Ubisoft have committed to the expanding Free To Play market in a big way, and Blue Byte are leading the charge. The German studio swelled from fifty to several hundred developers worldwide, entrusted with translating several massive franchises into Flash-based browser games. With a promise to create "triple-A free to play games" supported by a "fair to play" model, they're certainly pulling no punches when it comes to talking the talk, but can the likes of Silent Hunter and Might & Magic Heroes Online speak for themselves?
Their first title, Anno Online, represents familiar territory for Blue Byte seeing as they're responsible for the previous Anno games. Its meaty core of building and micromanaging enormous historical cities is a natural fit for the free-to-play space (as evidenced by the likes of Evony and even Blue Byte's own Settlers Online), and as such, a bare minimum of tweaking has been necessary to facilitate the jump from boxes to browsers.
Basically, Anno Online is business as usual. Only you can play it in your browser. For free.
There's no client to download or extraneous libraries to faff about with. Blue Byte have been careful to ensure that the only real barrier to entry will be owning a PC with an internet connection, so you'll only need to enter user account details and hit the F11 key to get straight into the action. Starting out as a new player, I was quickly thrown onto a relatively small patch of land on a disconnected island, introduced to a few advisors and then basically given the run of the place with a view to constructing as magnificent a city as possible.
Straightforward tutorials explain the basics and allow Anno veterans to find their feet with a minimum of fuss. From your omniscient isometric viewpoint, you'll gradually transform an empty natural paradise into a bustling metropolis by attracting settlers to stay and keeping them happy. They'll need houses to sleep in. Markets to shop in. Food on the table, from fish to goat milk, grapes and grain. Building materials like lumber and hemp. Everything has its cost, and critically, every building needs to be well connected to each other by manually designing road networks. Careful placement and forward-planning is therefore the order of the day to avoid boxing yourself into a corner, or not giving your initial village the room it needs to expand.
You'll accomplish all this by clicking around some intuitive panes to select buildings or structures, and clicking directly on houses to view the needs and desires of your population. Do your settlers crave a fish supper? Just click through to the food production panel, find a fisherman's shack, plonk it down on the coastline and connect it to your warehouses with a road. Once villagers are happy enough, your civilisation level will increase, allowing your population to ascend and unlocking new opportunities for expansion. So long as you have the resources, Anno Online seems to be instantly accessible even if you don't have much experience with the city building genre.
Accessible doesn't have to mean 'shallow,' however. Anno fans will be pleased to know that, as far as I could tell, relatively few sacrifices have been made beyond removing combat and AI players. Over 120 building types will be available to manufacture, with specialised structures such as demand extra auxiliary buildings to increase their efficiency. Unlike many F2P city building games, it will also be possible to overspend and fail, though apparently Blue Byte will have some systems in place to help unfortunate players get back into the black (whether that will be free is another question entirely).
As you'd expect, the 'Online' component of Anno Online leads to the first meaningful interactions between players in the previously antisocial franchise. This primarily boils down to trading resources from the island's shipyard, with players able to put goods up for auction on the marketplace, free to set their own price levels and potentially undercut their rivals. We'll also be able to pool resources into creating major shared monument such as grand cathedrals, and visit our friends' islands for a hands-off look at their town planning. A Blue Byte developer told me that early prototypes actually allowed players to actively build on other players' islands, but that the potential for major griefing led them to (smartly) removing the functionality in short order.
In visual terms, Anno Online could well be one of the most attractive browser games (or Flash games, at least) that we've ever seen. Blue Byte's boast of "triple-A" quality isn't far off the mark, since their 2D isometric islands are absolutely packed with detail, from high-resolution art assets to plenty of little flourishes once you get your eye in. Carts of goods trundle between your production structures and warehouses, rolling down the roads you've so carefully constructed. Wild animals gambol in the fields, and animated buildings evoke a living, breathing city rather than just a collection of sprites. You can't rotate the camera, mind.
Sooner or later, your magnificent fiefdom will become too big for just your starting island. Players will eventually be able to build a fleet of ships to send out on missions of trade and discovery, gradually unlocking new islands that are rich in specific natural resources. Since each new patch of real estate will have to be colonised from scratch, the thrill of starting up a new settlement should remain a key part of the game, while scraping together the funds to find and support new islands will become a key goal for most armchair architects. As will waiting several hours, if not days, for your ships to return.
Unless, of course, you decide to buy a new island. Which brings us nicely onto the subject of... here we go... microtransactions. Anno Online will feature its own unique premium currency, gems, to spend on a frankly staggering selection of items. From barrels of salted fish at 25 gems a pop, to entirely new islands that specialise in a specific type of resource for a whopping 5,300 gems, players can invest real money in much more than just cosmetic avatars. Which are also available, naturally. We have yet to discover what the exchange rate is - and note that these prices will likely receive a substantial tweak before launch and during open beta - but there definitely seems to be plenty of scope for casuals and 'whales' alike to plonk down enormous sacks of cash to accelerate their progress or buy their way out of a virtual financial jam.
Towards the end of the session, I left my early hamlet behind to launch straight into a much more advanced campaign, which represents weeks or even months of play. Spanning several islands, this massive international settlement was more of a civilisation than a conurbation, featuring specialised islands designed for glass refinement and production, grape harvesting and other lucrative endeavours. Presumably, of course, to flog to other players. The massive variety of structures, including sprawling marketplaces to lofty cathedrals and even a debtor's prison, provided an apt look into just how much control we'll have over our constantly-growing fief.
Several questions still remain. Since Anno Online will make bank via its microtransactions, we wonder just how long it will take players to construct bustling island networks without spending real money. Blue Byte promises to uphold a "fair to play" philosophy when it comes to their microtransactions, but how much of this will translate into 'pay or wait?' There's also the small matter of identity: with so many other city building games out there, can Anno Online manage to set itself apart with more than just impressive visuals?
We'll learn more when it enters open beta, but for now, we rather suspect that Anno Online could well become an incredibly addictive F2P proposition when it releases later this year.
Disclosure: Ubisoft paid for one night's accommodation and return flights to Dusseldorf, where Blue Byte are based.