Digital Tabletop: Free to Play On The Rise

While the free to play MMO isn’t a new thing, there are now plenty out there compared to when I started playing MMORPGs way back when. Converting over to the free model is something new, especially for ailing MMOs who have seen their player base drop considerably and rely on them to keep the game going. It also gives paying subscribers someone to play with in the free content areas. So far it’s proven to be lightning striking twice for Turbine with Dungeons and Dragons Online followed by their Lord of the Rings Online not long after. Cryptic abruptly changed Champions Online from a subscription game to a free to play title, and there have been grumblings among the online community that others might head that way as well. It’s all speculation, but if it works well for Cryptic with Champions Online as well as it has for Turbine, I’d bet it’s something we might see with lots of other ailing MMOs in the future.

Personally, I’m not fond of subscription titles. I like paying for something once and then be done with it, be it online or not. This is especially the case if I’m getting the same content over and over again with nothing new in sight. Now I know what you’re saying, and I’ve heard the arguments that those subscription fees help funnel in new content, which is partially true. This doesn’t explain the full blown expansions that some MMOs force you to pony up for. I can also point to Dungeons and Dragons Online with its plethora of free players and eight updates in around a year or so and respectfully disagree. One of the things that really keeps the free MMOs that have converted over are the micro-transactions.

While I think micro-transactions are a bit of a line-skirting hot button for most gamers, I think they can work pretty well in a free to play environment. I’ll give a few examples. Guild Wars is one of those buy one and done titles. There is an online store for the game offering a variety of services. They offer things like the option of being able to go into their store and pay to unlock all the skills in the game. You still have to pay in game gold for them for a PVE character, but you no longer have to hunt down the monsters that have them to unlock on your account. This is a great option for people just looking to get in on the PVP of the game, or who just want to bolster their PVE characters without the grind. However, you don’t have to pay for it. It’s optional and has almost zero impact on the game. The people who want to go out and work for their abilities can still do so without putting in an extra cent.

Turbine has done something similar with their online store for Dungeons and Dragons Online as far as offering services. However, they also have adventure packs, classes and races to unlock as well. Say you’ve just lost your whole party in a dungeon but really don’t want to spend another hour re-running the quest or take a hit on your EXP to leave and pop back in. You can jump on the DDO store and spend some points to get a resurrection item to get your character back on its feet. Say you’ve finally hit level twenty are have stopped playing a character because you’re bored with the class and want to do something new, but you’d rather not start over with a new guy and no loot, you can spend some points to get that reincarnation item instead of grinding out twenty Epic quests to get the tokens you need for that. I think these are all nice ways to help bolster a free to play title. They don’t really affect how you play the game much at all.

Here’s where things get a bit more complicated. Both Turbine and Cryptic have different areas in their games that are locked out to free players as well as races or classes, unless they drop some cash to buy the packs that the areas come in. This does affect game play, and each method has pros and cons to it. Dungeons and Dragons Online has a ton of content up through level ten that’s free to players who aren’t subscribers. After level ten there’s very little that is free. Basically the way Turbine handled DDO was to make what shipped with the initial game free, and everything that came in their updates to content after that pay to play. There are a few exceptions with some decent content that have come out for free players, but the bulk of anything else you’ll be paying for. There is one race and class you can unlock just by playing the game and earning favor with different factions that will grant you access when you hit certain favor point tiers. You also earn Turbine Points for earning favor which you can spend in the store in lieu of spending cash, which is a great option, but you will be grinding lots of quests to earn that favor to unlock all the adventure packs.

A person with a lot of patience could in fact unlock everything in Dungeons and Dragons Online without paying a cent. That’s a lot of grinding, but you can do it. Otherwise you can actually drop some cash to buy the packs and races that can only be unlocked through the DDO Store. This is actually my preferred method of free to play. I have the option of playing the game and unlocking things that way by earning points and never having to pay a dime. I’ve actually dropped real cash into the game though, but it’s still much cheaper than paying the monthly fee for myself and for my wife. I’ve also financially supported a game I’ve spent huge amounts of time playing without breaking my bank. My wife has since gone with the VIP, or subscriber model, for a few of the perks. These include free monthly points, early access to quests and packs when they go live, and the ability to open quests on the highest difficulty level. Lord of the Rings Online is using a very similar model, but it seems to be far less practical to grind out everything to unlock than it does in DDO. Either way you look at it, this new method breathed new life into both games for Turbine and they’re enjoying a healthy player base and the player base is getting regular content even faster for it.

My least favorite method is used by Champions Online, and I’ve seen this version employed by most MMOs that hit the market starting off as free to play rather than converting later. Granted right now, they’ve just gone free to play, and the game isn’t that old so there’s less content to have to buy to play everything, but their version of free to play does affect how the game is played. With DDO you are limited to the free classes and races, the only class you have to pay for there is Monk, and you can’t play Warforged, Half-Elf or Half-Orc without buying them either. The Drow and Favored Soul can be unlocked through favor totals in the game or you can buy them early. This goes with the thirty-two point build that gives you four more points at character creation and being able to start out at level four with a new character as well. You aren’t limited to what Turbine has given as some example builds. You can customize your own builds to your hearts content within the framework of the D&D ruleset. Here’s where Champions Online falls flat to me.

If you’re not a monthly subscriber to Champions Online, you are stuck following a template based off the Archtype you pick when you first make a character. You have very little say in what goes where, and you’re basically funneling your exp into what Cryptic thinks would work well for the Archtype. If you’re a subscriber, or Gold Member, you can pick and choose if you want to making some variety within your original Archtype. This means you can fix any build issues the Archtype might have, and they do have a few that could use some tweaking and others that I think people must be crazy to use. This really limits how you play the game, and I think this was one of the things that really stuck in my mind as one of the reasons I might not play long term as a free player. Like DDO, what came with the original game is completely free and the newer content, currently two packs that also come with costume options, are available for purchase. There’s a ton of costume options for free players, but you only get one costume slot unless you join a guild which gets you another one. You have to buy those and they are per character, not account and they are not cheap for what you get. I’ve also found no way, or read about any way, to be able to unlock these in game, so be prepared to pony up cash on the store if you want the slots or packs, or go the subscription route.

There are good and bad points to these converted free to play MMOs and their strategies. Personally I’m more apt to spend money on the ones that I can earn the points to unlock things inside the game itself if I so choose to grind my life away. The other method feels like a cash grab even though it’s supporting the game itself. I also think it’s a mistake to limit a player’s creativity in their character builds just because they’re not paying the monthly fee. It ends up making you feel like a second class citizen as a free player. In DDO if you don’t have the pack, you just don’t head into those quests, and you can still have a pretty kick ass character without several of the packs at end game. Champions Online I felt really shoe-horned into what few options I had and despite the radically different outfits I could come up with for my character to where I felt incredibly limited in what I could do with it and have no idea if what they’ve got will even be viable in the end game.

It’s more a matter of pick your poison with the converted MMO and the micro-transaction policies of the no-monthly-fee versions as well. It’s worth giving the free ones a try, but I think also if you’re going to go free with your MMO you should give players more options, not less, and they’ll be more likely to stick around and spend even more money. I know if I’d been limited to the pre-designed builds available when I first set up my characters on the DDO servers I’d have quit playing. As it stands I’m doubting I’m going to keep Champions Online on my PC after I give it a review as I feel like I’m lacking any real control over the direction of my toon, where I’ve never once considered uninstalling DDO from it at all and have sunk 15-20 hours a week into it since 2009.

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