Introduction: Is MMO in the West ready for a new chapter?
When we talk about MMO, many may relegate this game category to “old-school” or “niche.” This genre is getting marginalized in the West. Only MMO like World of Warcraft and Final Fantasy 14 are still generally recognized by western gamers.
While gamers are waiting for a new and high quality MMO title, Lost Ark finally lands in the Western Gaming market after its initial launch in Korea 3 years ago. With the powerful marketing of Amazon, active user numbers have been in a leading position since the game’s launch on 11 Feb. According to reports and Steam Charts, registered users of Lost Ark reached 20 million and DAU steadily maintained at 500K while its peak is 1.2 million (as of 18 Mar).
Amazon Games has finally made its name after the tough launch of New World. In this article, we are going to explore this topic: Does Lost Ark help MMORPG in the western market enter a new age？
Gameplay: A satisfactory and standard production
As a title made within the classical Korean MMORPG framework, the core UX is similar to that of other Korean MMORPG, including character design, storyline, career system, raids, etc. Lost Ark outshines other MMO games because each element mentioned above is polished to the next level.
However, there are not many innovative areas in the core gameplay and UX. Balancing relies heavily on gear, maps are crowded with question marks, Boss fights feature repetitive mechanisms. Though, all of these foibles could be found in other games as well.
In the below sections, we are going to deep dive some outstanding gameplay components in Lost Ark.
Battle: Simplified skill point system and amazing visual effects
The core of the skill system relates to balancing and mechanisms. For this system, balancing means players can change their attack power via adjusting points (generally via increasing) and mechanism means players can change the skill system via the rune system.
Through introducing the exclusive Tripod system, the skill system of Lost Ark is introduced to players in the most simplified and strategic way.
(Skill UI of the Witch class)
Tripod unlocks 3 layers when a skill reaches level 4, 7, and 10. In each layer, there are 2-3 enhancing choices for the players. This progression gradually aids players in better understanding their characters’ skills.
Let’s use the Witch class as an example.
Layer 1: Players only have a basic understanding of the skill, so the Tripod system only allows users to increase the attack power via balancing by shortening cooldown time and lowering mana cost.
Layer 2: Players understand the skill better. The Tripod system allows users to amend the effect of the skills, for example area of effect and stored use time.
Layer 3: Players are very familiar with the skill. The Tripod system allows users to amend core mechanisms, for example changing the elemental base of the skill or decreasing/canceling casting requirements.
Thus, the skill system of Lost Ark could be broken down into a talent-tree-like system that is both easy to understand and customizable. The Tripod System simplifies the talent-tree design for players. Lost Ark greatly increases the fun for the players with this creative take on its skill system.
Lost Ark has also put forth great effort in visualizing debuffs. Elements of skills are visualized in an intuitive and pleasing fashion. If a monster is attacked by an Ice-element skill it will be frozen, and when the player defeats the frozen monster its body will shatter like ice. Electrifying and burning effects are also imbued with the same level of detail.
（Defeating a frozen enemy）
（Defeating an electrified enemy）
Quest: At your convenience, sir
The quest system of Lost Ark is intuitive and reasonable. Two main reasons are listed below:
First, the requirement makes sense. There are 3 types of quest in Lost Ark, dialogue with someone, defeat/collection tasks, interactive tasks. The defeat/collection task sets a conservative target which is 10 in general. It helps to avoid players getting bored with repetitive work.
Second, quest development is linear on the map. The quests in Lost Ark (no matter the main quest or side quests) sync with the exploration progress of the map. Players do not need to run back and forth.
（Multiple quests in one area）
The design greatly incentivizes players to accomplish quests through the reward of high experience points. Players obtain much more experience from quests than from grinding enemies. If the player wants to level up in the most efficient way, completing quests is the best option. The traditional MMORPG proclivity for grinding to level up is just not as present in Lost Ark because grinding is not nearly as efficient. This could encourage the players to focus on the story and worldview experience while avoiding the negative effects that attend leveling up too quickly in other games.
