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Contributors: BillMurphy,MikeB,garrett,SBFord,Grakulen,

The Rise (and potential fall) of F2P

Posted by BillMurphy Tuesday February 23 2010 at 4:45PM
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I’ve been playing a lot of the recently “soft-launched” Allods Online this week, as I assume a lot of folks have. Sure enough it’s very much like most games that came before it, and sure enough the proposed prices for items in the game’s Item Shop are ludicrous to the point of launching a tirade of epic proportions across the blogosphere, but at the heart of it all lies a very engaging game that I can’t seem to stop playing even while Mass Effect 2 beckons me from my desktop. Allods is a quality game judging by my first hours spent in Astrum Nival’s world, and it’s just the latest title to come along and challenge the notion of “free = crap”.

Of course the argument could be made that with an item shop in place, the game’s not actually free, but the game itself is free to download and enjoy and that’s good enough for me. So let’s put the revenue models and the price-points of F2P games on the backburner for now and instead talk about how what was once a trend reserved for barely passable Asian imports is now a movement belonging to a slew of particularly enjoyable titles.

Runes of Magic came out of left field last year to surprise gamers with a highly playable theme-park experience akin to Blizzard’s World of Wacraft. Dismissed by skeptics initially, the quality of play eventually earned Frogster’s game a space right alongside some of the more regaled titles in the industry today. Sony’s FreeRealms is a similar case of a developer really crafting an engaging and unique experience for minimal initial cost. Not really a traditional MMO experience, players can do everything from race go-karts to deliver mail while still saving room for grander combat centric quests. The argument could be made that for the price of “free’ you get more game from FreeRealms than you do most retail offerings.

Alongside FreeRealms, SOE’s even toying with the idea of making their spy-centric MMO “The Agency” free to play when it finally launches later this year. A hybrid shooter/MMORPG, The Agency is decidedly more hardcore than FreeRealms, and will likely make use of RMT to drive revenue for the developer. As long as said micro-transactions don’t too heavily influence the game’s PvP I can’t imagine many gamers will complain of being able to play James Bond or Jason Bourne for cheap.

Wizard101 also came out last year to low expectations and proceeded to win over parents and kids alike with an engaging (and family-friendly) story, an addictive card-based battle system, and plenty of content and mini-games to boot. Of course with W101, players must eventually pay a subscription to access all the game’s content, but at ten bucks a month, it’s also decidedly cheaper than other games in the genre.

And need we forget about Turbine’s Dungeons and Dragons Online? Here was a game on the brink of extinction that has seen new life by changing their revenue model from subscription to F2P. More importantly, Turbine did F2P right. Prices are reasonable, you get a good amount of content for your money, and if you want some real perks you can even subscribe monthly for additional benefits.

And while we see a rise in quality for these free offerings on the market, there has to be money made somewhere, right? And that’s where the problems set in, as we’ve seen this week with Allods PR struggles. What’s strange about Allods is that it’s such a quality game players have been stating left and right that they’d gladly offer up a subscription to enjoy it. And then the initial “Open Beta” prices for the gPotato store were released and all hell broke loose. Fans started doing the math and finding that with their gaming habits they’d wind up spending over a hundred dollars a month to enjoy the raiding and other features of Allods. Something’s most definitely afoot, and the company is clearly reading feedback to hopefully readjust their pricing to something more palatable.

It’s obvious from the buzz around the internet that people are enjoying the game, and that they want to pay something for it, but they’d also like to afford food and shelter (though maybe not healthcare as it’s become far too costly anyway). As the F2P model rises in the West, the real trick for developers and publishers is to find that sweet spot of what the player sees as a good deal, and what actually means sustainable and profitable to the company.

It’s fantastic that the quality of free games has gotten to the point where I can think of Allods and Runes of Magic right alongside some of the industry’s heavy-hitters. After years of subpar imports, I never thought I’d see the day. But I’ll just as soon go back to games that allow me unlimited access for a low monthly fee if you’re going to make me apply for a second mortgage to enjoy my “free” game.