Free for All: A second look at Fallen Earth's free model

Fallen Earth screenshot
I used to be head-over-heels in love with Fallen Earth. I was on an immersion kick and had even designed a set of rules that dictated how my character would "live" in the world. Fallen Earth provided me with a lot of great tools to become immersed, and it was the type of game that really stuck out from the pack. Of course, it also sported uglier character models than Lord of the Rings Online and was more brown than a bakery at the earlier levels, but it was neat.

I gave up on the title after a while and became too busy with other games to return. Then, the free-to-play version of the title came out. I still ignored it because of scheduling, but recently I have been returning to it. I am finding a lot of bugs and an overall lack of polish that I had forgotten about, but it's still a really cool game.

So how does the free version stack up to the subscription model? How free is it? Let's take a look.

Fallen Earth payment model details
First we need to look at the most obvious section of this free-to-play shift: the subscription. When GamersFirst took over the game, it had already re-published APB: Reloaded. Players were familiar with the company, but could such an old-school, immersive experience like Fallen Earth translate to the freemium model? Players of Fallen Earth seemed to come from the school of thought that essentially rejected "those free-to-play games." Would they stick around after the shift?

I can't say for sure, but the game appears to have about the same population as I remembered from before. The way a player accesses the game has changed, including his ability to pay or not pay for game time. Basically, player have a few choices when they go to sign up.

"While I can understand the need to prevent new accounts from having access to the world chat channel, the fact that players need to pay for better customer service is off-putting."

First, they can play for free. They can access one character and can pretty much experience normal mail, auction and trade interactions. In fact, if you have one main character and will stick to playing him relatively casually, you probably won't notice a difference. The most disturbing area of the free tier is the fact that you do not have access to a global chat channel and customer support is restricted to an online database. While I can understand the need to prevent new accounts from having access to the world chat channel, the fact that players need to pay for better customer service is off-putting. Both options reek of a non-trusting developer or publisher. Instead of blocking players from chat and making them pay for more thorough or faster customer service, perhaps the publisher could sell more goods in the cash shop and hire someone to watch the chat channels or man the phones? A free player even has a limit to the number of chips he can hold and hours he can craft, and he'll find his experience, salvage speed, and other rates lowered when compared to paying players. Still, I doubt the limits would affect casual players. I'll need more playtime under this new system to see just how much of a difference it might make.

When a player decides to pay, things return pretty much to how they were before the free-to-play shift. The survivalist level ($9.99) is the standard, with rates at 100 percent most of the way. At the common rate of $14.99, it appears as though there are bonuses that bring former subscribers above what they had before. It gets confusing, but essentially the publishers are banking on the fact that a lot of players will see the higher Commander level access (normally $29.99 a month but only $19.99 at the time of this writing), accept it as the norm, and be more than happy to pay $10 or $15. I personally see no real benefit in the higher levels of access, except for those players who might be glued to the game. Don't get me wrong; even $30 a month is a great deal for access to a virtual world. I'm just not a fan of tiered services. It should be noted that there are discounts applied to subscriptions when larger chunks of time are paid for.

Fallen Earth wardrobe unlock screenshot
Where this new model almost gets it right is in the different items players can buy through the marketplace. True free-to-play games have made money for years not from clever tricks and nickel-and-diming players to death but from simply selling cool items through a cash shop tacked on to a free client. These more recent Western interpretations are attempting to have it both ways.

For example, to unlock all wardrobe slots, players will need to shell out 1600 G1credits ($20). I have not paid for the item yet, but charging players just to have access to a costume slot is a bit on the expensive side. A name change will cost the same $20, while an extra mount slot is $10. From what I can tell, the extra slot allows players to own more than one cash-shop mount, with all four mounts priced at $10 each. It's a bit ironic to me that the pricing on the mounts is standard for the industry while the prices for appearance items and clothing are off the mark much of the time. A single hockey mask is $5, for example. In one of the worst examples of the cash shop imbalance, an extra character slot is $30. Even if a player decided to go with the maximum level of service, he can unlock only a measly four such slots in total.

"In the timeline of popular MMOs, free-to-play used to apply to foreign titles that sported small clients and accessible cash shops."

I hear the complaints about free-to-play on a weekly basis. Most of the criticisms stem from unsettling feelings that stem from shady free-to-play models. I've said it before, but it always needs repeating: These tiered subscription models are a modern invention. In the timeline of popular MMOs, free-to-play used to apply to foreign titles that sported small clients and accessible cash shops. For years those standard free-to-play games have been accused of scheming for players' hard-earned money, while the standard subscription of $10 or $15 a month was held up as something more pure.

These newer tiered freemium models have been popularized by games like EverQuest II, Lord of the Rings Online, Dungeons and Dragons Online, Wizard101, and now Fallen Earth. While I see absolutely nothing wrong with charging players any price for any item, the blame for "nickel and diming" still needs to be laid on the proper source. Don't get me wrong; I am enjoying my time in Fallen Earth. The payment model has not interfered with my enjoyment of my return to the world, and I'm not sure it ever will. The fact is that the model is great at giving those players who still want a subscription something to pay for, while players like yours truly can come and go and occasionally plunk down $5 or $10 for an item.

On one hand, it's a silly and bloated system. On the other, it's genius.

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!
This article was originally published on Massively.