Others: Multiple replay reasons
Lost Ark has innovated on some interesting gameplay systems besides quests and battles that encourage replaying content. Here are 3 examples:
In Lost Ark, players can unlock trade skills. Players can unlock mining, fishing, herb collection, hunting, and logging.
The achievement system in this title - “System of adventure scroll” - is massive. There are unique collection items in each map. Players can obtain these items via completing side quests and befriending NPCs. Many Mokoko Seeds (gatherables) are hidden within the maps awaiting players’ discovery.
（UI of adventure scroll）
The raid in Lost Ark is tailor-made to players’ progression. In the earlier stage, the raids in the main quest are quite easy and exist to help develop the story. In the later game, raid mechanisms become quite rich. Regardless of a players’ level, they could enjoy the fun of raids and side quests.
To sum the above, the Lost Ark gameplay framework is mature but lacks a signature design. It fails to account much for Lost Ark’s outsized noise in the market.
Art: The Ordinary Makes Greatness
Though Lost Ark is mediocre in art design, it is mature and full. Mediocrity means there is no obvious innovation in art and graphic design. Maturity and fullness means that as an online game, Lost Ark’s artistic expression meets the tastes and needs of mainstream players and is massive and varied in content.
Design: beautiful and romantic without considering
The art design of Lost Ark is a standard Korean online game style. Elements contained are: handsome and beautiful character design, exaggerated weapons and equipment, prickly bosses, scenes that are gorgeous but lack detail, and a wide variety of creatures.
Weapon and armor design in Lost Ark is often extremely exaggerated and luxurious. This is primarily because the Korean art team does not have the same historical and cultural burden as European and American teams shoulder when designing western fantasy elements. Inspiration often comes from European and American pop culture, which is already replete with reworked and exaggerated designs of historical equipages. The Lost Ark art team uses a lot of modern gaming equipment motifs, such as more spikes, streamlined structure, and bright colors, but the use of style lacks estimation and coherence.
(The exaggerated and shining paladin armor in Lost Ark can be said to be a mixture of cultural symbols of mainstream knight's armor.)
(The armor design of the similar game "Path of Exile 2" is realistic and conservative in structure, unique in form, and unified in cultural symbols.)
Lost Ark has a glaring visual shortcoming: its lagging imaging engine. The engine of this game - released relatively recently - turns out to be UE3, a tool that is two generations behind. Many innovative visual effects that have become mainstream within the past generation cannot be utilized in Lost Ark, such as physically-based material rendering (PBR), dynamic lighting, etc. In addition, the use of UE3 is not particularly good, as the common “greasy” issue with UE3 can be seen everywhere.
(Oily skin texture)
Fortunately, the art design of the game performs well. The static lighting and shadow rendering are excellent. The map models are rich and varied in terms of items, buildings, and terrain changes, which offsets outdated graphics performance.
(The grand scene)
Animation: Two perspectives, the separation of cloud and mud
Lost Ark has a sincere visual performance, among which are various cutscenes from a top-down perspective. Not long after the game begins, a careening carriage drawn by galloping horses showcases superb camera animation and environment destruction effects, which heightens the tension. The development team can be said to use various methods to maximize the epic feel of the scene: depth of field, camera movement, weather effects, a large number of characters, particle effects, and destructible environments.
(The well-rounded siege)
Despite the game’s powerful use of top-down view, the live cutscenes of Lost Ark are full of bugs.
In-game models used in the cutscenes are obviously not suitable for close-up cutscenes in terms of texture or polygon quality. Additionally, animation and binding of the game are not optimized for cutscenes, characters have expressionless animations, and various body positions look unnatural in the non-top-down view. Re-animating the cutscenes into a top-down view, or even removing them if possible, would not detract from the game in terms of art quality and continuity.
