It’s no secret that free to play MMORPGs have been exploding in popularity in the past few years. Once unheard of in the West, scores of free MMORPG games are now available for North American and European gamers. But while this trend has banished the dreaded monthly subscription fee, it has come at a cost. Many rightly claim that free MMORPGs have much lower quality than the traditional pay-to-play MMORPG offered by Western developers such as Electronic Arts or Blizzard. This might of been true at first but many of today’s free games have excellent production value that even rival those of subscription MMORPGs. Games like Project Powder and MegaTen are both high quality titles available for free that defy the stereotype.
While progress has been made on quality, free MMORPGs still lack a very important feature that comes naturally to classic titles such as EverQuest or WoW and that is community. The social experience in a MMORPG is arguably the most important aspect. It’s what separates the genre from its single player cousin, the RPG. Most pay to play games are designed in a way that encourages player cooperation and team work. Few classes in Vanguard, for example, are self sufficient and thus require the assistance of other players to progress. Most free to play MMORPGs try to make each player as self sufficient as possible. The worst thing that can happen to an average Ragnarok Online player is running into a fellow gamer with the audacity to hunt in the same spot as him. Since many free MMORPGs are developed in South Korea where popular f2p titles such as MapleStory and Mir 2 originated, they all have this basic lack of social necessity.
The difference is not hard to spot. Anyone with wide experience in the MMO field knows firsthand how Asian ‘grindfests’ differ from community driven epics such as the original EQ. A good MMORPG will find a way to incorporate elements of both styles. Some people do genuinely prefer to play alone. This is why World of Warcraft has been such a success both in America and in China. Gamers can go at it alone from level 1 to 80 but must work together to defeat the most powerful bosses. As the free-to-play market grows and Western developers get more involved in it, we can only hope that more MMORPGs with hybrid social emphasis are released. Judging by the rapid progress that has been made in the realms of graphics and gameplay, I’m confident we won’t have to wait long.