Free for All: Comparing the payment models of RuneScape and Illyriad

Illyriad and RuneScape maps

Last week, I introduced you to two of my favorite free-to-play or freemium payment models. Payment models are endlessly fascinating because so many players normally didn't think about them until free-to-play and freemium models stopped being something that only came from foreign shores. Now, everyone has an opinion about which payment model is the best. I tend to love simple ones, as close to simple as I can get. If a game is truly wonderful, however, I don't care if the developers ask players to cut off their right arms. I've paid my fair share and continue to do so.

In fact, in one of the most disturbing trends of the last few years, players have begun bemoaning the lack of a free version of their favorite game. I see it all the time: players publicly wishing for the time that their favorite game will go free-to-play so they can return without paying a dime. Sure, I can understand being strapped for cash and needing an easy way to get back to an old title, but come on... those titles might not be around much longer if players do not support them in the first place. I am not a fan of free-to-play because I am cheap or because I need to avoid paying developers what they deserve. I have said it before, and I will say it again: I am a fan of free-to-play because it lets me decide when I want to spend my money. There's a big difference.

So let's chat about two of my favorite game's payment models.

Illyriad screenshot

Let me tell you about Illyriad first. Illyriad is a browser-based MMORTS that stands out from the crowd by offering real-time skill training, a robust and simple trade system, and open-world, hardcore PvP. I love it because I can play for literally 20 minutes a day or sit and blow three hours on a gaming session. It is a game of choices. The artwork has a hand-drawn quality to it and all of it runs within HTML5, making it flexible across all platforms. More choices, see?

Most of the MMORTS titles I come across offer a cash shop or microtransactions that truly do sell power. I love how wonderful Evony looks and plays, but you can literally buy goods with real-life cash. The same is true of many titles. When it comes to combat, most of them are sort of babyish. Sure, someone can attack you and take some of your stuff, but you are almost always guaranteed some sort of safety system that keeps plenty of goods around for the next round. In other words, you are never truly "out." This has created a popular culture of "farming" players, the same players who smack-talk each other in these titles and warn that they "will farm the crap out of you." They can do that because there is no real price to pay. Well, in Illyriad, a player can wipe you off of the map almost literally, leaving you with nothing but the skills you learned and any goods you might have protected in a vault. This has created a quiet tension in the game, as if everyone is pointing loaded guns at each other. War takes money and time, time that allows your enemy to gather his friends.

So how does real money work in Illyriad? Simple. You spend cash to buy prestige and then spend that prestige on a few things. You can slightly buff your defenses and the output of your resources. You can even buff the combat effectiveness of some of your troops, but as James Niesewand told me in a live video interview this year, the amount is very small and is only one of many, many factors in combat. You can also spend prestige to speed up building times on buildings. Even with all that, a player cannot speed up skill learning. As in EVE Online, players nominate a skill that is learned in real time. One skill can take days to learn. These skills are often needed to build certain buildings or to perform certain tasks. As in other PvP games, items mean nothing without the skills to use them. Illyriad's payment system is easy to understand, it's cheap, and it doesn't significantly affect gameplay.

RuneScape member's benefits

RuneScape is a bit more complicated. To be honest, I am not a huge fan of the way it divides players into groups so much, but at the same time I can appreciate the need for it. Essentially, free players can enjoy a feature-rich, immersive game that will run on almost any device. So why subscribe? Well, paying members get a lot more. Here's a basic rundown of the benefits of subscribing:

  • Over 150 extra quests

  • Nine extra skills to train

  • Twenty minigames for members only

  • A larger world to play in

  • The ability to own and build your own home

  • Full-screen mode

  • No advertisements on the page

  • More content updates

  • Members-only servers

  • A loyalty reward system that can be used to buy emotes, outfits and more

Now, does this mean that free players are stuck in a world that is covered in ads and offers no excitement? Not at all. As I said, I am normally not a fan of such a harsh financial divide, but RuneScape is so chock-full of adventure that even a free player can play for hours and hours without ever needing to subscribe. I didn't subscribe for the longest time simply because I found myself enthralled with quests, exploration and roleplay. I finally decided to sub when I noticed how dirt cheap it was, although now the price has gone up. I took my time and caught a huge sale on a six-month subscription. That grandfathered me in to the lower price of $5.95, and as long as I do not let the subscription lapse, I can keep it at that lower amount. In my opinion, the game is one of the best games around, even after 10 years, and especially when compared to the same-old-same-old designs of games like Star Wars: The Old Republic. This is a case of paying a subscription not only because it is cheap but because the game is damn good.

Who wins in this round? Well, they're both great. RuneScape does offer tons more "gameplay," but it's many years older and is also a different style of game. Illyriad's payment model is simple, and players do not need to do math just to figure out how many rubies or pieces of copper they need to exchange for in-game cash. I like simple.

So it's a tie! I'm going with Illyriad for simplicity, but RuneScape gets the nod for just being that good. I have never once said I was "against" subscriptions. I have said they can be a waste of money, they can be nothing but an attempt to get something from a playerbase without having to deliver anything, and they can be silly. Not in all cases, however. RuneScape might have that annoying wall up between paying and free players, but with all of the younger players in the game, I can almost see the need for it. The free version gives players a chance to try the game out (for a long, long time), and the subscription gives them en entire new world of fun.

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!