Perfect World: A New League of "Free To Play"

In a special preview and in-game tour, ZAM talks with Product Manager Jonathan Belliss about Perfect World International, and why it's not your "average" free-to-play MMO.

Today's MMO market is flooded with product. From a newcomer's point-of-view, it might seem that the pickings are slim, especially for someone who hasn't jumped into the world of "free-to-play" games yet. Just beyond the veil of traditional, subscription-based MMOs, there's an enormous library of transaction-based content to explore. The free-to-play and RMT (real money trading) gaming industry is booming; if you know where to look, you'll find dozens of new and established free-to-play MMOs.

At the same time, the sheer amount of these games can be overwhelming; like any other industry, developers try to capitalize on the success of proven business models. Some of the genuinely good MMOs can become tougher to notice, especially when they're buried neck-deep with products sharing the same, shiny packages.

That's why it can be easy to miss something like Perfect World International; the North American and European version of China's popular MMO, Perfect World. Its developers are intent on breaking away from the negative reputation shared by other free-to-play MMOs, which consumers often assume to be uninspired and shoddily-designed. In this preview, ZAM takes a look in-game to see what's different, and we speak with Product Manager Jonathan Belliss to find out why.

Some readers may have already heard of Perfect World International; it launched almost a year ago here in North America, and a bit later in Europe. The MMO was localized to the West from China, similar to what NCSoft is currently doing with Aion. Originally released in 2005 as Perfect World, the developers changed the name to Perfect World International for its NA and EU versions.

Perfect World International is a fantasy-derived MMO, heavily influenced by Chinese mythology and the legend of Pangu. The game's story and lore are deeply-rooted in this 1000-year-old creation story from the Zhou Dynasty; even the three in-game races draw heavy interpretation from the mythology:

"The Human race was born of Pan Gu's spirit, and demonstrated morality, honor and an unlimited imagination," the story reads. "The race of the Untamed, born of Pan Gu's body, embodied freedom and peace, and possessed a unique connection with the natural order of the world. And the third race, the Winged Elves, were born of Pan Gu's own blood, and exemplified beauty, grace, and purity. Between the three races, the Perfect World was created."

The main premise is that Pan Gu failed in his first attempt at creation, so he tore apart his corrupted world to create a new, Perfect World. He gave his new children—the game's three races—the choice of free will, which explains why they often fight amongst themselves. The looming threat, however, are the Wraiths that escaped Pan Gu's first cleansing.

PWI's lore is exotic and interesting, as far as MMO stories go—but it's not exactly the game's main draw, at least, here in the West. More so, it's PWI's depth and surprising level of intricately-designed gameplay, compared to the majority of free-to-play MMOs on the market these days.

Aside from the fact that Perfect World Entertainment—the game's developer/publisher—has five years experience running PWI, it began in China as a subscription-based MMO, like many of today's popular and "traditional" MMOs. It wasn't until the publisher began to notice the new direction the industry was headed in that it decided to change PWI to a free-to-play MMO; and that's something that Product Manager Jonathan Belliss is eager to elaborate on.

"Many US gamers have the pre-conceived notion that if something is free, it's probably low in terms of quality," he told ZAM. "As a result, I believe that the Free-to-Play industry in the US, as a whole, is facing an uphill battle."

Ironically, it's not easy being free—when it comes to MMOs, that is. The "pre-conceived notion" that Belliss is referring to is one that's shared by many MMO fans, as a result of market saturation and fly-by-night developers pumping out game after game, often regardless of actual merit. Belliss said that since PWI switched to micro-transactions, they've achieved greater market penetration in Asia and China, where it reportedly has 50 million registered players. Part of the challenge, though, is that free-to-play MMOs in the West still aren't as ubiquitous as they are in the Asia.

"The secondary part of this challenge is simply education," he said. "Most people still do not know what 'Free to Play' is. Most people think that a free game is a flash game or a web-based game, they have no idea that these huge client based MMORPGs/games exist."

