People say you should never look a gift horse in the mouth, but I'm about to shuffle up close and thoroughly inspect one’s mush cave today. And don't worry, this horse-talk is totally appropriate given the recent equine restage of Soylent Green in the UK. This week to continue my column’s established theme of “Why 1999 was better, Reasons 21-35 & 7” I’m going to talk about freebies.
I feel slightly uncomfortable taking swipes at F2P. While I can undoubtedly see the "great" in not having to commit to monthly subscriptions, the implementation is often too confusing and convoluted. After the F2P conversion of an MMO, perhaps it's the quest packs and booster items that bother me - or maybe it's just the fact that the software now closely resembles a spyware infected desktop after a sojourn to an exotic website.
I also feel uneasy talking about online freebies because I, unlike the majority of you, am a freeloading, scumbag student. Money to me is just something that falls out of my obnoxiously colored hoody as I attempt to buy junk food and booze, all the while blaring music through my headphones, texting someone, and vocalizing my every thought with the word "hashtag".
But what the hell, let’s get started.
When free-to-play conversions were first touted and attempted, I remember the MMORPG community being particularly savage towards them. We used angry phrases like "pay to win" and likened the publishers to war criminals, mass murderers, and Justin Bieber.
Fast forward a few years and now the non subscription model is well a truly in vogue. Starting with Turbine's D&D Online revolution, it seemed a great way to revive old games, allow potential players to explore somewhat forgotten MMOs, and lessen the strain on our bank balances.
Now when an online adventure hits the market we all recoil in horror when the phrase monthly fee is flaunted. It's a matter of minutes before someone creates a forum post labelled "Reason why X will fail" and only a matter of seconds before another leads with "When will X switch to F2P?".
While I think the reversal in fortune of several neglected MMORPGs is a great thing, I also view the weird and wonderful ways developers try to make cash as a nuisance.
Partly driven by real consumer concern, I can’t help but point out to everyone I’m in touching distance of that these games aren't actually free. And those that direct me towards the many pages of “how to grind the Turbine Point system” can head for the exit now. Most of these so-called "F2P" experiences are glorified trials, the type of which we might once a upon a time be giddy over when a fortnight was teased.
Instead of an out and out demo, all MMOs now have their doors seemingly flung open, but they aren't truly. Sometimes classes are withheld, along with races, which is somewhat reasonable, but then you get into the really obscure and somewhat eccentric disallowances.
Restrictions such as not being able to use a particular bag that is already in YOUR INVENTORY just seems like the online RPG equivalent of finding yourself in a clip-joint. Even stranger is the restriction of quests, and entire areas filled with NPCs that are giving you the cold shoulder like an unpopular child in a elementary school. I'm currently waiting for the "Gold Pass to use your feet" option to hit certain games’ stores.
And I know, I'm not stupid, this is all done because an MMORPG can't possibly be entirely free. I understand that the developers of this genre don't just ship a product and move on to the next piece of software - our particular hobby requires years, sometimes decades of support and I'm fine with that - but why put on such a dog and pony show to try and lure in customers?
I blame part of this on the recent successes the gaming industry has had, and also somewhat on the impossible expectations Blizzard and World of Warcraft have put on the genre. Seemingly if you don't hit multiple millions within the first 6 months, your online adventure is well and truly dead - and yet contrasting this is the culture of also never letting a game die, instead putting it in the cooler marked F2P and further saturating the market with MMOs.
And just as an aside, when Ultima, EverQuest, and Asheron’s Call launched what was their objective sales number? John Smedley, now SOE overlord, has since stated that reaching 75,000 concurrent subscribers for a year or two with EQ would have been a smash-and-grab victory for the company: has any MMO really not made their investment back at this stage? Can we not shut a few down and allow for new blood in what is an increasingly overcrowded market?
But with that put to one side, while subscription fees are still available, it does get my goat (or any other animal) that in-game shops, and advantages are present if you pay the monthly. It feels like although the world is more populated than before, the trade-off has been inheriting a particularly enthusiastic advertising company. The familiar levelling up "ding!" will soon be accompanied by a "why not go to the (in-game) lobby and buy some virtual snacks!"
I think the reason why I am so put off by this culture is because of the overall shift gaming is currently enduring towards micro transactions and out-and-out money grabbing. I'm constantly reminding myself of a time when if I actually bought a game, I bought 100% of the content its developer had available, not the 70% they thought they could get away with putting box art on.
This is a time of DLC and vanity items, which could be another article unto itself, and I can't help but feel paranoid that MMOs are headed in the same direction. Whether it's the multi-tiered subscription that costs more than its initial flat fee, or that instead of worthwhile patches, we have entered the Xbox 360 age of buying armour sets and quest lines.
But then again, I sound like the sort of boring old curmudgeon that shakes an angry fist at an iPod and wishes M.A.S.H never ended. There are countless arguments in favour of freebies, not in the least the allowance to try before we buy and experience some content without throwing down a dime.
I understand this, but I'm still put off by it. F2P offerings have changed my opinions of my favored MMORPGs, and made me feel less valued as a customer. Where I might pledge my loyalty by pinning down $15 a month to a certain MMO, I'm now being panhandled constantly, pop-ups asking if I want the game to take slightly less time with an EXP boost, or perhaps if I’d like this shiny top hat that I can't get anywhere else.
Ultimately it makes me feel less valued; it makes my sub fee feel less cherished. It makes me feel like we're headed in the wrong direction.
But then again, I'm a scumbag student, so what do I know?
Checkout last week’s Touchy Subject