Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Free To Play

When I was a gamer as a kid I was primarily a budget gamer mostly due to the fact that all I would get for an allowance was extra money that I didn't spend buying extra snacks at school lunch and occasionally a few bucks for doing chores. So being on a budget meant I only got to buy games every now and then and a few titles like Playstations "Greatest Hits" (A game can earn this distinction if it meets certain sales criteria within two years after its release.) meaning not only have I waited a few years for this game to be this cheap, but it definitely sold enough for it to be considered "Good". And for the most part all of my Greatest Hits purchases were worth it, games like Gran Turismo, Ratchet and Clank, Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit 2, Burnout 2. 

Eventually when I jumped to PC for bit (Primarily WoW for several years) I also forayed into a bit of Free To Play games with friends so that we could play something without having to buy a whole new game together only for it to be kind of bad and unenjoyable. We tried games like FlyFF (Which is somehow still a thing), Gunbound, GUNZ and some other dragon one that looked like FlyFF but definitely wasn't. (honestly a lot of them looked/played alike). Back then it felt like a lot of these were very pay to win, and they might've been. I'm not sure I remember accurately anymore. You had a pay a ton of premium crystals for this or purchase a certain amount of "coins" to buy this awesome helmet that'll make you do tons of damage. They probably were primarily pay to win. At least Gunbound was pretty great at first because you could play a bunch of games, earn in game coins and spend it on gear for your tank/avatar/whatever and it would be yours. Later on they changed it so you could only RENT that gear and only actually own it with premium currency. By this point I was pretty much done with free to play games because of how slimey they felt. Yeah free to play, but if you wanted to be good or compete in any remote manner you would have to shell out some money. This, felt like a lie and a sham and I wanted no part of it. If I was going to pay money I might as well save my $20 for a "premium" experience on Playstation or something. 

(cut to present time, where you have to pay for online gaming services and other stuff)

I look at my Steam Profile a lot, probably more than I should. I just love seeing my gameplay time tracked, achievements for each game, badges, special backgrounds and screenshots on display. Lately I've realized just how much Free to Play I've been playing, and the most important thing, without any lack of a full gaming experience.

To list a few:
  • Warframe
  • Team Fortress 2 (though I bought this when it went launched on OSX)
  • Marvel Heroes 2015
  • DOTA 2
  • Planetside 2
  • League of Legends (Honorable Mention, not on Steam)
In fact that's honestly most of what I play right now other than Final Fantasy XIV, FTL, and a few games on my phone (which we could consider Free to Play as well). Let's look at those titles for a second. 

Warframe went into open beta in 2013 (which I tried and didn't care much more). Developed by Digital Extremes which has roots to Epic games and Unreal, but Warframe's sort of predecessor would be Dark Sector (a 3rd person action game much like Warframe itself) which went under the radar for the most part.

Team Fortress 2 of the beloved source engine a what would be now called a PC gaming staple.

Marvel Heroes an isometric ARPG dungeon crawler with super heroes. One of the key parts of this games success would have to be from the hands of David Brevik, known for the development of the original Diablo. In addition to the game being in capable hands Brian Michael Bendis was the leader writer and there were even voice parts done by Stan Lee and Clark Gregg as Phil Coulson himself.

DOTA 2 born from a Warcraft 3 custom game mod based on a custom Starcraft map, this is one of the key MOBA titles of our gaming generation. DOTA has been with people since 2005 and has only evolved and advanced. Now DOTA 2 hosts the largest e-sports event to date with a massive prize pool of $10,930,698. Most of which was essentially crowd funded via gamers and fans buying the ingame Compendium item which unlocks special cosmetic items for players and a portion of that goes right into the prize pool. The more people that purchased the compendium, the more was unlocked for players, and the prize pool snowballed.

Planetside 2 - A game I've mentioned before as Battlefield in space with 3 factions on a few concurrent continents of fighting and I stand by that description. This game scratches an itch which no other game has reached for me. Massive battles that can last as long as the opponents can endure and at absolutely no NPCs in the game what so ever. 

