Let me start by saying that by gaming standards I'm an old timer. With my 36th birthday just over a month away I have been playing MMOGs since the mid 90s when they were called MUDs (that's MMOGs that have no graphics at all for you young’ns). I have seen trends come and go, but none have bothered me the way that the free-to-play trend has recently. It has gotten so bad that I can now say that I loathe the term and the very idea of it causes bile to climb into my throat.
I do not understand the whole love affair so many seem to have with this new trend. Every time I talk to someone in the industry it seems the words “free-to-play” are on their lips. There was a time not to long ago that free-to-play was considered a joke; it was at the bottom of the social class of gaming and nothing to ever be taken seriously. It was where kids who couldn't convince their parents to give them their credit card numbers hung out. However it seems that between free social games like those found on Facebook, and then the dramatic success of Dungeons & Dragons Online going free-to-play, it's now the hip and trendy thing to be talking about.
This is the exception, not the rule!
I tried to jump on the bandwagon that so many developers and the media seem to rave about. I have played several free-to-play games and, with one exception, I would rather stab myself in the eye repeatedly with a plastic spork than play these games. Why in the world would anyone want to play this drivel? Can anyone out there honestly tell me that all things being equal they would rather play free-to-play games over the majority of subscription-based games? The graphics tend to be subpar, the bugs numerous, and the game play extremely shallow. Not to mention the communities at large tend to perpetuate a stereotype--asshats run rampant with little to no enforcement by game masters, and while it's true that every MMOG has their fair share of asshats, free-to-play games, in my opinion, have a much higher ratio.
When it comes to the mire that is free-to-play games, the one exception I have found is Dungeons & Dragons Online: Eberron Unlimited. This is the game I hear most often when people try to sell me on the success of free-to-play. I must admit that I find the game quite fun and well designed. Of course, the game was not designed to be free-to-play, so the quality is much higher. Nor is it really entirely free. I think most people will end up paying for content at some point in the game.
I believe DDOU to be the exception not the rule. DDOU’s conversion to free-to-play was a fortunate one in that Turbine had already created a game that used instancing well, making for an easy transition. This was never their intent when designing the game originally, though. DDOU is a fluke, and should not be considered typical of free-to-play games.
Regardless, Turbine is now going to attempt a free-to-play model with LOTRO, which will be much harder to pull off since LOTRO does not use the same instancing philosophy as DDOU, and SOE has just announced that EverQuest II will offer a free-to-play version of the game. Obviously, the developers have drunk the Kool-Aid and believe free-to-play is going to be the saving grace of their games. I believe they are in for a rude awakening; they will chase away customers who pay monthly subscriptions not only for a well polished and fun game, but to play with as few asshats as possible. They will not stick with you, but will move on to avoid the community that free-to-play tends to foster.
We should not waste time with games like this!
The developers are not the only ones at fault for this free-to-play mania we are swept up in. We in the press are just as responsible. Look at how many articles and reviews we give to free-to-play games. I know, I am ashamed to admit, I have written a couple of them. We dedicate way too much time and attention to these games, not only at Ten Ton Hammer, but in the gaming media in general. I am amazed when I surf all the gaming sites out there and see just how many articles or reviews are dedicated to these games. What I find more amazing is how, when I talk to journalists in person and ask them what they playing, I rarely hear the name of one of these games. I can't blame them--the games are bland, boring, and devoid of innovation. So why are we writing about so many of them? I believe it comes down to two reasons.
First, given the player numbers reported by the developers of these games it is easy to see why we think they represent the future of gaming. Many of these free-to-play games boast player numbers in the millions. I question the actual demographics of these millions. Call me old, or pompous, but I have no interest in playing with millions of people under the age of 18, or with many Eastern MMOG gamers who prefer the more standard Eastern-style MMOG. I am a Western gamer, and I want Western-style gameplay.
Second, the lack of quality MMOGs recently has created a drought for the media. A couple of years ago we had so much to look forward to that no one talked about free-to-play games. We had Warhammer Online, Age of Conan, Champions Online, and Star Trek Online to look forward to. Well, they all released and they all sucked. We knew it, you knew it, there was no hiding it. What were we supposed to write about? We couldn’t write articles and guides about games you weren’t playing. We had to fill the gap with something, and along came free-to-play games.
So, at the moment we have a hole to fill--a hole that we are filling with these god awful free-to-play games. I believe, no I pray, that free-to-play MMOGs are simply a short-lived fad that will fizzle out in the next couple of years. Developers are reluctant to spend big money on MMOGs after the colossal failings of the last batch of games.
However, there is some light at the end of the tunnel. With AAA games like Star Wars: The Old Republic and Copernicus in development, there’s a chance to swing the MMOG pendulum back toward the traditional subscription-based model. If those two games can hit it out of the park, the money will come back to traditional development. When that happens, the media will follow suit.
So a final note for developers out there. Gamers don't mind paying subscription fees. They just refuse to pay them for crappy games.