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MMO's Growing Popularity
Massively multiplayer online games have taken off in a big way in the West in recent years with titles like World of Warcraft capturing huge audiences and it seems many developers and publishers are now intent on grabbing a share of the growing pie. However in the Asian market MMO’s have been big business for a long time with literally millions of gamers leading a double life in their virtual world of choice.
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One of the main reasons MMO’s took off so notably in Asian markets is the prevalence of gamers with good broadband connections. Japan and South Korea in particular have higher broadband penetration than we do in the West, and this makes downloading large files and playing online a breeze. In emerging markets like Taiwan and China, console gaming is far less common and gaming as a leisure pursuit has only really taken off in the last ten years so most gamers in China will have their first gaming experience with an MMO.
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Free to Play
There are also major differences in the pricing structures for Asian MMO’s which aid massive uptake. The common model is for the game to be given away for free, this means gamers can download the full game client, create an account and start gaming without paying a penny. Companies make their money by introducing standard monthly fees after a free trial period or through the increasingly popular system of micro-payments.
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Micro-payments are essentially add-ons that people can buy for their MMO which offer anything from new avatar outfits to new game objects. Instead of paying a monthly fee or buying the game users can download the full game for free and choose to pay for small additional items usually at a very low price. This means user uptake tends to be very high because it costs nothing to play the game and so a large community, which is essential for any MMO to be truly successful, can spring up over night. Gamers who get really hooked by their MMO are happy to spend a bit of cash here and there for additional content and so the companies can still make a healthy profit although the set-up costs are undoubtedly much higher because the server network has to be in place for the virtual worlds to run.
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Alternative Pricing Good for Publishers
The subscription and micro-payment models are very attractive to developers and publishers who have seen dwindling profits due to widespread piracy and even the second hand games market. For that reason we are seeing these models emerge in the West now as many publishers trial different approaches hoping to emulate the Asian success story.
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A True Virtual World?
We are also seeing many large Asian MMO publishers like South Korean NCsoft moving into the Western market with titles like City of Heroes, Tabula Rasa and Guild Wars. Although there is no reason an MMO cannot be played by the same audience around the world there have traditionally been cultural differences which make different types of game popular in different territories and of course no title will succeed in a new territory without comprehensive localisation. However with Asian and Western companies now putting in much greater effort to win cross border appeal it may not be too long before we are all part of the same virtual world.