One of our newer staff members, Becky Cunningham, has become my partner-in-crime, so to speak, for this column. She has graciously offered to provide her commentaries and insights on different topics in MMO gaming. So now I reliquish your attention to her. Take it away!
Navigating the Free-to-Play Jungle
There are a plethora of Free-to-Play (FTP) MMORPGs kicking around the Internet, beckoning to gamers who don't want to pay a monthly subscription for their on-line gaming fix. Of course, a game can't survive on happy thoughts and rainbow dreams alone, so FTP games support themselves via cash shops which sell in-game items and game features for real life currency. As the FTP scene in North America has grown a lot over the past few years, here's a quick look at how different games support themselves and offer different kinds of cash shops to their customers.
I'll be comparing three very different FTP games. Ether Saga is a Perfect World International FTP game, localized for the English-speaking market from the Chinese original. It is marketed towards teens through adults. Most of its gameplay is in an extensive overworld, with occasional instanced dungeons and PVP areas. Dungeons and Dragon Online (DDO) began as a subscription-only game, but relaunched as a FTP game in September, 2009. DDO is marketed towards adults, and the action in the game is almost entirely in instanced dungeons, with a focus on small group gameplay. Free Realms, by Sony Online Entertainment, is marketed primarily towards pre-teens and their families. Free Realms gameplay involves a large number of minigames, both in the open world and in instances, including combat classes and quests as well as more non-traditional MMO classes such as Postal Carrier and Kart Driver.
What is Offered in Cash Shops?
Cash shops can vary widely in the types of items offered for sale. Ether Saga offers only cosmetic items such as fashions and mounts, or convenience items such as expanded storage space and character respecs. DDO offers these types of items as well as a few character races in its cash shop, but also requires players to buy adventure packs in order to experience much of the game's content. As players advance in level, there are fewer free dungeons available, and the adventure packs contain the adventures that are considered the most interesting, with the best loot. Raids are unavailable outside adventure packs. The DDO cash shop doesn't sell powerful equipment, however, so all players must obtain equipment by completing dungeons. Free Realms has a mixed subscription and cash shop scheme. Players must pay for a subscription to access all the game's content, and a vast array of cosmetic and convenience items are on sale in the cash shop. Pets, a major feature of Free Realms, can only be purchased via the cash shop, though many pets are priced at less than $5. The Free Realms cash shop also sells equipment for combat classes that is superior to anything that can be earned or crafted in-game, which causes a fair bit of controversy among the players.
Ether Saga doesn't have a subscription option, and all quests and adventuring areas in the game are accessible to all players. Free Realms has a membership option, which costs $5 per month. Many quests, classes, and items are only available to Free Realms members, though members still need to pay for cash shop items. DDO has a traditionally-priced subscription option. DDO subscribers have access to all the adventure areas and are given an allowance of cash shop currency every month. However, DDO subscribers are not allowed to purchase individual adventure packs for later use, while free players who purchase an adventure pack have permanent access to the adventure.
Cash Shop Currency Exchange
While DDO and Free Realms cash shop currency can only be obtained by paying actual cash, Ether Saga (like all PWI games) offers an option for players to obtain cash shop money with in-game currency. Players who have bought Etherbucks, the cash shop currency, can offer it on an in-game broker in exchange for the gold that can be obtained in-game. This makes cash shop items accessible to players who can't or don't wish to buy Etherbucks, while it allows players with access to real currency to make plenty of in-game cash quickly. From my experience with Ether Saga, the existence of the currency broker brings the community together, as the free players rely on paying players to provide them with cash shop currency, and the price of the cash shop currency is determined by the player economy. However, the currency exchange probably also keeps cash shop item prices high, in order to promote a continued demand for Etherbucks by free players.
As you can see, companies have used many different strategies to make free-to-play MMORPGs financially viable. Since all three of these games are fairly young (at least as FTP games), it will be interesting to see how their different strategies translate into revenue for their companies. In the meantime, FTP MMORPG gamers have an increasing number of options in terms of games to play and cash shop configurations. Hold on to your wallets, and happy gaming!
I find Bright Shadow to be one of the simpler MMORPGs I've played, and in no way do I mean that negatively. I occasionally still dabble in Dream of Mirror Online, or DOMO, and it actually can be a little exhausting with all the content that's thrown at you. The game often makes me feel like I'm running around in a panic trying to figure out what I should be focusing on, but never quite getting it right. Bright Shadow, on the other hand, feels refreshing in the sense that maybe it's not simpler, but that it's content is ladled out to the player in a more balanced manner.
I haven't invested much interest in the plot, of what I understand of it at least. Long ago, or once upon a time, or however you want to phrase it, there was the Heavenly Princess and the King of Earth. I think the King had feelings for the Princess, but she rejected him. So he played the angry jilted lover angle and tried to destroy the earth and the civilization of Luciena. He rained down natural disasters on the world, and created monsters called Umbra and Penumbra to kill the humans (obviously we know where our MOBs are coming from). The Umbra want the knowledge of Soul Power, which is found in all parts of the universe, used by the Lucienans to create a benevolent society (The Force, anyone?). The Umbra used Soul Power to twist themselves into evil creatures, and attempt to unlock the true abilities of Soul Power by causing pain and suffering. The Umbra were driven back into the Umbra Realm in the course of 12 battles against the "Four Holy Warriors": Morfey, Masamune, Yuric, and Meruna. But since obviously the Umbra are still a problem, the Lucienans study Soul Power to unlock its full potenial in humans and defeat the evil.
