Free for All: Why I play free-to-play

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Free for All: Why I play free-to-play
I hid in waiting under a soggy sheet of cardboard for the past three days with stale Cheetos as my only nourishment. I had but a single target, who finally exited his house with bleached skin, a red fuzzy head and blurry eyes. As he stood at his front door trying to shoo away the sun like a vampire, I made my move. At last, I thought, Beau's spirit hood will be mine.

By the time I was well into a Keanu Reeves-style flying scissor-kick, I realized an important tactical error. It wasn't the horror-filled eyes of a man who had spent too much time indoors staring at a computer screen that I was looking into, but the fierce come-get-some eyes of a teenager with spiky, dyed hair who was practicing his karate moves.

Had I thought beyond simply looking cool as I made my attack, I would have realized I spent every ounce of energy I had to pull off the insane leap-kick that actually looked more like what you'd expect: a tired, wet, dirty, malnourished geek hop-skipping and shouting gibberish through a yard with a piece of cardboard stuck to his back. The three-day diet of stale Cheetos did not give me enough fuel to defend myself from the brutal pummeling that the pint-sized Bruce Lee gave me.

It turns out Beau lived in the house next door. He had seen my wild display and subsequent beating, so he came out to help me. He invited me into his house to let me clean myself up, extolled the dangers of trying to live out movie fantasies, and offered to let me write his column for a week. It wasn't a spirit hood, but it was a very nice gesture. The dog-shaped cookies were a nice gift too, although I don't know why he snickered every time I ate one.

No. The above tale really didn't happen, but Beau is letting me write his column today so I can tell you why I love to play free-to-play MMOs.
A brief history

I've loved RPGs since the days of Final Fantasy VII and Chrono Trigger. I had thought many times about trying MMOs but nevertheless stayed out of that vortex for years. When I finally bought a new PC three years ago I decided to try these online worlds, and my first foray into MMOs was with Fiesta Online. A couple friends said they were playing it, so I signed up and joined them as an archer. Throughout the next year I would discover a cornucopia of F2P MMOs and start honing in on my favorite classes and features to play. I must have tried around 30 different F2P MMOs before settling on Shaiya as my main game, but I still continued to play a handful from all the other games I had tried. I eventually succumbed to some other friends' threats and started playing World of Warcraft, and, well, that about sums up my introduction to a world of gaming that has grabbed onto me with a kung-fu grip.

Down the rabbit hole

I admit it. I'm a nerd. A proud gamer. I don't just play games a lot; I'm neck-deep in the culture and love it. Each MMO lets me create multiple stories in my head. It's like having a library of books within books at my disposal. F2P MMOs provide a smorgasbord of gameplay and content to do with what I will, and my wallet doesn't get thinner the larger my library gets.

I also don't know whether it's my personal history or the way I was introduced to MMOs, but I just can't buy into the idea that the value of my entertainment is based only on a particular MMO's business model. I can get more than just fun from MMOs, and while I'm not naive about games of competition, I don't play roleplaying games primarily for competing with others. I love all aspects of current MMOs, including PvP elements, but even with competitive elements I rarely feel pressured to spend money to directly increase my fun-potential. It seems to me that by spending so much time worrying about competing with a handful of other players, you're just ignoring all the fun you could be having -- and that's true in any game, no matter the business model.

I get even more confused when people can't really identify those players against whom they're competing -- it's just not fair to hold F2P MMOs accountable for potential, unspecified game imbalances. Besides, won't there always be a sum of nameless other players at all levels to compete with at any given time?

It's OK to be different

But, I get it. Like the pros and cons of eating in or dining out, it's not about whether there's some cut-and-dried answer to the question of which business model is good or bad. It's about taste. It's about personal choice, finances and preferences. It's hard to have a hierarchy of raiding guilds in a F2P game, or to introduce an out-of-game power-altering mechanic into a subscription-based world that has a rich sub-culture of competing raiders. It's difficult to have ranking systems in F2P games where certain players want to be recognized by the community as being one of the top 10 crafters, PvPers, or top 10 anything.

Aside from different play styles that may be more fun for a person within a subscription-based game, I love how so many F2P MMOs have given us wonderful new features and systems. Even though I never play Fiesta Online anymore, I love how its King's Quest system allows anyone to sign up and join a large raid. This was a long time before anyone had ever heard of WoW's dungeon finder. There are F2P MMOs that have skill-based character building, massive PvP wars, land-based combined with water-based adventuring, and many other unique features. This is on top of the plethora of games that give us basic standards, but set them in their own beautiful worlds. I love the F2P MMOs for having features that spark my imagination as much as other MMOs that spark my imagination with nothing more than their lush graphics.


I've always had an eccentric streak. I've gravitated towards games heavily laden with story like Xenogears or Xenosaga, but also towards eccentric games like Mister Mosquito, Chulip and many more off-the-wall games. I think I must be part cat, because there's a part of me that has fun with these games in the same way a cat can have fun with something as simple as a balled-up piece of paper. Yes, I love reading the lore in WoW or finally perfecting the treasure hunt mini-game in Runes of Magic, but I also love sitting around clicking on resource nodes for three hours. I love sitting in the middle of an MMO's main city all night and joining the conversations in zone-chat. Why should it matter so much how the games give you fun, as long as they allow you to create your own fun within the world?

One MMO, whether F2P or subscription-based, can indeed be better than another. Maybe it's a matter of finding how you prefer to make fun rather than how you prefer to take fun. Maybe it's not. I'm not sure I have the answer to that, but I like to think that it's mostly a positive trait to be like a young sapling and not a giant sequoia. You can find an MMO you like, but even within your preferred game you should be able to bend with the wind. Trying to fight against that wind may result in your snapping.

I'd like to thank Beau for letting me write his column this week. To all of you devoted Beau fans: don't stop reading if I ruined your day. Beau will be back to his regularly scheduled day next week.
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