August 2012

Free to play. It has many connotations, and already after a short time in the popular gaming world, a number of prejudices. I say popular, because in actual fact the service has been around in some form or another for quite a while. Runescape has been going since 2001 and has 10 million active accounts per month. But the concept was thrown into the mainstream when titles such as DDO and LOTRO went with it.

Typical associations with Free to Play are the fact that the game might be Pay to Win. Spend enough money in the in-game store and you can get around any player attempting to grind their way to victory. World of Tanks has had to weather these types of problems, and there have been some pretty devastating analysis done by various bloggers that have shown how rigged the system can be. Another problem with these games is the fact that a number of poor quality games were rushed out in an attempt to capitalise on the idea, and their general shoddiness have permeated the entire genre. And then we have Free to Play games that are ruthlessly targeted at the more vulnerable members of society who might be susceptible to subliminal messaging and manipulation in order to become hooked and spend more money than they ordinarily would.

But the biggest problem I have with Free to Play is that I like to pay for a game upfront. If the game is worth playing then I think that it is worth paying for. And a fixed price or a fixed subscription takes any financial pressure off me; I know what I am getting into. But with an in-game shop I am forced to support the game publisher in other ways, ways that I find uncomfortable or even distasteful. For example, I don’t want to walk around in-game with an item that can only be purchased. Not only do I feel stupid doing it, but the item has no real meaning for me. I play games to discover. The joy for me is in the luck of finding, or the revelation of working out how exactly to obtain an item in-game from my own efforts. Even purchasing an item from a normal auction house is preferable as it requires the effort of researching what I need and then scoping out the AH until I’m lucky enough to see one in there.

The other downside for me is that without a fixed price I am left with the unrewarding task of attempting to work out if I am giving the game developers a suitable payment for their game or if I am in fact being ripped off. I don’t want this hassle. I play games to escape this sort of mundane life shit. Just tell me how much the game is up front, let me decide if I want to pay that, and then let me in to have my little escape from reality. This works for me. I am happy. The game developer has money so they are happy. The little elves in the corner are happy

But let me make up my own mind what I want to pay? Well, that only works if I feel that I can trust the game publisher to be good intentioned and not put little inducements to get money out of me every step of the way, and not to change the rules six months into the game, and … did we say trust a game publisher? Really? I mean, I’m a nice guy and all that, (okay maybe not in some of my dear reader’s opinions), but I can count the people I trust in this world on one hand.

It’s all just a big fucking mess. Look, I like your game. So let me pay you some money and then we can all be happy. Just tell me how much.

Last week I was the recipient of a personalised tour around the new browser based MMO, City of Steam courtesy of Gabriel and Andrew. I met them on Skype and immediately asked how soon we could get into the game, seeing as I hadn’t downloaded the game-client yet.
“Yeah, it’s a browser-based game, Adam,” Gabriel offered in the politest of tones.

Oh, sheesh, yeah … I knew that. I was checking to see if you knew that. And now that you do I know that you’re legit and not some scum-sucking nasty people pretending to be staff members on a new MMO just so you can steal all my photos of my dog.

I opened a window in Firefox and after a few minutes setting up an account which required an email address and a password, I was in, the game screen was loading, and there I was in City of Steam. Quite impressive really. I mean a huge barrier to MMO entry for me is the trouble in downloading and setting up a game client. There is almost no download here, and I was getting 60FPS from a server which was on the other side of the world. Admittedly the three of us were the only ones in there at the time, but when I popped in for the Alpha test on the weekend I was getting close to the same frame rate and no lag time. Impressive stuff.

After almost two hours of gallivanting around the city with my hosts, we got onto the subject of the common dumbest questions they receive about the game. My one was of course top of the list, so here they are, the top questions that make a game designer do an invisible facepalm:

Still no client download! When can I install the game?
You have already installed the web browser. There is no other download, client, or installation. The browser is all you need. Just click Play Now.

