Richard Aihoshi's Free Zone: F2P and the MSOG Play Style
This week in the Free Zone, Richard Aihoshi looks at single and small group play styles in free to Play MMOs.
Many serious MMOG fans think of the genre as being defined by guilds, raids and other elements that involve bunches of players doing things together. It's true there's no feeling in gaming that truly compares to multiple groups working as one to take down a boss, or to battles with dozens or even hundreds of combatants on each side. However, that's not necessarily the way most users actually play.
A lot of people either prefer the play style sometimes known as massively single-player, or spend more time within it than they might think. I doubt that there's anything approaching a universally accepted definition of this term, so for the purposed of this column, I'll use mine, even though it's something of a misnomer. When I refer to MSOG play, I'm not just talking about soloing, but also small group play similar to what you'd experience in the online mode of a standalone game.
Personally, I play a lot this way. One key reason is that unlike most people, I don't look for one game - or even a few - with the intention of playing it regularly for months or years. That's just not a very good fit for me since I want to be as familiar as any individual can be with the entire breadth of the MMOG category. With the huge number of titles out there now, it's impossible to keep up with them all, but it would be even worse if I were to concentrate a large proportion of my playing time on a small number of titles.
So, I don't. Instead, I tend to dabble. I try out a lot of MMOGs, but only for long enough to form some initial impressions. As a result, it's pretty uncommon for me to reach 100 or even 50 hours. In most cases, I don't even make it to 20. There have even been a couple where I quit after less than five.
This approach isn't perfect; one obvious fault is that I never experience end game content except when someone provides a suitably high-level character. While I usually accept when they're offered, this doesn't happen very often, and I don't request them because the main reason to do so would be for a review or impressions piece, neither of which I write very often.
One thing I've gained, though, is a greater appreciation for the MSOG play style and how it can fit very nicely with F2P games for a lot of people. Basically, if I'm not prepared to commit at least 10 to 15 hours per week, week after week, it's not likely that I'll form strong relationships with anyone from playing with them repeatedly, not even if I join a guild.
So I mainly solo, and sometimes join pick-up groups. As it happens, games tend to be most solo-friendly during the early stages, plus they're designed so level-ups and other rewards are provided more rapidly than later on. When I start to feel like I'm grinding or not being reinforced as often, it's easy to stop and move on to another title since I haven't established any strong connections to hold me.
It's pretty easy to see that the F2P category has considerable appeal for me or anyone else who isn't going to put hardcore or even average hours into a single game. What we may not realize, however, is that there are millions of players like this. Sure, some start out like this and get hooked, but a lot continue to play in what's often called a casual manner.
Another consideration is that not getting to the end or even the mid-game means it's far less likely people will feel they have to spend money to compete. If I know I don't play enough to keep up with people, and don't have friends I want to keep up with anyway, what do I care if some others buy better weapons, bonus EXP items and other things that speed up their advancement?
What this means, in effect, is that one of the major mantras of the vocal anti-F2P minority is relatively or completely unimportant in the MSOG play style. If people choose not to spend anything, it really doesn't have much of a negative impact on them. And if they do, it's likely to be in small amounts like they'd pay with nary a second thought for a snack or cup of coffee.
As I said at the beginning of this column, there's nothing like certain forms of play that are only available in the "true" or "pure" MMOG play style. But there's clearly a place for MSOG as well, perhaps a rather substantial one. I don't have any data, but I do wonder how much of a role the latter is playing in the explosive growth of the F2P category.