The worst of the worst has got to be "die in a fire." Yes, I know you are a geek. I get it -- you are using a term that, I am sure, qualifies you as a socially awkward individual, as someone who simply must say the most inappropriate thing at the most inappropriate times (such as during a developer chat with developers who had almost lost their lives to recent wildfires -- I am not kidding). But I will not wear that badge of geek cred.
Until now. These practices that I am about to list to you after the cut can, you know, die in a fire.
There have always been cash-shop offerings that were based on a time limit. It's only in recent years -- 2010 in particular -- that the time-limit item has become so in vogue. I don't mind the time limit in the case of certain items, such as Mabinogi's optional service pack, which offers additional inventory space, additional experience, and other items in one big package. At least the service is well-wounded -- it's very much optional and can act like a subscription for those former subscription-payers who might need the reassuringly repeated wallet ding. There are also many choices in Mabinogi's cash shop, the bulk of them coming from the standard school of pay-once-and-it's-yours.
My hackles really raise when I see a cash shop filled with wonderful costume items or housing bits that are all time-sensitive. I understand that free-to-play developers need to make their money, trust me. I can say, however, that I simply will not pay for an item that will be useless or taken away unless I pay every so often. If you are going to offer time-sensitive items, make them cheap enough to make it worth it. Zentia's cash shop is wonderfully cheap and gives me more of a feeling of a toy store than a trip to a car dealership.
When I first started really talking about free-to-play games on my old blog, the options were just then starting to open up for players. Then we started seeing games that offered some sort of optional subscription, and I knew we might be in trouble. Ironically, the introduction of the North American free-to-play conversion seems to be the most obvious example of an infamous cash shop that truly "sells power," while the classic foreign practice of offering a free client with a connected cash shop gets all the blame. Over this last year of working for Massively, I have labored under the impression that, if repeated enough times, the truth of the matter will come out.
Unfortunately, many players still think that somehow the confusing subscriptions and cash-shop offerings in games like Lord of the Rings Online or EverQuest II Extended are the proper choice -- steps in the right direction because at least they are not in the direction of those other cash shops. You know, Asian ones.
The reality of the situation is this: Free-to-play games were once made up of downloadable, completely free clients. Tacked onto the client was an in-game or website-accessible cash-shop that offered optional (yes, completely optional) services that essentially did two things: 1) saved time and 2) made your character look different. A mount is a time-saver. Experience potions are time-savers. A pink dress is not game-changing.
I'm here to warn you that the old ways are probably going to be replaced, at least in the North American offerings, by "silver level" this and "optional subscriptions" that. While I have seen some examples of this odd practice that work, typically I have not been impressed with recent developments. You say you're free-to-play? Just give me the client. Let me buy a mount, a stack of dyes, and a pink dress. No, I don't want to subscribe, but thank you for asking every time I play the game.
Thanks to this practice, we now have a new term for the next decade: freemium. I like velvet rope, myself. Essentially this is a game that features free or limited content up to a certain point. At that crossroads players need to decide whether to truly subscribe to see other the rest of the content or to sit and miss out on the fun. One of my favorite games in the world is Wizard101, but it's one that I would probably not play for as long if I were forced to buy the subscription (I have a pre-Massively press account). Again, it's not that I have an issue with a practice that is obviously very popular as well as beneficial to the developer; it's that I am just not able to mentally keep track of so many subscriptions and forced payments.
Selling entire chunks of content is almost as unlikable. If you want to sell extra dungeons or adventures to play through, that's OK with me. If you want to charge me to even go up a level, that's a bit silly. This is a case of cash-shop identity crisis. Either be a source of time-savers and convenience or just charge me an all-inclusive subscription. Again, though, I am speaking as someone who meets up with a new game at least every week, so the issue might be very specific to me. I just don't have time to check in to make sure my character's belt is unlocked for the next week or to pay the rent on my boat -- that's what I do in real life.
"We are quick to fire off a very much non-constructive criticism of any new game that sees the light of day, yet we are doubly quick to lay down a subscription in a free-to-play game."
After all that, what do I know? All of my experience and time with all of these wonderful games might actually be working against me. My active gaming schedule cannot be normal by any means, so maybe I am unique in hoping that cash shops remain as optional toy shops that ride on the back of an absolutely free client. Seriously, though, this was not an attempt to say that games that use these methods are bad games -- not at all. Since I am someone who has been a defender of free-to-play for years, though, they only make my job harder. Perhaps these methods are some kind of trickery, crafted within the darkest developer dungeons? Maybe the developers are cackling maniacally right now while sitting upon mounds of gold? Is Smed really the Devil?
Once again, we gamers are to blame. If we do not like certain practices, we should not encourage them. We are quick to fire off a very much non-constructive criticism of any new game that sees the light of day, yet we are doubly quick to lay down a subscription in a free-to-play game. It doesn't make sense, but it does make money. Like I do with that list of silly memes that I try my hardest to avoid using, I tend to avoid purchasing time-limited items or cash-shop only content. I just don't have the mental stamina required to keep track.
Each week, Free for All brings you ideas, news, and reviews from the world of free-to-play, indie, and import games -- a world that is often overlooked by gamers. Leave it to Beau Hindman to talk about the games you didn't know you wanted! Have an idea for a subject or a killer new game that no one has heard of? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org!