Tuesday, November 15, 2011

A Plague of Free-to-Play

There are a lot of free to play games out there, with more and more coming out just about every month.  You can’t throw a brick without hitting a F2P MMO that’s in closed beta, open beta, or beta-that’s-not-really-beta-since-we’ll-take-your-money beta, and if you can think about a popular genre and do a google search, you’ll find a F2P MMO based on that genre, or close to it.  Just to reiterate, there are vast numbers of F2P MMOs floating around the internet, and you’ve probably never even heard of 95% of them.
Sadly, a great many of them are absolute garbage.  This should come as no great surprise to anyone, as F2P games have long had a bad reputation for being terrible.  What might be a surprise though, is that some of these games are getting decent budgets and plenty of marketing, even coverage on major sites like Massively, but are still garbage.  Not just garbage, but derivative, formulaic, uninspired garbage.

There are a lot of companies shoveling this stuff, Aeria, gPotato, and dozens more, but one of the biggest culprits right now is Perfect World International.  They’ve seen a lot of success in China, and are expanding aggressively into the U.S. market.  I get e-mails from them, their games are all covered by Massively, they have advertisements all over the place, and the games are all pretty awful.  Based on screenshots, videos, and ads I’ve tried most of what Perfect World is peddling, and in almost every case I’ve spent more time downloading the client than playing the game before uninstalling it.  They have a clear formula for all their games that I’ve tried so far, such that I feel confident it’s just a standard feature for all their games:

  • Clunky UI
  • Muddy, low resolution ground textures
  • Terrible animations
  • Click-to-move interface
  • Game before world, forget immersion
  • An inventory box that spits out free rewards when you level
  • Generic, uninspired artwork and monster design
  • Heavy armor melee class, two handed melee class, dual wield melee class, magic caster, priestly caster, archer.
  • Meaningless levelups (start at level 1, see nothing new until level 5)
  • Kill x, collect y, and go to z quests. 
Slap together some new environments, give it a new name, and voila, new game!  It’s War of Perfect Immortal Heroes, now with demon knight special class!

A few years ago the market had been trending towards higher quality F2P games, but that trend seems to have died in the new trend of subscription games converting to F2P.  Whether that was the cause, or just a coincidence I don’t know, but I keep trying new F2P games and they keep being absolute garbage. Sometimes I feel like I installed a virus rather than a game and need to disinfect my poor computer once the game is gone.

There are some very solid, very polished and professional F2P games out there – Allods Online and World of Tanks are both excellent examples.  I’ll note that they’re both Russian in origin, which begs the question – is the mindset of the Chinese gamer so different from that of western gamers that Perfect World International has been able to prosper so greatly off the junk they peddle?

I find it quite disturbing that Perfect World International (PWI) recently purchased Cryptic Studios, along with Champions Online, Star Trek Online, and Neverwinter.  They have since insisted Neverwinter become more of an MMO, and the feature list now reads almost like Dungeons & Dragons Online.  Except we already have Dungeons & Dragons Online, and it’s already F2P.  How is a Cryptic version of the same thing going to be useful?  I’m not a big fan of Cryptic’s recent offerings (though STO really isn’t that bad), and had no hopes for Neverwinter anyway, but if PWI starts buying up more western studios, how long until they start imposing their business model on games that really weren’t designed for it?

Hopefully they’ll be smart enough to recognize the western audience is not the same as the Chinese audience, and develop accordingly, but for all I know the proliferation of garbage games will continue until it’s hard to see the good games through all the crap.


  1. Here's my take on this phenomenon in the MMORPG industry.

    The game companies and investors don't see a difference between an MMO and a normal console game. Console games, you can make the same game multiple times and still have it be a financial success. Just look at the Call of Duty series, for example.

    I'm not saying that they are stupid, far be it. Companies that make that mistake tend to not ever do it again, like EA and Warhammer. However, we're not yet over the glut of companies who believe it. Except now instead of WoW-likes, we are getting Free to Play titles. It takes several more years for a MMORPG to be considered outdated than a console game, so if someone puts out a good one then players have no reason to switch to your company's crappier version, or even think about touching that cash shop.

  2. The great thing about the free games is it costs nothing but time to try them out. That's what the crowds are drawn to. They want to escape the trap that is the past MMO model, which was to spend money on a box with CDs, then have to fork over hundreds of dollars (or thousands depending on longevity) just to keep playing that game. They don't care about quality; they just want to escape. The next phase in the movement away from the monthly fee MMO will be competition over quality and the actual game experience.