There seems to be quite a trend happening right now towards “free to play” (f2p) MMOs that are supported by micro-transactions. There is at least some evidence that this strategy works, since in one case the result was a five times increases in revenue over the game’s previous, monthly subscription based fee structure.
In general, what the games try to do is to hook you on the game first, and then offer a range of things that make your experience easier/more fun. What kinds of things? It’s a mix of…
- removing limitations (e.g. more character slots per account, other character classes, more bag slots per character, extended character abilities, more bank space, etc.),
- providing new kinds of gear, mounts, etc. that are not available otherwise,
- and opening up new areas to adventure.
What makes or breaks these games is walking the line between making the game compelling to play for everyone, and making it obviously more fun for those who buy their way to happiness. The trick seems to be making it trivial (and cheap) to get things in game and obvious why you would want them, but not require that you buy them. If, in reality, you must buy some set of things in order to reasonably play, players will feel cheated.
Several of the games I have played (and paid a monthly fee for) in the past are now to f2p, so I figured I’d give them a try and see how the new payment strategy had affected them.
Of the ones I tried, DDO has been f2p for the longest. The game is definitely playable, for free, for as long as you care to invest the time, and there is a wide range of items for purchase. On their wiki they have a page describing the kinds of things that are available and the cost ranges.
To test the system, I purchased the ability to build characters of class Monk; the process was easy, with the store tied directly into the character creation screen. There are a few places where the game seems a bit too eager to sell you stuff (e.g. every time you open your bank it offers to upgrade you to having shared (between your characters) banks slots), but in general that side of it is easy to ignore. The newbie zone even has a quest where you can earn enough points to buy an item from the store that is required to complete the quest, just to show you the process.
One of things that works well in DDO is the ability to purchase new in game areas. Dungeons and Dragons (the pen and paper game) has always had the notion of “modules” which you purchased, and the online equivalent seems quite similar to me.
LotRO continues to be one of the most visually stunning MMOs available today. The visual design does an excellent job of capturing the feel of Tolkien’s world, and some of the in game vistas are sufficiently beautiful that it’s worth travelling to those spots just to see them. To give you some idea what I’m talking about, you can check out a previous post that showcased my main character’s in game house: Camiles new home
Speaking of main characters, that’s another way these new f2p versions of the games differ. In some games, the old characters were wiped during the switch over or are simply unavailable without continuing to pay a subscription fee (an option, I believe in all of them). To me, LotRO has the best strategy for handling existing characters: all your existing characters are preserved, and the first time you log in, if you have more characters than there are (free) slots for, you are asked to pick which ones to make available.
This game also seems to be genuinely playable, for as long as you would be interested, without costing you anything.
Now, we get to something else entirely. Rather than switch to a pure f2p strategy, what they have done in EQ2E is to offer an additional f2p mode, as well as their traditional monthly fee version. Their focus is clearly on “upselling” you the monthly fee version, as you can see from this chart: EverQuest II Extended Membership Plans. In fact, there is an in game nag screen that pops up every few hours if you haven’t upgraded to one of the subscription based levels.
I definitely found it quite challenging to play as a “bronze” member (but I have made it to level 15 already, so I know it’s possible). Almost every aspect of your character is very limited without, at a minimum, purchasing the one time upgrade to a “silver” membership. However, that’s still only a one time charge rather than a monthly fee, as the higher membership levels require. In any case, the differences between the levels are very significant: A fully decked out “platinum” member, at any level, can have twice the capabilities of a free player at equivalent level.
I don’t know if this is true in general or not, but in my case I was unable to access any of my existing EQ2 characters via the free to play option.
Realistically, I wouldn’t recommend this game unless your intent is to eventually pay the monthly fee, but at least the f2p option allows you try it out and see if you like it first. [Aside: Computers have finally caught up with the EQ2E game engine; the game runs quite well on my home machine.]
All of these games are fun to play for free, for a while. They vary quite a bit in how easy it is to play without purchasing anything, but in all cases I found it possible to treat playing for free as a challenge, rather than being simply frustrating (although in EQ2E it was close). In the long run, I’m just happy that I can now “take a vacation” into these worlds, whenever I want, without having to pay a monthly fee for the privilege. If you’re interested in trying any of them out, let me know, and I’ll come join you.