In an effort to understand why PWI is so different from average free-to-play MMOs, ZAM decided to take Belliss up on his offer for an in-game tour. I rolled up a character—a Winged Elf Archer—and did a bit of exploring by ourselves before the actual tour. PWI's character creation system is relatively detailed for the game's age. You can choose among a Human, Winged Elf or Untamed race. The classes within those races are Archers, Barbarians, Blademasters, Clerics, Venomancers and Wizards. Later in the game, each of those six classes can be further specialized.

It only took 20 minutes to become moderately-acquainted with the basic gameplay and UI after setting foot in the game world for the first time. It's a classic fantasy MMO design, one that almost any veteran would find familiar. If you take a look at the screenshot below, you'll see a common UI layout featuring unit frames, action bars and other elements found in today's most popular MMOs (click to see the full pic).

After wandering around, slaying a few monsters and completing some quests, I began to realize that PWI does have some pretty fleshed-out gameplay compared to many other free-to-play MMOs I've tried out. The graphics are a bit dated because the engine is almost five years old, but the world still has its own unique charm and Eastern-stylized environment, all of which looks more than adequate by today's standards.

Combat and movement mechanics are fairly solid; the game didn't have that "glitchy" feel that you'll find in a lot of MMOs. It wasn't quite as smooth and responsive as WoW, but it was much easier to control my character than I would have expected. Plus, the game engine is pretty well optimized, so you don't have to have a high-end GPU to play effectively.

As I was pelting mobs with arrows, a little action button with wings on it caught my eye, so I pushed it. My character jumped in the air and began to fly, an ability that's unique to Flying Elves at level 1. Other races can fly by using mounts at level 30. As I learned later, during my tour, flight isn't just for traveling; it's an integral part of combat. More on that later.

Before Belliss met with me in-game, to take me through his virtual tour, I had the chance to visit the first major town in my starting area and play around with some of the game's early features. I dabbled with the crafting system a bit; the game offers several different professions like Blacksmithing and Jewelling, all of which can be used to create your own items or sell them to others, even for RMT currency—more on that later, as well.

After seeing every player with his or her own little fairy-like creature, called "Genies", I asked around and found the Genie Merchant. Your first Genie is so cheap that you're basically meant to be able to start the game with one; it serves as a type of "pet" that can help you in combat in a variety of ways. Genies were added to PWI in the game's last major content patch, offering an additional layer of character customization.

Genies were one of the first things that Belliss and I talked about, after he whisked me away to PWI's main city, Archosaur. Until then, I only had a brief chance to mess around with my Genie, using it to dish out an occasional attack to my enemy in combat. But it turns out that the Genies are much more than just a "pet," in the usual MMO sense.

They're almost like a second character—or an extension of your character—that you're able to outfit with gear and level up. Using an elemental "Affinity" system, you can spec up your Genie to perform different roles, depending on the situation. They can be used for basics like offense and defense, but you can also use them to fill niche roles in PvE and PvP, depending on what kind of battle you find yourself in. You can also trade your Genies with other players, and equip them with special equipment to enhance their abilities.

Belliss led me around the capital city, Archosaur, pointing out the auction house and the in-game "Boutique" store, where players can buy vanity and other special items via micro-transactions. However, the boutique items aren't bound to the players who spent real money on them, as they are in many MMOs. In PWI, the whole micro-transaction system is based around a free-enterprise economy, in which players can buy and trade the boutique items for in-game resources they've earned themselves.

"PWI actually has an in-game auction house where players can sell our micro-transaction currency to one another," Belliss said. "[It's] very unique in the fact that you can actually attain cash shop items regardless of whether or not you directly invest real world dollars into the game.

"So let's say you have all the time in the world, but not all the money in the world," he added. "You can go around in-game, kill monsters, and accumulate in-game coins. Now, with your abundance of coins, you can go to the auction house and purchase some micro-transaction currency from another player.  Now you have full access to the cash shop and can purchase whatever you like."

