For the past few years I've been trying out tons of free-to-play MMOs in search of the perfect game without the cost of a subscription. Up until maybe a year ago I was fairly resigned to most FTP games being either nothing but glorified demos with insane restrictions for non-paying players or vending machines where you have to constantly feed the game money to accomplish anything. Recently, however, companies seem to be offering more fully realized games under the FTP model that really do let you play for free, only asking money for items to make the game more enjoybale, not simply playable.
I don't think I fully realized just how differently companies are approaching the FTP model until last week. During that time I dipped back into Everquest II, Age of Wushu, Path of Exile, Marvel Heroes and Neverwinter. For examples of how NOT to run a FTP game I submit EQII and Age of Wushu as my examples.
Recently, EQ2 has boasted about how they have removed tons of the restrictions they had initially placed on their FTP model. Seeing as how EQ2 used to be my game of choice for a few years I decided to load it back up and take a look. The biggest issue for me was that they restrict the quality of items that your character can use and only premium (subscribing) members can use the better equipment. Since I had been in a raiding guild almost all of my characters had at least legendary level gear so when I log in I see that none of their gear can be used. My berzerker just stands there unable to attack because he can't use the sword that he's holding in his hand and he's taking full damage because the armor he's wearing is locked. The fact that they don't allow already equipped items to be used just irritated me to an irrational degree. These characters that I had spent years building up would now have to strip down and buy less effective equipment before I could even use them. And, of course, I couldn't even access half of my old characters without first paying to unlock the slots they were assigned to and I couldn't create any new characters to try out the new classes they've introduced without first deleting my old characters to free up a slot. Along with other restrictions placed on the characters, despite their boasts, EQ2 is still leaning heavily on non-subscribers being punished for not paying a monthly fee and frankly it just soured me on a game I had once loved. Rather than dipping back in every now and again for a nostalgia fix and possibly drop some money here and there for a little boost.
Age of Wushu is another beast entirely. In a full PVP game the difference between paying and non-paying players is immeasurable. You CAN play for free but the major difference is that those who pay continue to develop their skills or run vending stalls while they're logged out and they earn xp at 100%. Non paying players only develop their skills while they're logged in and earn xp at 70% and can only operate vendor stalls if they're actively playing. Seeing as how even low level skill upgrade can take hours to train, the hurdle here is fairly obvious. Oddly, I was okay with that because I could still play the game and enjoy the environment. Oh, and did I mention that only silver which was purchased using real money can be traded between players to buy things from their stalls? Money you make from quests can only be used to buy starter level items from NPC vendors. The part that got me, however, was the fact that their cash shop items are all temporary. Let's say I spend $5 to buy my character a fancy new hat that's purely cosmetic. After 30 days the hat disappears from my inventory and, if I want it back, I have to pay another $5. To me, leasing cosmetic items was just the height of insanity. With this system you don't even have the illusion of owning your character.
With Path of Exile and Neverwinter, however, I'm more than happy with their systems. The games feel fully open to me. I don't feel like I'm crippled because I didn't pay money, I don't feel like I'm constantly being barraged to buy something from the cash shop. (EQ2 went so far as to constantly have a huge pop-up show up in the middle of my screen encouraging me to "go gold" ever hour or so.) With their systems I know I can give them a few dollars and get some special visual effects for my weapons or armor, maybe get something to help me earn some xp faster or maybe travel a little faster but I'm okay with that. I don't feel like I HAVE to have any of that stuff. Neverwinter certainly has an ideal setting for adding character classes and races to buy but, again, with the quality they're offering I'd be fine with that if the price is reasonable.
When I feel like the game is trying to force my hand through penalties or restrictions to spend money, then I'm far more likely to just shut down and delete the game all while cursing the developers. However, when I can play the game without worry and everything that's being offered up to me is just flat out fun then I'm far more likely to give my money to the developers to help support the product and get something nice for my character. I'm not going to pay you so I can start having fun, I'm going to pay you so that I can have even more fun.