(The rough cutscene)
From the perspective of fantasy art design, it is an ideal goal to set the whole world to be coherent, unobtrusive, and logically self-consistent - But this may not be the ultimate goal of online game design. The design of Lost Ark must satisfy player aesthetic tastes and craving for entertainment while taking into account the adaptability of the setting and narration, which is per above demonstratively not easy.
Narration: Cool comes first
Both the world and events of The Lost Ark revolve around two core narrative precepts.
First, players are part of a "world" that is old and all-embracing. It can be seen from the hodge-podge of scene design. Medieval epic style, cyberpunk style, Chinese style, and Western fantasy style- the existence and variation of these styles are rationalized to a degree by the precept "the world originates from chaos, from which various civilizations have differentiated and grown.”
Second, the player is the "chosen one" who takes up the role of a savior. There is always someone to emphasize to players: our only hope lies in a new era hero who will gather all the lost arks, drive out evil, and promote justice. The responsibility that falls on the player is so heavy that even trivial errands are a small contribution to the recovery of mankind. The identity of the savior is also reflected in Beatrice, a main character who players deliver the lost arks to and who ‘coincidentally’ has the same name as Dante's guide in The Divine Comedy. The game does indeed take the player to experience heaven and hell. And in the end, they are treated to a wonderful scene of renewal and rejuvenation.
Many details in the game are the supporting products of the "two cores" mentioned above.
Below are storytelling tips you can learn from Lost Ark:
- Break up the game and let the characters guide each narrative unit. There are three types of character guidance mentioned here:
- Main character guide. The main characters are meticulously portrayed and carry with them many secret stories to unveil. They will be the player's guide at a certain time. At the beginning of the game, Beatrice takes the player to choose a class, then the priest/demon Morpheus accompanies the player, and after that, Armen almost drags the player to the next map. At the end of each unit, the player gains a deeper understanding of main characters and even interacts with them, undoubtedly establishing emotional bonds in the process.
- Secondary character guide. Many tasks' initiators and receivers who generally have their own names and personalities features belong to this category. They guide players step-by-step through their respective branches.
- NPC guide. Following the main storyline and lighting up street lamps， players will hear coherent dialogue along the way. These dialogues, sounding more akin to whispering, usually take place among the crowds of NPCs who don't have names. Although there is no meaningful content, the various voices give players a sense of companionship and guidance and also add more detail to the world in a simulacrum of social dynamics.
- Spend energy on depicting group portraits to make the "world" more realistic. If the devil is raging across the city, there will always be humans crying together. If the player fights bravely to kill enemies, these people will run away and express their thanks through voice, dialogue, actions, and animations.
- Add cliffhangers before and after each narrative unit, and use reversal to make it intriguing. A typical example can be seen at the beginning, that is, as soon as the player and a seemingly-harmless priest Morpheus walk to the boundary of distinction. Morpheus transforms into an unparalleled demon, his evil smile obscured in the red and black haze.
- Maintain the interactivity of the game and give players an illusion of choice. Story-path branches are not meant to lead to different endings. The choice questions that appear from time to time in Lost Ark are more like a routine plot interaction since different choices lead to the same result. There may be a few different branches at most, allowing players to strengthen themselves in the process.
In this way, the main narrative line of Lost Ark is a Cinderella story. Players start as an ordinary traveler, brave thorny paths, and finally repair the broken world after the trials and tribulations of a long journey to save all living beings. Even ignoring the systems of friends, unions, online, etc. in MMO games that allow players to build individual narratives, Lost Ark did a great job giving players a sense of accomplishment just from the perspective of linear narrative.
Product Strategy: Focus on Core Players and Build up Publishing Experience
MMORPG has always remained somewhat niche within a core group of players and has not enjoyed the same popularity in the West as in Asia. One key reason might be the lack of success in a free-to-play MMO for this market. Free to play MMORPGs made in Asia somehow failed to get a foothold in the West, while Western companies refused to make free to play games for their own markets or Asia. For ]Western players unsatisfied with both, a good new MMORPG is long overdue.
