A Mild-Mannered Reporter: Nine misconceptions about Freedom

So one of the interesting elements of having written up the initial column and post on the newest City of Heroes change is that I didn't have time to really see what the community reaction would be. I knew that I was excited about City of Heroes Freedom, and I knew that there was a lot to hope for, but the only guess I could make was that people would crow about the game's impending demise rather than focusing on the many positives coming from the switch to a hybrid model.

It's been two weeks now, and while I won't claim to have my finger on the pulse of the community (who the heck is Leonardo Leonardo?), I do think I've gotten a general idea of the biggest complaints about the upcoming change. Some of them are entirely accurate -- yes, you will have free players on your server, and yes, that will include the already-burgeoning Virtue. But other complaints are a bit inaccurate or stem from misunderstandings, so today I want to talk about the nine points that seem most frequently misunderstood about Freedom.

1. I'm going to lose out as a subscriber because the game will expect me to buy stuff piecemeal.

Except that a lot of the stuff that other people have to pay for, you'll be getting for free. And I'm not just talking about the 400 free points or the fact that you get automatic access to Going Rogue -- from what I understand, a lot of otherwise locked features such as Temporal Manipulation will be free to subscribers. (I think the new costume sets debuting on the store with Issue 21 are also in that camp, but I might have misunderstood.) In other words, subscribing not only gets you free points to spend but also gives you a large chunk of what is in the store without asking for another cent out of you.

That's not including those free points every month, which drop your subscription down to $10 a month for all practical purposes. All told, if you're currently a subscriber, you're going to be getting a lot more on a regular basis than you would be right now. Yes, a lot of the costume sets are now being split up, but that means that you can buy the parts of a set you want rather than buying the whole thing for a flat price. And if you look at the current rate of booster pack releases... yeah, it's not going to be hard saving up the points to buy those for free just as a side-effect of subscribing.

2. There's no longer any reason to subscribe.

As the converse of the last point, this is the obvious question of why you would pay money to get something you can get for free. And yes, if you'd bought Going Rogue and had more veteran slots than you had characters, you might be able to get away with this. Of course, you'd need to buy access to the new zone coming out with Issue 21, but that can't be that expensive, right? And you'll probably need to buy access to the Incarnate system. Oh, and any new costume parts you want. And the new powersets, and maybe some of the upcoming widgets like dual inspirations, and...

It's not that you can't go this route; it's that if you're used to playing as a subscribing player, this will result in your getting nickel-and-dimed to death. Of course, it'll happen largely because you specifically chose the route with many nickels and dimes. There is still going to be plenty of reason to pay a subscription fee if you want access to the full game, and from an economic standpoint, it makes good sense to do so.

3. Free/premium players are getting shafted.

I'd like to respond to this concern with a question: If you currently are not subscribing to City of Heroes, what can you do in the game?

I will agree that some of the restrictions on free players seem a bit harsh, but at the same time, that's part of the way that the team makes subscribing look more attractive. No, you won't be able to take part in everything if you're playing for free, even if you're a returning player, but you still will be able to get a lot more for free than you could in the past. And there are players -- returning or otherwise -- who don't want to feel like they're shelling out a flat fee every month for a game they might not play but who will happily pop in for a week of intense playing and wind up dropping a large wad of cash right there.

The new system will allow those players to do just that. It means more options for the way you like to play games and spend money on same, and more options are pretty much always a good thing. No matter where you stand now -- as a current subscriber, as a former player, or as a complete novice -- you'll be getting more out of the game once Freedom goes live.

4. I'm going to lose access to the characters and classes that I like if I'm unsubscribed.

As near as I understand it, while you'll have two character slots plus slots unlocked via veteran rewards, you will be allowed to choose which occupied slots are unlocked if your number of characters exceeds your number of current slots. You will definitely not be forced to delete characters -- at worst, I imagine re-ordering your characters or buying another slot will do the trick. (The former might require you to subscribe for a month, yeah, but as has been mentioned, you get quite a bit for that subscription.) If this changes, I will be right there complaining about this change because the alternative would be genuinely unfair to returning players.

As for the classes... well, if you already have a Controller or a Mastermind or a Spider, you'll still have access to the class. (Or a Kheldian, theoretically, but no one likes them, so it barely counts.) You can't make a new one, no, but that's a fairly minor limitation (see earlier talk about what you can currently do in the game without a subscription).

5. This is all a ploy to boost the endgame population.

Well, yeah, in the sense that any attempt to get more players into a game is a ploy to boost the population. It's not exactly a subtle maneuver so much as it's an open invitation to come play the game, and if you like it, you'll subscribe or purchase the endgame portion.

