Free for All: Two years and counting

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On March 9th, 2012, this column will turn two years old. I thought it would be a fun idea to look back on those two years and recount what I might have learned. I've learned a lot, actually. When I was first hired to write a column about free-to-play games, I thought I would be covering relatively simple topics, stuff like "how much would you pay for a horse?" or "how many free-to-play games do you have on your hard drive?" Pretty soon I realized that free-to-play, to many people, represents a sort of gaming movement and genre rather than a payment model.

The discussions have been open, frank, and sometimes infuriating. It's easy for me to write so simply that it can seem as though I am attempting to make a larger point, and it's much easier to make much more of the term "free-to-play" than is necessary. I have seen the lines being drawn by many players who feel that free-to-play is a sort of scary neighbor who threatens the peaceful existence of their neighborhood, while many others couldn't care less.

Like I said, I have learned a lot.

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Free-to-play has never meant free in all cases

One of the largest misconceptions about free-to-play gaming is that the games must be free to all players, at all times, or else they cannot carry the title of "free-to-play." I have made my feelings on the topic known several times. Free-to-play is a general term, just like rock and roll or science fiction. There are shades of free-to-play, but there is always one guarantee: You can access some part of the game for free. If you have to buy anything before you can even access the game, it is called freemium, velvet rope, or any other term that we want to come up with that means "not free from the start." Guild Wars is not free-to-play. A game like Wizard101, which allows free initial basic access but eventually requires payment to move into deeper areas of the game, is not free-to-play either; it is freemium. Of course, now we can get into discussions about the timing of the required payment, how that further defines the term, and how certain RMT items qualify as content while others do not, but honestly I'm bored of the whole discussion. My rule from now on is to name the game and we can define that particular game. There are simply too many variables.

Free-to-play is older than you think

My first memories of free-to-play games include games like Rappelz, which had its open beta around 2006. I had the pleasure of getting to know one of the developers who worked on some of those games, and she told me about how they were some of the oldest free-to-play games to become successful in the United States. There have been elements of free-to-play for longer than that, but it's always interesting to note that many of my readers seem to think that free-to-play is a recent wave of tomfoolery on the part of Western developers. Free-to-play is an established payment model, thanks to its flexibility in areas outside of the West. Many gamers in China or Korea play in internet cafes or in social situations, enjoy the ability to play a little at a time, or pay for chunks of time instead of monthly access.

RuneScape
has enjoyed the successes of freemium access for years now, and Anarchy Online was doing it way before Lord of the Rings Online. This is important to note because the argument is often that free-to-play has been a recent invention of greedy developers who want to squeeze every last dime out of players or that only "failing" MMOs resort to using free-to-play. The truth is that it was a payment model that was born out of the need to allow players to play and pay how and when they want.

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Free-to-play is more popular than you think

I hate to sound like some sort of payment model snob, but I always chuckle when I see a new free-to-play column pop up on a blog or other website that covers only Western freemium titles or unlimited trials. A free-to-play game like MapleStory is massively popular, breaking records like 600,000 concurrent users in Korea and 136,000 in North America. Yet where are the stories about the game? We can say that perhaps younger audience members do not frequent popular gaming websites, but I would wager that a column on MapleStory would be one of the most popular columns around. Many Western gamers appear to ignore the rest of the world when it comes to MMO gaming, yet the rest of the world sets the tone for gaming and has for the last several years. Heck, the East has set the tone for fashion, animation, music and technology so much that many of us haven't even noticed. Compare good old American animation from decades ago. My favorites are the 1940s era Warner Brothers cartoons, despite the flaws that came with them. Now look at the most popular animated shows on television and you will see Anime influences in all of them. When we talk about free-to-play, remember that we are talking about a very old, established payment model. Just ask Blizzard how the bulk of its customers pay for their MMO.

A subscription is a cash-shop item -- a forced one

Because the main issue that pops up in discussion about free-to-play (the payment model) is the one about being forced to pay for something, I am often surprised that one of the loudest complaints is that a game should not call itself free-to-play and then ask a player to pay for anything. The surprise comes from the fact that often the person saying this is a fan or supporter of subscription-based gaming. Ironically, many of them will gladly pay hundreds of dollars for a collectors edition and $10 or $15 a month for a subscription but then become outraged when it appears as though that cool-looking mount in that free-to-play game is going to cost five bucks. I can understand that, yes, technically free-to-play could mean that the entirety of the game experience should be handed to the player without ever asking for a single dime in return, but I cannot understand how someone who normally pays much more for his gameplay would have a problem with paying less for an optional section of the game.

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A horse is content, just like an expansion

I have seen so many attempts at defining "content" that I now know that it is completely subjective. If a player is a crafter, that needle and thread is content. He consumes it and uses the virtual device just as a raider would use that mighty dragon as a goal. If a player pays for a virtual dress, that player is going through the same process as a player who is paying for a full $50 expansion in a subscription-based game. Content is not defined by volume but by its ability to be consumed. This is not a common definition, and I know this every time I see a player complain about how much time was wasted on crafting cash-shop goodies instead of making new raid areas or quests to complete. It is often said that it is "easy" to craft those simple cash-shop goodies. This is true when compared to something like a full raid mission, but only because of the years of hard work and education that the developer went through. If you have ever bought an expansion, you are a fan of cash shops.

In the end, it's about flexibility

At this point in the life of this column, I could technically write about almost any game. Look at its description: I cover free-to-play, indie, and import games. I wrote that description a long time ago. Now it could just say "I cover everything." The truth is that free-to-play has always boasted more players and more games than subscription ever has. Yes, take World of Warcraft's millions, the majority of whom do not subscribe to the game. Include all of those subscription games together and they more than likely do not come near the millions of players who play in free-to-play titles all around the world. The fact is that the market has changed, and many formerly subscription-only games now offer some smidge of free access. It's a different market.

While I could talk about many of those free-to-play, freemium, or velvet rope games, I will let the game-specific columists here on Massively do their thing. They do it better than I do, anyway. This column will grow instead to concentrate on odd or indie titles or titles that are defined here as unpopular despite the millions of players who enjoy them. I'm excited to cover those titles, to expose readers to new games, and to see how free-to-play continues to grow.

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 beau@massively.com!
This article was originally published on Massively.