Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Digesting Free to Play

Party fight
Neverwinter is another in a recent stream of free to play MMORPGs
to come out
Over the last week, another batch of free to play games became readily available to the public either as a full release, or an open beta. Those games were Ragnarok Online 2 and Neverwinter. This isn't going to be a review of those games, or the time I've spent fiddling around in either of them, but more a chance for me to try and articulate my own thoughts on the current state of free to play, and by "articulate" I largely mean prattle on incoherently. So, business as usual.

The market has obviously changed a lot over the last five or so years. The days of paying full retail price of $50-$60 for a game day one are giving way to $1 tablet games, Steam sales, and scouring the bargain bins. Largely gone too is the age where MMOs were almost guaranteed to have some sort of subscription fee attached to them. If anything, it's the MMO market that has been spearheading the way with free to play, experimenting with approaches to monetize their product that hopefully don't leave the player feeling like they're being fleeced.

Since then, we've seen this pay model slowly expanding into other genres, trying to tempt players with the glorious word "free" and the possibility of paying for stuff on one's own terms through micro transactions. This has worked to varying degrees, though I always find it hard to ignore how so many of these games come out of the gate promising these things only to wind up embracing some sort of whale-chasing pay to win model in the end. Even worse are the ones that are glorified casinos where players will find treasure chests in-game that have a chance of containing some really fancy loot, but the only way to open them is through purchasing a key at the item store with real money. It's essentially gambling, and just seems sleezy to take advantage of people in that way. Interestingly, the Japanese government recognized this practice as such a while back, and outlawed it, forcing MMO publishers to change this function in Japanese releases of their games.  I hope other governments follow suit.

Dota 2 has a pretty good pay model
Then again, maybe I don't need to worry so much about this because it does seem in the West that people are wising up to that sort of thing. Yes, there are still whales that will happily throw thousands of dollars at a game in order to get all of the best stuff, but a much larger group of people recognize these games as either pay to win or glorified casinos, and call them out as such. Look at most message board discussion and one will see this right away. Follow that up by hopping into one of these games and take a look around. Chances are pretty good that the game is a ghost town in comparison to others with a more acceptable pay structure.

Sifting through the various pay structures is the toughest part for me when deciding on a free to play game that I want to try. There have been countless titles that I've just ignored from the get-go simply because their pay model rubbed me the wrong way, and even among the ones that feel acceptable, it's been slim pickings among the games that have interested me enough to even want to consider paying money into. One of the few that I've actually liked was Lord of the Rings Online, and a big reason for that was due to how much I like Tolkien's works and not so much the game itself.

Probably my favorite model now is what Valve has been experimenting with in Dota 2. It's a MOBA, so it's right at the center of the latest internet gaming gold rush, locking horns with League of Legends. I've fiddled around in both, but I find myself far more interested in Dota 2 and a big reason for it is the game's business model. The fact that all of the characters are there from the moment I install the game is very appealing. Comparing gameplay nuances of the two games doesn't even factor in to things. You could sit a team of fanboys from both games in front of me trying to win me over to their side, but all I'd respond is, "So, I get all the characters from the start with out having to grind points or pay real money, eh? Guess I'm playing Dota 2." I really like that the game is going to be charging money for purely aesthetic items, while having the core aspects available to everyone from the start. This has been working quite well for Team Fortress 2 and its hat market, and I hope it works out well in Dota 2. Give players the whole game, and if they want to look fabulous while doing their thing, they can fork out money for new costumes.

As much as these games try and part me from my money, I mostly just don't play them on any serious level. My friends and I will download them, goof around for a bit, then a couple of weeks later we're done with the game. It's a very disposable experience. Sure, some of this could boil down to the games being mediocre, but even a lot of the most promising ones we just can't bring ourselves to really want to invest time or money into in a serious way. It could well be a bias on our part, but I see this mentioned a lot when reading various gaming message boards, so maybe we're not alone.

Warframe is one of the more action-oriented F2P games
out there
One of the big areas where I find free to play games can really start to grate on me are their communities. Since there is almost no barrier to play, it's easy for trolls to get in. While there are some titles that are well policed, there are plenty of others that are an absolute mess the second you glance at the chat window. People can hop in, make a nuisance of themselves, and be merrily on there way with multiple smurf accounts. Some games can be more problematic than others with this sort of thing, and responses from publishers of these games can be just as varied. At the end of the day, though, it does seem that the free to play space can be particularly unpleasant in terms of its community in comparison to buy to play or subscription based online games, and that's saying something given how toxic online communities in even those sorts of games can be.

Love them or hate them, I don't see free to play going away any time soon. It'll probably just be a lot of experimentation with revenue models and seeing what other sorts of genres can work with it. The days where the vast majority of free to play games seemed to be translated Korean MMOs appears to be more and more a thing of the past as games like Dota 2, Warframe, Blacklight Retribution, and countless others are starting to show gamers that there are indeed other ways to approach free to play. Moreover, the world economy still isn't looking all that great, so games that can be played for free with the occasional micro transaction tossed in may be a lot more palatable than traditional $50-$60 dollar games or online games with a subscription model in the future.

Free to play certainly is shaping up as the big thing of the moment that many publishers want to get a handle on. Up until now it hasn't really lit a fire under me and got me excited about these games. We'll see, though. The last year or so has seen a lot more variety in genres and pay models in the world of F2P, so maybe one of these games will eventually win me over.