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When ‘Free-to-Play’ Becomes a Money Game
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by Rob Williams on March 28, 2012 in Gaming

The term “free-to-play” has become hugely popular in recent years, and Steam even has an entire category dedicated to it. But while the term itself seems self-explanatory, there are some games that prove that not all F2P titles are alike. In the worst cases, such as with one of Rob’s favorite MMOs, the games can actually become “pay-to-win”.

Introduction

This past December, an MMO favorite of mine transitioned from requiring a monthly fee to being “free-to-play”. As you’ll soon discover, those quotes aren’t without reason.

The game; Lineage II. The developer; NCsoft. The insult; selling items through the in-game store that are widely considered to be unfair and game-breaking.

Prior to the free-to-play launch, a friend of mine joked that that the game would become “pay-to-win”. I laughed it off, but as I soon discovered, it couldn’t have been more true.

I’ve been a fan of NCsoft’s games for nearly a decade, so I wanted to give the company the benefit of the doubt. Lineage II is a game that thrives with a vibrant community, so I had hoped that a F2P transition would breathe new life into the world of Aden – and it did, but not without bringing caveats along with it, courtesy of NCsoft itself.

F2P games that are monetized with in-game item sales aren’t new, but Lineage II is my first experience. Generally speaking, I don’t have any problem with this way of doing business. If you’re offering items that people want, then great. Things change, however, when some of the items being offered can give those with deep pockets huge advantages. This is especially true in an open PvP game such as this.

Since the launch of its “Goddess of Destruction” patch, which ushered in the F2P transition, there have been a countless number of threads posted on the official forums raising a stink about what the game has become. As of the time of writing, recent threads listed on the official forums include “Message to NCWest“, “Power Shirt” (a rant thread about a new purchasable item) and perhaps the best one, “Truly Free or Truly Paid?“.

When Lineage II became F2P, the company called it “Truly Free” – and in all regards, it is. You are in fact able to play the entire game without ever purchasing a single item from the store. This is unlike many other MMOs that lock off portions of the game unless a premium account is purchased, and others that limit your character’s level. This of course is a great thing, but underneath the surface, there’s more than meets the eye.

As mentioned before, Lineage II is my first F2P game, so I don’t have much of a basis for comparison, though I have done research on other titles. During that research, one of the best examples I’ve seen of how F2P should be done is with Valve’s Team Fortress 2.

In that game, nothing important has to be purchased. You’re able to deck yourself out with cool aesthetic items, but nothing improves your character. The game is still all about skill. And while there are occasional weapons released to the store that remain exclusive for some time, none of them give a serious advantage to the player, and not long after, the same weapons can be acquired via random drops or by crafting. In the end, Mr. Ritchie Rich might own a lot of things, but his successes will have to be earned.

None of that can be said about Lineage II’s F2P implementation. Going against its promises of never releasing items that would be considered game-breaking or detrimental to the community (I’ve never found the source of this but have seen it quoted around the official forums numerous times), NCsoft has done just that. It has released items, that as a player, are jaw-dropping and insulting. I’ll give an example or two here.

Things kicked off right before the F2P launch, when NCsoft held a promotion that allowed players to purchase a level 80 “top” weapon, called Vesper. These weapons couldn’t be traded, and became obsolete as soon as someone reached level 85 (current maximum level is 99). As a result of this limited use, most people just ignored the promotion, despite NCsoft selling an actual weapon right out of the gate. After this, things just got worse.

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