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The RPG Files: Steam and the Rise of F2P RPGs

Columns By Christopher Coke on December 18, 2015

Steam and the Rise of F2P RPGs

Valve introduced an interesting new feature to Steam this year in the form of personalized recommendations. Using what can only be described as black magic, the storefront analyzes your purchases and pushes its “best bets” to the front, creating a “queue” of likely purchases. Being the RPG and MMO player I am, I get the typical smattering of blockbusters and indies, but lately, I’ve been getting more and more Free to Play games, and not MMOs. I was skeptical but had to know, were any of these worth the time?

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Plus the week’s news: Marvel Heroes gets a new endgame mode, Elite: Dangerous gets planetary exploration, Diablo 3 takes on a new form of narrative, and more!

To get this out of the way first, I didn’t go through and play all of these games. As a matter of fact, I think it’s important to admit that my first reaction was cynicism. I’ve played MMOs long enough to know that F2P always comes with some kind of caveat which often spoils some big part of the game if you don’t pay up. There are exceptions, sure, but I like how Jim Sterling put it:

Microtransactions aren’t optional – they are always designed to be bought because no business creates a product it doesn’t want to sell. Hence, gameplay is always affected somehow, even if you never buy them. Something is done to try and tempt you, because that’s how freemium elements work.

Say it with me – even if you never make a single [sic] microtransactions, its presence in the game is never optional.

Which is why, when I saw these game recommendations that were completely free to play and not just adding in fluff, my first thought was that they would be crap shoots. Still, my grandmother always had a saying about assumptions, so I did some digging.

First off, despite showing up in my recommendations and being literally plastered up and down the RPG listings, most of these games are not straight-forward RPGs. Which, believe it or not, makes a world of difference. Most were either thin-as-paper MMOs, Diablo-esque action RPGs, or the latest Minecraftian survival rip-off glomming onto the bandwagon a year too late. Even those that would fall in line with what you would expect from a real RPG had multiplayer elements.

Which made a lot of sense. As a player, I’m a lot more likely to buy a fresh skin if there is someone else around to see it. I’m also more likely to buy a booster when I need to keep up with the Joneses. If it’s a single-player game, all of that falls by the wayside. People buy fluff in any game, but it’s a harder sell without social pressure adding on.

Seeing that there were far too many games to try myself, I did the next best thing and started researching user reviews. I went through pages and pages of game listings in the RPG category, finding and sending every F2P game off to their own tab for review. I didn’t get through them all, of course, but this wasn’t a scientific study.

The results? Brace yourself: overwhelmingly mediocre. The vast majority of games had mixed reviews. Action RPGs and better known/niche MMOs, were more likely to tend positive, which should come as no surprise. Games that just barely qualify as hybrids also were more likely to be positive, but then again, they just barely qualified to even be considered. The rest all justified the apathy I felt from the outset. Cash grabs. Pay to win. Shallow. Low quality. Buggy. Derivative. In fact, the most common positive I came across what that the games were “good enough.” For what? Being free? That’s not exactly a glowing endorsement.

In short, the RPG space suffers the same inundation of utter shovelware that has plagued the MMO industry for years. Many of them shoehorn in multiplayer purely as an excuse to sell you something and join the procession of forgettable grinders and pseudo-MMOs. However, Steam makes this issue seem far worse by throwing everything with a leveling system into the RPG category and then stubbornly refusing to sort out MMOs from the single-player RPGs.

Of what I researched, some are obviously better than others and break the mold with what they offer, so we should take care not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Immortal Empire has positive reviews, for example, and actually seems to be doing something unique by blending Diablo-like gameplay with turn-based combat. Others push enough into the MMO and RPG spaces to satisfy a healthy portion of players. I doubt I would be among them, but I’m not the target audience.

Which is really what made me consider all of this in the first place. I’m rich on options and poor on time. Unless it’s a competitive game, I don’t play free because, honestly, who would bother with high pressure sales tactics if they didn’t have to? So why, then, does Steam incessantly push them into my queue when I so rarely even browse them?

Is it just me?

Quick Hits

Planetary exploration has made its way into Elite: Dangerous. And you know what? I have to eat some crow here. I’ve picked on Elite in the past but they’ve been expanding and adding far beyond what that other space game has been able to accomplish. Exploring billions of procedurely generated planets in a simulacrum of our own universe? I’m in.

Level boosts in Destiny are now for sale in the European PlayStation Store. Don’t rejoice yet, since they’re currently selling for $30, nearly the cost of the entire Taken King expansion. They should add price gouging as a back-of-the-box feature. It’s a staple of the Destiny experience.

Hand of Fate has received a trio of updates with more to come. This shouldn’t come as a surprise in a game rooted in the TCG experience but is good news for fans nonetheless.

Speaking of updates, Marvel Heroes fans are getting a brand new end game mode called “The Danger Room.” It’s an event unlike any other due to randomization but also promises to stay fresh for some time to come.

The Diablo 3 team has profiled the new zone coming to the game in version update 2.4. Titled Greyhollow Island, the team plans to try out a new form of narrative storytelling. It’s an adventure zone, so not an update to the central storyline one would guess, but still compelling!

Finally, if you haven’t checked it out yet, head on over to view our Best of 2015 awards to see who won for Best RPG.

Christopher Coke / Chris has been a fan of MMOs since the mid-1990s when he cut his teeth on MUDs. These days he scours the internet for the latest and greatest multiplayer gaming experiences.

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