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As the Worlds Turn: Land of the Free


Free. Everyone likes things that are free. Well, except when it involves a free kick to the twig and berries. These days, free things are often accompanied by plenty of small-type that make it anything but free. Requiring you to sever a limb or to sign over half of your first born does not constitute free. However, there has been a glut of free-to-play MMOs emerging on the market. Some of these have been around for a while that somehow lost the desire to charge people and others have come out of the gate with no fees like a naked hippy at an outdoor music festival.

What I'd like to do this week is take a look at some free-to-play games and see what they have to offer in the realm of game design and development. If you're looking for a review or a first-impression on any of these games, you're in the wrong place. There are far more capable people than I who can do just that. So put the wallet away, we're about to go free ... just keep the clothes on.

NCSoft's Dungeon Runners has been met with some fairly decent reviews and impressions. I like the game. It is good for some quick, mindless dungeon-hack fun. It launched being totally free to play with an option to pay five dollars a month for some extra premium stuff. However, like Lindsay Lohan in rehab, it didn't last long. It is still free-to-play but now you have to endure some in-game advertising that includes an ad movie that plays during login and logout, in game ads above the play-screen, and a chance of ads displaying in load screens. In return, the game remains free and free players also get some goodies. All in all, you'll see fewer ads than you do browsing almost any web page and you'll occasionally get an ad during load screens. Does anyone really care about preserving his or her load screens? Unless your load screen is "Night Elf Beach Party", it doesn't matter.

So, the question is: Would I suffer in-game advertising for either a) better goodies or b) a decreased monthly payment? As long as the ads remain non-intrusive and I don't have to suffer through Celebrix Shoulder Pads of Decreased Stiffness or the Cyalis Codpiece of Increased Stiffness (see what I did there?), I'd probably be ok with that.

Another free-to-play game out there comes from Codemasters. RF Online made some waves, albeit small ones, a while back for becoming free. The game has the standard fare of elves, midget elves and robots. Nothing really jarring there but there is the notion that crafting is limited to a character class. You can multi-class later and become a Specialist (crafter) but initially, it is limited. We talked about this before. I wasn't too keen on it then, either. Limiting something common and mundane like crafting to a single class seems like a stretch. It almost seems as thought they said "We've got 2 classes: fighter and magic-user. What else? Um ... crafter? Sure. Why not!" Imagine WoW where only human fighters can have mounts. Words can't describe the level of stupid on that one. So, while RF Online is free to play, and not all that bad, it doesn't really offer any new ideas.

Another Codemasters free-to-play game is Archlord. I've mentioned it before. I like it enough to play it from time to time. As long as it doesn't lay a finger on my credit card, I'll keep playing it. What does ArchLord do for innovation? Well, I can tell you it isn't the gripping storyline. What is interesting is the headline concept of this game: the ArchLord. For those of you who don't know, the ArchLord is a player who has dramatic powers that affect the game world itself. You attain this mantle through vigorous PvP action and apparently, it can't be done alone. Apparently you get super tall, can change day to night, summon a huge dragon and a few other deity powers. However, in the immortal words of Connor MacLeod "There can be only one."

How could a notion like the ArchLord be transplanted into our other lovely MMOs? Well, right now, expansions and the overall direction of the game lies solely in the hands of the developers and we simply follow along with their visions. What if the developers were to create a common instance that all "sides" could experience but whose overall outcome would impact the story of the game? Let me explain: Imagine an instance in WoW such as a high-level dungeon. You can only complete it once (like many other instances) but you get multiple attempts. This instance is only available for a set period of time. After that time period, it goes away and Blizzard compiles the results. If more Horde players complete the instance, that would impact the storyline of the game world and the same would apply for the Alliance. A player-driven storyline? What a concept? The clouds are parting! Radiant beams from heaven! Sorry. Got sidetracked.

You might have heard of Dungeon Runners, RF Online, or ArchLord. Have you heard of Secret of the Solstice? Probably not. Don't sweat it. I played it so you don't have to. I've always wanted to play an effeminate anime character with outrageously ambiguous sexuality. Wait. Forget that. Anyway, Secret of the Solstice looks like Final Fantasy Tactics, which holds a special place in my heart, but beyond that, the game is painful. The only reason it is worth mentioning is the first ten levels ..., which you complete in the first ten minutes. Probably quicker if you click faster. No kidding. You can't leave town until you are level ten. So, you have to engage in ten quests each of which rewards you with a level. Seriously. No XP for the quest. A full level. Ten levels in ten minutes! Sweet! Now let's leave town. Oh. I'm fighting off fifty other players for my turn whacking a pink jelly? For 5 xp? Oh. I get it. There's the catch. Sneaky little anime bastards.

Now, close your eyes and imaging your favorite NPC in your favorite MMO giving you an entire level for one quest. Now imagine your favorite NPC in a leather teddy. Gandalf! You naughty, little wizard!

Those last three games, RF Online, ArchLord and Secret of the Solstice don't have in-game advertising. They apparently generate revenue from selling in-game items for real-world cash. So far, this is a concept that is so foreign to my thinking process that I had to write that sentence a half a dozen times before it looked right. I'll put up with in-games ads before I'll drop real cash for fake items. Sorry. Simply not my cup of tea.

So, in closing, what do we have?

In-game ads for reduced price? Sure. I can live with that. Limiting simple game features to one class for no good reason? Nope. Keep it. Game changing powers lying in the hands of actual players? Interesting. I'll try anything once. Granting entire levels for completing a quest? Oh, please, yes, yes, dear lord, yes! (I know it will never happen but leave me my dreams!)

There are plenty of good free-to-play MMOs out there and plenty of other great features to go along with them. Let me just uninstall Secret of the Solstice and I'll see if I can't find some.

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