Interview: Acclaim CEO Howard Marks and Free-to-Play MMOs



For game analysts, journalists and fans, companies like Acclaim are often hard to get a handle on. Since the company’s rebirth in 2005, CEO Howard Marks has set out to bring a traditionally Eastern vision of MMORPG business practices to the Western market. He’s on the vanguard of a new trend in the genre, but one that eschews the traditional measures of success. People can’t count box sales, Acclaim’s games don’t sit in Wal-Mart and there are no subscription numbers to speak of, the games are not only free to download, but free to play. Yet, despite their lack of press and sexy statistics, Acclaim and a half dozen other companies have carved out extremely profitable games that reach far more players than the average MMO people see on the shelf at GameStop.

CEO Howard Marks recently took the time to talk to us about his company, its four games and how they’ve helped bring variety to the business of MMOs in North America and Europe.

“[Our business model] is not yet, I would say, mainstream,” Marks said. His games all follow a single motto, they’re free-to-play. It’s a marketing buzz word that sounds great, but obviously doesn’t mean Acclaim runs a charity organization.

“In general, people get the concept that we need to make some money and the ads in the game support the gameplay,” Marks noted.

What “free-to-play” really means is that all Acclaim’s games are free to download and can be played without the player ever laying down a dime. In 2Moons, for example, the company makes money through in-game advertising that appears in the user interface. In 9Dragons, players can play for free, but also can buy upgrades and customization items securely through Acclaim.

Marks emphasized through that the company is committed to actual free-to-play. One common consumer complaint with the model is that while some games advertise their games as such, many build in an artificial gameplay wall where a player basically is forced to buy items or coin to progress in the game. He says that none of Acclaim’s games do this, nor will there ever be any artificial walls.



The model has been the standard in South Korea and across Asia for several generations of games, but North America and Europe have steadfastly stuck to a box sale, followed by a monthly subscription fee. Both systems have merits – just ask Blizzard – but over the last several years, the number of new and successful subscription MMOs has dwindled, while the less visible free-to-play market has steadfastly carved out a large niche.

“It’s getting there, you have Runescape, Dofus, MapleStory,” said Marks, listing off there of the most successful examples of this model. Each game has millions of players and embraces some form of free-to-play. Of the above, only Runescape has a subscription option, but it is combined with free-to-play. By contrast, no pure subscription based-game other than World of Warcraft – and while it boasts 9.5 million players, many of them are in Asia and not under the subscription model – has cracked the one-million mark.

Acclaim has carved out its niche through the adaptation of Eastern games for Western audiences. Their two major MMORPGs, 9Dragons and 2Moons, were both originally South Korean. Unlike many of their competitors though, Acclaim is a fully Western company, based in California. Marks often clarifies that his company fully adapts these games, they don’t just translate the words, they hire North American designers and writers to tweak the mechanics and re-write the stories.

2Moons is the most traditional of Acclaim’s four MMOs and entered full service only three months ago. Since then, it hasn’t received a lot of press, but the numbers dwarf those of many games that have. It has had over one-million registered players in three months. But therein lies the problem for analysts. That doesn’t mean there are a million players actually playing, simple a million people who have registered and could have played. Marks said that roughly 10% of registered accounts are active players, but that is still 100,000 players, which is a number many subscription-based titles would love to have.

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In total, Marks says that Acclaim has five-million registered accounts across all four of its games and they have gone out of their way to make sure people travel between them. All of them share a universal currency – Acclaim coins – and operate from one account.

While 2Moons experiments with in-game advertising, all of the games utilize the coins for in-game items. Marks was less specific on how many of the roughly 500,000 active players actually buy things, but believes firmly that the hurdle is not the concept of the purchase, but the convenience.

“Right now it’s fewer than 10% who are buying things, but as we add more payment options, it goes up,” he said. For example, kids obviously don’t wield credit cards and it’s tough for a young one to convince their parents to buy them a virtual sword. Right now, Acclaim also offers purchases through cellular telephones that go right on the bill and pre-paid coins cards people can pick up at Target.

Aside from 2Moons, Acclaim also has 9Dragons, a fully 3D martial arts MMORPG, their first major offering; BOTS!! is a casual robo-transformer online battle game that appeals to a younger audience and Acclaim’s most popular title; and their latest title DANCE! Online, a competitive dancing MMO. They’re also the company behind Top Secret, a community designed and developed MMO project headed directed by David Perry.

“9Dragons is doing really well as a niche game,” Marks told us. He noted that it is the most popular martial arts MMO in North America, but did not give specific numbers. “Our strategy with 9Dragons is to really corner that kung-fu martial arts niche.”

BOTS!! – with not one but two exclamation points in its official title – has between two and three million registered players and is a far more casual experience. Marks noted that in general they find the average player spends about half as much time in BOTS!! as 2Moons.

DANCE! Online

DANCE! Online

“It’s a great way for people to learn MMORPGs. It is an MMORPG, but it’s a little more casual,” he explained. “It’s not the type of game you play six hours in a row.”

With DANCE! Online – that of only one exclamation point – they currently have 300,000 registered accounts and growing. Marks is especially proud that this game boasts over 50% female players and only half-joked that many of their male account holders cross over “as they try to meet girls.”

“It’s a little bit of a new concept, a little bit like Guitar Hero two years ago, people didn’t get it, but now it’s huge,” he added.

The four games are a scattershot across the online game genre. There is a game for young people, a game for girls, a game for Kung-Fu enthusiasts and a traditional swords and sorcery MMO aimed at an adult audience. And according to Marks, they’ve cast this wide net quite intentionally.

“We decided we’re not going to be a company that satisfies one kind of need – the MMORPG and that’s all we’re doing – we’re going to be a company that satisfies many kinds of needs,” he explained.

In the coming weeks, Acclaim will announce new titles, this time aimed at the browser market. To date, all of these games have required a download and install, but Marks knows there is a market for people who just want to click and go and doesn’t want to lose them either. “If they can play 10 minutes they’ll be happy,” he said of his next target group.

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