In such a complex and uncertain market for MMORPG, Amazon chose to play safe: they chose to publish a proven MMORPG from South Korea. This move hits three birds with one stone: they could not only 1) build up their publishing and operational excellence for MMO while 2) avoiding the uncertainty of developing a new game, but also 3) neutralize the negative brand image from the troubled launch of New World if the game turns out to be a success.
Amazon started building its video game business back in 2014 with a similar mindset to other tech giants trying to break into the gaming industry: focus on the segments where the giant can leverage its existing core business for synergy and competitive advantages (e.g. Google Cloud for Stadia, Facebook for social games). With AWS, the #1 cloud service in the world, and Twitch, the #1 video game streaming platform, Amazon’s product strategy is naturally centered around 1) network heavy MMOs and 2) social first, streaming first eSports games.
With a strategy like this, no wonder Amazon has such a strong preference for MMORPGs. Unfortunately, the predecessors of Lost Ark all failed to break out. Of the three games announced at Twitchcon in 2016, the Fighter/Sports crossover Breakaway was canceled before launch, the Battle Royale game Crucible was canceled six months after launch, and New World, the MMORPG similar to Lost Ark that launched last September, enjoyed a brief spike at launch but soon lost most of its players due to the lack of content and poor live service operations.
By publishing Lost Ark and targeting core MMO cohorts (primarily 25+ male gamers on PC), Amazon aimed to test the water on MMO in the Western market and see whether they could break the dominance of WoW and FF14. This makes us wonder: will the success of Lost Ark make Amazon re-evaluate its strategic advantage and shift away from self-development and toward publishing overseas games in the Western market?
Data: Initial Spike and a Steady Return to Normal
Back to the game itself. Since Lost Ark is free to play on PC, there is no revenue data publicly available (Amazon has not shared their revenue). Based on what we saw on Steamdb and Steamspy, the reviews on Lost Ark are mostly positive with a rating of 73.3% on Steamdb among 130k users. It has also gathered 250k followers on Steam game hub as of March 11th, and the number continues to rise.
For an MMO game which relies heavily on an in-game ecosystem, DAU (Daily Active User) is the key metric that will make or break the game. Lost Ark’s DAU peaked at 1.3M soon after launch and has returned to a steady level of 450k. This is obviously far lower than the 2M+ DAUs we saw from incumbents FF14 and WoW, but is a good spot to be at for a new MMO.
(DAU Trend (source: https://steamcharts.com/))
Looking closely at the DAU trend, we can clearly see three phases:
- Launch Phase (Feb 7-19): Roughly 500k players spent $20-65 on the Starter Packs and had early access to the game 4 days before launch. Once the game was released for everyone, not only did the original 500k core players stick around, but another 800k players also joined the game for free, pushing the DAU to its peak of 1.3M.
- Funnel Phase (Feb 20-March 9): Non-core players started to feel the repetition, lost interest, and churned as they hit Day 7 retention. We suspect these churns to be users who never passed level 50, which is arguably where the real game begins.
- Consolidation (March 9 - Present): The game had an update in early March, but only users who reached the highest level (T3) in the previous version can experience the new content. Most non-core players have presumably only reached T1-T2 at this point and have found T3 to be not worth the grind. Many of this cohort churned as well.
Monetization: Pay to Win? Amazon: Nope
In the South Korean and Russian versions of the game, players can pay real cash to upgrade their gear and accelerate their leveling. However, in bringing Lost Ark to the US, Amazon made major changes to the monetization system in an attempt to accommodate Western player preferences and improve user retention.
The first thing we noticed was the Starter Pack, which only contains weapons, limited edition mounts, outfits, battle passes, and diamonds. Outside of diamonds, none of these items are pay-to-win.