Although I've personally never found vanity items and intense character customization all that appealing, I decided that I must be in the minority in that regard after looking at all the players running around in PWI's main city. I've rarely seen such a visually-diverse crowd of characters, dressed in elaborate costumes and sporting an eclectic variety of gear. I asked Belliss why it's such a big deal.

"Customization is one of the key features of PWI," he replied. "The character creation system is incredibly in-depth, allowing players to completely shape and customize their face. Ranging from the bridge of your nose to the depth of your cheeks, players can honestly adjust any single aspect they can imagine.

"On top of the character creation system, the fashion customization system adds yet another layer of customization to the game," Belliss said. "Players have two layers of armor/equipment. A normal layer, that holds your armor and weapons, and a secondary layer, or fashion layer. The fashion layer lets players overlay a variety of different fashion items over their existing equipment layer. This allows players to customize their look without sacrificing the functionality of their equipment."

After meandering around the city for a little while longer, we headed out to some of PWI's higher-level zones. I'd seen the "decorative" and customization elements of the game, but as most MMO veterans know, a game has to have more than just a pretty face to succeed. One of the things I was curious about was the flight system, and how it plays in combat.

"There are quite a few MMORPGs these days that feature flight mechanics," Belliss told me. "However the flying mount system in PWI has a few unique points that help it stand out against the rest. First is the fact that, unlike other MMORPGs, we do not restrict players from participating in combat while in flight. Players are allowed to participate in both PvP and PvE while flying."

Belliss jumped on a Winged Elf character, wanting to show me something. He came up to me and clicked the "Embrace" command on his end, which then gave me the option to accept or refuse. I accepted, and his little elf girl jumped into my arms. I laughed, thinking it was just a cute role-playing thing (on a side-note, there's even a marriage system in PWI), but it turns out it's more than that.

"[Another] feature related to the mount systems in PWI is the fact that more than one player can ride on each mount," he said. "This system is called the 'embracing' system. Players can embrace and ride on any mount available in the game, even flying mounts. What's more, players can actually gain energy or 'chi' while embracing. Chi allows players to unleash devastating attacks upon their opponents. So players can leap into each other's arms prior to battle in order to power up."

PWI has PvE and PvP gameplay, both of which tie into the game's guild system. Being a fan of PvP, I asked about world combat, and Belliss had me open the Territories Wars map, which shows a real-time representation of the guilds that own territories around the world.

"The game's world map is broken up into 44 different territories," he said. "Guilds can compete for the ownership of these territories. Every week territory wars are scheduled on the weekend days during peak hours. During the scheduled time, an instance will open up specifically for the two guilds involved. An '80 vs. 80' battle commences where both teams attempt to destroy one another's base through the use of siege weapons. As soon as one of the bases is destroyed, a victor is declared and that guild then obtains ownership of that territory for the following week."

He said that once a guild is able to hold a territory for one week, they start earning rewards via "taxes," as well as cheap teleports to the areas they own. As far as world PvP on PvE realms, PWI uses the familiar "flag" system that allows you to toggle your availability, based on the situation.

PWI also features a fair amount of "endgame" content for PvE fans, based on parties of six players. Throughout the leveling experience, you'll encounter instanced dungeons that can be completed in several ways, depending on your resources. For example, Belliss took me into a cavern dungeon, pointing out a NPC named "Old Swordsman." Players have the opportunity to give him wine in exchange for his "services," which consists of clearing out all the trash mobs in the entire instance. It's a convenience thing; designed to give players a less time-consuming option in taking down a boss.

When players get to the mid-80 levels, the PvE endgame starts to begin, and players are given the choice to follow a path of "Good" or "Evil." It's another way in which PWI tries to diversify playing experience, allowing them to customize their experience beyond just cosmetic aspects.

