The top indie and free-to-play stories of 2010

I have to admit to feeling slightly amazed when I read that someone thought of 2010 as a bad year for MMORPG fans. Then, when I think about it, I realize that he was talking about the year in "AAA" subscription gaming -- something almost alien to me. I just don't get turned on by huge-budget subscription games like I did seven or eight years ago. Well, it might be better to say that I am always suspicious of big-budget gaming. Gaming is a lot like movies, and look at how bad most blockbusters are. They are often silly, over-the-top, special-effects-laden bores. If those movies were the only ones I watched, I might be a little depressed about Hollywood as well.

If you pay attention only to what the major publishers are pushing out, you are simply going to have a narrow view of MMO gaming. You will miss too much. The year 2010 offered more than any year before it, and 2011 will top that. Thanks to mobile technologies and the always-dropping price of computers, you will find that smaller or unknown games have much more of a chance of grabbing a gamer's eye than ever before.

So, what were some of the high and low points in free-to-play and indie gaming this year? Click past the cut and let's take a look!

Allods' cash-shop issues: If you think that Massively's comment section is a normal sampling of gamers everywhere, then you might think that Allods had more problems in 2010 than a dirty politician. Yet the game is still doing very well and continually being updated. The player base is large and the developers are generally happy. But what was all the commotion about? Well, when the game first opened the doors to its cash shop, prices were too high. Of course, this led to cries of boycotts and permanent log-offs, but in the end, the publishers admitted to making a mistake and adjusted the prices. Since then, patches have attempted to make the game "more free-to-play," but some still believe that the game forces the paying hand. If the initial reaction to the cash shop was any indication, some players do not like to feel forced at all.

Wurm Online goes free-to-play: Wurm Online is one of the local favorites for Massively, and it's easy to see why. Log into the game and you will experience a game like no other. When former staffer Notch created his runaway hit Minecraft, more eyes shifted Wurm's way. Then, Rolf -- the lone paid developer -- moved the game from freemium to truly free-to-play. The combined effect? A lot of players. It's good to see such a lovingly crafted game start to get the player numbers it deserves.

MapleStory continues to be the largest game you've never played: I lost count. Was it 50 million? Or 60, 70 million players? Either way, MapleStory is doing very, very well throughout the world and now in North America. On top of that, Nexon shook the game upside down, akin to World of Warcraft's Cataclysm -- if not much larger with new classes, more quests and a lot more players. Perhaps the game's accessibility is the key to its success? Whatever it is, you should try it -- everyone else is.

Lord of the Rings Online, EverQuest II, Global Agenda, Champions Online and Pirates of the Burning Sea all go free-to-play: North America often takes its time to get where it wants to go. It should be no surprise that many subscription-only games moved to a free-to-play or freemium model, despite the rest of the world's having featured free-to-play for a long time. Of course, the developers had to do things in their own way and created tiered subscription models or odd cash-shop offerings to go along with their free-to-play models, but at least it's a step in the right direction. Will 2011 bring even more free-to-play offerings for classics such as Vanguard, Ultima Online or EverQuest? We'll see, but it should be noted that 2010 is definitely the year that "AAA" developers noticed what a good deal free-to-play is.

Perfect World Entertainment continues to make games -- lots of games: While not all its games were a raging success, Perfect World continued to crank out title after title. Games like Battle of the Immortals, Forsaken World and Legend of Martial Arts are busily providing thousands (or is it millions?) of gamers a world to play in -- with no signs of stopping. Perfect World took 2010 as an opportunity to firmly seat itself as a major, major developer.

Zentia shines forth in unparalleled charm: Where did this game come from? The first I heard about it was from one of the editors here at Massively, but it didn't really sound like anything very new or exciting. Once I played it, though, it was obvious that it was a game to be reckoned with. Somehow ChangYou published a game that featured humor, darkness, combat, crafting, exploration and charm in one fantastic, accessible world and kept it free for all. Players bit their fingernails in anticipation of the cash-shop opening but were pleasantly surprised as the prices were kept low. Zentia proves that free-to-play can be original, wonderful and totally free.

Alganon returns: Despite much of the controversy of Alganon's obvious initial "WoW-clone" status, the game was taken over and relaunched. No matter what you think of development's resident loudmouth Derek Smart, all it takes is a few sessions in the world of Alganon to see that the game was polished, put on the treadmill, tightened up and made into its own experience. Next, the decision was made to make the game free with some restrictions, opening it up to even more players. According to Smart, the game is "nearing 100,000 active accounts." I can see why.

APB dies, rezzes, and makes us wait: APB was not really an MMORPG, but it wasn't really a first-person-shooter, either. Tack on top of that rampant cheating, odd subscription options and relatively high system requirements, and it should be no surprise that the game closed down before players (like yours truly) recouped anything near the 50-dollar box price. Luckily, GamersFirst announced that it would take over the game and make it truly free-to-play, something that probably should have happened from the beginning. The world will be a more creative place thanks to the brilliant customization options the game offers -- it's practically a game in itself. Here's hoping that 2011 brings us the version of APB that we should have had from the very start.

Wizard101 and Free Realms reach millions of accounts: It took only two visits to Kingsisle for me to see how much the studio has grown over the last year. Its subtle hit Wizard 101 has worked its way deeply into the habits of gamers from all over, and from all different age groups. With its announcement about hitting the 10 million mark, it's obvious that Wizard101 is only going to continue to grow. Free Realms showed similar growth, even though it was met with mostly sideways glances from Massively readers. How does any number of accounts translate to players, or better yet, profit? However it does, the proof is in the pudding: Would any developer be able to continually develop, grow and publish a game without profit or players? However you feel about it, Free Realms and Wizard101 took "kid's gaming" to all-new heights.

Mobile MMOs become reality: A new wave of smartphones ushered in a whole new era in gaming: mobile, convenient, and yet still quality. Pocket Legends is the true hero of the movement, but many others exist. Recent releases like Yslandia, Seven Swords or even farming-style games like We Rule have shown that gaming on a tiny screen is not only do-able but very enjoyable. As usual, the PC market follows Apple's innovation with imitations of its own, so now we have many choices for touchscreen phones and slate devices and for many different price ranges. Mobile gaming has taken MMO gaming to an all new level and has added much needed innovation and life to the genre.

Free-to-play goes mainstream: Back in my day, the very words free-to-play were met with, at the least, suspicion. Understandably, many North American gamers thought that free-to-play meant low quality, grindy messes of games. Soon, releases like Allods or Free Realms showed that free-to-play could not only contend with "AAA" gaming, but offer more choices and more freedom. Slowly the readers of Massively seemed to catch on to what the rest of the world already knew: free-to-play is a payment model, not a genre. Once safe titles like EverQuest II or Lord of the Rings Online made their way into the free-to-play world, players really seemed to notice just how convenient, and yes, empowering free-to-play can be. Add on iTunes' 99-cent songs, Steam sales, and other forms of microtransactions, and you have a recipe for free-to-play mass-market acceptance.

It's important to understand that these stories are only the tip of the iceberg for 2010. If you hear someone tell you that the year was horrible for gaming, let him do a search for "free-to-play" and see what happens. Independent gaming has had its own mass acceptance as well, although there is still as long way to go. In the end, the last year was important in many, many ways. Here's looking to 2011!
This article was originally published on Massively.