Luckily, we have outlets like Steam that offer staggering sales and indie titles that can be bought for close to nothing. There's also the mobile market with its tens of thousands of games that can be played essentially for free. So while the prices at the highest end of technology go up, there are still plenty of places to get a cheap yet fulfilling gaming fix.
Even with all of the deals out there, however, there is no better value than a modern MMO.
I came to this realization many years ago. Even in the days of forced box prices and monthly subscriptions, I knew that an MMO packed in more hours and more content than almost any other type of game. Even a cruddy MMO handed out at least a dozen hours of decent content. This awareness of the value of MMOs has made this hobby and job much more than a hobby. To me, MMOs are simply the best form of entertainment out there.
Let's consider what many people would call a grindy, Eastern MMO: Rappelz. It was the first free-to-play MMO I cut my teeth on all those years ago (I believe around 2007), and I spent endless hours grinding away at levels. I have revisited the game over the last few years and just don't have the patience to grind as I used to, but there are still players in the game and everything seems to be humming along. The client is still free, and most of the game can be enjoyed for absolutely zero dollars. It's not a bad-looking game especially considering its age especially.
Even if you took a few hours to sign up, download, and play the first several level of the game, you spent no money. Even if you went on to level 30 and ditched the game, you spent no money. If you decided to pursue the highest levels and put 100 bucks in the cash-shop, you would still be looking at possibly months of commitment and hopefully enjoyment -- dozens of hours of gameplay for very little money, possibly even no money.
My general rule is that the more someone talks about how much he hates an MMO, the more he probably loved it at some point in the past. That hateful player is mad because of some botched patch or nerf to her favorite class, but when it comes to free-to-play titles, I often wonder whether she ever stops to think of how many hours of gameplay and fun she got out a game that cost her so little. At worst, a player paid for a few mounts or expansions. The infamous "whales," or players who spend thousands of dollars on a title, aren't the ones speaking up. Those players are in the game right now. It's the freebie players or the ones who have spent a small something who gripe the most. I have heard these recountings from the developers themselves!
If we switch to look at console games, we can easily see how a player could become very angry when she spends $60 on a game only to finish it within a few hours, or worse, find that it stinks to high heaven. That's why reviews can be so powerful in the world of single-player and console games. Players almost have to look at a review -- risking spoilers and all -- in order to avoid getting ripped off. Sure, there are many examples of free or time-limited demos in the console markets, but generally you do not know what you are going to get until you get it.
But now, most MMOs are now free-to-play. Gone are the days of the 14-day trial in our genre; now we can simply download an MMO and get going. There are few exceptions, games like The Secret World or Guild Wars 2, but with larger titles receiving so much press, it's easy enough to know that $40 or $60 down will get you many hours of good gameplay. MMOs other than World of Warcraft might not receive the mainstream press coverage that console games do, but there is a passionate and loud community behind them. If a new player cannot even force herself to download a new free MMO, she can at least check out the buzz around it. There's zero risk.
Now, I know what many of you are thinking. You're thinking, "MMOs provide all of those hours of free gameplay, but it's usually empty, grindy gameplay." I actually agree in many cases. Filling up the hours of an MMO with a level grind is a tired design that needs to die a quick death. We can still use the leveling mechanic to drive an MMO forward, but the playerbase would have to be willing to let virtual glory go a bit in order to move on to newer designs. MMOs also provide socializing and exploration. Some MMOs, like Second Life, even offer a way to make real-life money or to teach real-life skills. There are many MMOs that provide children with safe entertainment as well.
If I want to check out the value of something, I mentally subtract its greatest assets and see what is left. If the remaining stuff isn't half bad, that's a darn good value. Even if an MMO is a grindy mess, the client is usually free, the character creation might be fun, and there are always new people to meet in-game.
I'm not necessarily saying that $60 console game is a ripoff. A copy of Skyrim on your Xbox easily equals hundreds of dollars of gameplay. It just depends on the title. The mobile market is similar in its ability to offer different price ranges and quality levels. But when we compare any other gaming genre to MMOs, it's easy to see that MMOs are the cheapest path to good gaming. On top of that, MMOs are the only genre that allows you to play with potentially thousands of real people who might be spread throughout the world. That's incredible.
This isn't to say that MMOs are perfect but that MMOs are a brilliant way to game, explore, meet people, gain virtual glory, and have some fun for pretty much nothing more than the cost of a device and a connection. You would likely have both anyway.
Something fun: Can you name all of the MMOs pictured above? No cheating!
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!