Top Ten Free-to-Play Games - Raiders of the Lost Art

In “Video Killed the Radio Star,” the UK band The Buggles chronicle the diminishing popularity of listening to the radio with the advent of the music video. Music fans were reluctant to return to the drab days of plain music when the option of music plus images in the music video was so alluring.  Video killed the innocence of many music fans; at the very least, it forever changed their perspective. In a similar manner, metagaming has fundamentally changed the nature of raiding in MMOGs. No longer are gamers content just to see a dragon. They need it to drop uber loot for their specific class when they kill it. Battles of attrition are not as rewarding as they once were because we all expect to need a strategy. The problem is that we know we need a strategy. And we know one of the keys is timing of the raid mob’s attacks, specials, buffs, debuffs, and “surprise” adds. We already know about positioning to avoid lava splashes or tail swipes that knock us off the ledge. Thus free-to-play games must solve the raiding problem all MMOGs face in addition to the other obstacles they must surpass to succeed in a very competitive market for a simple reason: gamers know too much.

A player prepares for a raid. Or maybe that is a Special Forces soldier.

My Own Worst Enemy

Blink 182 wasn’t talking about raiding in their popular song, but they might as well have been. Raid guilds these days are organized (almost to a military standard), professional gamers. They play for long hours, practicing strategies until they perfect them. They go into a new raid encounter already assessing the situation for weaknesses. Is there a rock our healers can hide behind to be safe from AoEs? How many seconds pass between the hits for 2K damage and the big one that does 4K? This style of thinking turns raiding into a task to be accomplished rather than a monumental community experience to be enjoyed.

Of course some people get a thrill from exercising operations with the precision of a Special Forces unit, and I am not knocking those players. Even so, the play style puts great pressure on developers to churn out content to keep the game fresh and exciting. This pressure is more than most F2P games can handle. While F2P games typically launch with a fair amount of raid content (hey, it’s part of the package for any MMOG, right?), my belief is that casual gamers are able to enjoy F2P games more than their more serious counterparts.

Too Much Time on My Hands

The result for the gamers with a lot of play time (like in the Styx song) is not satisfactory. They burn through raid content very quickly, and F2P raid content even quicker. When they pay a subscription for games like Age of Conan or World of Warcraft, these highly specialized gamers can expect the developers to be hard at work building the next bit of raid content. After all, the raiders are a major driving force behind the hype for a game prior to its launch and for its subscriptions for the first six months as they race to achieve server and game firsts. F2P games work a bit differently. The casual players have a much greater influence on those games, so the lower level content retains importance longer.

My theory is that the F2P player base is much more transient, trying out new games more frequently because of the lack of initial cost. This means that F2P gamers are mired in the lower levels for longer than the average subscription game as they try out new classes and races and just generally explore the content with friends. Meanwhile, the average subscription-based game thrives on maintaining the same players who gradually move toward the end content no matter their playing style. If a pay-to-play game gets a new player, the challenge is to keep her. Why else would EverQuest 2 so drastically reduce the time to level? The goal is to be able to lure in friends and convince them that they can overcome a head start of months or even years by their peers.

Hey, Dalmarus is the one who said World of Warcraft is hurting games with a focus on raiding. Don't blame Ralsu.

Parting Thoughts

For now, it seems the biggest challenge for most F2P games is to just keep players at all. Some more established games, like Maple Story or Mabinogi, can progress like a P2P game, but those instances are few and far between. So while the formula for P2P games is to build up while polishing down below, F2P games tend to build out more with a focus on tuning existing content and offering choices on how to progress.

If a person’s pleasure with any subscription MMOG slowly fades over time, I believe it wanes twice as fast in F2P games because of the deficit of new content. I was pleased this week to see NDOORS roll out a major content update for Atlantica Online that offers two new mercenaries, a level cap raise, and new mid-level content that promises to be challenging. It seems my favorite F2P game grew up and out while managing that all-important polish mere weeks after its official launch.

In the end, I am not implying that raiding is killing MMOGs (though I believe metagaming in general just increases the pressure on developers and gamers alike). I wouldn’t want to incur the wrath of the readership as Dalmarus did when he asserted that WoW is hurting MMOGs by instilling a desire to rush to endgame content. All I am trying to say is that the gamers with the most time on their hands (the hardcore, professional raiders), won’t find much reason to love F2P games any time soon. It’s one more hurdle to jump for the developers.

The Top Ten

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