There are tons of MMOs out there, and these days, it seems the free ones outnumber the "pay a monthly fee" variety. Free MMORPGs are supported through a number of financial avenues; one such model is the "micro-transaction" model which allows players optional items for purchase to enhance gameplay.
This is the model chosen for Silkroad Online, an MMORPG from Korean developer Joymax. Though they couldn't give us specifics on their players' purchasing habits, they did report that most MMORPGs using optional item purchase services have about 10% of the player-base purchasing these items regularly, with the majority (about 90%) playing entirely for free. The argument is that, while these optional items augment gameplay, they are not necessary to enjoy the game, or even reach "endgame" status.
Silkroad's community is surprisingly large. New servers are opened on a semi-regular basis, and at this point, there are 30 active servers. These servers host a solid 7,000,000 registered accounts, though not all of these accounts are considered "active." On average, the servers have to handle 100,000 concurrent users from moment to moment. There are active players all over the globe, thanks to Joymax offering global servers alongside the original Korean and Asian servers.
We took some time playing Joymax's biggest MMO endeavor both as a beginner character and an endgame character. As was expected, the experiences were vastly different. Silkroad uses a very open-ended, quest-based system for character growth and leveling. After running through the extensive character creation screen, we were left to our own inventions. Of course, that could only mean one thing: leave town and level-grind on the enemies outside.
But by the time you've reached endgame, things get a lot more interesting (and the good news is that the level grind takes substantially less time than other MMOs, such as World of Warcraft or Final Fantasy XI). Though there are quests and mini-plot-related excursions in Silkroad, the majority of endgame activities are PvP. By equipping a special item, you can freely attack (and be attacked by) any other playable character, granted you're outside town. But the best thing about Silkroad Online is the "trade run." As the title suggests, you make money by interacting on the Silkroad, the historical road of trade from East Asia to Western Europe. This is where the three class system comes into play.
In Silkroad Online, you can join guilds to become a Trader, a Hunter, or a Thief. You may look at these names and think it's a rock/paper/scissors system...and you'd be wrong. You might also think it's a warrior/rogue/mage paradigm. Again, wrong. The system Joymax developed for trade runs is original and surprisingly enjoyable. Here's what we witnessed.
To make good money in SRO, you participate in trade runs. The whole process starts with the Trader, who picks up large quantities of goods from one city to deliver to another. The trader can choose the difficulty level of the trade run, whose factors include distance, NPC difficulty, and the size of the goods package (and hence, the size of the reward). The Trader, before leaving town, will also want to hire plenty of Hunters to protect them. By "hire," I mean that the Traders agree to give a cut of the profits to the Hunters, which can be negotiated. As soon as the Traders leave town on their various, exotic mounts (elephants, tigers, etc), they are generally bombarded by NPC enemies, as well as the player-based thieves. If you're a Thief, trade runs are your opportunity to steal all the goods and sell them in back-alley deals. One way or another, someone's going to make a profit, and someone else is going to have to pay. We got to go on a trade run ourselves, set as Traders, and we watched as thieves and hunters battled it out as we traveled across the East Asian continent for over 10 minutes. When asked about balance, the Joymax staff told us that striking a balance has been surprisingly easy, and that the players tend to self-regulate. Also helpful is the fact that you aren't "locked in" to being member to one guild or another, though there is a significant "cool-down time" required when you switch, so that you can't abuse the system.
The goal of Silkroad Online is to become a powerful and influential member of this historical-fiction world. Fame, money, and strength all help to establish your endgame character as an elite member of the Silkroad Online community. Whether your character is Chinese or European, regardless of what weapon and magic proficiencies you focus on, you can reach the top ranks with the help of friends.
We also have to say that, for a free MMORPG, Silkroad Online sports some of the best 3D graphics in the genre. It's not just the quality of the graphics, it's the style, and recapturing of beautiful historic buildings (with a touch of fantasy added in as well). There is a sense of anachronism throughout, mostly because the game tries to capture a variety of time periods (anywhere from 300 BC to 1000 AD).
SRO is a world that expands regularly. When asked about the possibility of the addition of a third continent for character creation (particularly Africa), the staff said that it's a possibility, but since the European characters were only added a little over a year ago, there is still much time to be spent on expanding content there.
RPGFan would like to thank the Joymax staff, as well as PR representatives Rannie Yoo and Chris Heintz, for allowing us to enjoy a fun-filled trip through the world of Silkroad Online.