Why Free to Play MMOs Still Have a Ways To Go

The protest is getting out of hand

The payments are getting out of control

One of the new trends in online computer gaming is the free to play model, which shouldn’t be confused with the Buy to Play model. Let me explain the differences in where computer gaming is today.

Buy to Play: The Buy to Play model is where you buy the game, and then you get to play it forever for free. Usually, the game is expensive, like $59.99 for both Diablo III and the same price for Defiance. The upside to it is that you continue to play the MMO forever, but you had to pay the full price for the game beforehand. How the company makes money is both from the initial sale and from any purchases you make in the game after that. Also, if they create an expansion pack, they’ll charge you for that. Almost every Buy to Play MMO I’ve bought has been a waste of money. Diablo III was the first of the lot, and it sucked badly. It was fun in the very beginning, but after a short while you started to realize that the whole game was designed around Blizzard’s desire to get you to spend money in their auction house. There was little value, and the game got stale really, really fast.

Defiance was a bit more fun, in my opinion, but it was mainly an unfinished game that kept promising to be so much more. I paid extra money for the downloaded content that they were going to be providing, but they’ve been really slow at doing that, so basically I stopped playing and lost the money I spent for downloaded content that they never got around to providing. They keep promising it, but promises are nice fantasies that don’t generally pan out.

The third of the buy to play games out there was Sim City, which was the latest version of a very popular franchise. The beginning of the game was a lot of fun, almost like playing Sim City 3000 again for the first time. And then the game sort of collapsed on itself because it was designed badly so that once your city hit a certain size, it basically just imploded on itself and became a nightmare to fix (translation: not fun). They keep putting out fixes for the game, trying to win back the very pissed off customer base, but as I was very pissed off with the game, all I noticed them doing was trying to port the bugged game over to Mac while ignoring addressing any of the issues that were wrong with the game, almost as if not admitting it would make the problems go away. I have no intentions of going back to the game any time soon.

Another version of the Buy to Play model was Guild Wars 2, which was a lot of fun going from Level 1 to about 30, and then the game just became tedious (at least for me). Others are still playing it and having a great time, but it never did much for me after a certain time. The game relies on other people playing with you, and as the game becomes less and less populated, the game becomes that much more difficult.

But Guild Wars 2 falls into the main reason I decided to make this post. You see, now that the game has been bought, the developers rely on the player base to continue making purchases to keep the game afloat. I’ll talk about that in a second. This can work if you offer something of value to the customer playing the game, but what I’m seeing is that game companies are becoming very greedy, wanting to charge you for all sorts of stupid stuff, which makes paying for it that much more tedious. An example: in Neverwinter, the latest of the free to play games, if you want to buy a bag to carry things in, you can’t ever make one but have to actually buy one from the “Zen” store, which basically has translated to $10 for a bag to carry around 24 items. A bit expansive for something that should have some way in the game to create, which it basically doesn’t. You might be able to buy a bag from another player through the auction house, but essentially, that player bought the bag through the Zen store first, so Neverwinter always gets its money. All mounts cost money, as do most companions (your partner in the game) that’s decent enough to rise above Level 15 (a purpose companion can rise to Level 30).

Some of the MMOs that used to be pay to play have become free to play, or buy to play after having failed as a pay to play type of game. These are games like City of Heroes (which closed its doors a short while ago), Star Wars The Old Republic, Lord of the Rings Online, The Secret World, Rift, Star Trek Online, and several others that used to be regular pay to play games. A few have remained dirhards, refusing to change to a free model, like World of Warcraft and I think Everquest (although I haven’t checked on that game in years, so who knows what happened).

The moral of the story is that these games exist mainly because there are players like me who are willing to pay for incidentals in the game. Now, before I go any further, I just wanted to say that I’m quite willing to pay for items in a game, if that keeps it going. I paid for a lifetime membership to Star Trek Online, mainly because I felt I wanted to support what was a very entertaining project. But when I feel like I’m being targeted for crappy sales tactics, I start to get annoyed. Guild Wars 2 did that to me, and it’s why I finally left the game. I had bought a hundred or so dollars worth of items, and mainly got annoyed at how crappy the items were in lines of cost. Star Trek Online and Neverwinter, both owned by the same company, have one of the most annoying pay items in the game, which are boxes you open with keys you have to buy, and the hope is that you might one day get a great item (a cool ship in Star Trek or a Nightmare mount in Neverwinter). Having opened several dozen boxes in Star Trek Online and about 30 boxes in Neverwinter, I”ve gotten nothing but junk, which means I’ve spent $30 on each game getting absolutely nothing of value. The fact is: You can’t buy a nightmare mount on the Zen Store, so you have to play their rigged lottery in order to actually try to get something decent. It’s the sort of thing that keeps me from wanting to spend money on a game, especially when I’m exactly the kind of player they want: Someone willing to spend money in a game.

That, to me is why the free to play model is not working. As long as you give crappy value to your products that people have to pay to get, your game is going to fail. City of Heroes suffered this way. I spent money in that game, sometimes just wanting to support a game I really enjoyed. But the value for the things I paid for were atrociously one sided (leaning towards them, not me). While the failure of that game had more to do with NCSoft being a shitty company than the game failing, their market could have probably gone a great deal of distance to have done better.

Some of the pay features of these games are really bad. I’ve heard nothing but bad things about Star Wars The Old Republic, in which they didn’t add any value by the pay store, but actually took value away from processes already in the game and then charged you for them if you wanted to get them back. That’s a crappy model for a pay store in a game. I used to play the game back when it was pay to play, and the game’s failure, to me, was that it had nothing to do at the higher levels. My understanding from others is that they haven’t done a great job of fixing that, figuring they’ll get a whole bunch of new players to run through the levels before getting bored (ignoring the players who left due to lack of content).

So what’s the solution? Start producing goods in the game that are both interesting and have value. Star Trek Online does get a bit of this right by creating new ships you can buy. Unfortunately, they don’t do enough to distinguish those new ships from the ones that used to be in the game. But it’s the right track. Neverwinter can do better by discontinuing the stupid drop boxes or by making the items that come in those drop boxes be worth a lot more value to the player. Right now, it’s like gambling at a casino where the slot machines are stuck on losing readouts each time you play them. No one wants to pay for that.

Unfortunately, like City of Heroes, I doubt the developers even care, or they may care but aren’t willing to put forth the effort to make the changes needed, convinced people will keep paying long enough to get them what they need as a payout. Defiance is an interesting variable to watch as the game was a lot of fun, but needed so much more. People tell the developers this on the game’s message boards, but you get the immediate thought that the devs just don’t care. Or they care but it’s too much work to implement change. It probably doesn’t help that Trion fired a great deal of the staff to “save money”, but that’s a subject for another post..

duaneWhy Free to Play MMOs Still Have a Ways To Go

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