of the game have to be changed in localization. We talked to The9 Interactive Senior Marketing Analyst Timothy Powell about the company’s first U.S. game and what it

[a]list: How has Three Kingdoms Brawler performed in Asia so far?

Timothy Powell: What happened there, it launched in China and Taiwan two years ago. In the Asian region it’s popular, so we have Vietnamese and Korean versions and are working on the Thai version. So it’s doing very well in the Asian market. The peak CCU for the game was about 200,000 two months ago. If we could replicate it that success over there, that’s be great.

[a]list: What are some of the challenges in bringing over a title from China to the U.S.?

Timothy Powell: The localizing is the biggest challenge, bringing it to the English language, because we like to have long words and they have truncated characters, so we have to take that into account especially for character length. When you bring things over, often the developers have moved on to other things, so it’s a struggle to adequately get support sometimes. Also localization and the cultural difference that can be hit or miss: do [Westerns] care about the Three Kingdoms mythology They probably don’t know about holidays like Children’s Day, or the Dragon Boat festival when they put the lanterns on the water for a festival to celebrate their ancestors and we don’t do that over here. And translating that over here can be tricky, but so far we’re getting a good reception over here to the Chinese flavor of the game.

[a]list: I know the Three Kingdoms period is like the “King Arthur”legend of China, but how have you found familiarity in the U.S. to the mythology?

Timothy Powell: Like your reference to the Dark Ages, King Arthur and the Knights of the Roundtable. When dealing with events in human history… whenever you put war in it, it’s fun to interact with! I was surprised to find because [Romance of the Three Kingdoms] was introduced it in the ’90s… it was shocking how quickly how it was absorbed by war-gaming strategists. They liked the new take on turn-based strategy. As machines got more powerful, it just never died out and they accepted the changes in technology and its still going these days. MMOs and online games have been all the rage for the past six years and now they’re trying to simulate the success of the Romance of Three Kingdoms. It’s so successful in the Asian market, they decided, ‘lets bring it over here.’ People remember strong characters like Cao Cao because he was such an infamous tyrant and Lu Bu because he was a brutal warrior or Gong Yu, who was strong with the sword but only used it on those who deserved it. Everyone had their own elements and the English markets said, ‘This story has a soul behind it.’

The Shu, Wei and Wu have their own distinctiveness. Wei and later the Jin might be more inclined to be kind to the people where the Shu are more militaristic. So honestly we didn’t have to do much to familiarize people with it. There have been over 15 years for Three Kingdoms games in video game format and we’re jumping on the formula and so far, people seem to like it.

[a]list: Of course, Three Kingdoms Brawler is not a strategy game like the Romance of Three Kingdoms series…

Timothy Powell: It’s a 2.5 format beat-em’-up, more arcade feel, more like Final Fight and it’s all about player skill and so far its doing well over here.

[a]list: It’s interesting how that genre has started making its way online.

Timothy Powell: It’s a niche market, so because of that, you go with what people that are familiar with it at first. People who do follow this, they have not let it go for 15 plus years, so there’s an amazing trend with the followers. It’s amazing these games have this sort of following, and now it’s online. In the original [Romance of Three Kingdoms] you had to do courier missions and strategy and that’s realistic, but the normal player probably isn’t going to want to do that. This is more about the button mashing and flashy skills with a little bit of story and that’s part of the challenge for the beta, finding out what people want, and we’re noticing that people are skipping that dialog, so we’re shortening the story bits and make it more appropriate to players who are playing the game and trying to adjust it to what they like.

As of now it is ready to go, but we’re tweaking it, we’re planning to commercially launch in mid July. So changes will be ongoing. We want players to get in there bash the buttons!

[a]list: How has the beta for Three Kingdoms Brawler gone so far?

Timothy Powell: The players who are in the game are mostly positive about it. When you see the YouTube videos, the screenshots and the reviews, you’ll know it has a very distinct look. Today’s gamer is very well educated, so when they see these elements it’gs hit or miss for them; they either like it or not. It’s a 2.5D style side- scrolling brawler. Most games nowadays have a flashy 3D graphic engine that this game is far removed from; it’s not a AAA title like World of Warcraft, so it’s hit or miss, but the players who do like that like it have a shine for it.

