Free for All: Why I'd love to buy high-level characters

DC Universe Online screenshot
There is a seedling of a possibility of an up-and-coming trend that I've noticed lately, one that has some players' hackles raised. It's just one of many trends that have shaped MMOs over the last several years. Some of those trends include the massive market switch to free-to-play models, social gaming's influence on the MMO industry, the continuing popularity of selling power even by publishers who seem set against selling power, and the ever-growing mobile market and switch to mobile devices as favorite gaming destinations.

But to me, this new trend is one of the most exciting: the recent trend of giving away or selling high-level characters in games that require leveling. When I really think about it, it's been going on in some form for a long time, but the different designs and systems of all of the different MMOs we play have hidden it for much of that time.

I'll tell you why I love a free or paid-for high-level character.

EverQuest 2 screenshot
I first noticed how much I love the idea of freebie high-levels when TERA offered a free level 58 character to players who logged in during a test weekend. I missed the weekend due to illness and poor timing, and customer service told me that, unfortunately, I would not be able to claim one after. Fair enough, but I also knew that without that free high-level, I would likely never play the game for more than an hour here and there. For the record, I would gladly pay for the character as well.

Next I heard about it when EverQuest II decided to give away free level 85 characters and will sell them later. I logged in, made a character, looked around the new zone that hosted the characters, and quickly left the zone for lower-level areas.

Because of the nature of my job, I've certainly played on my fair share of high-level press characters in many different games. I simply adore MMOs -- I do, seriously -- so being given a freebie god feels like being cut loose in a toy store. Some developers do not want me to play the high-level characters, though, unless I am doing an interview or using the character for coverage, and that's our network's rule as well. In other words, if there is a game that I play every night or that is one of my favorites, I have to have my own character that I worked on myself.

The idea is to avoid tainting the standard player's experience by using my free high-level to wreck the economy or to own everyone else in PvP. I completely understand that, and so I have become very good at sticking pretty much to myself when on one of these press characters. I do not give away the free goodies I get, and I certainly do not attempt to use my newly-found powers to gain riches. Of course, many developers do not care at all if I use something like a $200 battleship in actual combat with other players, but I still try to be respectful.

DC Universe Online screenshot
My recent high-level DC Universe Online character, for example, is for press use as I stream and write about the game. I have not used my powers or bundles of in-game cash to put into the economy, and I refuse to PvP other players. It's just not fair, if you ask me.

But the only time I believe in playing "fair" is when the character I am on is a press tool. When I'm on my real character, all bets are off. If a game wants to sell power in the form of max-level characters, awesome. I do not believe that it is unfair. The fact is that once the cost is set, any player can participate in the sale. If most players cannot afford the cost, that does not mean the game is suddenly unfair -- it means that most players simply do not have the money to pay for the character or item. Is it unfair to ask for a subscription or box price? Of course not, and it's not unfair to ask for a price for high-level characters.

I love a free or bought high-level character because it turns the game into a game I want to play even more than normal. If we look at a game like PlanetSide 2, one of my favorite games, we can see the glorious fun that comes from that game stems from the fact that players are basically on the same page from the beginning. If we subtract cheating from the equation (something that comes from outside of the game so does not equate unfair developers), each player's character can jump into a battle and survive very well. I can call up a buddy right now to join me in game, and she might do just as well as I, even though I have many more certification points and have played for longer. I love games that do away with the ridiculous level requirement walls that keep us from playing together. Those walls and the virtual accomplishment they bring for players who breach those walls are, in my opinion, not as important as players being able to play together from the get-go.

Buying a high-level character means that I have no walls between me and other players. For many, many years, the leveling process has been a drudgery that we have tolerated and even excused because it meant that once we broke through to the level cap, we had "earned" some sort of virtual glory. The truth is that the virtual glory you feel when you achieve a high level has nothing to do with other players. That feeling can still be felt, even if other players are choosing not to participate in the long and sometimes boring process.

When I log into my high level DC Universe Online character, I organize my quest list by level. I go after the lowest-level quests first, on my own. Occasionally I will help a lower-level player as long as he seems cool with the fact that I will destroy everything before he can get a shot in, but I mostly solo. I am looking to explore the fantastic DC Universe Online universe from the beginning using a character that makes me feel like the god that a high-level character can become. I do not feel guilty about loving the power but hating the work it takes to get to that level of power. When I access a high-level character, I feel like I do when I play a game like PlanetSide 2: on equal footing with everyone. I also feel as though the game is more of an adventure game, complete with all challenge levels, closer to a single-player game.

In a first-person shooter, you will come across challenging content and easy content, sometimes varying even to the end of the game. That's an adventure, and that's what it feels like to have an instant high-level character.

Call me selfish, but I love the idea of MMOs selling instant access to high-level characters. In my opinion, the playerbase has been showing signs of becoming bored with the slog of leveling for a long time. Selling or giving away high-levels might be the cure for many of those players. I know it has made me feel differently about many games.

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.