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, its 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.
Im not spending much time on step number one because I feel confident that even the Ten Ton Hammer staff cant 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 lets 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 cant 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 its 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 isnt 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 dont 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!
Identifying the quality of a game is the most elusive step in building my Top Ten list. Gamers can often agree on universally good games (like World of Warcraft) or universally bad games, but everything that falls in the middle gets muddy. Do I rank free titles only among themselves, or do I compare them to pay-to-play offerings, too? For certain, picking good titles is a process subjective to the gamer, and my opinion should never be taken as scientific fact just because I have voice in a media outlet. Part of the fun of gaming is debating the qualities of each title with other players.
To be completely honest, even I (a huge proponent of F2P gaming and microtransaction models) find the quality of F2P games leaves a lot to be desired. Atlantica Online is far and away the exception to the rule, and the title from NDOORS is good enough to stand toe-to-toe with P2P offerings like Warhammer Online in my opinion. The gap between Atlantica and the rest of the games on my list is rather large in my mind, and the gap between my #4 (Dungeon Runners last week) and the next game is huge again.
By #6 (DOMO last week), I consider the games to be pretty average compared to P2P titles. I frequently feel like swapping in and out different #10s just because I dont believe one game is significantly better than another. This is why I so often focus on upcoming titles (Warrior Epic, for instance) that promise to offer something new. In fact, one of the primary reasons I am so enamored with Mabinogi is because of its quirky features, like farming and playing musical instruments. Put Requiem in the standard fantasy setting and its not nearly as impressive as it is when its horror setting is taken into account. Defining good is hard, especially with such a burgeoning format like F2P gaming.
Whats the Point? (Parting Thoughts)
As the cost of producing quality games skyrockets, companies will continue to investigate methods to maximize profits while minimizing risks. That means we assuredly will see more P2P titles that also adopt microtransactions for convenience items and services (like character transfers). It also will mean more F2P titles will offer bargain subscriptions and affordable box sales. I only see the line between F2P and P2P continuing to blur. I have my own definitions for MMOG, free, and good; still, I dont want to try to define things too rigidly and cause a gamer to miss a whole lot of fun.
I think maybe it is time for a change. My Top Ten list needs to introduce readers to some free gaming experiences (at least initially free) and then allow the players to define the rest for themselves. Look for a name change soon; Ill be talking about the best free (to download) games I have tried, and Ill trust you to decide if it meets your criteria for being free-to-play. So long as I provide a clear explanation about potential costs and restrictions, the most important person, the reader, can define the free part.
The Top Ten
Continue to page two to see Ralsu's latest Top Ten list.
As if I am not introducing enough changes this week, I am bowing to pressure to stop referencing games that are not available to download and play in this Top Ten. Doing so eliminates a few titles from the list: Neo Steam, Free Realms, and Warrior Epic. To replace them, I am moving in some old titles that had dropped off. I think each is a decent representation of the potential of free products, but they all miss the high standards set by numbers 1-5.
Instead of adding games closed to the public to the Top Ten, I will be adding a mini-list of titles I have my eye on each week. Youll still find Warrior Epic on "The Watch List" despite a recent announcement that the next stage of closed beta is delayed until further notice. I have faith in that one, but I cant say more.
April 6, 2009
Last week: 1
|Atlantica Online - (http://atlantica.ndoorsgames.com/)
Atlantica is a squad-based fantasy strategy game that breaks the mold. Players can control up to nine characters at once in fast-paced turn-based combat. A lot of the systems in Atlantica are different from the standard fare on the market.
Last week: 2
|Mabinogi - (http://mabinogi.nexon.net)
Mabinogi provides so many things to do that it earns its self-appointed moniker of A Fantasy Life. Players can farm, play music, hunt, craft, go to school and more in this fantasy land. In Mabinogi, combat is not the only way to advance.
Last week: 3
|Runes of Magic -
Runes of Magic is a traditional fantasy game that uses a Dual Class system to inject a little strategy into character planning and a lot of flexibility into grouping. RoM has all of the features gamers want in a subscription-based game, but theyll enjoy them for free here.
Last week: 4
|Dungeon Runners -
Dungeon Runners is a hack and slash fantasy game that infuses every aspect of gameplay with humor. DR makes fun of other games, the genre, and even itself. This is the perfect game for a player looking to blow off steam after a rough day at work.
Last week: 5
|Requiem: Bloodymare - (www.playrequiem.com)
Requiem: Bloodymare is a horror-themed game that blends the traditional elements of MMOGs with the visceral feel of a gore film. Requiem is worth a look because of its fresh take on setting in MMOGs.
Last week: 6
|Dream of Mirror Online - (http://domo.aeriagames.com)
Aeria Games & Entertainment
Dream of Mirror Online puts the player in the starring role of a classic Chinese myth. The eastern-based lore provides a refreshing twist on MMOGs, and the multi-class system makes character development in this fantasy game fun.
Last week: 7
|Shin Megami Tensei: Imagine - (http://megaten.aeriagames.com)
Aeria Games & Entertainment
Shin Megami Tensei: Imagine Online brings the popular RPG to life in the MMOG sphere. Players can use friendly persuasion or aggressive coercion to get demons to fight by their side. The dark subject matter and modern setting of the game is a welcome contrast to the enchanted glens filled with pixies we often find in MMOGs.
Last week: N/A
|Rohan: Blood Feud -
(www.playrohan.com) YNK Interactive
Rohan is a traidtional fantasy MMOG with deep lore and nice graphics. The world features intense PvP, gambling, and a few creative systems for managing gear. The level curve steepens midway through the game while the story diminishes.
Last week: N/A
Exteel is a visceral PvP-centric game featuring mechs and beautifully designed levels. Exteel uses a lobby system to connect players, and people can upgrade their mechs with resources found in game or purchased from the item mall.
Last week: N/A
|CABAL Online -
CABAL Online drops players in a brutal world where people are on the verge of extinction. Combat is pretty fast, and the difficulty level runs higher than the average game. The game requires grinding or grouping from an early level because of abrupt shifts in the difficulty of mobs.
The Watch List
- Florensia (playable now)
- Free Realms (about to enter closed beta)
- Neo Steam (offline for enhancements)
- Warrior Epic (offline for enhancements)
- Wizard101 (playable now)
About This List
Please refer to the Top Ten Free MMOGs Portal to find out how to get a game you make or like on this list.