(Battle Pass Screenshot)
The in-game monetization system does not encourage pay-to-win either. All the items you can purchase with cash in the US in-game store are priced so much higher than their actual value that it only makes sense for the super rich players who do not care about money to ever consider buying upgrade materials directly from the store. Since item upgrades in the game are not random, Lost Ark did not include the “Upgrade Guarantee” items either which, is commonly used as an effective way of driving user spend in other South Korean games.
(In-Game Store Recommendations)
One alternative to monetizing function items (and also a way to avoid pay-to-win) is to focus on cosmetics, which has proven to be very lucrative for many top games. However, Amazon does not seem to have emphasized cosmetic monetization either, with only two outfits for sale on the storefront. As a result, there is almost nothing worth purchasing in the entire in-game store.
‘No pay-to-win’ was a big focus of Amazon’s marketing campaign for Lost Ark, so the original monetization system present in Eastern versions was almost entirely cut. Presumably, the game has not generated much revenue via microtransactions since launch, with the majority of its revenue coming from the pre-launch Starter Packs.
It seems like Amazon does not care much about monetizing the game or generating revenue and profit. This might be a strategic play to gather more publishing experience, build a positive image within the industry, and lay more groundwork for the future of Amazon Games.
LiveOps: For Fame, Not For Profit
Despite various issues in previous game launches, Amazon Games learned its lessons and did a commendable job with Lost Ark. Launch was delayed by a few hours on launch day due to technical issues, but Amazon responded to user feedback and solved problems in real time on Twitter in order to help more players experience the game as soon as possible. Lost Ark also added multiple new servers to avoid traffic overload at launch.
With past learnings from the South Korean and Russian launches, Amazon seems well prepared for live operations for Lost Ark, pushing out a large content update only a month after launch. However, they received more criticism than applause with such fast iteration. The level requirement in the new content update was much higher than where most players were after only a month of playing, which meant most players could not even experience the update unless they performed insane amounts of grinding since the game does not let players pay to accelerate leveling.
Interestingly, Amazon did not ignore this player feedback. In their weekly post, they explained in detail why they released the new update early and announced a fix to the situation. They also promised to analyze the in-game data better and release content updates according to player progression. This self-effacing, solution-oriented attitude is more evidence of Amazon’s goal to build up its reputation instead of simply going for the money.
Marketing: Virality through free-to-play and positive word of mouth
A timeline of Lost Ark’s marketing and publishing efforts:
- 2011: Game development commences
- 2019: Launch in South Korea (record breaking 350k PCU)
- Feb 8: Early Access with 1.7M registered users and servers in North America, South America, and Europe
- Feb 11: Public Access with 4.7M registered users and 1.3M PCU, surpassing CS:GO
- March 7: 20M users globally
After the lessons of New World, Amazon seems a lot more confident and in control with Lost Ark. Here is a summary of their marketing strategy:
- Product Positioning: Free to Play MMO Action RPG
- Slogan: Your Odyssey Begins
- Target Audience:
- Game Industry: Showcase Amazon’s ability to publish and market games well through PR releases and product performance
- Core MMORPG players: focus on engagement and monetization while maintaining positive word of mouth
- Broader MOBA/ARPG/Fighting players who like the theme, the art, and the combat: Bring in new players through the broad reach of Amazon channels
- Marketing Tactics and Channels
- Gaming Media Articles, Player Word of Mouth
- Twitch, YouTube
- Prime Gaming, Amazon.com Retail and eCommerce
There are a few key tactics that are worth noting:
Leverage strong word of mouth from South Korean players and core players to promote interest
The game has already been live in South Korea for two years and has amassed a large number of core players. Many South Korean players are writing English guides for new players on Reddit as well as sharing memes.
Common advice is to play until Level 50 and bear with the early game grind that might be a challenge for many more casual players. This helps to manage user expectations and improve retention.
Common User Comments:
- Yes, grinding sucks, but wait till you’re level 50 and that’s where the fun begins!
- Yes, don’t worry about the crappy T1 and T2 raids, T3 is where the fun begins!