"This choice changes a variety of things," Belliss said, as he pointed out two huge doorways; one red, one blue. "First and foremost is directly related to the red and blue doorways. These doorways are paths to worlds that are only available depending on your decision of aligning with good or evil.

"More relevantly, in terms of gameplay, choosing good or evil will slightly alter your entire class' skill set," he added. "If you choose good, perhaps your skills will have a lot of positive buffs associated with them, or increased efficiency. If you align yourself with evil then perhaps some of your skills will have a chance to randomly curse your enemies or have a chance to stun."

After my virtual-tour ended, I spent a little more time poking around in PWI. Although I still haven't had the time to level my Winged Elf Archer up to a "respectable" level and see all the game has to offer, I've been able to come to one conclusion, at least; for a free-to-play MMO, Perfect World International is one of the diamonds in the rough. I imagine that's partly because the game didn't actually begin as one of today's varieties of free-to-play MMOs—and I suppose 50 million Asian players can't be wrong, either.

"PWI has been breaking down barriers and changing the way people perceive Free-to-Play games," Belliss later remarked. From what I've seen so far, I'm inclined to agree.


Post Comment
The dark side of Perfect World
# Mar 11 2010 at 12:11 AM Rating: Decent
Honestly, this talk of the "sexism" in Perfect World is no more important or significant than the "racism" of Resident Evil 5. Okay...RE5 may be a little overboard, but no one ever mentions RE4 and that was just as "racist" (just with Spanish people instead of African people). But there are far more important problems to focus on, people. Like the innumerable problems with RE5 (inventory system, stupid AI prgramming on the sidekick), someone should instead address the real issues of Perfect World. Like the annoying jumping-backward-a-few-steps-repeatedly-glitch that happens sometimes when you're running or jumping in an upward/downward direction. It can get ridiculous a lot of the time. But no, forget the gamplay, let's all just criticize and nitpick at the wonderful setting they've established because we value misplaced righteousness over good taste. It's because PWI isn't as gimmicky and mainstream (as it easily could be) that it's reached such noteriety.

"Free to play never looked so good."


So stick with it.
The dark side of Perfect World
# Mar 10 2010 at 11:53 PM Rating: Decent
Major overreaction on the part of the "activists" here. It's a game. No one is deliberately trying to subdue female representation or anything like that. Stereotypical it may be, but I don't call it sexism. The notable differences the female characters experience are the clothing and the whole gender-specific classing of the Untamed race.

Yes, the clothing the female characters wear is skimpy (not to say all the male clothing is all-concealing; plenty of bare midriffs on both sides), but I have to just accept this and go by what my little sister had to say. "It's skimpy, but really pretty. Rather beautiful." Nothing major there, I don't think.

The thing that did catch my eye was the Untamed. As an Untamed, one can be a male Barbarian, or a female Venomancer. Honestly, I thought this was a good call. The Barbarians are easily big enough to be classified as beastmen rather than (god forbid) furries. Making female Barbs would have resulted in pulling away from the large physique attributed to them and taken away the overall beastlike quality of the Barbarians; it would have made them nothing more than furries. They maintain a seperate identity from that of furdom in the carefully constructed organization of build, character, setting, etc, put in place by the developers. For the female Untamed, they had to make them far more humanoid in contrast to the male counterparts in order to keep this balance. Not allowing men with nothing more than ears and tails was to compensate for the lack of towering women with fur all over their bodies and animal faces. And let's face it; big, hulking beastmen casting spells with wands and/or lithe, animal-like people wielding giant axes and hammers is just weird. It's not about male dominance over females, it's purely aesthetics. It is a beautifully constructed game setting, and that delicate balance of the Untamed is just a part of that beauty.

