Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Faux F2P

I’ve played a fair few free to play MMORPGs by now, everything from oddball action fantasy games like Dragon’s Nest to traditional conversions like Lord of the Rings Online.  I’ve played games where the cash shop really isn’t necessary, and others where not using items from the cash shop makes playing the game more an adventure in walking on broken glass than a fun, relaxing hobby (my apologies to all you broken-glass-walkers out there, I don’t mean to malign your hobby).  I find I am less irritated by games that make cash shop items necessary when the game itself is completely free – no box price, no startup cost, no subscription, just the cash shop.  I find I am very irritated by games that make cash shop items necessary when the game itself costs money up front – since most F2P games that started as F2P never charge for the client, I am of course mostly referring to games that have converted from subscription to F2P, or some hybrid thereof.

My City of Heroes account recently converted from VIP to Free, and overall I have to say I am not happy, at all, with the way things have worked out.  When Paragon Studios first announced the free to play change (City of Heroes: Freedom) I thought it sounded like a good idea.  They made a big deal of the fact that past subscribers would have “premium” accounts rather than just free accounts.  In their defense I don’t think they ever detailed what that meant, but nevertheless they implied it was a big deal.  My subscription time for City of Heroes clocks in around 40 months.  I beta tested the game, I paid full retail at release, I beta tested City of Villains, and bought that at full price too, and picked up Going Rogue the moment it came out.  In short, I’ve invested a LOT of money in the game over the years, and that apparently set my expectations a bit high.

The first thing that happened upon converting to a free account was that all my character slots locked.  I have characters on three servers – Pinnacle, Virtue, and Freedom.  Logging into Virtue I had 2 server slots and 3 global slots available.  Checking Pinnacle I had 2 server slots and 3 global slots available.  Checking Freedom I had 0 server slots and 0 global slots available – I couldn’t unlock a single character on that server without spending money.  Not one.  Ooo . . . kay . . . not exactly fair, but I wasn’t that invested in my villain characters anyway.

So I went back to Virtue and unlocked the two characters I’ve mostly been playing lately, my level 50 tanker and my level 28 corrupter.  I logged in my tanker to see how he was affected and discovered he’d lost access to all his Incarnate abilities.  Not only are free players barred from participating in Incarnate Trials, anything you earn while a VIP is lost the moment you stop subscribing.  That would be like raiding in Lord of the Rings Online and getting your epics stripped away if you stop paying.  There’s also no way to access the Incarnate system without paying a monthly subscription – you can’t unlock the content in the cash shop, it’s subscribe or go home.  It left a bit of a dirty taste in my mouth, and I certainly haven’t logged my level 50 in since as he has nothing to do.

Then I unlocked my corrupter . . . or rather I tried to.  He has the Time Manipulation power set, something he’s been using for the past few months.  It turns out the Time Manipulation power set is VIP only so that character was now unplayable . . . unless I cared to jaunt over to the cash shop and plunk down about $10 for the damned thing.  I didn’t care to, but I did want to keep playing this character, so I bought some points and finished unlocking him.  In my opinion my subscription should have paid for the right to use that powerset, but clearly Paragon Studios doesn’t agree. 

I logged my corrupter in, and immediately noticed that my salvage and auction house storage inventory had shrunk considerably.  I was now over my inventory limits and had to sell off a bunch of stuff.  The salvage inventory was especially tight, and made working with the invention system pretty painful.

I then went to a trainer to adjust the colors of my corrupter’s powers and discovered I couldn’t – free players are denied that feature, which really felt like an unnecessary cosmetic handicap.  I tried to access First Ward, a zone I’d been running missions in, only to discover that it was VIP only and I’d have to buy access to it if I wanted to keep going.  I did, so I did (using up the last of my Paragon Points).

By this point I was getting pretty disgusted.  As a veteran player who’s sunk hundreds of dollars into CoH I expected I’d be able to go longer than five minutes without getting a ham-handed reminder of the fact that I wasn’t a VIP any more, but that expectation was thoroughly crushed.  Everywhere I turned there seemed to be a barrier to entry, and this was with just a few minutes of play!  I have to compare that to Lord of the Rings Online, where my existing characters were essentially untouched, and only had to deal with content walls once they’d leveled up enough.  Lord of the Rings didn’t strip anything away from my characters when they converted to free, it just demanded payment to access additional content down the line.  CoH on the other hand, seems determined to make my characters feel second rate while VIP players enjoy the “real” game.

It turns out that all the “premium” status on that free account means is that you get to keep most (but not all) of the things you’ve actually paid for in the past.  So if you bought an expansion, you get to keep access to it.  If you bought extra character slots, you get to keep them.  If you purchased costume packs, you get to keep those costumes.  Wow, I get to keep things I paid for!  What a deal!

I can only imagine how severely limiting it must feel to play as a new free player.  Almost all the additional systems in the game are blocked.  You can’t use the auction house, you can’t use inventions, you can’t access the Architect system, you can only use some of the archetypes and some of the powers, you can’t use a lot of the costume options, etc.  They’re not free players, they’re trial accounts.

If I was a new player and tried to play CoH, I’d quickly lose interest and stop.  I think that’s probably contributed to why the player population of CoH didn’t spike much with the release of Freedom.  Server populations seem roughly the same now as they did before.  I’m sure there’s been an uptick, but pretty small compared to the huge boost games like Lord of the Rings Online and DC Universe Online have seen.

The City of Heroes free to play conversion seems very similar to that of Champions Online.  To the best of my knowledge Champions hasn’t exactly boomed as a result of the conversion either, and maybe there’s a good reason for that – the Turbine method for converting a subscription game seems to work, the crippled-game-unless-you-pay-through-6000-paygates method does not.

At this point I don’t feel much desire to play CoH as a free game, it’s just annoying.  I also don’t feel much desire to subscribe with SWTOR just around the corner.  So I suppose I’ll play it just enough to get something out of the money I spent on my corrupter, and that will be that.  I think in the end, I wish it had simply stayed a regular subscription game instead of jerking me around with false free to play promises.

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