A little while back I wrote a piece on the emerging market of “Free to Play” MMORPGs, and how they could very well represent the future business model of the industry. While World of Warcraft is chugging comfortably along at the top of the heap, the competition was struggling to find ways to stay relevant, which led to first Dungeons & Dragons Online, and then Everquest II and Lord of the Rings Online all moving away from the traditional monthly subscriptions.
But all those offerings were still fantasy based. What if you don’t want to get your elf on? What if, say, you’d rather don some spandex and fight crime? Until recently, you had no F2P option in the way that a fantasy gamer did… there was City of Heroes/City of Villains and Champions Online, and both of them required you to pay up front for the game and then pay your $14.99 a month. DC Universe debuted last month and is using the same old model, but in response Champions has finally brought superheroics into the F2P field.
And now, thought I, we’re talkin’. CO and I have not had the best of relationships, beginning with our awful first date. To this day, I really have troubles with the art style they went with on character models, and what voice acting there is tends to be both intrusive and atrocious… but all that’s a lot more palatable when you’re not paying for it.
Let me say this, too. She did make some changes for the better. I guess she got some of the same complaints I had from her other dates, because after the “alien invasion” tutorial, the game now wisely transports you to the center of Millenium City rather than your choice of hot or cold running Buttfuck Nowhere. You get to see that breathtaking Renaissance Center, get a tour of the facilities, and then it’s off to some good ol’ street-level crime fighting (hey, you might have customized yourself to look like Thor, but you’re still only level 6!).
This is a 100% better progression, especially since it segues much more logically from the tutorial and gives you much more of a sense of the city and its history. You get your travel power at this time, too, and can rove freely around a rather vast area, which I tested by getting my ass kicked in certain parts of the city I had no business being in yet. Save for a couple of adventure packs, CO touts that every last bit of content and every corner of their creation is just as accessible to free players as it is to subscribers.
What’s not available to non-subscribers? Well, you do take a big hit on customization, which is ironic since as I write this a Facebook ad for CO in my other window blares “Customize Your Superhero!” This could be especially jarring to someone expecting the freeform fiesta of the pen & paper game. Even a monthly subscriber doesn’t have options that open, but they do get to mix and match from different powersets, both at character creation and beyond. Free players have to select from one of a handful of superhero archetypes that lock you into a rather strict progression and playstyle. Beyond that, there are certain costume options that were available previously that have now been moved into a subscription/purchase only category (I know this after figuring out that one of my characters looked different from the screenshots I took during the last demo period… the now “illegal” items had been removed and replaced with generic options). Finally, a lot of the travel power choices are also locked off… if you want to webswing around the city, you’ll need to pay for the privilege.
But all that said, there’s still a lot of generosity in the presentation. One major difference between CO and other F2P offerings is that the auction, banking, channel and mail system are all wide open regardless of your account tier. You’re supposedly even able to create your own super team if you can gather enough like-minded justice seekers. How are they able to do this without leaving the barn door open for the spammers? Well, first off, as I said before I think the fact that on these games you can now buy buffs and elite equipment by paying real world cash directly to the game company takes the teeth out of the whole gold farming industry. You get a better deal, instant gratification, and a lot more security in the purchase. Secondly, CO still locks off functions like mail to people not on your friends list, unless one of the following criteria is met:
– Your account has had a monthly subscription (now or any time previously)
– Your account has a current balance of store credits, or has bought something from the Atari store at any point.
– Your account has accumulated 20 hours of playtime between any of your characters (the F2P option starts with two slots)
This is the most open system I’ve seen yet for these features. Even as a casual player, 20 hours of playtime is easy enough to achieve, especially since it doesn’t all have to be at the same time or on the same character. Sure enough, I’m now able to freely work the auction house, buying and selling, and send messages and items to others.
So, is the Champions Online “Free For All” worth your time? That’s up to you, but the price is certainly now right to see if it floats your boat and delivers the superheroic action you crave. One thing you absolutely won’t get is any sort of villainy option, and the designers have no intention to add such a thing, so if you want to play the dark side you’ll still have to get out the credit card and go the City of Villains or DCU route. Of course, maybe in a year or so they too will be operating on the tiered F2P model, but villainy might still have to be purchased at their online store.
Talk about paying for your crimes, eh?