How do I quit this game? There’s no exit button!
I assume you meant to ask: “How do I close the web browser?” and “Does the web browser have an exit button?” The answers to which are: click the “X” button, and “YES”, respectively. (By the way, this is going to make this game very dangerous at people’s workplaces …)

Click to move? God I hate these games.
You can use WASD, click to move, click and hold or mouse steering.

WASD to move? God I hate these games.
…There’s click to move, too …

Why is the camera locked down in isometric view?
It isn’t. Camera movement is covered in the first 5 seconds of game play, in the tutorial, remember?

This is just another clone!
In your browser window, at only 2mb download, and you’re playing it in the airport on a laggy connection between flights, with impressive frame-rate and response time… Oh, we weren’t aware had that functionality. Actually, is there any other Steampunk MMO like this in a browser, or client?

Where can I buy a horse?
Umm … in another game. Not ours. We have steambikes and jetpacks coming in beta.

Is this game going to be like WoW or Diablo?
Considering we have less than 1% of their development budget, and ten less years to waste, I think it will play a little bit more like… umm… City of Steam. Even being compared to a AAA title is an honor for us, so on behalf of Mechanist Games, thank you!…
(EDIT: Pssst, more like Diablo)

I’ll have more thoughts on the game over the next couple of weeks. I have purposely left out my own dumb questions on the crafting system.

Nostalgia is an insidious mistress. In the current gaming climate it is all too easy to convince oneself that things were definitely better sometime in the past and if only developers did X, Y, and Z then we could all return to that merry land of happy times and sparkly meadows of gaming fantasy fun. Of course, this isn’t going to happen any time soon. The only way that it could happen is if the money completely falls out of the gaming market. Mind you, after the fun times of SWTOR and Copernicus, or whatever the fuck that game was called, perhaps the money-men have gotten just a little bit spooked. Well, we need them to be more scared than that; we need them to be earth-shatteringly-oh-my-fucking-god-get-me-out-of-here scared. Where the mere mention of funding an MMO sends them into fits of nervous tics.

WoW would have to die first though. As long as WoW keeps shambling along making money without the developers having to do anything at all, then business-types will still have hope. And if they have hope then they will keep trying to get our money by offering us total shit dressed up as sparkly ponies.

If you want a good analogy of what times we are living in then take popular music as an example. From 1962 to about 1973 the tunes were controlled by the artists. The medium had changed so quickly and so radically that the money-men took a while to catch back up. In that time the overriding concern was to make great music, which as a direct consequence then made pots and pots of cash. Finally however, the money-men caught back up and got on the bandwagon, and when they do that things turn around. Now the whole point was to make pots and pots of money and the music was an afterthought. And music went to shit, comparatively speaking. Is there still good music around today? Sure there is, but there isn’t the same magic associated with it. It’s not even close.

Same thing with MMOs. Back in the day the games were made for the sake of creating an online fantasy world. We were begging for this shit. The joy of participating, the thrill of playing with other people, of making your mark, was the overriding reason why people were playing and paying. And the money followed, lots of it. And then Blizzard glossed it all up and stuck it into a quite devastating package, and it all went ballistic. And from that moment the point of a game did a 180 degree turn. Now they were being designed to make money first and foremost. And the easiest way to achieve that was to copy WoW.

The next inspired step was to sell it to housewives, and here Zynga strode up to the breach like a colossus. All of us smug bloggers sneered and jeered, but what we didn’t realise was that they had just made the equivalent of family friendly pop music. However, they too are now finding the going a little rocky.

And where do we find ourselves now? Stuck in the endless loop of desperate hoping that the next release is going to save us from all this horror. Which it inevitably will not due to the fact that the designers just want all the money. To break the cycle we need MMOs to fall off the proverbial fucking cliff. So that in the future they will be viewed by investment types as being equal to tulip bulb investing. And then we might get a few small game designers going back to the roots and putting out great games for the sake of making a great online world. I’m not holding my breath though.