- Yes, early T3 content is similar to T1 and T2, but keep playing and Valtan Legion Raid is where the fun begins!
Drive word of mouth marketing centered around Twitch streamers to cover core RPG players
Amazon’s campaign for Lost Ark on Twitch is unprecedented. Within the first week of launch, Lost Ark watch time on Twitch hit 76M hours covering 120k channels. As a comparison, Elden Ring had 52M hours 3.5 days after launch.
Amazon invited top Twitch streamer Ninja to stream the game twice- once to play by himself and once to team up with another top streamer.
For the core players, the most effective marketing was to have Asmongold- the most trustworthy Key Opinion Leader for MMORPG- stream the game. Asmongold, historically a loyal World of Warcraft player, is now back streaming Lost Ark after a 4-5 year break from Twitch, naturally bringing a lot of Western core MMORPG player attention to the game. Every stream hosted in Lost Ark generated at least 3M views, which is second to none for MMORPG players.
Additionally, Lost Ark was recommended by multiple other top streamers on Twitch such as Shroud, summit1g, lirik, esfand, and quin69, which in turn encouraged other streamers to get into the game. The game was trending on Twitch like no MMORPG before.
Amazon also partnered with Twitch to award in-game items based on users’ cumulative watch time. This not only helps to convert users, but also encourages streamers to create “best of” videos from their streams for further sharing.
(Twitch Published “Best of Lost Ark Streams”)
Twitch has also organized tournaments for Twitch streamers in North America, South America, and Europe. Progress for each team will unlock additional player benefits. This presumably encouraged more streamers to stream and hype up the game.
Amazon has also set up a Community Broadcast Manager to provide commentaries on Twitch streams and help new players understand Lost Ark. However, this effort seems to have had limited effect as many active players complained about Amazon’s apparent lack of understanding of its own game. Along with setting up broadcasters, streaming tournaments and encouraging players to compete amongst themselves, eSports games for Lost Ark might be a potential next step to increase market relevance.
Cost effective community operations specifically targeted at RPG players
Interestingly, players will see a code of conduct before they enter the game, encouraging players to build a good gaming community with fairness and respect. This is Amazon’s way of showing their commitment to building a good MMO experience.
Lost Ark’s social media presence is mostly on YouTube, Twitter, and the game’s official site forum.
Lost Ark’s YouTube channel mostly focuses on:
- Helping players understand game mechanics, such as GamePlay Trailer, Class Intro, and Tutorials
- Helping players understand the characters, such as cinematics that discuss their value and destiny from the perspective of each character, as well as community streams for milestones (e.g. Closed Beta, Open Beta)
- Behind the scenes such as Directors Trailer, which discusses the game from a development perspective and its inspiration from World of Warcraft and Diablo. This honest and humble attitude shows players the love and commitment from the development team and has been well-received.
The game had 100k followers on Twitter before launch and 470k one month after, a sharp increase in line with Elden Ring. The Lost Ark team leveraged its Twitter account as a channel for announcements, primarily with texts and images (static or gif) and more rarely videos. Typically tweets are about real time information (e.g. server is down, server is under maintenance), live service events, promotion with KOL and voice actors, and fan art activities.
(Player’s Fan Art of Mokoko)
Without a doubt, the success of Lost Ark was a result of the right product in the right hands at the right time. On one hand, the South Korean developer made a great product suitable for players from any cultural and gaming backgrounds; on the other, the Western market has been longing for a new MMO due to the lack of recent releases. With deep pockets, recent experience publishing New World, and a commitment to MMO, Amazon seized this opportunity and made this game a player success in the West.
So far, the game’s performance remains impressive and certainly checks the boxes for Amazon. For Amazon, Lost Ark is a milestone, but for the MMO genre, it is just above average. What is Amazon’s next step after this? We shall wait and see.
written by Amy, Chase, Chow, Fish, Jiaqi, Jing, Wanzi, Yuhang, Zixuan
edited by Jiaqi, Rob