Posted Sun, Dec 28, 2008 by Ralsu
We’ve all done the math. It’s no secret that MMOGs are a great investment as far as entertainment goes. Once a gamer gets past the initial expense of the box (generally $50 US), the monthly subscription fees ($15/month US) are a bargain. I can watch only two movies per month at that rate in my town. Or I could rent four new releases from the video store. Or I could dine out one time. Spend even thirty seconds considering it, and subscribing to one MMOG is a good deal, even when the economy is tough. Still, the gamer down on his luck may find himself cutting all unnecessary expenses until he resolves financial problems, and MMOG subscriptions could fall on the chopping block. In a time when the US economy is the worst it’s been in decades, I say 2009 is poised to be the year of the free-to-play (F2P) game.
Ralsu loves Atlantica Online, but he understands it might be too different to appeal to the masses.
The unwritten caveat for my claim that now is the time for F2P games to take off is that someone has to make a great F2P game. Due to the fact that F2P games generate revenue through cash shops, developers need to prove to the Western audience that it is possible to have a cash shop that does not cheat players, unbalance the game, or charge for features that should come standard. I’ve already declared that Atlantica Online does this perfectly. It’s a superb F2P game, too, but it’s different. Different is scary to many gamers, especially in a tight market. Luckily, another top-tier F2P game that does not bend so many rules has opened itself for public consumption recently: Runes of Magic.
Runes of Magic (RoM) plays like the traditional MMOG, borrowing several of the best gameplay systems of popular AAA titles already on the market. Despite the elements it shares with its predecessors, RoM is not just a lazy copycat. It delivers a rich world that feels complete and a story to link it all together. And like Atlantica, RoM does not seem interested in fleecing players through its item mall. It provides an experience that gamers can enjoy without ever spending a cent, allowing those of us with more discretionary cash to finance the game.
I have noted and maintained that it would take a top quality game with a big name publisher to overcome the Western prejudice against item malls, but maybe all it will take is one developer that is really committed to making a great game. As it stands now, RoM is free to download and free to play. Gamers need not worry about falling behind their friends if they don’t spend money while they pay off bills or look for a new job because the merchandise in the item mall is 100% optional. Deciding not to spend money on RoM will not deter their progression. The result is that many people who subscribe to Age of Conan, Warhammer Online, or World of Warcraft are giving RoM a try during server downtime or while guild mates are visiting with family over the holidays. Most won’t give up all of their progress and ties with a guild in a subscription-based game to switch to RoM, but many will keep it installed and play it in short bursts. Some will fall in love with it eventually and may choose to support the title by making a purchase in the item mall.
Ralsu believes Runes of Magic can start building a good reputation for free-to-play games and item malls.
The reputation of F2P games increases as positive word of mouth about Runes of Magic continues to circulate. Meanwhile, Atlantica’s five servers are busy no matter what time of day I login to play. The change that has been coming slowly is closer than ever now; F2P gaming has almost arrived in the Western hemisphere. The intersection of quality F2P games and market conditions is ripe for a new way of delivering and supporting games.
I readily admit that it is hard to sift the nuggets of real gold out of the glitter of the countless other worthless F2P games. That’s part of why I chart my Top Ten Free-to-Play Games. I also understand that some customers will never settle for a game developed in a small studio on a lower-than-blockbuster budget; it will still take a big name in the gaming industry to introduce microtransactions as a viable revenue model for those gamers. Even so, the paradigm shift has already begun with the invention of Station Cash for EverQuest and EverQuest 2. It is my hope that Frogster Interactive can capitalize on the early success of Runes of Magic and bring an end to the notion that F2P has to mean substandard. It is my hope that Frogster can generate enough revenue from microtransactions to expand the content of RoM and make it give subscription games a run for their money. Finally, it is my hope that 2009 can be the year F2P gaming becomes a legitimate force in the gaming market.The Top Ten