[a]list: Markets are evolving right now… while in the West, everything was either subscription or direct purchase a few years ago, now we’re seeing things mature to the point where freemium games like this are more viable.

Timothy Powell: We have a more console or subscription based market over here, but it’s only within the past 3 years that people are becoming more educated about [F2P] and maybe they have fewer discretionary funds. [For freemium gamers] their level of patience is low. There’s lots of free entertainment on the internet and they figure ‘Why not do some game testing, enjoying the free beta version and save our money ‘ And that’s what they’ve been doing. For F2P game companies, we’re going to have to fight for their money, because their attitude is ‘Give me F2P and then we’ll buy the other stuff.’ It seems like there’s a steady decline in money for the console companies but a rise for online revenue over here, so The9 Interactive as allowed us to enter into the English market to see if that’s accurate and I think that is. [Free-to-play] lets you get your feet wet and if you like it, you’ll spend money on it. Otherwise there’s so much competition out there you won’t survive.

[a]list: It’s interesting because rumors were recently circulating that Microsoft was looking to enter the F2P space with the Xbox 360…

Timothy Powell: Microsoft doing that is a natural evolution of things. They’re fighting for the same time, and people are more mobile now, so it’s just a reflection of the bottom line. So the archaic format of the console might have worked in the ’80s and ’90s and ’00s, but you can expect things to change. And it makes sense Microsoft is thinking of going [in the F2P] direction.

It’s about what people desire, they’re moving to mobile, and the online game market is more geared to that growth than the console market.

[a]list: Social games are also a huge thing…

Timothy Powell: We have internal social games and would love to do more with that. It’s great, because during down time, you spend some of it on Facebook, and its opportunity to play something fun and easy.

[a]list: What are some of the methods that you use to promote the game?

Timothy Powell: We’re using cross promotional with other game companies, we’re working with Clever Communications and also we have other MMO review sites that are releasing PR for the demographic that are familiar with the sort of game. And we are using the event tie-in to get exposure; we’ve done it three time and have gotten average results. Now we’re finding out what gamers want from the game, and I don’t know about you, but I see a lot of banner saturation and it is becoming a barrier to entry; gamers don’t know what to click on. Maybe more YouTube exposure, perhaps twitter that we’re looking to get into more aggressively into. So we’re doing all these things to promote the game.

[a]list: There are a number of free-to-play Chinese MMOs on the market right now. How does The9 look to differentiate itself from the competition?

Timothy Powell: The obvious is the 200,000 concurrent users make a lot money in Asia and it doesn’t take millions [of dollars] to make, so the ROI should be low enough to make it worth the risk. They know that bringing any Asian game over to the U.S. you have to reduce the risk. There aren’t as many brawler games out there, and it has a sort of cutesy style, so that helps with differentiation. If you’ve ever played Final Fight, it sucked up quarters and made tons of money for Capcom back in the day. You can level up your equipment too. We’re kind of like jumping on each element to see what’s popular and try to not go away from what’s works; all these elements are popular with different gamers so it’s kind of a matter of hitting the right mark.

[a]list: I know there’s a different balance for games in the U.S. than in Asia – for instance, most Asian MMOs are “grind”heavy, but that doesn’t go over quite as well in the West because most Western gamers prefer to be more actively involved with combat.

Timothy Powell: That’s part of it, certainly, the gameplay balance. We’re tweaking that and I think we’re reaching a good level. I think of Three Kingdoms Brawler as being like a few different games. There’s Grand Chase, which is cutesy with cel-shaded sprites with adventure and PVP and Three Kingdoms Brawler will probably have heavy PVP involvement, our gamers in beta enjoyed that. There’s Metal Assault from Area Games and that has multiple simultaneous participants and you can upgrade your abilities so it’s similar to that, but this game is not about guns. There’s also Final Fight, which is are more straight forward button mashing brawler. So its a mixture of all three and that’s why we think it will be successful.

[a]list: Anything you’d like to conclude with?

Timothy Powell: We just want to put enjoyment in the game, so that players can have fun for hours for free, and if you have fun, hopefully you’ll come back to The9 brand in the future, recognize that as the difference.

[a]list: Timothy, thanks.

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