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A bumper year for Cryptic Studios the MMO specialists behind Star Trek Online and Champions Online has encouraged owner Atari to shift its focus to the online market.
As reported by IndustryGamer, Atari's half year financial report has revealed a worrying slump for the publisher. Revenues are down 60 per cent to 29.6 million compared to 68.5 million over the same period last year.
The only good news was a strong showing for its online division with revenues soaring to 12.9 million from 1.8 million in 2009, largely thanks to Cryptic Studios' efforts.
Duly, Atari has announced it's planning to invest heavily in online gaming to address the decline. It has Asteroids Online, Deer Hunter Online and a new Neverwinter title from Cryptic all lined up, as well as Atari Games Online a new initiative set up to develop online casual and social games.
A new free-to-play strategy for Champions Online also goes live next year, with similar plans being considered for Star Trek Online.
Among more traditional titles slated for release from Atari over the next 12 months are Test Drive Unlimited 2 and Star Raiders for the PC, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, and The Witcher 2 for PC.
If you want Star Trek Online to be free-to-play then you had better jolly well say so, Cryptic boss Jack Emmert has told Eurogamer, because right now that decision hangs in the balance.
"I'm sure people are wondering whether we'll do it with Star Trek and the question is really how well it does for Champions," explained Emmert. "Does it work or doesn't it?
"We're not sold one way or the other with Star Trek yet. If people want Star Trek to go free-to-play then get in and play Champions and help make it a great success, because that would send a strong message."
"If we did Turbine's level of success that would certainly merit the discussion!"
But, he added: "There are more people than just I on that decision and I can't begin to say it would be an automatic 'Yes, we'd do it.'"
Champions Online will turn free-to-play next year. Why? Because Turbine made loads of money relaunching Dungeons & Dragons Online as F2P and found success with Lord of the Rings Online, too, which turned free-to-play in Europe this week.
"We hope for a success as big as DDO," Emmert enthused. "That would be great - but I wouldn't say we're betting on it.
"In other words, I'm not going to say we'll do or die if we don't get five times our revenue or whatever the stats were that Turbine did. We're just hoping to open it up and increase the fanbase, and we'll just wait and see - I'd love it if we got their results, but hey, if that doesn't happen it doesn't happen."
Video: Free-to-play too?
Champions Online turning free-to-play means there will be two ways to experience the game: as a Silver member or as a Gold member.
Gold members are existing subscribers who will pay $14.99 a month. Silver members, on the other hand, represent the free-to-play side of the game. Silver members have limitations on character class, costumes, and character slots - "all that kind of stuff". But they can download Champions Online and adventure from zero to superhero without spending a penny or a nickel or a galleon or whatever you use.
Of course there's the option to splash some cash if you so choose, picking content, items and buffs "a la carte" from the in-game C-Store.
Note, however, that if you're a subscriber-turned-Silver member then you'll have to pay to move to a Silver server. "You have to pay to transfer your characters over or you could just start from scratch again," revealed Emmert.
Gold members will have access to some areas that Silver members do not. But apparently the two sets of members can play Champions Online together. "We don't want to disallow that by any stretch."
He reckons the reaction so far to the Champions Online news has been "super great" by the "vast majority", although there have been a "few snarky comments".
"I'm hoping lots of new people would give the game a chance that perhaps didn't even look at it the very first time because it was a subscription MMO," Emmert said. "Naturally I expect a lot more people to come in - we believe strongly that the game was good at launch and even better a year later - and that those people decide to stay around and play in the world. "
Champions Online received 6/10 on Eurogamer at launch last September. But today Emmert reckons it's the best superhero MMO on the market - "very much better game than City of Heroes ever was".
"But hey, that's just my own particular gameplay style. I created City of Heroes so if anything I'm insulting myself! That's no slight against anyone but me," he said.
"Nobody sits down and makes games that aren't popular on purpose. You assume it's going to get 9/10, even though there are mistakes. If you told me that somebody would give Champions 4/10, I would have said to you, 'You're crazy! Who in the world would give Champions 4/10? That's for games that don't even run!' I think WWII Online got better than that.
"But it's a different marketplace," he said. "It's an incredibly demanding space now, and what was acceptable five years ago is not even worth discussing."
Turning Champions Online free-to-play is one idea Cryptic Studios has had to spruce up its MMO portfolio. The other: user-generated content. This will appear first in Star Trek Online, so will it carry over into Champions Online?
"Ultimately, yeah," said Emmert. "Eventually we would like to do it.
"User-generated content has always been part of our strategic plan for years and years and years. Ultimately I'd like to have it in every game we do in one version or another."
That doesn't mean that Cryptic's developers will simply abandon Star Trek Online and Champions Online to the community though. "No, no," Emmert insisted. "We'll still continue making content. It's just that now you've got more content to choose from. You've got the stuff created by the developers as well as the stuff created by your friends, other people and so forth."
Star Trek Online's user-generated content system is undergoing beta testing now. For existing games - and even for new project Neverwinter - UGC and F2P are on the cards. And Cryptic 3.0, as Emmert called it, has more ideas up its sleeves - several unannounced projects, for starters.
"A lot of our innovation is going to be coming in games that haven't been released yet. There are still things under development that we're working on at Cryptic.
