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The Rise of Free-to-Play

Free to play has its ups and downs, It's arguably now the go-to subscription model for MMOs but has existed over a decade with much quieter presence. Recently the free to play space has seen a huge jump in quality with massive titles such as Planetside 2 and League of Legends, these are not only some of the world's most popular games but rank alongside the best of regular priced retail titles.

So, why has this change come about? In previous years free to play games were seen as a bit of a annoyance, small shallow games, out to make some quick cash and usually helmed by the infamous Zynga. Some of these titles and their strategy to make money while unfairly affecting the game were assigned the name "pay-to-win". Gamers really didn't take kindly to a different way to pay at first but slowly started to warm up. Now a lot of developers carefully select how their payment model is structured to offer fair play between those who pay, and those who continue to play free of charge. Nobody likes an unfair advantage, a new player going into a free game can often be like pitting you against a laser-beam wielding T-rex in a fight to the death. Once developers figured this out, things started to get interesting for the market.

Game studios and publishers have been experimenting with the whole concept of free to play frantically over the past few years. Some games offer what would be considered "lengthy demos". In 2011, one of the most popular games of all-time World of Warcraft added the option for players to explore its vast world up to level 20 for free despite the game being a traditional subscription based affair since launch. The news came as suspected retaliation to falling subscriber numbers, however this action along with the acclaimed 2012 expansion Mists of Pandaria helped the long standing MMO gain more players once again. This either proves free to play is a viable option to adapt to, or people love giant clothed bipedal pandas.

MMOs are arguably the biggest genre in the free to play space right now but some are taking a different approach. Guild Wars 2 is one of this year's most successful MMOs with strong sales and a host of great reviews. GW2 has a unique way to combine traditional retail purchasing with a free model, simply pay for the game at a normal retail price and the world is open for you to play free forever more, unshackled by the subscriptions of old. Saying this, GW2 still allows the player to spend extra cash if they so wish on in game items, although a lot of these can be unlocked through normal play.

Paid-for in-game items are probably the most common form of free to play payment model. It's easy to incorporate into multiple genres be they MMOs, or FPS like Planetside 2. When using this method it must be carefully balanced so there is little or no unfair advantage. Planetside 2 can easily be enjoyed by not paying a penny, the starting weapons for each faction can kick enough ass in the hands of a capable player to go head to head with someone who has put money in. Like GW2 a lot of Planetside's item are visual upgrades, simply better looking armour, emblems and paint. One more thing that struck me about the purchases in-game is how expensive some of these items can be, it can be up to 8/$10 per gun! You could get a few good games for that price, so a lot of players just stick with the default gear or buy items with earned Certs (the game's currency). Coincidently, Planetside 2 has been one of the few free games I have actually gave money to. After I hit about 30 hours played I realised I was having as much fun (if not more) in a free game as I would in a 40/$60 retail title. So when an offer for triple Station cash (paid-for currency) came up I felt like I should give something back to the developers for making such a great game.

Browser-based games have been one of the longest standing free-to-play genres. Giants such as Runescape have been around over a decade and is still successful today. Many other larger corporations have tried to emulate the success of browser games but with often less impressive results. Facebook games have been a big focus for even the biggest of publishers and considered a vital role in their gaming empire, as for gamers the term "browser-based" doesn't exactly ring quality, but could this be changing. Developers of Runescape, Jagex recently scored big with the rights to create and publish a transformers MMO under the name Transformers Universe. Trailers and initial details make this look and sound amazing, the MMO gameplay is certainly there and graphics look polished, you wouldn't believe this is a browser game. It's certainly a big step for in-browser games as a whole, showing what is capable as well as providing maximum accessibility for players.

2013 shows no sign of free-to-play slowing down and the quality keeps on rising, hell, this could seriously help keep my wallet full.
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About jetpacksheepone of us since 2:57 PM on 11.26.2011

Hey, I'm Jake, an interactive media student at Newcastle college in the U.K, I like to write about video games in my spare time and have just recently started posting on the Dtoid community blogs. If you like any of the stories or opinions I post feel free to comment and get some good gaming discussion going!

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