Also, as for females embracing males...imagine that happening with the Untamed as the result of "serious" issues. Picture the "serioius" and "representative" image of the female Venomancer casually lifting up the gigantic wolf/tiger/panda/whatever-they've-got (I've never played a Barbarian). Not. Gonna. Happen.
The dark side of Perfect World
# Sep 04 2009 at 2:21 PM Rating: Decent
I find your accusations rather irritating and stupid not one part of the game of the game shows anything torwards sexism yes i agree that the opposite sex not able to carry each other is a bit silly but it would take the team a long time to fix it so that this may happen, and to the one who said that the women can not tank is the stupidest **** ive ever heard the best solo class in the game is veno (female class) i have seen a veno tank a whole fb their lvl without any help unlike a barb who has trouble tanking an fb without a few clercs now if you guys are so simple minded to play a game for the pure genious wich is perfect world then best of luck with your search i hope those of you who have never played this game give perfect world a chance for the game it is and ignore the post of the idiots who say that the game is of sexism etc.

Thanks for listening the DUKE
The dark side of Perfect World
# Sep 07 2009 at 8:15 PM Rating: Decent
398 posts
From what I understand it isn't even a matter of it takeing alot of work for them to let females carry anyone. The company that made the original game will not allow that kind of modification in the contracts they use for the other companies who have put out other versions of PW.

You may not see any of it as sexism but the overly conservitive views expressed by the mechanics of the game, coupled with the lack of freedom to do things any other way does lend to sexism.

As for Venomancers being able to tank.. they are the only Solo class, there is a differance between a solo class and a tank class, just cause the pet can tank very well does not make the veno a tank class it make her a pet class. I know alot of it is semantics but the fact that she could act as main tank means there is a balance issue since I do beleive the barbarian was a damage tank (might be mistaken, it's been a while)and that would mean that an entire faction was ussable for tanking while other races got little to no tanking ability.
And imagewise it still does not amount to the same thing since it's the veno's golem that's the strong one, she's the skimpily dress little thing telling it what to do and healing it.
The dark side of Perfect World
# Sep 02 2009 at 6:00 AM Rating: Decent
777 posts
Perfect World has a high level of quality, but there is a darker side to it that makes it lose the potential value it could have.

While sexism has always pervaded to some level in various MMOs, Perfect World stands head and shoulders above the rest as the MMO that most encourages sexism, even worse than The Age of Conan, which is considered the worst among well known games. It's not incredibly surprising, considering the MMO comes from China, an area of the world where females are not regarded equally. But even among Eastern MMOs, it is the worst game I know of.

Perhaps the most egregious example, is that a female character is not allowed to tank. Absolutely no exceptions. As well as the game pushes female characters as being subpar and subservient to male characters.

It's problematic enough that most anyone who thinks of women as equals, could not play the game for an extended period of time without becoming sick to their stomach.
The dark side of Perfect World
# Sep 02 2009 at 6:25 AM Rating: Excellent
93 posts
My brief experience with PWI didn't give me an extensive understanding of the underlying themes of the game, but I don't think the single example you gave--that there aren't any tanking classes available to female character models--necessarily exemplifies sexism. Are there other reasons why you think that PWI is sexist?
The dark side of Perfect World
# Sep 02 2009 at 7:51 PM Rating: Decent
398 posts
Grr won't let me edit my post, wanted to add that the marriage system only suports traditional male/female unions. ;P
The dark side of Perfect World
# Sep 02 2009 at 7:41 PM Rating: Decent
398 posts
Well I can name off a few examples of the sexism that helped push me away from the game.

Female characters can not be the dominant partner in an embrace. Males carry females, that's all there is to it. Males can not ride with other males and females can not carry anyone or ride with another female. Unfortunatly the PWI team didn't even have any say in it since, to my understanding, they don't even get the option to change what the original designers set up.

The boutique items are not cross gender, aside from a few racial I beleive, girls don't get to wear boys cloathing and boys don't get to wear a skirt. They could have gone the same rout as WoW with differing models for the same garment but chose to not even make it wearable. Might seem silly but the little things can add up. :P

The aformentioned class segrigation, of cource.

I think it's been too long since I played to remember the other minor issues I had.
Post Comment

Free account required to post

You must log in or create an account to post messages.