Friday, April 27, 2012

State of (free to) play

Free to play is the new black, it seems. No longer associated with bad Korean MMO's, and cheap, simple flash games, free to play is really starting to hit its stride. There is an amazing amount of triple-a quality F2P games out there now, and many more in the pipeline. What has caused this seemingly sudden influx of F2P titles? To me it seems that a few strong games paved the way, proving that there was a burgeoning audience that were willing to pay for their games in small amounts at a time, via micro-transactions, and since the model has been proven effective, a lot of other publishers are trying to replicate the success of games like Lord of the Rings Online and Team Fortress 2.

But what does this mean for the gaming industry at large? Is the free to play model a direction that the industry is going to move towards perpetually, and every game will cease to be an iteration, and become more of a service, in which players have to pick and choose what they would like to pay for, smorgasbord style? I don't think so. I think there will always be room for both. There can be no complaints about the current crop of F2P games. There is a vast amount of free gameplay out there at the moment, thousands of hours that anyone can download and try without paying a cent.

Therein lies the only hitch in all this free to play goodness that I can see; there is just so many free to play games out there, and many more coming, that are wholly dependent on strong player communities, and every time a new one is released, is it sapping the player base from other existing games? When Blacklight Retribution and Tribes Ascend hit the web, does that mean an exodus of players from the Team Fortress 2 community? Is there just going to be so many F2P games out there down the track, so that no single game can grow a good, strong multiplayer community, each new game diluting the pool even further? I think some games will swim, and others will sink. The battle for free to play supremacy is going to get nasty, and if a game isn't at 100% at launch, as many games aren't, then they run the risk of not capturing that dedicated fan-base, and dissolving into un-patched, and unsupported obscurity. Maybe a champion will rise, much like World of Warcraft did for MMO's a few years back, and become the super-success that other developers strive to replicate. Only time will tell.

If you are interested in some free to play goodness, here are some of my current favorites that you can download right now, free!

Lord of the Rings Online - A vast, fantastic MMO RPG. This one came out in 2007, and I think it's aging nicely. Solid visuals, great atmosphere, and a gift from Vala for Tolkein fans. This thing takes it Ring's lore very seriously. You can play pretty well up to the mid level 20's without any real need to spend money, but with ponies, cool cosmetic gear and extra bag slots, they make it mighty tempting.

Team Fortress 2 - Smooth, well presented shooter chaos. Class based team matches, a great sense of character, a very strong player base, and the hats, oh the hats. You need never spend a dollar to get some great gameplay out of this one. Refined shooter goodness. Can't recommend it enough.

Blacklight Retribution - I would love to recommend this, as it's a great looking futuristic shooter, with player and weapon customization, all done on the Unreal 3 engine, but as the game currently has no Australian servers, I can't join a game with a ping less than 400ms, making the game essentially unplayable. The developer, Zombie Games, is promising Aussie support soon.

Tribes Ascend - Newly released sequel to the classic Tribes series. I'm heavily into this one at the moment. Great sense of speed and movement, thanks to the skiing mechanics and jetpack. Sci-fi setting, team based shooter gameplay, huge levels; a classic reborn.

 Age of Empires Online - An online RTS, with some persistent city building mechanics thrown in. This game had an underwhelming launch for some reason, but I pick it up from time to time, and I'm transported back to 1997, when I fell in love with the original Age of Empires. This is a great little game with a nice art style and some good RTS gameplay.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Devil's dopamine

Diablo 3 is finally upon us, and with under a month to go until it's launch, it feels further away to me than ever. The level of 'schoolgirl giddiness' is reaching fever point. The game has been eleven years coming, and for me it can't get here soon enough.

The thing about Diablo to me is that it's a very neatly perfected experience. In the same way that Call of Duty is to shooter fans, Diablo knows exactly how to push the hack 'n slash RPG buttons. It has such a clearly defined, and deceptively simple gameplay rhetoric, that to someone who's never played, and is just watching you over your shoulder, the cycle of play can seem mind numbingly boring.

This is the genius of Diablo's design. It bypasses the critical lobes and strikes right to the brains pleasure centers with trickles of warm dopamine. It's an almost pure grind and reward based system, and if you're the kind of gamer that's susceptible to this kind of thing, it's like a digital drug.

So just when you might have finally weened yourself from Blizzards other gaming addiction of choice, World of Warcraft, Diablo 3 is arriving. Time to take that week off from work, (just sight personal reasons and hopefully the boss will ask no more questions), stock up the pantry with some high protein, easy to prepare food rations, and fill the fridge with your favorite caffeine laced, high sugar carbonated drink, and get ready to descend into a state of gaming bliss.

If you can't wait a month, and God knows, I'm finding it tough, here is a list of games that know how to dangle that 'virtual candy' in front of you, and illicit the same kind of reward based, psychotropic response that Diablo does so well...

Titan Quest, 2006 - Diablo's sexy cousin. Rinse and repeat Diablo gameplay, with a mythical, classical antiquity vibe. You'll come for the delicious graphics (even by today's standards), and stay for the three skillpoints you get every level, and random rewards like 'Cleopatra's swift gladius of flame'.

Call of Duty, 2007 forward
- Play any Call of Duty multiplayer post CoD 4: Modern Warfare, and you will find it hard to stop. Long after you should have become sick of the levels, and the refined shooter gameplay, the perk and gun unlock system will keep you playing, because you just really need the new scope and paint-job for the G36C!

Burnout Paradise, 2008 - I'm not a huge racing game fan, I dabble, but I've never reached the fanatical level that games like Forza or Gran Turismo seem to demand from their fans (both of which could easily be put on this list), but I do have a special place in my heart for this racing gem. It gives you a beautiful, colorful open world city to explore, great arcade racing mechanics, nice sountrack and cool, slick presentation, and then dangles these awesome car rewards in front of you. You know you don't need to unlock every car... but you need to unlock every car!

Dawn of War II, 2009 - It's hard not to love the Warhammer 40k universe. I've never played the tabletop game, just admired it from afar, and Dawn of War II stands as it's best representation in video-game form, or so I'm told from Warhammer players. I loved it. A great strategy/RPG hybrid, and upon completing every mission you get to level up your badass space marines, and you get wargear, oh the wargear! Chainswords, huge power hammers, massive plasma guns; nothing feels better than the first time you can don your squad commander in some mean looking terminator armor.

World of Warcraft, 2004 - I don't need to say much about this one. Even if you've never played it, reputation alone points to it's addictive qualities. This is the game that has had me doing some of the most ridiculous, tedious things in game, just to get some kind of carefully calculated, dopamine inducing reward. I've spent countless hours completing in-game achievements, just so I can add the title 'the explorer', or 'the Argent Champion' to my character. When you are in the throws of a serious WoW binge, you just know your life will be content and complete if you can just unlock that black proto-drake, but it's never enough. There is always something else around the corner that you know your little character is just going to 'need'. WoW turns you into a grown man that patiently sits around trying to 'dress up' your character to be the meanest and look the coolest, like a six year old girl dressing up her Barbie dolls. It's sad, it's silly, but I love it.