I have had such great feedback from my ‘quickie’ music reviews that I thought – wouldn’t it make sense on occasion to apply the same logic to video games? I mean, I will give a full review to Civilization V, but not everything needs such an extensive treatment, and sometimes games can easily be grouped together in a theme.
With that thought I turned my attention to the so-called ‘freemium’ business model. I think the image at the top sums up Freemium pretty well – your product combines a Free segment with Premium content. As quoted, the obvious goal is to convert free users to paying customers:
“There is a role for freemium, but unless you missed the TPS report the FREE part is only a loss-leader for the MEE-YUM part — it’s a test-drive before you buy something. If your users are just kicking the tires then you need to kick them to the curb eventually.”
In the gaming world, freemium games have found a niche in the online gaming world, where it is hard to gain significant success against entrenched titans like World of Warcraft. Some games had tried ad-supported models, but what they found was that by simply selling stuff like in-game currency and items, extra character slots and so on, they were able to get a much better payoff – and more engaged players as well! However, for many gamers freemium meant the same as ‘second rate’ – you were getting something like Runescape or one of millions of not-so-good Flash-based online games that were really just a waste of time to even slog through to check out.
More recently it seems that a new life has been given to the freemium model as a means of repurposing existing games. I’m taking a look at three such games – the Turbine-developed MMORPG games Dungeons & Dragons Online and Lord of the Rings Online, which went ‘free to play’ last year and last month respectively, and also id Software’s Quake Live, an browser-based online version of their classic Quake III Team Arena game from 2001.
Summary: Known simply as DDO, Dungeons & Dragons Online went live in early 2006 and became a free-to-play title in September 2009. What made this a really good game originally was that it did a great job of meshing a traditional Dungeons & Dragons experience, rich storytelling, and all of the social and ever-expanding content aspects that make MMORPGs so compelling. Back in 2006 I played the free trial, but have never been someone to stick to a single game long enough to warrant the $15 monthly fee.
For me, playing the free version didn’t feel like a cut-down experience at all. You still have loads of choices in character creation, two character slots (you can buy more), and the full starting experience of early quests. The combat remains the same interesting blend of real-time and stat-based, allowing a variety of players to enjoy the experience without one necessarily having an advantage.
The level cap in D&D is 20, and the game gets around that by having sub-levels before getting to a true level-up. This still makes the leveling and skill advancement feel slow compared to other similar games. The content is tailored to single player as well as group exploration, with the ability to get hirelings for in-game coin to help you work through content. There are hints of ‘premium’ content throughout the game, and in the emails … but never in your face to the point that it lessens the free experience.
Freemium Value: You get to create two characters for free, and can take them through a significant amount of content. There are some things that are premium only, particularly at higher levels, but if all you want is some fun D&D gaming, there is a load to see … for free!
You Might Love This If: You love the D&D universe and are looking for a new way to experience it. Since it is very solo-friendly, it is also fairly forgiving of ‘real world’ schedules or gamers who just don’t want to coordinate with others.
Here is a video of D&D Online showing gameplay from the first dungeon:
Summary: Back in 1999 Quake III Arena launched and there was vocal reaction pro and con – it was a great evolution of the engine and gameplay and looked and felt thoroughly modern, but they had ditched any pretense of a single player experience. The reason I mention that is … Quake Live *IS* Quake III Arena! I think it looks better and scales perfectly to the higher resolutions and new hardware and operating systems on modern machines, but ultimately what you are getting is a web browser plug-in with the game installed in your browser add-ons.
That isn’t bad, as it tells you exactly what to expect – you are playing a souped up Quake III launched from your browser. How is this different than playing Quake III you bought on Steam for $2.50 a few months ago? You get excellent matchmaking, easier social interaction, and that is pretty much all. The game modes are all here – Free-for-All, Team Deatchmatch, Capture The Flag, Clan Arena, and Duel.
