The Rise, Fall, and Evolution of Downloadable Games as Told by Pox Nora's History

By Published February 14, 2015 at 12:35 pm

The indie side of the games industry is generally filled with a predictable gamut of stories: Failure, success, and horror of acquisitions that leave a once-rising company gutted. Once a game has been picked up by a larger publisher – whether or not that publisher makes good on changes and promises – it's rare that we ever hear of the developer being “indie” again. In the case of Desert Owl Games' Pox Nora, a title acquired by SOE in 2009, the game's creator was able to reacquire his title when it was under threat of being killed by SOE.

Pox Nora's story is an interesting one that grants insight to the industry's growth during an earlier time. The game shipped in 2006, but had been in development since roughly 2004, meaning it lived through the initial hesitance of digital distribution, the abuse of the free-to-play market, and the maturation of that market.

What is Pox Nora?

Pox Nora is one of the oldest free-to-play games on the internet, with its domain name registration dating back to 2004 and launch to 2006. As such, it was also one of the first downloadable online games with depth of gameplay. Pox Nora has always been a free-to-play game.

The game can be thought of as an amalgamation of tabletop miniatures (Warmachine, D&D minis, so forth), traditional turn-based tactical gameplay, and in-depth strategy with deck building game mechanics.

Struggles Faced by a Pioneer

Pox Nora's arrival as an early F2P game ensured that it'd face unexpected hurdles. Since 04-06, the games industry has undergone massive change and maturation in the online space. Steam was generally unliked and served almost entirely as a distribution platform for Half-Life and Counter-Strike; downloadable games were unpopular, and those that used downloadable patches (MMOs like EverQuest & early WoW) suffered from long queues and download times if players didn't keep patches up-to-date.

“People wouldn't take our ad money,” Arthur Griffith, CEO of Pox Nora developer Desert Owl Games, told me in an interview. I stopped him – “they didn't take your ad money?” Griffith repeated himself, using air quotes to add “they said 'downloadable games aren't real games.'”

How things have changed.

“We did the unthinkable and put our game online as a free download. People called us 'indie' – if that's 'indie,' then I guess we were indie,” Griffith recalled.

Microtransactions Begin to Scare Gamers

Slowly, though, Griffith found that the downloadable games space became healthy, then almost too healthy. The Pox Nora developer went from facing early adoption hesitance to post-adoption hesitance, with little in-between breathing room. That is to say, the downloadable games space became encumbered with heavily monetized marketplaces disguised as games, using modern addiction-driven mobile design to net more cash than an outright purchase.

As downloadable games grew to be accepted, new caution took root in jaded players. Free-to-play games were erupting from every pocket of the world – mostly Asia – and were almost never “free” in any sense of the word. Microtransactions were coined as a new means for publishers to monetize content, and soon became an invasive interruption to the gaming experience. The negative connotations surrounding microtransactions reached their peak as the likes of TF2, LoL, and DOTA were in their final phases of F2P design.

“We're not like that. We made it so you could earn anything, ever since the beginning,” Griffith told me, agreeing when I mentioned the TF2 model as a later-released parallel.

Getting it Right: The F2P Model Grows Up and Large Publishers Take Notice

Suddenly, a slew of Triple-A titles (or soon-to-be) hit the scene and changed everyone's opinion of what free-to-play could be. Team Fortress 2 was among the first to convert, long after the highly successful Orange Box launch. Pox Nora became the target of Sony Online Entertainment, expanding at the time, and was eventually acquired by SOE in the first quarter of 2009. SOE, a company that had been struggling in the twilight of its major IPs (EverQuest, Planetside, SWG, the Matrix, Vanguard), began acquiring new talent in a rabid attempt to regain strength.

Pox Nora was acquired by Sony Online Entertainment in 2009 and continued normal operation. Griffith, the game's long-time heart and soul, departed SOE in 2011 to pursue different projects. During those few years away, Griffith became aware that Pox Nora – now nearing its fifth anniversary with a still-strong playerbase – was under threat of the axe from SOE, now consolidating. It was during this time that SOE closed three studios, issued sweeping layoffs, and canceled its long-anticipated “The Agency” title.

SOE internally changed its definition of an MMORPG, deciding that Pox Nora, an online strategy game resembling miniatures, was not a part of the MMORPG space. As SOE moved to downsize its products and fervently attempted to stabilize a bleeding company, Griffith decided to take action.

“I emailed the CEO,” he told me, “I'd always heard John Smedley was a real gamer.”

Griffith told me that he sent SOE CEO John Smedley an email pleading his case. Griffith noted that the playerbase still loved his game and that he was willing to continue development if SOE would grant audience for reacquisition by Griffith. In recounting his story, Griffith's emails suggested to Smedley that if players are enjoying the game and the game is healthy, there's no reason to kill it completely.

“He replied almost immediately,” Griffith continued, “then we just had to get Legal involved.”

The time at which Griffith reached-out to SOE cannot be disclosed under terms of the acquisition, but the completion of the acquisition was roughly April of 2014. Having heard innumerable horror stories from now-indie developers, I had to clarify – I asked Griffith to sum-up his feelings about Smedley after his dealings with the reacquisition of his game.

“We're grateful for John Smedley. He didn't have to give us Pox Nora back; he did it because he's a true gamer, he has always wanted to do what's best for the players,” Griffith told me, adding that Pox Nora has nearly doubled in size since the reacquisition by his new company, Desert Owl Games.

A History Lesson

Although it may not fit the definition of a triple-A title, Pox Nora offers insight to an industry that doesn't always reward being early to market with an idea. The game industry's trends are fickle, a statement substantiated when we look at the rise (and subsequent fall) of RTS, a similar oversaturation (and stabilization) of MMORPGs, and what I would next predict is a slowing in the MOBA market. Pox Nora is an unlikely story for most, given its reacquisition, and charts the troubles faced by smaller studios as they hope to bring in a revenue stream that justifies countless hours of development.

Find out more about the game here:

- Steve "Lelldorianx" Burke.

Last modified on February 14, 2015 at 12:35 pm
Steve Burke

Steve started GamersNexus back when it was just a cool name, and now it's grown into an expansive website with an overwhelming amount of features. He recalls his first difficult decision with GN's direction: "I didn't know whether or not I wanted 'Gamers' to have a possessive apostrophe -- I mean, grammatically it should, but I didn't like it in the name. It was ugly. I also had people who were typing apostrophes into the address bar - sigh. It made sense to just leave it as 'Gamers.'"

First world problems, Steve. First world problems.

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