I adopted the Free MMO überlist from the depths of our MMO subforum in 2008. At that moment I was a college student trying to find games I could play together with a friend. I found out a lot of the games listed were no longer running or had moved addresses and figured I would post updates for everyone’s benefit. The stated goal of the list was to inform other PA’ers about exciting games they wouldn’t hear about otherwise, at the time that meant every F2P MMO ever made.
As the previous OP had long ago left the forums and no one else was particularly interested in taking over I got to make my own thread. I was left to my own devices and got the opportunity to write whatever I wanted about (generally) low quality games. I got to be a smartass, make light of ridiculous imported titles and share my misadventures with the forums for our amusement. It was a lot of fun and it gave me a nice excuse to try a whole bunch of different games without feeling like I wasted time if I didn’t enjoy a game. I still got to write about it, after all.
One of the first challenges I ran into was finding sources where I could get updates on new titles. When I started out I wanted to expand my list so I just started to google for “free MMO”. I ended up on a bunch of websites that did not actually have any reviews or information about games, but just linked to other websites and copied the press release from the publisher. I hated that; no one ever gave an opinion. I would browse through other forums and everyone would just talk about some gameplay details or whether it was better than WoW… Completely useless. Actually, one of my most reliable sources for larger titles were ads on other websites. If a game was published by a larger company they’d spend money on getting the word out. Ads for stuff like Evony or Fiesta Online were hard to miss and it were exactly the kind of games I wanted to review, just because these games actually got more than a few dozen people playing them.
I mostly relied on newsletters from publishers. Gamengame in particular was very interesting to me: they were sponsored by the South Korean government and functioned like a jumping board for developers looking for an English release. You could play the game through their platform and after a while they were deleted without any kind of warning. Sometimes they were picked up by publishers, but most of the time they were just gone for good. I still miss Richman Online…
Over the years this has changed dramatically: some western companies decided to try the F2P model and had a lot of success and other Asian companies decided to put in more effort in their imported titles. It resulted in an influx of higher quality titles that became popular. This was quite exciting for me as a gamer, because I suddenly had options and there were friends who played the same games with me! It got to the point where I could make a separate thread for a new game and it’d actually get a guild going. It never lasted very long, but that’s the way of the PA forums. Perfect World, Puzzle Pirates and Dungeons & Dragons Online were the three games that impressed me the most at this time.
We are now nearing the present, I don’t want to write a history book with exact dates, but suffice to say that the business model became popular and serious gaming websites and magazines started to pay more attention to certain new releases. As games like Lord of the Rings Online and Star Trek Online became F2P it felt like a dam had broken: every publisher announced F2P titles and a bunch of existing games switched to F2P as well. It used to be that a game went F2P shortly before closing down completely, but suddenly the model changed. Everyone kept on reporting that their F2P business model was their best decision ever and it has gotten to the point where a subscription-based titles gets scoffed at for not offering any way to play without paying up front.
It is around this point that my life became a lot busier with jobs and – just as importantly – a whole pile of games I could play that I had installed already. There was less incentive for me to try new titles and the bigger new titles were going to be reviewed by every news outlet anyway. What’s the point of writing a smarmy summary of SWTOR? It’s SWTOR! Everyone already knew what it’s about. Massively posts weekly updates, Rock, Paper, Shotgun will write an article for every expansion. I only needed to list it just for the sake of having a complete list.
The popularity of F2P has not waned yet (although there are plenty of people who wish the simpler times of the subscription-based model would continue to be an option) and my life has only gotten busier. I think half my posts in the last year have been along the lines of “I should spend more time on this”, but every time it didn’t really happen. My last bout of activity was a few months back as I listened to the MMO Underground podcast because they spent quite some time discussing new released. But after a while they went on hiatus and I had to spend more time digging through websites myself.
Besides the obvious “having shit to do” reason, there’s more reasons that make me less excited to spend time listing free MMOs:
- For one, there’s so many… every online game seems to be F2P these days.
- Secondly: the kind of free games I enjoyed the most are the slightly obscure imported titles of indie projects and it’s rather difficult to learn about them now that EA, Ubisoft, Warner Bros and Valve are spending millions marketing their games. Gaming news websites will always report on any news surrounding those companies and only pay attention to anything else if something exciting happens. Let’s be honest here: games that are like Ragnarok Online 2 are dime in a dozen, they are not news-worthy. Thankfully Massively pays some attention to these games as well - mostly because these titles are huge in Asia - but they hardly ever post reviews and their coverage is spotty at best.
- Thirdly, the influx of “MMO-likes” forced me to spend quite some time researching titles that I did not care about at all. No one plays CoD:BlOps because of the progression of your character in multiplayer: you play it because you want to shoot mans. Same goes for every MOBA: the arbitrary levels of your account are inconsequential. I had to either redefine my description of “MMO”, spend a lot of time explaining why I wouldn’t list specific titles (and constantly risk making “THE list” into “ALDO’s list”) or try to be as inclusive as possible.
- I do not care about mobile gaming in its current form at all. It feels like we took 2 steps back just so we can play a game that plays worse than RO1 on our smartphone.
To wrap up this history lesson: I decided to close the thread a few weeks ago, but also wanted to discuss wtf is going on with F2P with you people. I asked Echo if it was OK to make this thread and asked him to close the thread. It has been nice working on the list for such a long time and it is nice to have a kind of reputation in a community. I am certain I will always be able to give some advice to folks interested in free games and I am very excited to see where this business model will take us and how it will crash and burn.
Because we will see a crash and a burn at some point, I just can’t imagine gamers to keep up with the cash shops of a dozen different games, there are already a few developments that point towards a new direction for the market:
- The failure of some F2P titles for nickel-n-diming us too much. Allods Online had to seriously reconfigure their cash shop because they were losing too many players.
- Big publishers got terrible ratings for their F2P ‘casual’ games (NFS, Battlefield Heroes, etc etc), forcing them to reconsider their tactics.
- Successful indie developers like Grinding Gear Games stating that their cash shop will never lead to any gameplay related benefits (“pay to win”) which is winning over hordes of gaming fans.
- The option for a subscription continues to exist for F2P titles and often offers the best value for your money. I think LOTRO is the best example for this, but the same can be said for SWTOR.
I am curious to hear your thoughts on the F2P business model and your personal experiences over the years with free games. What experiences stood out for you? Are you nostalgic for any particular time in MMO-history? What do you like about the business model as it is now? Are you excited about the future?