I think it can be done just as well as in a "normal" game.
I am going to use Mabinogi as my first guinea pig, being that the game has as much depth as any game as I have ever played. It has everything I normally love in a game, but the graphics and art style still take some getting used to. But that is the challenge, isn't it? To take something that is make believe and to see if I can get it to feel more, well, real.
The more I play some of the better F2P games the more I find that the myths about them are well, mostly myth. There are so many things people have issues with, and it is obvious that many of the haters have played none or very few of them. In recent discussions on the Vanguard forums, some players talked as though all free play games "forced" you to spend money in the cash shop. This is not only false, but if you do decide to spend some money, the same amount you pay for a typical subscription will get you not only more fun, but more types of fun that you can customize.
Here are some myths I would like to break down:
a) Only children play F2P games: No and no. Granted, there are a TON of kids frequenting these games (I had one send me a whisper because he wanted to tell me he was 10 years old but was embarrassed to tell everyone else) but if you spend time getting to know individuals you will realize that the mix is pretty much even. As a matter of fact, most of the "hardcore" players I meet tend to be adults, being that even free play games have a good deal of challenge in the high end. The guild I just joined is led by a 45 year old and his daughter.
b) These games are nothing but a grind: While there is a grind element to these games, you don't hear players speak this way about the lack of questing in other, better known "normal" MMO's. Players talk about UO as though it was the Supreme Game, but indeed all you could do was go find stuff and kill it. Most of the 30 sum-odd games I have played all have quests, and many of them have story-line quests, NPC quest givers, and even customizable quests. I find it funny that so many members of the community will quickly make fun of these games while literally doing the same thing over and over in a "normal" MMO such as raiding or rep grinding.
c) You have to spend money to enjoy these games: SO false. Does it help? Of course! These developers are not stupid. But, as I already pointed out in other avenues, EVERY MMO is a cash shop game essentially. Do players really believe that they have not traded real life money for their characters or the items in game when they buy the game for 50 bucks and pay 15 dollars a month (more than I have ever spent on a F2P game)? It is the same thing. If I spend 15 dollars a month on a horsey, and someone else spends 15 dollars a month on a subscription with no guarantees of a mount, who got the better end of the deal? (Depends on who had the most fun.) Cash shops are genius. They make money and allow you to pick out how much you want to spend, when you want to spend it, and on what.
d) There is no depth to these games: There is some truth to this, but there is some truth in that pertaining to many "normal" MMO's. Many of these F2P's have extensive lore and most of the ones I frequent have player events, sometimes weekly or even several times a week. Name one "normal" MMO that has maybe 3 events a week? You can't. Also, a game like Mabinogi is an example of really really simple systems that make for deeper gameplay.
1) A "day" system: each day of the game week is a different day with a different name and (brilliant) different bonuses like extra drops in nature, better luck with crafting, etc...
2) A pet system that allows the pet to not only grow, have a name and die, but you can also play AS the pet.
3) A skill based system that allows you to decide what kind of player you want to be. No cookie cutter classes.
e) The best items are sold in the shop, making playing worthless: This myth always makes me shake my head. This one is usually coming from someone that has never played a F2P, or has heard that this is how it goes. Are there items in the cash shops (in some games) that are equivalent or very close to some really nice in game items? Yes. But throughout all 30 sum odd games I have played (of the free variety,) none have sold the Uberest item of Uberosity in the cash shop. How could anyone with half a brain think that the developers would allow only the cash shop as a source of the best items? How would a game like that make millions (like many of these games do) if they had no reason to play or anything to actually go after? Many players got upset (yet hardly any unsubscribed) at EQ2 when they released their "cash shop", saying that they are now being forced to spend more money on new content when they already spend money as it is. Those players need to leave the game, because they are clearly nuts.
Again, almost all of these games seem to have but one or two things they are about: (examples) Flying, Pets, Housing, Socializing. But almost all of them have complex systems that (duh) even a 10 year old could figure out. (Easy to start, hard to master.) Also, many of them have free updates, sometimes more frequently than many "regular" MMOs, that might add more landmass, more systems, or different races.
There are many more myths, and some cold hard truths about these games. I am attempting (with the Immersion Project Rules) to scrape away all the surface B.S. (like the spam, the annoying kids or the repetitive play) to get to the deeper game beneath. At the very least, these games have the depth, humor, sadness and "serious game-play" that my other favorite games do. It's there, you just have to give them a chance and make some small adjustments. I had to make small adjustments to any game I have played for it to fit my play-style.
