I want to say that one of the first free-to-play games I found was FLYFF, or possibly ROSE Online. It's hard to remember exactly. I searched old emails and found a few references to some games, but I can only verify start dates like February of 2004 for games like There or Second Life. On a side-note, my EVE account started on July 30th, 2004. Regardless, I can remember my first experiences with free-to-play games. I recall the grindy-yet-beautiful worlds I visited, marveling at high-level players who must have played for six months solidly in order to achieve their greatness.
"I think it was a different process, one that involved subtle hints of free-to-play and sub-conscious cash shops hidden inside pay-to-play games: services like server transfers or name changes."
I have also found that many players approach their favorite style of game the same. While a PvP game like EVE or Darkfall might play a certain way, and at a certain pace, a PvP-focused free-to-play title might have an entirely different flow or style. The presence of the cash shop often changes things, as well, especially in a PvP game, so this has to be kept in mind when trying it out. This is the reason I suggest trying games that you would normally avoid. If you try something new, you might just form new opinions.
One clear thought that I had, upon remembering some of these grindier free-to-play games like FLYFF, was how much they reminded me of the earlier crop of pay-to-play MMORPGs like EverQuest or City of Heroes. In fact, the grind I faced in the pay-to-play market back then was one of the catalysts for me to search out other games. While my wife was busily gaining prestige in these worlds, I looked for something newer and shinier, something that might show me something different.
I think that time shaped my current play style. I don't become bored easily, but I do notice similarities easily. While all MMORPGs share some bit of character, I am always on the lookout for those new attempts at design. Free-to-play games have taken so many steps forward over the last few years that an explorer like me is like a kid in a candy store! I have enjoyed watching cash shops take wonderful design turns, as well, but the real question is: Is the free-to-play market adapting to North America, or is North America adapting to free-to-play? I think it's a little of both. I can't tell you how many players have told me over the last few years, especially since I have been writing for Massively, that they bought their first cash-shop item and found themselves loving it. Some people have even accused me of "hooking them!"
As I took my daily dog walk and thought of what to write this week (I write a mental rough draft while walking, it's very useful,) I literally almost stopped and scratched my chin as the parallels between free-to-play and pay-to-play games appeared. While the pay-to-play market developed further and faster here, it still went through its period of grind and marathon gaming requirements. Free-to-play games have undergone this transformation a few years behind pay-to-play games, at least from my experience. The catalyst for the pay-to-play market evolution has got to be World of Warcraft. People seem to forget, or never knew, what the MMORPG market was before WoW, and how powerful of an experience it was.
So what was the catalyst for free-to-play evolution? Was it games like Anarchy Online going free? Was it the sudden onslaught of games like Archlord or FLYFF? Maybe it was the massive success of games like MapleStory? I think it was a different process, one that involved subtle hints of free-to-play and sub-conscious cash shops hidden inside pay-to-play games: services like server transfers or name changes. These services, that did not exist inside the game ordinarily, helped smooth the idea of paying for something with real money.
It's hard to say where it all really started. The evidence is there, though: free-to-play or other related models are the most popular payment model in the world. With more and more games adapting the model or using some sort of cash shop, and with the success of MMORPG-esque Facebook and social games, it's easy to see how the games are now more popular than ever. For myself, though, I wish I would have saved evidence of every bit of my time with free-to-play games from the past. I would love to read what I thought of them back then, and what my past self would have predicted for the future. I am not sure that I would have predicted the successes that we see now.
So, what was your first free-to-play experience? How does it compare to games that are out now? Do you miss those old games, or have you gone back to try them out again?