League of Legends - Another huge moba of this generation. I would describe this game as a more vanilla MOBA experience compared to DOTA 2. If you just want to get your MOBA on without the complexities of creep denying, worrying about high ground advantage and such, LoL might be the game for you. Though Blizzard's Heroes of the Storm is looking like the new kid on the block with one of the easiest to get into MOBA experience I've seen. No worry on item builds or even last hitting creeps for money. Objectives are laid out very clear for players and it's good that that's the because HoTS matches were very objective based from what I've played. Back to LoL though, League of Legends is one of the largest esports right there with DOTA 2 with a world championship that featured teams from 6 different regions of the world and a prize pool of $2,050,000, however the differences with LoL are that it features regularly scheduled matches and seasons much like professional sports on ESPN etc. League of Legends has definitely done a fantastic job with the esports experience and the structure of it could really push it all forward. 

So what do these games do that other games don't lately? It could be many things, but I think one of the key things that gets me excited to play these games are the communities and how they're managed. A big thing that comes to mind is how much some of these games interact directly with the community. I'll often see developers and game designers right in the subreddits (I've at least seen this for r/warframe, r/planetside2, and r/leagueoflegends) for these games discussing things with players first hand. They might be helping them with an error or even explaining the reasoning behind a design choice. It's wonderful to see. . Warframe hosts live streams every week with the community manager (@rebbford) and community coordinator (@moitoi) who play the game to show off content, look at recent fan art, poll and read the chat, and even give away a large amount of premium currency to people watching. In addition to their weekly streams they also host Developer Streams, sometimes around the time of a brand new content patch to explain the concepts for the changes and talk about whats to come. Both of these interactions really just make me want to load up the game and start playing. Seeing developers speak about a project they've poured so much of their time and resources into and in a light that shows just how much they enjoy what they're doing is inspiring and exciting as a gamer. 

Planetside does a very similar thing with their community with Twitch series like Friday Night Ops and Inside the Player Studio where game designers as well as community managers show off content coming to the game, talk about future game concepts, and play with Planetside 2 Outfits to directly show off members of their community. 

And of course there's League of Legend's Summoner Showcase (RIP) with the internet's adorable

I absolutely love what some of these Free to Play games do to represent their developers and interact directly with their community. They realize that as smaller developers with admittedly smaller budgets than AAA behemoths can shell out, the community is an important aspect to the success of their game and ultimately their product. Consumers and gamers will their give money to something they want and if your game is good and they create content we want to buy, you can totally take our money.

In addition to the great interaction between developers and fans Free to Play games seem to push out a lot more content and more often than big box games. When you play some of these games you feel like you actually get to witness the game grow and become something amazing.  Warframe has gone through so many GUI changes since beta and only gets better and better (image from reddit user Strekios showing time between Warframe updates). Planetside has had complete continent reworks during my time on Auraxis and a whole new Swamp continent released. While these game content updates come out every month or two it keeps the game feeling fresh for a very long time. Even within DOTA 2 there was the quiet ninja release of the Source 2 engine within the Hammer map editor which is exciting for what may change for DOTA and what this could mean for future Valve games. 

Free to Play games have evolved immensely and they've come lightyears since the grindy anime cartoony influenced games where you had to pay $10 for a sword that was superior to everyone elses until level 50 or a mount that flew you at 300% speed over everything else you could earn in the game. Free to play microtransactions have been redesigned in such a way that people can't wait to spend their money on cosmetic items for their favorite hero/champion in a MOBA. I absolutely love what DOTA 2, League of Legends and even Planetside 2 in most ways do with their cosmetics. The bulk of purchasable items are cosmetic, meaning they only make your in game character look a certain way. They don't increase your ability to kill other players or make you particularly superior (Planetside 2 allows you to obtain weapons in any way you like instead of earning in game points, but most weapons are side-grades and a lot of starting weapons are arguably the best already. Essentially you get to buy more toys to play with but all toys are fun anyways.) Only game here mentioned that does require money to some extent is Warframe, requiring you to purchase more slots for weapons and frames if you reach the small standard limit. To my understanding though you can earn a bit of premium currency in game by selling rare items to other players though. So cheers, Free to Play. Keep showing your genuine self and enjoying the game you make, and embrace your community like so many big games can seem to forget about at times.

Also, Free to Play is a documentary from Valve about some of the biggest DOTA 2 competitive players. It really shows how massive DOTA as gotten, even to the point that you forget that this is a game that absolutely anyone can download and play at any time for free (and have access to all 107 heroes immediately). It also shows the passion that gamers have for their game (even if they're not fighting for their pride and money that they've put on the line). The documentary is on Steam (with achievements!) and Youtube in full for absolutely no cost, totally free to play.