First, a recap of the rules as I apply them to Mabinogi in particular.
1) Only certain forms of travel allowed. No instant travel to homes or home areas. Got this one down, pat. I use my horsey for travel. The mounts can be named, die and can fight. You can even leave them tethered somewhere while you go about your business. Classic.
2) Only realistic forms of chat, such as /say channel, /shout channel and letters. (Unless the game explains it, like a sci-fi game. The idea here is to use “old school” forms of communication. ) Done and done. I like chat bubbles, though, so I can leave the chat box invisible. Mabi's chat bubbles are fine, but in town the spammers get out of hand sometimes. There is a mailing system and everything.
3) Only allow a recall a limited amount of times per month. I will allow a "recall" (by scroll or otherwise) in case of emergency. Essentially, I will stay away from these. Travel in Mabi is fun and easy, and now even has boats to other lands.
4) Use “role-play” speech. Not thus and thou’s, but try to avoid “this reality (Hang on, my cell phone is ringing)" speech and references. Try to stay in character. Mabi is not really set in some kind of recognizable time period. Many of the NPC's don't use much specific language. But I have already been chatting with players in "role-play speech" and they don't seem to notice or care.
5) Realistic trade: your character has to make a living. Trade is the most common, in a “real life” setting. So, with a little adventuring, I will be a trader. Mabi is GREAT for this. You can buy wares from other areas or take the items you get from mobs and quests and sell them at lil' personal shops (thos annoying AFK shops that most Asian market MMO's have.) I am going to experiment with items that are only available in other lands, and will try to form a trade route to sell them.
6 ) A “home base.” I have to nominate (my home will be the place in some games, or a certain inn in others) a place that will act as my true home. This is only possible at an Inn, being that owning a home in Mabi is out of my reach for now. The game just recently added housing, and it was done pretty well. But I haven't had the time to start looking into it, and I doubt the money as well.
7) Only use a physical, blank map that needs to be filled out by me, in real life. Use landmarks and the lay of the land to get around. This has proven to be MUCH more difficult than I thought. But FUN! (Some games need to put out BLANK MAPS officially!) If the game explains maps, try and use it minimally to encourage landmark usage and actual (gasp) memorizing of the landscape. I am going to try and find some for Mabinogi, but in the meanwhile I use road signs and I stop for directions. A pretty old school method, but it works. I have already begun to memorize the landscape better.
8 ) MODs: (This rule does not apply to Mabinogi.)
9) Weather: If the MMO has a good weather system, or at least a good ENOUGH weather system as well as a good day/night cycle (if the game world has day/night) then there must be realistic limits put on how long a character can adventure without rest. Even heroic characters need rest. I love this one. Mabi's weather system is nice graphically (the lightning lights up the sky) and even effects harvesting and gives certain buffs and de-buffs. Hit the letter E and I pop my hood right up onto my head:
(What a great lil touch that helps with immersion.) If I venture out into the wild, I need to get a camp site kit first. You can get one through the cash shop with a random drop service, or you can buy them from other players. Here's the cool thing: you pop the thing up and it acts as a mobile spawn point for your character when they fall in battle. They can seat 6 and can be password protected! And they stay up for as long as you are in the game, which can be until server reset (for days and days.) So, the camp site acts as a mobile home, but in a believable way. I will use one when I am out adventuring and must "sleep" in one and must take food breaks there. I could, of course, make a "normal" campsite out of wood if I don't feel like running back to the 'site.
10) Food: This is taken care of in Mabinogi. You lose stamina as you grow hungrier, and it fades on a more "realistic" time table. Basically, you eat something better and it keeps you "fuller" for longer, eat something smaller or weaker (like a carrot) and your stamina does not fill up as much. This is fantastic because the game literally tells me when me or my pets are hungry, and it can effect performance. When I am needing food, I will eat or go back to camp to eat. If other players join you at a camp site, you can all share food and the bonuses included. Makes for great conversation!
So, there are the Rules as they work in Mabinogi. This game number 7 (or so) that I have officially adapted the Rules to, and I think they will work perfectly in Mabinogi. The true test will be to adapt them for the much "cartoonier" games like Free Realms or Ether Saga.
Wish me luck. These F2P games often have layers upon layers to sift through before you hit on the true game. But it's there. All games have a soul and some are just a little harder to peek at.