Lost Continent: Yep, F2P sucks for ArcheAge

Jef Reahard
J. Reahard|12.05.14

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Lost Continent: Yep, F2P sucks for ArcheAge
Thus far I've put up with quite a lot of crap in my quest to like ArcheAge. There was the launch debacle in which no one realized that many millions of people will show up and expect a working service if you yell "come play for free!" Then there was the Auroria debacle, in which no one cared about server accessibility during a competitive launch event.

And of course there's ArcheAge's easily exploitable code, the ramifications of which include hacks, cheats, and bot-related problems that continue to be visible to anyone taking Trion's really-guys-it's-only-a-tiny-minority spin with a grain of salt.

Finally, there's the grossly intrusive monetization plan that prevents subscribers from playing certain parts of the game unless they spend additional money in the cash shop. ArcheAge has a comically long list of problems, but it's this last one that's finally wearing me down.

Yes, I know, I'm part of the problem. But I'm having the hardest time quitting outright because I adore ArcheAge's mechanics. They're well thought out and designed to foster immersion, engagement, and long-term sustainable virtual world play. And they're simply unavailable in the feature-deficient wasteland that passes for the rest of the AAA MMORPG space.

Sure, EVE Online. But get back to me when CCP makes a game world that's more than a ship on a nebula background.

Free-to-play sucks. Go ahead and label me out of touch or change-averse or any other dismissive that validates your preferences and ignores the problem. It's cool. But F2P still sucks, both in principle, where it relies on a tiny subset of the population to subsidize the majority, and in practice, where it divides games into a series of paywalls and focuses developer attention on monetization strategies rather than fun design.

Free-to-play is unequivocally bad for ArcheAge. That doesn't mean it's bad for Trion and XLGAMES, of course. On the contrary, the "no tricks, no traps" publisher is laughing all the way to the bank thanks to cash shop items like labor potions and land appraisal certificates that are required for basic gameplay functionality and that are only available for real money.

That includes patrons who are already paying $15 a month and who are required to shell out further if they want to bypass all of the gameplay-inhibiting labor speedbumps or sell/trade property.

And that's just the standard cash shop stuff. Occasionally the devs will sneak a new lockbox into the store that contains some sort of rare ingredient or crafting-related item. A couple of weeks ago, these antics completely destroyed the in-game market for thunderstruck trees. These trees are required to craft everything from farm carts to the upcoming submarines to a number of other highly desirable in-game items, and since they are basically rare finds subject to the whims of RNGesus, ArcheAge's player economy priced them accordingly.

But then Trion's lockbox addition flooded the market with TS trees, causing prices to plunge and leading to an explosion of carts, fishing boats, etc. All of which would have been really interesting if it had happened as a result of some gameplay mechanic, some guild or alliance politics, or really anything inside the world of ArcheAge itself. But no, thanks to free-to-play and the game's shameless store front, it happened as a result of people opening their real-world wallets.

Don't misunderstand me: This isn't sour gameplay grapes. I was not one of the speculators burned by the TS implosion. In fact, I've never owned a single one of the trees, and I have a fishing boat only thanks to the generosity of Massively's MJ. But the TS fiasco still pisses me off because it happened outside of the game mechanics. This is flatly unacceptable for a title that styles itself as a sandpark or a virtual world.

A tiny bit of F2P here or there might not have crapped all over AA's sandbox mechanics. A pet- or outfit-driven cash shop, while still irritating on a personal pay-to-win level, could have made the developers a ton of money while not forcing people to pay beyond the sub fee with regularity. Instead we have the labor system that literally prevents ArcheAge players from farming, fishing, harvesting, and many other activities unless they spend money in the cash shop to add to their point pool. Or unless they just don't play for two days and allow the labor pool to sloooowly regenerate, which is of course brilliant design and all kinds of fun!

I've touched on this before, but it's worth repeating here. ArcheAge was in fact designed for the subscription market. Free-to-play had yet to assimilate Western MMO developers in 2010 and 2011 when ArcheAge was nearing mass playability, and even when F2P had blanketed everything by January of 2013, XLGAMES released ArcheAge as a sub title in its native Korea!

Think about that for a moment. Korea, the birthplace of free-to-play, saw XL releasing its $40 million sandbox opus as a subscription title! Clearly the firm wanted AA to succeed with a sub. It knew that the game's mechanics sought to provide every player with equal in-game opportunity unrelated to real world wealth. And I know, land exploits and hacks render the thought of equal opportunity pretty laughable at this point. Let's imagine, though, that XL's programmers didn't deliver a swiss-cheese code base and that AA's sandbox gameplay has the integrity with which it was designed.

That integrity is destroyed -- and the gameplay is reduced to pointlessness -- when players are able to circumvent the systems with their wallets.

Still don't believe me when I say that ArcheAge was designed as a subscription game? Consider this. In 2012, I spoke at length with XLGAMES COO Suk Woo Choi. I interviewed him at that summer's E3 in Los Angeles, and we also talked for quite a while off the record after he asked me numerous questions about the Western market and what sort of AA business model I thought gamers would accept.

I remember hating myself for positing that some sort of F2P option was probably necessary for visibility's sake. He took that in stride and didn't reveal much of what XL was thinking at the time. In hindsight, though, I think the firm was clearly conflicted about ArcheAge's business model and would have preferred to continue with the original subscription-focused design.

As it stands, I'm still following ArcheAge, albeit with greatly reduced engagement since I can no longer own land or accumulate offline labor as a freedabbler. It's taken me a while to get here, and here well and truly sucks, but I can't continue supporting the sort of cluelessness that's driving AA's sandbox potential straight into the ground.

Jef Reahard is an ArcheAge early adopter as well as the creator of Massively's Lost Continent column. It chronicles one man's journey through XLGAMES' fantasy sandpark while examining PvE, PvP, roleplay, and beyond. Suggestions welcome at jef@massively.com.
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