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The Free Zone: The Old Curiosity Shop

Columns By Richard Aihoshi on April 12, 2010

The Old Curiosity Shop

Yes, another column title borrowed from Dickens. It simply seemed more appropriate than any other that came to mind once I'd settled on the topic.

No, I'm not about to propose any kind of comparison or parallel between the heartbreaking tale of Little Nell's fate and the free to play business model. Neither do I intend to take the direction that might come to mind of talking about unusual items available for sale in various games' cash shops - maybe another time though since there are definitely some out there.

Instead, the reference relates to my decision to discuss is a few thoughts that popped up recently, all of which share the fact I've considered them curious for much if not all of the time I've been covering the MMOG category.

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The F2P space provides some pretty obvious examples. It's not hard at all to find self-proclaimed members of the "I'll never play any of them" club. I don't have the slightest expectation that I can convince those who are of this opinion to think otherwise. Not even a few, so although some seem convinced otherwise, I don't try. It's their prerogative to believe what they wish, and their doing so doesn't harm me in any way. And it hurts to bang my head against that wall or any other.

That said, it has always struck me as curious when these same people turn around and bemoan the lack of innovation in MMOs. It seems like they're at least partially contradicting themselves. If that's what they truly want, I would think they'd be prepared, indeed keen, to embrace change, and also to seek out thinking that doesn't stick to the beaten path. Instead, they appear to dismiss the possibility of finding it in games outside their subscription-based comfort zone.

Let me be clear that I'm not saying anyone has to like something just because it's new and different. However, the range of possible reactions isn't limited to outright rejection. For instance, how about asking if the underlying concept has any merits that could be given greater weight in different implementations. Unfortunately, it's a whole lot easier just to say simplistically that cash shops are evil and to criticize what's out there than to offer up well thought-out, constructive adaptations, witness how little we see of the latter.

In addition, if I decide, whether after due consideration or not, that something just isn't for me, why is it a problem if other people accept and even like it? As a personal example, I've never been a big fan of shooters, and that disinclination has carried over from single-player games into the MMO realm. So, I seldom play them - more than not at all, but not by very much. But hey, for those who are into them, cool. Go enjoy.

Hmm... what if a person happens to love the concept of MMOFPS but hates the F2P business model that the large majority of them use? Or web-based and social MMOs if you'd like a couple more possible examples?

Perhaps the most common response is another of my curiosities. Deprecate whatever the thing in question is. Make it out to be undesirable. For anyone. Justify refusing to play any F2P MMOFPS by reasoning that it's only possible to have fun in them by spending a lot of money. This blithely ignores the fact that millions of people - a substantial large majority of users - play them while paying nothing at all. Do all those people like not enjoying themselves? Apparently so.

And finally, for the time being at least, I've long found it curious that some people insist it's possible to have a hard, static definition for MMOs. Coincidentally, Jaime Skelton devoted her entire column to this last week, so if you haven't done so already, you can check it out for a lengthier discussion.

As for me, I'll focus what I don't understand about this attitude. For an illustration, let's go back to innovation. Isn't it a form of expanding boundaries? I appreciate that for the sake of practicality, it's sometimes helpful, even necessary to draw arbitrary lines in the sand, such as this site's requirements for games to be listed. And I'm fine with that. But to pick out an easy target, does it really make sense that a title with a server capacity of 500 is an MMO while one with 499 isn't? Of course not, and I'm sure Jon Wood et al would agree.

Nonetheless, there are still some people who appear pretty adamant that a singular definition is possible, and naturally, each of them knows what it should be. I find this very curious because I've never felt this way. Indeed, from way back in the days when UO, EQ and AC represented three very different styles of MMOs, I've wondered how the boundaries of the genre could and would be broadened, not only in terms of gameplay, but overall. And what's more, I may be more curious than ever to see what lies ahead.

The Free Zone The Free Zone Editorials
Richard Aihoshi has been writing about MMOGs since the mid-1990s, always with a global perspective. As a result, he has observed the emergence and growth of the free to play business model from its early days in both hemispheres.

He is the former Editor of RPG Vault and his column, focusing on free to play MMOs, appears on MMORPG.com every Monday.
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