But whereas I have yet to launch Quake III from Steam on any PC this year, I have had a blast playing Quake Live. I have it in a set of bookmarks so it is there every night, it loads quickly, the advertising is not obtrusive, I can play full-screen, and there are always loads of players. One thing I noticed is that there are always some higher-skilled players camping in the lower ranked games looking to add to their kill-counts. It is quick, easy and FUN!
Freemium Value: I have yet to go online and not find an active game for free. Taking on premium levels adds a couple of game modes, some new areas, the ability to create clans and customized matches and up to a year to track stats and matches.
Oh – and I have to draw attention to the screen above. I dropped into an empty map to just run around for a bit to get familiar, and noticed all of the ads you see – including a trailer for the new show Chase. I knew they were using in-game ads, but the action is so fast paced I never noticed!
You Might Love This If: You enjoy a quick match of fast-patched twitch shooting.
Here is a video of Quake Live showing gameplay:
Summary: By now most of the world knows about Strider and the Ring Wraiths and the early start of Lord of the Rings, so when you see them early on in Lord of the Rings Online (LotRO) you are drawn immediately into the world. Once the initial quest is met, you are dumped into town with the ability to take on loads of side quests or follow the main early story. In this way you learn how the Lord of the Rings story is nicely interwoven with a more traditional questing structure of a MMORPG.
DDO took what was originally a multiplayer experience (pen & paper games) and converted it to a single-player centric experience in a multiplayer world. Lord of the Rings is also essentially a party (fellowship) based story, yet you are quite able to take on much of the early content by yourself. You are encouraged to join up with others, but honestly there is little reason to do so until much later, partially because the quest & story are set up to allow it, and also because the early combat is fairly easy to do alone.
LotRO does an amazing job of weaving the story into your quests, of giving your enough variety in races and classes to allow anyone to find a hero, of making you feel like a part of Middle Earth, and of keeping the pace of quests and advancement exciting. Given that the game only launched two and a half years ago, it is am amazing opportunity to experience one of the best recent MMORPGs … and for free!
Freemium Value: LotRO has simply gobs of free stuff to do, but also loads of opportunities for micro-transactions with immediate benefits. The developers at Turbine have once again done a great job at giving you plenty to do for free, showing you how much more is available either on an à la carte basis or by subscribing, yet never stuffing the paid options down your throat.
Even more, LotRO allows free players to integrate their paid expansion packs into their free experience. So if you bought the game for $4.95 from Direct2Drive last month, you will get more stuff than a player who plays the standard free game. It is a great way to accommodate all possible players!
You Might Love This If: You love the Lord of the Rings and would like to take your Hobbit character exploring and looting some dungeons throughout Middle Earth. LotRO is very much balanced for single player adventuring, to the extent that some veterans of the genre complain about it. That allows you to tailor the game to your life … and not the opposite.
Here is a video of Lord of the Rings Online showing gameplay from the beginning:
I very specifically ‘bookended’ the two MMORPG games around the online shooter to draw a distinction. All three are ‘freemium’, but whereas DDO and LotRO offer massive amounts of free content that immediately suggests areas for premium content, in Quake Live all they can control are the maps, a game mode, and some out-of-game features. So while DDO and LotRO might sell you some trinkets or in-game party members for real cash, Quake Live needs you to sign up for an annual subscription.
Also, whereas Quake Live lives inside of your browser with a 250+MB companion plug-in, DDO and LotRO are multi-gigabyte full-scale applications. If you don’t have a fast connection these will take forever to download … and they take a while even if you DO! The content is constantly updating – I have yet to log in to either DDO or LotRO and NOT get an update.
But there are two great things to consider: first, all three of these games will run on any moderately powered computer. You might even get them running with integrated graphics on some systems! That makes it easier to play without worrying about needing an expensive new computer. Second, they are FREE. You can take any of them for an extended spin, put a few weeks into them and see if it is worth putting more time and money into the gaming experience.