As we’ve discussed over the course of the last several posts, two of the dominant trends in the umbrella category of MMOs are the trend toward free-to-play and the trend away from fully developed virtual worlds. It’d probably take somebody with more business acumen than I to demonstrate a causal link between the two but both trends are pretty clearly established. So what do they mean together at the practical level?
Free-to-play models encourage accessibility. When there’s no cover charge to try a game out, you can fiddle with it at leisure before deciding to commit to it. They can be cheaper, but I suspect that people playing in a dedcated manner, as one tends to with subscription games, end up spending at least as much. But those games that offer optional subscriptions (which is most of them) give you a way out of overspending on microtransactions, with the added bonus that you’re not necessarily completely locked out if your subscription lapses. For players who will log a few hours a week they are ideal, and you may be able to get away with spending little or nothing.
Linear MMOs, on the other hand, provide guidance. There’s never much confusion about where to go and what to do next; the game lays down some pretty pre-packaged goals for players, and you only have to choose between them. They tend to be more accessible and easier to learn because linearity allows the game to teach the player incrementally and back-load the greatest complexity on players who’ve been at it for a while. The same linearity may make them stale after a while, but that could potentially take quite a long time, especially in titles where there’s a lot of linear content.
Both of these features are attractive for certain kinds of player: those who like to play a lot of different games, or who will pick a favorite and play casually. More importantly, there’s a synergy between the two; the f2p model is ideal for themepark games because these features appeal to groups with a large natural cross-section.
Really immersive virtual worlds, on the other hand, encourage commitment; they tend to favor what we snort over and call “grind” and can load even rank beginners down with a lot of depth and complexity either very quickly or immediately. They aren’t necessarily deeper than linear games, but linear games, if they’re good linear games, introduce you to the depth a little bit at a time. A game like EVE Online is famously bad at this, but then, finding new pieces that fit into the larger puzzle of the game’s mechanics are part of the fun.
This is why I’m applauding the free-to-play revolution. If most virtual worlds are themeparks, and if I’ll inevitably get bored with their content, it’s better for me not to, in general, avoid a large monetary investment, particularly up front. In a sandbox world I’m more comfortable paying for a subscription because the sandbox naturally lends itself to putting in the additional hours in play and mechanical exploration that makes a subscription worthwhile.