The Perfect Ten: Free-to-play shopping strategies

Perfect Ten
"Nothing is ever truly free," my grizzled Uncle Trigger once told me. "So you got to pay for that there air! Pony up, boy!"

While Uncle Trigger was overlooking a few aspects of this philosophy, the sentiment is an important one to grasp, especially when it comes to the growing wave of free-to-play MMOs. Even though the first word is "free," it should be followed up with several paragraphs of tiny lawyer disclaimers that basically say, "Nevertheless, the studio is going to look for other ways to tempt you out of your hard-earned cash." F2P is often funded by microtransactions, which offer players some variety in how they customize their game experience at the expense of a subscription's simplicity. It's often not better or worse; it's just different.

Because nothing is ever truly free, and because F2P is loaded with more shopping options than a Walmart supercenter, being a savvy customer is more vital than ever. Anyone who's waded into a F2P store probably has experienced buyer's regret due to a hasty or uninformed purchase, not to mention those who end up going broke because of poor impulse control. So today I'm going to get downright practical and offer up 10 strategies that will safeguard and strengthen your F2P shopping trips (also, random plug for Beau's Free For All column in the hopes that he doesn't get mad I'm treading on his territory here!).

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1. Figure out your time vs. money comfort zone

It's important -- nay, vital -- that a F2P neophyte not enter the genre unprepared mentally. We're all too familiar in the MMO community with the phenomenon of expectations' being cruelly dashed by cold reality, and this can happen with free-to-play if you've never experienced it before. You could be expecting "free" without realizing that content and features are closed off to you until you open up your wallet. The worst result of this is a panicked gamer spending way more than he or she needs to to access the "full" game at the start.

My advice is that all MMO gamers need to figure out for themselves where they fall on the line between being comfortable spending more money on a game to get access to content faster or being comfortable spending more time in order to save money. Where you lie on this graph will determine your approach to in-game shopping.

Perfect Ten #2
2. Look for ways to earn free store currency

Not every MMO offers you ways to earn free premium currency (such as Turbine Points, Cryptic Points, or Station Cash), but some do, and those are golden opportunities to the frugal gamer. If you're OK with spending additional in-game time focused on attaining this currency, then you could be rewarded with free content later on down the road funded by your efforts. I've found that Turbine's titles are generally great with this, although others (such as Star Trek Online) have avenues for money-conscious gamers to get the goods.

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3. Hold out for game points deals

Because of the way almost every MMO's in-game store is set up, players do not purchase items and features directly with real-world money; instead, they must purchase a variable-rate premium currency. This can be a double-edged sword. It can be confusing trying to figure out what kind of deal you're getting and how much these purchases are actually costing you, but you can also get awesome deals if you have patience to wait for them.

Basically, never ever buy premium currency unless the game is hosting a sale that gives you bonus or extra points. MMO anniversaries usually prompt these sales, as do real-world holidays, but they can also appear out of nowhere. SOE occasionally has terrific deals that offer double or triple points for Station Cash game cards, so players who have purchased these and sat on them can then redeem them for a much better deal than normal.

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4. Do your homework

Really, there is no good reason to treat your online, in-game purchases differently than your real-life buys. Impulse shopping will bite you in the tuckus, and buying things unseen is a recipe for disappointment.

So before you hit the "buy now" button, you need to do your homework. Listen to veteran players who are willing to share the best -- and worst -- deals on the store. Ignore the game's attempt to push a certain item or service in your face and examine all of your options. Look online for screenshots and player descriptions of what these purchases look like and actually do. Trust me, I've hung my head in shame more than once from impulse purchases that end up not being what's advertised (or what was in my head).

Perfect Ten #5
5. Separate the "needs" from the "wants"

All F2P purchases fall into two categories: those you (think you) need and those you simply want, i.e., necessities vs. niceties. Why not grab a pad and make your own list with two columns, dividing all of the items you'd love to get, those that you really need (such as quest packs, permanent character enhancements, inventory space), and those that are just for fun or convenience's sake (such as costume pieces and mounts)?

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6. Prioritize purchases (account-wide vs. character, permanent vs. temporary)

Once you've separated needs from wants, the next step is to organize those lists according to priority (unless, of course, you are rich enough to buy all of it in one fell swoop). I generally give the highest priority to items that can be applied account-wide and are permanent and the lowest priority to items that are character-specific and temporary.

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7. Go for bundles and special event deals

F2P MMO stores are becoming much like any other store on the planet, and as such, they're subject to the same promotions that other stores use to move inventory. Facing the choice between causing you to not spend any money or causing you to spend less money than the item normally demands, a game studio will go for the latter any day of the week. That's why there are sales.

Sales, bundles, and promotions are prevalent, and depending on the title, sometimes pretty regular. Again, patience rewards the frugal spender because if you hold out for great deals, chances are the studio will toss one your way sooner or later.

An important type of promotion to look for is the one tied to a real-world release of sorts. Perhaps an MMO is coming out with an expansion or is releasing a retail box aimed at drawing in newbies -- these often offer wonderful opportunities to snag great in-game items and features. I don't regret pre-ordering Lord of the Rings: Rise of Isengard because all of my characters from then until the game's closure have a free mount, free cosmetic outfits, and an XP-boosting trinket.

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8. Set a gaming budget -- and stick to it

Subscriptions are easy for gaming budgets because they're so stable and predictable. Microtransactions are anything but, so it may behoove you to decide ahead of time how much you're willing to spend in your games every month -- and not go over that, even if you do have additional disposable income. It's financial discipline, and it will safeguard you against splurging on irresistible buys that will have you sobbing come the morning after.

Rule of thumb: If you're OK spending $15 on a game subscription, then budget the same for a F2P title that you get the same amount of time out of it every month. If you play it less (or more), alter the budget accordingly.

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9. Don't buy it before you can use it

Another useful habit is to avoid buying anything well before you can actually use it. Sure, that +500% speed mount looks super-sweet, but you're going to have to wait 40 levels before you can ever use it.

The reason you don't want to pre-buy these items is that you don't know where you'll be down the road in your gaming career. You may ditch the game well before you hit the time that you can use the purchase, or you may find something in-game for free that's just as good.

Now, I will say that this strategy has an exception, and that's if a very, very good deal comes along and you feel confident that this item will be put to use. It's your call in that scenario.

Perfect Ten #10
10. Don't fall for gambling scams

Finally, it's important to realize that studios aren't always on the up-and-up with their cash shops. While many items are legit and do what they say, there's an increasing practice to offer "mystery boxes" (or something similar) that ask you to put up some cash for a chance to win an unknown prize. The studio will tempt you by listing a whole slew of mouth-watering rewards, but statistically you're going to get the weakest items on that list.

My opinion is that this is akin to gambling, and gambling never favors the gambler, just the house. Only pay for a known quantity and you'll have a happier gaming career -- I promise.

Justin "Syp" Olivetti enjoys counting up to ten, a feat that he considers the apex of his career. If you'd like to learn how to count as well, check out The Perfect Ten. You can contact him via email at justin@massively.com or through his gaming blog, Bio Break.

This article was originally published on Massively.