Thursday, 25 February 2010

When Did Free-To-Play Start Costing Money?

Post soundtrack: “Try” by Sidsel Endresen & Bugge Wesseltoft

My timing couldn’t be better: I started playing the Allods Online open beta, started enjoying it, and then ran head-first into the news that this free-to-play game…  Well, it’s actually not all that free, once you reach the higher levels.

It's a fun place to visit, but I'm not sure I want to pay to play there

The game itself is quite charming – stylised graphics (reminiscent of WoW but with a much higher resolution), some charming races to play, and a new world to explore. 

“Set on the shattered remains of the planet Sarnaut, players will have the chance to explore the Astral space, battle Astral demons and fight for domination of dozens of allods, islands floating in the Astral space.”

It’s odd trying to make sense of the various familiarly-named classes - there are Paladins (fairly similar to what we know and love in WoW), Shamans and Druids are Warden subclasses (think pet-dependant hunters without the ranged weapons) and apparently the closest you can get to a WoW Rogue are Scouts (think a rogue with a hunter’s talent with bows).

Kay taking a breather before heading into Novograd to check her auctions

I’ve rolled a Kanian Stalker (translation: a Kanian scout), and have played through to around level 11 at this stage.  It’s actually quite refreshing after the length of time I’ve spent in STO lately (ding Captain rank, T4 escort and level 32!) to get back to my fantasy RPG roots and…  Well, there’s more than a little grinding in some of these quests, but I think the novelty of new classes with different abilities and a different ruleset has been a nice change from WoW.

One of the quite beautiful ships used to travel between Allods

Three differences between Allods and WoW jump out at me when I started playing. 

  • First, there’s no minimap.  You heard me right.  If you want to see where you are in the world (or even to work out which direction you’re facing, as I haven’t been able to adjust to the compass) you have to open the map.
  • Secondly, there are no auto-attacks: in WoW it’s quite possible to you to start attacking a mob, then tab out briefly.  When you come back, you’re still auto-attacking (if you’re not dead).  In Allods if you’re not activating your abilities, you’re not doing anything.
  • Third:  Remember only having a 16-slot bag in WoW?  In Allods you start with a single bag slot, with 18 normal slots (and 18 reagent slots for crafting materials, but you don’t have a use for them until you picked up a profession sometime after leaving the starting zone).  At the moment the only upgrade is a 24-slot bag that is either acquired by an ingame quest (which requires a lot of grinding – I’ve spent over 6 hours to acquire Iridescent Wings and Intact Mite Shells, with two more items needed from higher-level zones to complete the quest) or purchasing from the CS (cash store) for the bargain price of US$20.

Which brings me to the big issue at the moment with the game, namely the CS and its place in the game.  Initially the problem players had was with the prices themselves (which are apparently 10x what players of the Russian version are paying).

I'd hate to see the size of their bedbugs

However, the issue that came to light was that a game mechanic makes purchase of CS items necessary when playing at high levels, namely Fear of Death (FoD).  This mechanic (where your stats are reduced by 25% for the duration of the debuff, which lasts over 50 minutes at level 40 and stacks up to four times) is negated by using items called perfume which make you immune to FoD for half an hour.  Perfume is available in the CS for US$0.75 ea or US$13.50 for a stack of 20.  Perfume is also available from a once-only quest you acquire at level 15, and then from a daily quest which takes around 30 minutes and rewards a single perfume.  (See this FAQ for more information)

Anyway, after a couple of days (during which time a vocal number of players whipped themselves into a frenzy on the subject), the North American publisher responded to the issue, requesting feedback from the players.

The view from the inn on the outskirts of the city of Novograd

I’ve just listened to the Massively Speaking podcast (I recommend listening to the host opinions at around 21:50, and the interview itself starts at 35:20) that features an interview with someone from gPotato (the publisher), where he reveals that (other than the reaction from the player base over the prices) it’s actually working as intended. Players are intended to use perfumes in order to be competitive at high levels.  And if you want more than 30 minutes of high-level PvE or PvP play per 30 minutes per day spent farming, you’ll be dependant on the CS for your game-time.  (The Allods forum discussion thread on the interview also makes for interesting reading)

I’m rather disappointed, as I was quite enjoying the game with a view to playing casually if the endgame was equal to the leveling experience (along with the thought of helping build a flying ship with other players to then go explore the Astral).  But the bait-and-switch tactic inherent in the FoD/perfume dependency has really hit a nerve with me – and if I’m reacting this strongly after only a few days playtime, I can understand why long-term fans who are a lot more emotionally invested in the game are reacting even more strongly.

Admittedly the actual starting character gear isn't this good, but what it's a gorgeous character model all the same

What it’s come down to for me is that the game is fun.  And it’s pretty.  And despite the bad taste in my mouth after hearing their plans for the endgame, the thought of levelling another character or two is still appealing.  But if they want to charge me by the hour to play the endgame and still insist the game is free-to-play it’ll be a frosty day in a demonic realm before I’ll give them a dime.*

I’m actually tempted to give some of the pay-to-play MMOs a try, with the growing number of trials abounding at the moment – anyone care to hear about Star Wars Galaxies, Age of Conan, or Warhammer?


(* - Yes, I’m aware that I’m over-reacting, and that developers have said they’re going to revisit pricing.  But this is my blog, so I can act like a child if I want to.  And they haven’t said they’re removing the pay-to-play component, so there!)