Free for All: Another attempt at free-to-play vs. freemium

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Free for All: Another attempt at free-to-play vs. freemium
Fallen Earth chart
I'm one of those types who can't just let certain things go. When I see someone talking on Facebook about issues with his pet, I have to chime in. (I'm sort of an amateur animal behaviorist.) If I hear someone talking about her favorite bands, I usually have to let her know which ones I love. (I'm a music snob.) I'm just sort of a nosy individual. Since I can admit that, I think I deserve a pass when I volunteer information that wasn't asked for.

But I work at Massively. We're a website about, you know, games, and not just games, but MMOs, some of the least understood of all games. People and even developers seem to confuse what MMO means, and they especially confuse what a free-to-play MMO should offer. Once again I am going to take a crack at it, but not just because I am nosy. Mainly I want to clear this up so people will know what to expect from a title and whether there is going to have to be any money involved.

Click past the cut and let's have at it!

Mabinogi screenshot
The main issue I have when people ask me whether a game is free or not is that I am not sure what they like to do. Granted, I can usually be pretty safe in assuming that they like to kill monsters and hunt after killer loot, but when I stop to think about it, players really do like to participate in a variety of activities in any MMO. There's socializing, crafting, roleplaying, exploring and a host of other title-specific activities like dance contests or treasure hunting. This is why we have to take each game that claims to be free-to-play and look at its specific "main" activities. If the game allows players to participate in those game-specific mainstream activities for free, then it is a free-to-play game. Perfect World or Illyriad are free-to-play games.

Already this is getting confusing, and it's starting to sound a bit like a scientific paper. As I noted before, though, it's important to be able to let people know what to expect, financially, when they are thinking about trying a new game. Let's soldier on.

Freemium, unlimited trial or velvet rope model games are games that allow players to play to a point in the main storyline or bulk of content, but then the games ask for some form of payment before letting the players move on. In other words, at some early point, players will hit a toll gate. Sometimes, in a game like Ryzom for example, players will pay not early on but somewhere closer to halfway. Still, it's "pay the toll or don't go any further." Wizard101 and Free Realms are freemium games.

"Technically they might not be blocking a player from playing from level A to level Z, but they are offering so much more to a paying player that many might see it as forced payment."

Now we get into the gray areas. These are the games that sell content or "tiers" of membership. Technically they might not be blocking a player from level A to level Z, but they are offering so much more to a paying player that many might see it as forced payment. EverQuest II and Dungeons and Dragons Online, for example, seem to thrive on a model based on basic free access that is tinged with eventual subscription. Extra packs of content, different races or other cash-shop-only content definitely blurs the lines for some people. With freemiumish games, we have to ask whether players can still participate in the majority of content -- as in developer-created and hosted content -- for free.

While I know it sucks to see another player with cooler armor or weapons than yours simply because he plunked some real-life money down, allowing the purchase of exclusive items or weapons does not always stop other players from going further without the items. One of the common arguments I hear against free-to-play is that it rewards those rolling in real-life cash with wonderful, time-saving gear. Meanwhile, the regular slobs have to hack out their stuff in the old fashioned way... by playing the game. The existence of such wonderful items takes away from the hard work of other players, removing their ability to get the best items in the game without paying for them. To some players, this means that the game is not free.

Free Realms screenshot
Now you can see why I am always trying to think of ways to describe payment models to some of my readers. Some players do not care about exclusive mounts or even subscriber-only content as long as they can get to that mighty max-level boss fight at some point. Others, however, think that limiting content or dividing it up into sections for free and paying members is an insult to the genre. Again we run into the problem of different players valuing different things, even in the world of tangible, developer-created content.

I'd love to say that when it comes down to it, players should not care about whether or not there will be a fee at some point. After all, MMO gaming is still dirt cheap even with all the bells and whistles. The truth is that it matters to me, so why shouldn't it matter to anyone else? I don't like a payment model that divides up content in such jarring ways. I don't want to run into a wall, usually one covered in "JOIN NOW" advertisements, especially so early in a game. If the developer wants us to subscribe early on, just give us a limited trial and we'll decide at the end of the two weeks. Thanks to the popularity of Western takes on free-to-play like LotRO, EQ2X and Free Realms, I now run the risk of not knowing what playing a game might entail for players' pocketbooks. Sometimes I am not clear on the nuances of a game's particular payment system simply because I have not played to the point at which payment is absolutely needed. That's why I value the input of my readers so much, and other readers should help each other out with information.

So in the end, I am still relatively confused. Basically let's sum it up as this:

1) Free-to-play games allow you to download, play and grow in their worlds without any form of payment required at any point. Now, if you want to grow faster or look cooler... then you'll pay. Experience potions, healing salves or nice-looking armor are the staples of the free-to-play payment plan. At least you will know that you can reach the "end" of the game for free, even if it is slower than some players.

2) Freemium, unlimited trial or velvet rope games will force payment on you at some point. Granted, in a game like Wizard101, you can consider housing, gardening or minigames as free content and be perfectly happy becoming a master at those things. However, if you play through the main storyline or participate in the main selling point of the game, you will have to pay to get to the end.

I hate to use such broad terms for so many games. This is a market of evolving payment models. There is definitely some sneakiness happening in the name of both free-to-play and freemium, so we as consumers need to send a very strong message. That means that next time you ask me for a recommendation for a "free" game, you need to assume that I have no idea what you like to do in a game and what you consider "free." It is also important to remember that playing five, six or even a dozen games from either payment model does not even make a dent in the sheer number of titles out there. So keep exploring, and remember that there are examples of good and bad on both sides.

Each week, Free for All brings you ideas, news, and reviews from the world of free-to-play, indie, and import games -- a world that is often overlooked by gamers. Leave it to Beau Hindman to talk about the games you didn't know you wanted! Have an idea for a subject or a killer new game that no one has heard of? Send it to!
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