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Redefining MMOs: The rise of F2P

These days it seems like you can't move three feet in the MMO space without bumping into a Free-to-Play (or F2P) game. As the person who writes First Impressions from time to time, I play quite a lot of them. As such, I'm always looking at new F2P games that pop up, from tiny indie titles to mega-corporate offerings. Just about any subset you can imagine is represented out there: flash games, isometric, side-scrollers, mini-games, embeddable web-only, local client. Curious about what genres you might find? How about fantasy, steampunk, post-apocalyptic, casual, cartoon, pirate, anthropomorphic, space, and so much more. If it hasn't been made yet, wait six months - someone will probably do it, considering. Quality, too, runs the gamut. Some games are incredibly addictive, while others make you want to take a run at the dev team with a sock full of quarters.

Once upon a time, in an MMO far, far away

Contrary to popular belief, F2P MMOs really aren't that new. Sure, the current levels of breeding-like-rabbits market saturation might make you think so since they seem to have overtaken the landscape in the last few years, but they're not. If you put on the Internet wayback hat, you'll realize that graphical MMOs only game into being in the mid to late 90's. From there, F2P was a natural progression - everyone loves choices, and the word "free" draws people in like flies to honey.

To give a bit more specific detail, though, Jagex was already building free games in 1999. RuneScape, one of the earliest to try a free model, entered beta in 2001 with MapleStory getting started the next year. Originally, a lot of people thought the idea of giving away gameplay was pretty crazy, but as both Jagex and Nexon have since proved by raking in some serious cash, their vision of a F2P future is popular and profitable. This is a genre that isn't going anywhere but up.

Sunrise, Sunset

Much like many of the players who started out in the early days, the entire F2P genre on the whole has grown up. Originally, many people thought of F2Ps as the MMO haven for kids who couldn't afford a subscription or a place where casual players who didn't want to spend marathon sessions grinding in EverQuest or Ultima Online went to game. Now, free-to-play games are embraced by everything from young to old; from noobs to seasoned MMO vets. While there's still something of a stigma to the genre in some people's eyes, it continues to evolve daily, offering better and better options. With recent games entering the space like Free Realms and Runes of Magic, F2P games can no longer be dismissed as simply colorful games meant only for kids.

F2P != Freemium

As if to try to avoid the 'dirty words' that Free-to-play became in the eyes of many older gamers, the word "freemium" has been bandied about more and more recently. Mind you, instead of helping, this term seems to be raising the level of confusion as to just what players are getting themselves in for. Speaking as someone in the industry, even I don't have an exact lock on what half the PR people I talk to think it means. (I've literally seen some call their games both - one to the other in the next breath.) That said, there does seem to be a general consensus among many writers I've asked in regards to what each of these two terms mean to them. Allow me to explain.

Free to play games have what one would consider to be a "horizontal wall" in regards to progression. Essentially, a free-to-play game offers players everything in terms of content at a basic level. You can run from one end of the world to the other, you can access a certain basic level of content, and you can do at least some of the things offered in the game. Much like a Sampler from your favorite late-night bastion of greasy foodstuffs, F2Ps offer you a little taste of everything. If you want more, you want it faster, or perhaps you only like one thing - you're going to have to hit the item mall and drop some coin. Free-to-play's horizontal wall means whacking your head against the glass ceiling that keeps you away from the coolest stuff. Examples that come to mind are Runes of Magic and Free Realms.

Freemium games, by contrast, allow you to do everything in a certain area, but they only allow you to do it for a handful of levels before a big fat vertical wall is slammed down in front of you. It's like getting stuck in the Barrens after blowing through the first 15 levels of World of Warcraft. Sure, you can idle there, stuck at 15. But let's be frank - most people would rather shoot themselves in the face rather than idling in a noob zone for all eternity. (Especially pre-Cataclysm Barrens!) Sooner or later you'll drop money to allow your character to progress, or you'll move on to another game. Freemium's vertical wall stops players' linear progression. Examples of this include FusionFall and Wizard 101.

Obviously, there are some games that overlap both: RuneScape has elements of both F2P and Freemium, due to the way their velvet ropes are set up. For example, you can run around in quite a few areas and do a handful of quests and skills, but it requires a subscription to unlock all the zones, quests, and skills - as well as the gear. As with any genre, the lines continue to shift as the games evolve. As such, the terms will evolve with them or die out.

World of Warcraft was almost F2P- Rob Pardo, Blizzard Entertainment

The more time goes on, the more we are seeing different games cross the line from paid to F2P. Turbine is revamping Dungeons & Dragons Online to offer a free option. Acclaim has seen The Chronicles of Spellborn cross over to fully free while it's being remodeled into a F2P. To cite an older example, Funcom switched Anarchy Online some time ago and now offers a hybridized F2P/Freemium model for adventurers in Rubi-Ka. Whether these newer changes are due to a finite pool of subscription dollars being peed in by the 800-pound gorilla wot Blizzard made, or if more people are simply accepting microtransactions (next week's column topic) - or perhaps a combination of both - the song is the same. High quality western content is moving into the free MMO market, which means we're going to see some interesting changes in the next few years.

In the end, F2P MMO gaming has more than proven its chops as an enormous growth market within the larger MMO industry. What was merely a sparkly newish concept five years ago has become a multi-million dollar industry. If you're looking for innovation, you'd do well to keep your eyes peeled for what's coming out in the F2P market. As the content gets better and the barrier to entry gets lower, players are going to expect more for less - and the F2P companies dreaming big today will be there to meet demand tomorrow.

[Edited to remove incorrect reference]

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