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Top Ten Free-to-Play Games - Car Shopping

Posted Sun, Jan 25, 2009 by Ralsu

If a MMOG were a car, her engine would be the gameplay features, story, and combat system. The graphics for that MMOG would represent her body and paint job. In the case of F2P MMOGs, players often face titles aiming to compete with Corvettes in the body of a Beetle; numerous F2P games use cartoony graphical styles that cause some people to overlook them. I have a few theories about why developers choose these styles.


If a game starts looking too real, just add bloom and/or oversized weapons!

Cultural Differences

A large number of F2P games are created in China and Japan, and both of those countries have a larger tolerance for anime-style graphics than most Western nations. For instance, as much as Easterners value their elderly, they also prize the enthusiasm and innocence of their youth.  Cartoony graphics hearken to the viewpoint of children, a perspective that is not clouded by the stresses of adult life. It is fun for gamers to visit a world where everything is colorful and playful and where it’s acceptable to embrace the levity of life. Thus, games like Dream of Mirror Online are a big hit among adults in the East while many adults in the West take one look at the graphics of the title and assume it is for children.

In contrast to the escapist attitude of many Eastern gamers, folks in the West want to visit alternate realities. A person who toils all day to make ends meet doesn’t want to escape life and return to the innocence of his childhood. He wants to take control in the world—and maybe blow up some stuff. Westerners gravitate toward more the realistic graphics featured in titles from Korean developers like YNK (see Rohan: Blood Feud). But even those Korean developers often add a heavy dose of bloom lighting to lend a surreal quality to their life-like graphics. This can be a turn off to the Western gamer who enjoys the grit of reality in his gaming world.

Cartoons Can Do Ridiculous Things

The Simpsons creator Matt Groening once explained that his preference for the animated medium is partly due to the fact that it allows him to do crazier things with his characters. Similarly, games that look like real life evoke expectations of reality. Players anticipate earth-like gravity and laws of physics. They are greatly annoyed by that one rock out by the bandit camp that floats six feet above the ground. In other words, graphical mistakes become more noticeable when games try to emulate reality. And don’t even get me started on the uncanny valley of character models.

Mabinogi may look cute, but it has a lot of depth.

Attempts to render the real world in 3D undergo more scrutiny than cartoons. Dogs can talk in cartoons without the audience batting an eye, and character models do not need to be proportionate. Characters can die and come back, fly, gain massive weight and then lose it, and even defy the laws of physics in cartoons. The lessened sense of analysis and expectation that comes with animation makes it an appealing choice for game design for F2P developers who frequently lack the capital to spring for full 3D rendering with realistic textures.

Parting Thoughts: Don’t Mistake Cute for Child’s Play

Play Mabinogi for a month before you decide it’s a game for children just because it uses cartoon-like graphics. Sure, Mabinogi is suitable for youngsters, but the cute exterior belies a deep gameplay system that is very appealing to adults. It makes the process of choosing a good F2P title harder, but never assume that a “cutesy” game is aimed only at teens. Currently, only one game with the cute exterior sits in my Top Ten (DOMO), but I have enjoyed many others.

My Ford Escort has gotten me from point A to point B for ten years now; be open to the possibilities that you don’t need a Corvette to have a fun ride. I never count out a game just because it uses anime-style graphics.

Got something to say about the cute factor in free-to-play games? Email Ralsu.

The Top Ten

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