I can understand that there's some anxiety over the state of the endgame system, due in no small part to the fact that the endgame hasn't quite settled down yet. (Especially as it's only existed for a few months now.) That having been said, the Incarnate game is expanding laterally and reliably, and there's no reason to assume that it's not going to continue in that trend. It will, without a doubt, wind up boosting the population at endgame, but that's largely because it will give the game a larger pool of potential players.

6. I'm going to be swamped by free players.

This is closely related to the previous point, and to be fair, it's with good cause. One of the major elements of CoH for a lot of players is the strength of its community, and the thought that the existing community could be replaced with the community of players who want a no-investment game right off the bat is... worrisome, to say the least. Removing that gating mechanism can feel a bit like throwing the gates wide open and inviting the Mongol hordes in for a cup of tea.

Of course, the problem with this is twofold. The first is that it assumes the City of Heroes community is an unblemished sea of marvelous human beings, which is only about half true. The community is really strong, yes, but just as with any distribution, there are a lot of people at different points on this particular bell curve.

The second is that assuming everyone who prefers free-to-play games is someone to be avoided. There are some people who really prefer the advantage of an unlimited trial or a hybrid model -- including me, in fact. It's going to dilute the community a bit, but the VIP-only server should temper matters if things get really bad.

7. I'm going to throw around the term "pay to win" in the hopes that it makes a coherent statement.

"Pay-to-win" is one of those game terms people love to bandy about, and it has about as much material presence as the chupacabra. The closest equivalent was the terrible pricing at the launch of Allods Online, and even that was less "pay-to-win" and more "pay-to-not-lose." Still not a shining endorsement, but the distinction is relevant.

Of course, the obvious question is how exactly one would win at an MMO. The usual means for doing something similar is buying an account that's already leveled and unlocked everything, but I'm willing to bet that the cash shop will not include a "Complete Mission: 50 PP" option. Similarly, new power sets, give you more options for how to create a character, but I suspect that Temporal Manipulation is not going to be so uniquely overpowered that you absolutely must have it. We don't need a powerful new set in CoH to encourage the creation of alts; we do that on our own.

There are meant to be a couple of noteworthy power boosts, yes, such as the dual inspirations. However, to use a bit of Magic terminology, I'm willing to bet that if getting an Enrage and Insight in a single click is game-breakingly powerful tech, you would be absolutely floored by a dual-origin enhancement. I usually find myself with more Inspirations than I need, and while duals might help cut down on storage space a little bit, they're not the sort of thing that screams "mandatory purchase."

8. This is a last-ditch money grab.

Well, this is definitely a money grab, in the sense that Paragon Studios is trying to sell you a product in the hopes that you will purchase it. This is the principle on which businesses function. But as I mentioned in my initial column, NCsoft is not a company that makes a valiant effort to keep a game going via a free-to-play model. If CoH were really on its last legs, this would look less like the launch of a new business model and more like the last scenes of Old Yeller.

This also ties into the doubt above about how the whole thing is going to involve a near-fatal process of selling tiny things in bite-sized chunks. By all accounts, Freedom will be giving subscribers quite a bit for free and won't be exactly stingy with free players either. There's an awful lot being handed out for no cover charge. It's hard to plausibly argue that the devs are trying to get one last hit out of your wallet when you're being given a bunch of stuff for absolutely no price.

9. New content development is going to slow to a crawl.

This is something that I was worried about myself, and so when I was on the phone with Paragon, I asked Brian Clayton outright if this might change the release schedule of large issues. His response to me was that the plan is to still release a large patch every three or four months, just like the game has been doing for a very long time now. Signature episodes, new launches in the store, and so forth -- all of that stuff is going to be in addition to the game's existing development process.

And if we assume the hybrid model is really a kick in the seat of the pants for the game, this is going to actually accelerate development and release. Going Rogue wasn't a failure, but it didn't bring a huge groundswell of new players into the game, which means the revenue for the game stayed fairly consistent. Freedom could very well bring in a much larger batch of players, resulting in way more revenue and way more development for our favorite superhero game.

In short: No matter where you stand here, you're winning. Go ahead and make any jokes about having tiger blood that you want.

That's our door-buster of a column this week, weighing in at about double the usual length, but I thought this needed a full treatment. As always, I welcome comments and feedback in the comment section below or via mail to Next week, let's take care of that archetype discussion wrap-up. I'm thinking of trying something a little different for the future.

By day a mild-mannered reporter, Eliot Lefebvre unveils his secret identity in Paragon City and the Rogue Isles every Wednesday. Filled with all the news that's fit to analyze and all the muck that's fit to rake, this look at City of Heroes analyzes everything from the game's connection to its four-color roots to the latest changes in the game's mechanics.