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Free for All: Not everyone drinks at the bar

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I understand the opinion that all free-to-play games are "not fun," or that they are "nothing but a grind." Even though this is a generalization that is nowhere near the truth, and despite the fact that the giver of these opinions couldn't have played every free-to-play game in existence to base this information on, the idea behind the sentiment is pretty solid: "I do not like free-to-play games." I cannot argue with that, being that it is an opinion. If someone wants to lump games into a category based on "how a developer might make money" then so be it.

It is not only my opinion that there is good and bad in every payment model (just check some of the comments section on some of our columns) but that, more-than-likely, the generalizer has probably played only a handful of these games, and filled in the gaps of his opinion with ideals that are closer to racism than actual experience.

There are two things that I can present as evidence to a free-to-play game's quality, however. Two things that are so important and yet so basic that no game could live without them. Two things that make up the very foundation that MMORPGs should be built on, so that gameplay and style can be stacked on top.



1) Basic social interaction

That's right, I'm talking about chatting, interacting with your guild, or meeting new people. Next time you need to answer a question while in game, ask the broadest chat channel you can. Be it the world chat or the guild chat, just ask something that is obvious enough to stir even the shyest of players to answer. Something like: "How do you move forward?" or "What is loot?"

Now, when you get 300 answers, notice the names of the players. Send the interesting names a tell or private chat invitation, then tell them thanks and ask them where they are from. The answers you get might surprise you. You will probably hear from people who are from places you have never been, or from people who are from a different age group than you or who have had many different life experiences than you. You might hear from disabled people, veterans, people who have children or people who have just gone through a terrible divorce. The point is that the basic chat channel is a social tool of incredible ability, through and through.

Stop giggling. I am very, very serious. And yes, I am essentially saying that the basic ability to chat with people from all over the globe makes a free-to-play game have much, much value. Socializing is such an integral part of MMORPGs that it defines what an MMORPG is. In fact, we have had many debates over "what is massive?" and we will have them even more as more games blur the lines. Is a 60-person battle "massive?" How about 1,000 players all on one server? Despite the fact that no player will ever have interactions with all the players on their server, much less from the entire game, we still stamp a game as "massive" and value it for that. A trip to an empty bar is kind of sad, but a trip to a packed bar is -- well, a night filled with potential for positive social interaction.


2) Access to your character

Now I am talking about that character who, hopefully, you have grown to love. I have played hundreds of free MMORPGs, and none of them would even be possible without access to that central character of "me." Remember standing around the bank, chatting with guild-mates? Remember that low-level character who made more money off of the auction house than your main did? That was basic access at its finest. How about that guild event that you attended, even though you didn't play the game that much? That was possible thanks to a developer that guaranteed basic access. Again I want to challenge you to do something while in-game. Perhaps you could borrow a non-gamer family member or loved one to stand over your shoulder to keep notes on a typical night of gaming. Have them write down a description of what you do while in-game.

I will bet you that much of your activity will not be in combat, but instead spent saying hello to people or preparing the evening's activity. While there are many activities, like raiding or crafting grinds, that will have you spending most of your time actually doing something, you will find that a good portion of your time is spent not doing anything at all. It is my argument that just being your character is an activity. Role-playing, socializing and organizing your bank are all things that basic character access allows. That access is another one of the fundamentals of an MMORPG.

Both of these can be done, for absolutely for free, in most free-to-play MMORPGs. Without a subscription fee, you cannot even do these basic things in a pay-to-play MMORPG. That is not an opinion, that is a fact. For the record, even in the example of a "freemium" game, or a game that requires payment at a certain point or level, you can still combat creatures and do other "normal" activities.

This is not an attempt to show you what a horrible deal a subscription is. This is just an attempt to prove to you what a better value a free-to-play game can be. Both have their merits, of course, but social interaction and character access is not something you can have when you do not pay a required monthly fee. Tack on top of that the fact that most free-to-play games charge absolutely nothing for their client, and you can really see the value.

What fun means is definable only by the individual, but a price tag on entry is an indisputable fact.

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