I start my journey, as always, at the character creation scene. Creation options are standard, if not slightly minimal. I could select from a number of premade faces and hair styles, as well as adjusting their colors, as well as my skin tone. But I was hoping for more colors, since there's only three for your skin, and the closet I could get to white hair was gray. The character designs also strike me as a bit emotionless, like the players and NPCs are all strange, moving dolls. But maybe that's just me. After setting my female avatar's appearance and name, I was dropped into a place called the Origin Chamber, which sort of resembles space when a Star Trek ship is in warp. I head over to a young man named Lebant standing further down the tunnel, who gives me the back story and then sends me to Beginner's Village. Of course, I have to go through the standard hoop jumping of quests assigned for the purpose of learning the game structure and controls. Except that most of the information is just given in the form of a speech from an NPC, who later gives you quiz you need to pass in order to complete the quest. I'm not sure this is a good way to make that sort of information stick, but I went through my paces and finally headed out into the first field of monsters. I wasn't finding much to be excited about from killing slimes and bats. Thankfully, leveling went fairly quickly, and when I hit level ten I was allowed to choose my character class.
The classes are the usual MMO staples, albeit slightly dressed up. The Warrior is your standard sword wielding, front-line all arounder. The Machinist is your roguish long range fighters who use archery and guns. The Shaman leans towards healing and using wind and earth magic, while the Mage uses fire and water and focuses more on offensive magic. I decided to step out of my comfort zone and chose to become a Mage, though I worried that it would make it more difficult for me to solo. It turned out not to be an issue, so I must be allocating my skills points right. From there, I've fairly torn through the game, leaving the Beginner's Village for a new area, and am now close to hitting level 30 already. It's a bit different to be dealing out damage from a distance rather than right in the monster's face. The best method for me is to kill an Umbra before they can land a hit on me, since it tends to slow down my spell casting. Being a Mage is turning out to be really enjoyable.
Monsters were kind of boring at first, but I'm slowly seeing more variety, and some monster designs are actually sort of fun. The Chuckies and Shockies remind me of a certain horror movie franchise about a possessed toy doll, Jason monsters appear as large men wearing hockey masks and wielding knives, and Frankensteins are pretty much self-explanatory. There's also the nice addition of an indictor that tells whether or not a monster is hostile. If you place your cursor over a monster, its name and level will appear on the screen above it. If the color of its level is orange, it won't bother the player unless attacked. If the color is red, the player will be attacked if they get too close. I can't say much about combat; it functions fine but doesn't stand out for the most part. The scenery and music are nothing to get too excited over, but both are nice and serve the game well. One thing I've noticed is that I have yet to run out quests to do. Several FTP MMOs have a bad habit of leaving the player with no quests because their level isn't high enough, which leaves you with nothing to do but grind for experience. But that hasn't happened yet in Bright Shadow. I will say that travel can be a bit of a pain, since the only way to get around is to trek on foot, or find someone to teleport you. The NPCs, however, who offer this service are usually only in towns, and in the field the only way back to town is to walk all the way back, or get killed and automatically be transported to your set up Home Point. I'm wondering if there's a skill or an item I've missed somewhere along the way to make that aspect of the game easier. I can earn a mount at some point, so that's a start.
There are a few things of interest that I've yet to see in any of the other MMOs I've played. Early in the game I was given my own Umbra Guide, a kind of Pokedex for the monsters of the game. As you defeat Umbras in the game, you have the chance of them dropping a monster card. You have to get at least one card from a monster if you want it's entry in your Guide. But the drop rate for these cards is either random, or varies from monster to monster. I would sometimes get a card on the first try of killing a new monster type, but when I was trying to earn a card by killing Dracks (little chubby vampires who hold large lollipops), I'm pretty sure I killed over a hundred without gaining a single card. It just shows how obsessive I can get. But besides being needed for the Umbra Guide, the monster cards have another use. You can use them on your character to gain stat bonuses for a certain period of time. Some cards will add HP points, others MP, etc. And you can use more then one card at once to make combinations that will give added benefits for an even longer period of time. Cards can even be traded in for items, armor, weapons, quests, and titles. Titles also give added stat boosts, and can be earned in other ways besides card trading.
I'd like to be able to phrase my reasons for liking this game better. I can say the experience has been pretty fun and I actually broke my normal habit of going at it alone to team up once or twice with other players, which resulted in some cool combos attacks that teammates can set off. I even managed to add a friend to my friend's list! So far, what I've seen of the player community is quite positive. I don't know how wise it is to have yet another MMO I'm going to lose hours at a time in, but at the moment, I can say I'm hooked. And since the game is only still in its first chapter, I'm hoping for more interesting content in the future.