I recently read an MMORPG.com article by Victor Barreira, "The Barrier Called 'Free," that caught my attention because Achaea, the text MUD I like to play, is a free-to-play mmorpg.
Barreiro notes that some gamers shy away from "free" and "free-to-play" games, but he presents a few reasons why that prejudice against free games may not be warranted, especially now that free-to-play is becoming a more common model. A bit of a debate follows in the comments.
One big reason many people shy away from free-to-play games is that in many cases, the game population is essentially divided into two classes: those who pay, and those who do not. Those who don't pay get some of the crumbs from the table, but the game is really about those who have paid, and many benefits are reserved for them alone. This might be good enough if you just want to demo the game, but you'd hardly want to play as a permanent second-class citizen.
Other free-to-play games rely on cash shops selling conveniences and advantages in the game. And for this reason, some people derisively refer to free-to-play games as "pay-to-win" games--because in some, you can essentially buy victory with cash. This leaves those unable to pay much in a frustrating position, permanently unable to compete with those who can.
For these reasons I used to shy away from free-to-play games. But I think the IRE MUDs strike an unusually good balance here, that makes this model actually work. People who do pay a bit tend to feel they get their money's worth, but people who can't or don't want to pay aren't stuck as second-class players--it will just take them a bit more work or more time to get certain things.
In the IRE mud games, including Achaea, you can buy "credits" with cash, and you can use the credits to buy customized goodies like houses or pets, or magical artefacts that increase your power. But players are also allowed to sell credits to one another, so if you earn gold in-game, you can buy credits without any cash. So there's nothing you have to pay cash to get, and even without cash you can get anything you really set your heart on.
No, credits can't buy you dragonhood. This is an image of a Greater Dragon soaring over the Achaean landscape, by player Maximo.
This system means there's no first-class/second-class divide between players who pay and players who don't. Different people have invested different amounts of credits in their characters, some by paying with cash, some by earning the money in-game. I liked this a lot better, as at the time I began playing at Achaea, I didn't have any money to spare, and this meant that I was still able to get the things I wanted--I just had to work for them. I never had that frustrating feeling that I was just stuck unless I was willing to buy something from the cash shop.
A second feature that makes Achaea's pay-for-perks model much better than most is that you can't actually just "pay to win." Sure, some of the artefacts are things intended to give you an edge in combat. But the fact that Achaea's combat system is many times more complex and difficult to master than, oh, any other game in existence means that an unskilled person who buys artefacts will still lose to a skilled person without them. They give an edge, or open up new possible strategies for you, but not so much that the artefacts are winning the battle for you. (After all, what would be the fun of that?)
Most other free-to-play games made me feel frustrated, but Achaea is the best MMORPG I know of, and is also free. I think other MMORPGs, whether graphical or text-based, could learn something from its particular free-to-play model. There are ways to do it that don't work well, and ways to do it that do.