Did the recent switch to free-to-play change how I felt about the game? Why would a payment model affect how I felt while playing the game? After all, I champion the idea that a payment model does not define a game, but I still have to recognize how a payment model affects people.
Some of the most interesting gamer psychology research revolves around the free-to-play model. I've talked to developers who literally had to force players to pay something for fear of going bankrupt. I've talked to other developers who look at cash shops with the precision of an ace stock-broker, seeding the shop with irresistible goodies. As much as I deny that free-to-play is some sort of scam on the same level of criminal roofers who prey on the elderly, I do admit there is some "interesting" stuff going on behind the scenes.
I stopped playing RIFT because it had a subscription. I even stopped playing it after Trion released a semi-free model, allowing players to fight to level 20. As I said in my earlier column, charging or not charging for something is never going to guarantee that value is raised. I can afford several subscriptions per month, but RIFT just wasn't going to be one of them. Why? And now that the game has gone "totally free," why am I enjoying it more?
There are several reasons. First, I don't have the pressure of a time limit. Sure, that 15 dollars buys me an entire month of access, and yep, at the end of that month, Trion can do me the favor of hitting my credit card automatically, but why didn't I go that route? There is a certain amount of basic mental pressure that happens with a recurring payment.
With my other bills, the recurring payment is easy to grasp. If I don't pay, I have no phone, television, or internet. If I don't pay for a subscription-based game -- a complete luxury item -- I lose access. So what? It's such an easy thing to do without that any tiny amount of pressure can push me away. That 15 dollars a month was enough to make me feel as though I was not getting my money's worth when I didn't play the game that much.
Second, going free-to-play will temporarily (or hopefully more permanently) increase the number of players. There's an excitement in the air. I witnessed bloggers who once whined about the game (ahem) being too bland now post about their excitement to play the game again. I watched a former podcaster start up his old show again, and of course we all saw the queues that were the result of players who wanted free access. That excitement, hype, and general buzz attracts geeks like gnats to fruit.
All of those extra players mean more players to group with, more players to fight rifts with, and more players to chat and trade with. Previously, the game seemed sort of dead when I visited. My guess is that the ghost-town feel of the game was the result of a design that drives players ever-upward into the waiting jaws of high-level dungeons and quests. Players are funneled into high-level content, or at least encouraged to ignore the awesome, more-chaotic features of the game, all for better pieces of loot.
"I logged in to find an invasion force taking over the local village. I died several times, ran back, and did it again and again until we drove the enemies off."
And now that pesky subscription is gone. In its place, Trion has added fantastic bits of goodies in the cash shop. Put the right goodies in that cash shop and players will spend money. It's a delicate balance, of course, but I can easily spend more on cash-shop shinies than I ever would on a subscription. The psychology is different. I "own" those cash-shop items. I can leave the game and they will be there forever (at least in theory). The first thing I bought was a pair of extra bags. If a studio is really smart with that cash shop, it can avoid being called a scam-artist. All it must do is tempt players to buy really cool stuff they actually want. It's a perfect, victimless crime. Players get the goodies while the developers keep their jobs.
I like RIFT. I always have. It always lacked something, though, and I think that something was the key ingredient to the game: the buzz of excitement from hordes of players. RIFT depends on players to feed the chaos of the rifts. That chaos, those attacks that are dependent on how many players are around, and that wonderful cacophony of spells and metal-on-metal combat make this game shine.
If this new excitement is the result of players attracted to a free ticket, so be it.
Each week, Free for All brings you ideas, news, and reviews from the world of free-to-play, indie, and import games -- a world that is often overlooked by gamers. Leave it to Beau Hindman to talk about the games you didn't know you wanted! Have an idea for a subject or a killer new game that no one has heard of? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org!