Posted Mon, Apr 06, 2009 by Ralsu
Last week, I promised to examine the trend of hybrid revenue models in MMOGs and what it means for this column. The bottom line up front (BLUF we called it in emails when I worked for the US Army) is that the way games do business is changing and so my Top Ten is going to need some adjustments either in criteria or the games on the list. The long explanation…well, it’s longer. I never gave it much thought until people started questioning my criteria and games so much, but picking the best free-to-play MMOGs turns out to be pretty nuanced stuff. I need to have a definition for what makes a game MMO, what makes a game free, and what makes a game good.
I’m not spending much time on step number one because I feel confident that even the Ten Ton Hammer staff can’t agree on a definition for MMO. The basic premise is that a game needs to allow a large (massive, even) number of players to share the same space and interact with each other. Lobby games complicate this quite a bit (see Exteel, a very good game from NCsoft that can be downloaded and played for free), but at least they allow the gamers to interact via chat. Dungeons and Dragons Online takes it a step farther, providing a shared graphical chat room.
What constitutes a massive number of people is sure to vary, as it what constitutes a persistent shared space for interaction. Regardless, I decided to consider lobby games as meeting the criteria so that I would not have to ignore a cool game like Exteel just because it uses a lobby. I still wrestle with the concept, but let’s just move on.
If step one was complicated, step two is a disaster. Wizard101 is a terrific game that players can download for free and play for a long while without spending any money, but the game ends at certain zones for the freeloaders while paying members get more content. So, is Wizard101 really free if I can’t play the whole game without subscribing? Meanwhile, Guild Wars is a very fun title that can be played online for free indefinitely once gamers have bought the client. Guild Wars is F2P after the initial purchase, more so than Wizard101 anyway, but it’s not really free is it? Dungeon Runners restricts some items for its paying members only, which is technically holding players back from accessing some content. Does that mean it isn’t truly free?
As I debate these issues, AAA publishers are busy introducing real money transactions to just about every pay-to-play game on the market. Sony Online Entertainment has done so with EverQuest II and Vanguard. SOE is also hard at work on Free Realms, a game advertised as F2P but that we have already discovered will have zones exclusive to paying members.
The longer I look at this problem, the harder it gets to solve. Basically, a free game to me has always been one that costs nothing to download or install (ruling out Guild Wars) and nothing to access even end-game content (ruling out Wizard101). So long as a piece of equipment is not needed to successfully complete end-game content, I don’t consider lack of access to it without paying to mean much (leaving Dungeon Runners in the mix). I want readers to not have to spend a penny from beginning to the level cap to enjoy the games I recommend, but who am I to define the end of the game? See, I told you it was complicated!