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Nickel and Dime: Designing Games in a Free to Play Market

Garrett Fuller Posted:
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I am not sure when the trend started or how we got to the Free to Play world we now live in. It all started with gold farmers in my book. Across the Pacific Ocean games were being designed around item shops long before they ever came here. While that was going on, Western games were being played to sell currency and items for real world money. Why spend the time when you can spend the cash? These two trends met and made friends really quickly and started a new club called Free to Play. What does it do to our original MMO hardcore fan base? We started this virtual universe and now it has been turned into a shopping mall.

My issue with F2P is not as much with the name, but the trend we are now seeing in games. Games are being designed simply as market places to sell virtual goods. This may work for the casual player who has to keep their Petville house clean and with nice furniture, but it does not work for MMO players. At least not for me, I play games for gameplay more than anything else. Sure, I like my characters to look cool and all, but that is never the true driving force. If there was a cute and fuzzy bunny MMO with insane PvP and cool boss fights and the bunnies could rip themselves to shreds, well then I would like to play it. Damn, my childhood memories of Watership Down just passed through my head. If the gameplay is good the players will come. However, when an entire game is being designed around selling virtual items, is anyone on the team thinking about gameplay?

I confess to actively playing Petville recently. Yep, I am in and I have a house. I don’t want flowers and I don’t want wallpaper. I made my pet look as much like a gremlin from the 80’s movie as possible, the ugly kind, and I named him Pukey. I found a viking helmet for him, a skeleton t-shirt and a door that looks like a dungeon cell with eyes in the dark. So now what do I do? Well, I logged in for a few days to give him a bath (creepy) and clean up the house. I got to visit friends and clean their houses. I earned points and sent gifts. Then I found myself in the virtual shopping mall, over and over again. Sure, the Tiki-Man costume is cool, but I am not spending real money on it. So, Pukey’s virtual life is pretty darn boring at this point. Sigh, a game built around a vitual shopping mall. I cannot even log in and order a custom made Pukey plushy for real to have on my pillow at home. Oh wait, I hear them running off to create that feature next in the game….cha-ching!

 So Pukey’s virtual world is, well pathetic. Yet somehow Petville satisfies the masses. MMO companies who have had a loyal fan base for over a decade now are beginning to look at these games as the answer to making more money. Yes they are. If you don’t believe that, look at the Celestial Steed in WoW. OK, it looks cool if you are an Alliance Paladin, sorry folks I play Horde…so no sale here. Yet, I cannot deny that if Blizzard came out with an awesome looking Orcy flying beast with fangs and coolness I wouldn’t drop the cash on it right away. I would. Smack, I just hit myself for that, but it is true. See, WoW has the game play though. All the pre-established MMOs do. EQ2 went and did the exact same thing within a month. Copycats… This is where the fine line is drawn in pre-established games. They don’t want to upset the balance, but they do want to make more money. Sadly, we players proved it. From my memory several  hundred thousand Celestial Steed mounts were sold in WoW within the first week. At $25.00 a clip, they equates to several million dollars added to Blizzard’s horde almost instantly.  I am unsure on the EQ2 numbers, but if they were even twenty-five percent as good as WoW’s then the players who bought mounts just turned our games into a real cash virtual goods shopping mall.

Pre-established games are not my fear though. The games that are set to come out are. Everyone is looking at pricing models and free to play, everyone. Want a purple light-saber in Star Wars: The Old Republic, guess what? You might just have to pay $10.00 for it. Of all companies, EA is likely plotting more than anyone on how to exploit the vitural market place. Blizzard is likely working on a new mount to sell as I write this. In 2011, every game that launches will have some kind of virtual mall. I am all for paying for a good game or a good service. However, this will go overboard in many ways.

Game companies will pump out games so quickly to make some quick cash in their item shops that they won’t bother putting much into game play. If you think I am wrong, try Petville. Sure it is funny, for about a week, but then it goes dry real fast. Will my experience with this game happen across the board with games that are created this way? I hope so, because I would still like to see online games that are made with gameplay in mind. See, RPGs are about questing and achieving, not buying. I like to think that playing games I learn skills and have fun. I am not into paying real world money for my healing potions. Sure, companies will tell you they won’t do that, but that is next.

Even though this article may read like a rant. It is not, it is a statement on what game developers are creating and what some of us have proven they should create. The old MMOs remain, the ones still popular are opening their mall doors, but the ones to come is where my fear really begins. That may be the time I get back together with my old D&D group and sit down at a table to play a game, instead of just going shopping.


Garrett Fuller

Garrett Fuller / Garrett Fuller has been playing MMOs since 1997 and writing about them since 2005. He joined MMORPG.com has a volunteer writer and now handles Industry Relations for the website. He has been gaming since 1979 when his cousin showed him a copy of Dungeons and Dragons. When not spending time with his family, Garrett also Larps and plays Airsoft in his spare time.