Last month, “Ragnarok Online” officially launched in Thailand with impressive numbers. Over 1.3 million users registered their interests during the test period, and more than 250,000 users are now playing daily.
The video game is 18 years old, so why is this old game still popular with gamers?
That feeling of nostalgia
If you are a millennial like me, you might have grown up playing games like Counter-Strike, Diablo II and Red Alert 2. Those games can only be played locally with friends in internet cafes or bought from Pantip Plaza.
But one of the first games that most millennials (including me) had to download is Ragnarok Online (RO.)
It’s an online game, initially launched in Thailand in 2003, that features a fantasy open world where players fight monsters to accumulate experiences. Experiences that allow players to change their “classes.” Classes are like jobs that grant specific traits and abilities to players.
Mighty knights. Powerful wizards. Stealthy assassins. You get the idea. It seems like this is just a typical fantasy game. So what made it stand out from other games of its era?
Most people would say its appeal is a sense of community that derives from the “grind” where the only way for players to level up is to kill a lot of monsters, and if you team up with others, then you’ve got yourself a small army.
Strangers became friends in this game. Some even got married.
The game is also highly addictive, to the point that in 2004 the government had to order an e-curfew to stop kids (including me) from playing the game all night.
The rise of the bots
A few years after the first launch, the game’s popularity started to wane.
There were numerous issues. The most prominent one is the widespread usage of “bots.”
Bots allow player characters to hunt monsters without taking a break. As long as the players keep their computers running, their characters would keep leveling up.
Honest players took issue with the bots because they would attack monsters indiscriminately, even the ones other players attacked first, thus stealing their experiences and the loots dropped by dead monsters.
Even though using bots was prohibited, the Game Masters (GMs) couldn’t keep up, and armies of bots roamed freely.
Many players, overwhelmed by bots, finally gave up and moved on to other games. Asiasoft, the game’s first distributor, was forced to shut down the servers in 2006.
Despite the game’s demise, its memories still linger in the Thai gaming community, and the game itself persisted in the form of bootlegged private servers. Meanwhile, another distributor attempted to resurrect it in 2017 with moderate success.
But Ragnarok Online is now reborn, owned by Gravity Thailand, a subsidiary of the game developer, rather than local distributors.
The sins of paying to win
Ragnarok Online’s original business model was to charge players for “air time,” i.e., hours spent playing the game.
It means players need to top up their accounts using real-life money just to play the game.
The latest iteration of the game has shifted from the “pay-to-play” model to the “free-to-play” model.
Players can now play the game for free. Instead of charging for air time, the game makes money from selling players “points,” which they can use to purchase “loot boxes” and receive other bonus items that give them an edge over other players.
However, this new business model may inadvertently rob the game of its appeal.
By allowing in-game items to be purchased using real-world money, rich players can pay their way to the top without having to interact with anyone, or put any real effort into playing the game.
That’s why this flavor of free-to-play business model, known as “microtransaction,” is also disparagingly called “pay-to-win” by some.
Happy to play (and pay), but for how long
Fast-forward to 14 years later; the same issues are resurfacing.
Because many players now have deeper pockets, they are less bothered by the pay-to-win scheme. The bots, though, are starting to become rampant, and they are annoying as ever.
The latter issue, if left unchecked, may result in history repeating itself.
I asked in a Facebook group of RO players on how they feel about the current state of the game.
Linux, a player who is a longtime fan of the game, said he had spent over 3,000 baht on the game.
“I’ll play the game until it shuts down. I’m just playing for fun. So if I become bored, I will stop and come back once I stop being bored.”
Another player, Bird, said he’s about to quit because of bots and the increasing price of items.
“If I can’t keep up [with the rising price], I might just quit and go back to the mobile version of the game.”
Ragnarok Online Thailand is available for free on PC and can be downloaded here.