This recent kick of mine started me thinking about the first free-to-play MMOs I enjoyed, as well. The first one was either Flyff or Rose Online, around six or so years ago. I've chatted with a developer who used to work on Flyff, and she claimed that those were some of the very first free-to-plays to see success in North America.
What are the differences between the two, Western and Eastern? Is there a difference? If there were, are there still differences between Eastern free-to-play games and Western games? Click past the cut and we'll take a look.
If there is one thing we need to verify once and for all, it's that older free-to-play games and subscription-based Western MMOs both commonly featured long grinds. Anyone who tells you differently never played City of Heroes, EverQuest, or Ultima. They were all grindy back then and still are in many cases. I have been working long and hard to defuse many of the stereotypes in MMO gaming, but the "Eastern games invented grind" trope has only recently begun to fade.
Yes, when I played EverQuest, the grind felt different than it did in, say, Flyff or Rappelz, but only because of a few details. First, EQ and other Western MMOs looked different. North American games were the cream of the crop back then as far as graphics were concerned. Quests were backed up by a little more lore, and characters had a little more depth to them. What you did with those characters, however, was pretty much the same as what you did in Eastern imports.
"There were a few standouts, for sure, but generally gaming back then consisted of players grinding away time. A lot of time."
While there were many cases of deep storytelling and themepark-style play back then, the whole thing changed once World of Warcraft broke onto the scene. The game brought with it quests that asked you to actually do things, to interact with items in different ways, and to participate in stories like we had never done before. I loved WoW simply because it was so smooth and immersive. Since WoW, Western games still offer the grind, but it seems as though they have taken steps to give players a variety of activities to do. Eastern developers seem to have caught on, as well, offering a toned-down grind and beefed-up story as a result. Now we are seeing a meeting in the middle, something you will find if you play games from both the East and West. It's almost become the default to offer deep, complex gameplay, no matter the payment model.
Another irony about this whole subject is that, for years, Eastern MMOs have been accused of selling power through cash shops and microtransactions. While many free-to-play games do sell items like awesome swords and armor inside their cash shops, the trend has been to avoid such practices when importing the games over here. Meanwhile, freemium conversions like Lord of the Rings Online and brand-new games like Wizard101 literally sell or sold some of the most desirable items in their cash shops. Despite this, the term "selling power" is still more commonly used to describe almost any game that comes from foreign lands. For the record, I find nothing wrong with selling power, but I do see something wrong with false labels.
"One thing we do not see a lot of here is independent, free-to-play Eastern games. Usually by the time they arrive here, they are backed by a pretty large publisher or a publisher with several titles under its belt."
As someone who covers games for a living, and as someone who prides himself on being pretty knowledgeable about almost any title in the genre, I have learned to trust my gut. Lately, it's been telling me that all of these genres, payment models, and styles of play are blending together. The Western audience has opened up because it's seen products it trusted go into the free-to-play territory. Western players were, essentially, forced to check out the free-to-play model. Does this mean that Western gamers will drop all stereotypes or generalities about Eastern free-to-play games? No way.
In the end, we have to realize that Eastern free-to-play imports are coming from a different culture -- a different style -- than ours. This is what makes the world special and wonderful to explore. I've researched it by talking to other writers and players and by reading articles, and I've found that grinding is more popular there because many players (not all by any means, but many) play in social situations. Whether it is done in a virtual group or with real friends in a cafe, grinding is a social activity. Experience or power is achieved through steady grinding instead of bumps through completing quests. If you look at it deeply, it adds up to the same thing.
"This is not to say that an Eastern free-to-play is less complex or interesting than a Western game. They are just different styles that borrow from each other."
Graphically, however, Eastern games have Western games beat to a pulp. While I prefer a more stylized look like The Chronicles of Spellborn over something like Lord of the Rings Online or Perfect World, Eastern developers have some sort of magic in their water. One look at amazing sights in games like Forsaken World or Vindictus show just how far some of it has come. Performance in Eastern games is almost always better, as well, especially compared to Western heavies like EverQuest II.
East has definitely met West. The world is not such a large place anymore, especially in gaming. We have always had the ability to play with people from all over the world, but these days you can also voice and even video chat with them as you adventure. Soon enough, the technologies will go even further. Both game styles are blending together, and both cultures have made an impact on each. It only takes one look at the influence of Anime, kung-fu movies and spiky hair to see just how cool we think Eastern gaming culture is. While I have never been outside of the country to see it in person, I've read that our gaming culture has had an impact on the East, as well. This can only lead to new, blended models and styles of gaming.
While the differences were vast in years past, we now share more in common than ever.
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!