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The Devil's Advocate: The Barrier Called 'Free'

Column By Victor Barreiro Jr. on April 18, 2012

Long ago, before I started writing for MMORPG.com, I wrote a three-part series of articles on Barriers to Entry in MMOs.  In those old blog entries, I discussed the barriers of account creation and technical support, differences between personal preferences and game mechanics, and the community behind a game.

 I’ve been revisiting my drafts of those entries in light of the current landscape of MMO gaming, and I’ve decided to bring up what I feel is a new barrier to entry in enjoying an MMORPG, and that’s the word “free.”

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The word “free” has a literal meaning that we apply to games, as well as some culturally relevant associations we bring based on the history and growth of MMO gaming. In this case, the meaning of free as it applies to games is “free-to-play,” which means it requires no upfront cost to playing the game other than the need to have a computer and a connection to the internet.

The barrier, however, comes with the connotation derived from the terms “free” and “free-to-play,” and the perceived stigma behind it. Today’s Devil’s Advocate is an examination of the ideas that make up this new mental barrier, as well as an attempt to understand how it came to be.

The Mental Barrier

There are two big ideas that play in many minds when it comes to the idea of a free-to-play game, and these create the mental barrier that can create a dismissive attitude towards a particular game that waves the flag of “free.” The first is that the game is limited or encourages a “pay-to-win” system as a result of its free-to-play status, while the second is that the game may not be very good because it happens to be a free-to-play game.

Regarding the pay-to-win bit, most MMO developers understand that selling massive increases in power is akin to creating your very own public relations nightmare while acquiring an upsurge in spending from wealthier players who can afford to purchase those services.

Of course, that hasn’t stopped some games from having questionable microtransactions. There exist debatable things like LOTRO’s inventory-reducing premium wallets or more obvious money-for-power transactions like Realms Online’s scrolls of mastery (which gave max level characters the chance to purchase an item that’d raise a second character to max level instantly. I have no clue how well this worked out for Realms Online or if it’s still in effect).

Most games that carry the “free” moniker, however, deal with in microtransactions that are cosmetic changes, fluff items such as mounts or in-game items that don’t have significant impact on gameplay, short-term enhancements, or skill-gain multipliers. These, for the most part, do very little to change the game other than to allow players the opportunity to zip past leveling blocks they stumble across or to look good while playing. Either way, most games tend to be upfront about what they have available for purchase, so folks who are put off with one game providing items they don’t agree with can shop around for a good game that supports the way they want to play in a healthy compromise with a developer’s need to recoup costs, pay workers, and allow for further development.

Regarding the issue of finding a good game to play, it’s probably more difficult for people to find a free MMO that isn’t good. While there still are some less-than-fun games out there, there are at least 10 solid MMOs that have gotten revitalized as a result of a transition from subscription-based to free-to-play. These include Everquests I and II, LOTRO, Dungeons and Dragons Online, and Star Trek Online.

Aside from that, you have your sandbox MMO in Wurm Online, superhero offerings from DC Universe Online, Champions Online, and City of Heroes: Freedom, post-apocalyptic goodness in Fallen Earth, and gun-toting fun in APB: Reloaded. If you’re hunting for something more anime-inspired (which also didn’t start off as a sub-based game), there are plenty of options as well, though my favorites lean toward Lucent Heart and Dragon Nest.

Again, these are all free-to-play with some semblance of a cash shop for revenue. While they may not fit everyone’s cup of tea, the list above does present plenty of options for gaming, if you’re willing to accept that they aren’t game changers by any stretch of the imagination.

Bringing Up Demons

It feels like I’m drudging up demons by talking in brief about the shift from subscription-based to free-to-play MMOs. However, it is a necessary step to get to the final point, so I shall delve in as best I can without stirring up nasty skeletons.

The nature of the free MMO as a less desirable counterpart to the subscription-driven MMO probably has its roots in the imaginations of the long-standing player. The farther back we go, the more we notice that Western MMOs started off as subscription-based games. This is debatable, depending on whether you start with a graphical MMO or a MUD, but I digress. The point is, there was a time when quality MMOs connoted subscription-based play. 

As time progressed and the MMO gaming populace grew, the number of games made available to the public using subscriptions also rose. Sadly, it was not a directly sustainable venture to keep every MMO running on subs, we saw the death of many an subscription-driven MMO attempt, and something had to change.

Because of the need to adapt to the changing climate and saturation of the MMO gaming space, the arrival of the free-to-play movement as a steadily growing force became evident.

Sadly, the stigma of low quality associated with the free-to-play banner, as well as the connotations of power-buying through purchases from Asian MMOs keep certain types of gamers from trying a new game, even if that game just happens to be something similar to a game they’re paying a sub for.

As someone who tries both subscription based and free-to-play games, I find myself enjoying the fact that almost every week or so, I can see a new (though strangely similar) world brought to my eyes through the lens of different developers. I’m traveling right now, and while I can’t play my staple games on this low-powered netbook, I can still enjoy a fun sandbox in the form of Wakfu, or something more pirate through Kultan, and I find myself all the richer for having the experience of breaking through my own mental barrier and trying something new and free.

Besides, if you don’t really spend anything, and you find yourself having fun in a new free-to-play game, you haven’t really lost much, have you?

Victor Barreiro Jr. / Victor Barreiro Jr. maintains the the Landmark/Everquest Next and Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn columns for MMORPG.com. He also writes for news website Rappler as a technology reporter. You can also find him on Twitter at @vbarreirojr.

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