"There's a project that I'm more involved with the design than I have been in a long time than anything," he added. "Something that's close to my heart. And so that's very exciting."
"It is definitely not fantasy-based. I can say that. It is something that's pretty exciting. It's under wraps and hopefully we can talk about it soon."
World of Warcraft has "sucked the oxygen" from the subscription market: that's why the tide is turning towards free-to-play. And the only game with enough clout to compete is BioWare's Star Wars: The Old Republic.
"You're skating up hill if you don't offer a free-to-play option," Cryptic Studios head Jack Emmert told Eurogamer. "You're skating up against World of Warcraft and theoretically SWTOR. That's your competition. And unless you think your games are as good or better than those - because you also have to overcome their reputation - it's going to be highly unlikely a large number of people, meaning 200,000-plus, are going to be willing to subscribe to your game. And a lot of companies are making $50-60-70 million bets, and I just don't see that there's a market for their products."
He added: "I don't foresee anything toppling those [WOW and SWTOR] at the moment. You either build-big or go home; you have to spend at least $50 million on your product, and even then it's a basic proposition. When you come out, you've got to not only beat World of Warcraft as it was when it launched, you've got to beat all the developments it has had since then. That's really, really hard."
That's why Jack Emmert has followed Turbine's envious lead and decided to make Champions Online a free-to-play experience as of early next year.
"I don't believe that subscriptions are dead," Emmert expanded, "because there are 10 million or so people subscribing to WOW that beg to differ. What I think is there are simply not as many people willing to pay another subscription in addition to WOW, in addition to their Xbox Gold membership.
"As a result, they'll pay, but only for games that are worth it. They reserve judgement. They're not going to go into a store and buy an MMO off the shelf and start committing to a subscription month in month out unless they're 100 per cent sure that game matches their expectations, and so often times they don't even try it.
"What free-to-play does is say, 'Go ahead and try it, there's nothing at risk here.' There isn't this sense that you're adding a charge onto your monthly Visa bill or what have you; you're just sampling it, giving it a shot, seeing if it works. If it doesn't, no harm no foul - you don't play.
"World of Warcraft has pretty much sucked the oxygen out of the subscription market and kind of devoured it itself," he added, "and those games that are currently subscription-based are battling for a very, very small market of people who either don't like WOW or are willing to pay a second subscription."
Emmert launched City of Heroes in April 2007 (US) to a world that hadn't played World of Warcraft. The genre might have been unproven, he said, but it was sky that was the limit.
"I would say that the potential MMO consumer market... You are fighting for a smaller number of people than when I launched City of Heroes," Emmert declared.
"There had been EverQuest, which had gone through more than a million different people, but a lot of people were waiting for the next great thing and were constantly jumping from game to game.
That's how Mythic's Dark Age of Camelot attracted 250,000 subscribers, Emmert explained - a number City of Heroes was "not far behind".
World of Warcraft announced 12 million monthly subscribers recently. A large chunk of those are in China and pay a different amount to Westerners. But still the numbers are massive.
Can, as Emmert suggested, BioWare really be the WOW-toppler we've so desperately wanted to label every MMO since 2006 as? Taking EA's alleged $300m investment as gospel would suggest it has the scope to be.
"If I'm a consumer and I walk into a store and I look at it, I have to be 100 per cent sure that that subscription game is going to deliver an experience equal to or better than World of Warcraft. That's my benchmark. If they can do that..." he pondered.
"Now, here's the thing: BioWare and the team and certainly with the money they've spent on it, there's every reason for the consumer to believe that the quality level will be equal. From their point of view, they can probably attract that attention - they can still get the benefit of the doubt. It's BioWare, right? We all know BioWare makes great games. They'll buy it.
"But then it's will the game be good enough?" Emmert asked. "I'm not here to judge."
Atari Europe and Cryptic Studios have announced a change to superhero MMO Champions Online: from Q1 2011 the game will be free-to-play.
In practice, that means anyone can download the game and play up to maximum level for free. There is no subscription and no upfront charge.
There will be a complimentary web-based and in-game C-Store, though, where you can grab things like items, powers, costumes and Adventure Packs for real-world money.
You can also upgrade to Gold status should you decide you want to stay a while. This membership unlocks "most of the game's content and includes extra features".
Cryptic will beta test the free-to-play model starting 9th November. Current players will have preference of entry.
Champions Online will follow in the footsteps of Turbine MMOs Dungeons & Dragons Online and The Lord of the Rings Online, which both turned (or are turning) free-to-play. DDO had great success in the US: the switch to F2P attracted one million users and boosted revenues 500 per cent.
Turbine may have proven the model, but Sony Online Entertainment is also keen for a piece of the pie. EverQuest II has turned free-to-play and Pirates of the Burning Sea makes its move this autumn.
Champions Online launched last September and was, by Cryptic's own admission, not as good as it had hoped. As a result Cryptic has decided to focus on online multiplayer games rather than massively multiplayer online games. The first product of this will be Neverwinter, a D&D adventure to succeed BioWare's Neverwinter Nights.
But Cryptic boss Jack Emmert promised Eurogamer that Champions Online and Star Trek Online would not be forgotten. They will continue to "chug along", Emmert promised in September.