11 December 2011

Free-to-play Philosophy and DC Universe Online Impressions

So I had been desperately searching for something to "fill the gap" until the release of Star Wars: The Old Republic.  My RIFT and WoW subscriptions were long since expired, and I wasn't about to either reactivate those, or pay for anything new, considering I was only going to play for a couple weeks at most.  I tried out several free-to-play (F2P) games and found them all lacking for various reasons.  I won't mention them specifically because I didn't even really give them enough time to give them an honest review.  But if after only a couple hours I was so disgusted with them that I uninstalled them, that should say something about the lack of quality.

That brought me to DC Universe Online.  Yes this is a F2P game also, but it falls into a different category in my opinion.  See... I view "pure" F2P's as something different than "converted" F2P's.  A pure F2P would be something like Runes of Magic.  This is a game that designed from the ground up to be supported by a cash shop and the selling of various items.  A converted F2P would be Lord of the Rings: Online.  These are games that started as subscription based, but then changed to a F2P model later.  Why the separation in my mind?  Because the payment model and associated philosophy directly impacts the development and support of the game.

A game that is designed from the ground up to be cash shop supported (pure F2P) is more likely to embrace a "pay to win" philosophy.  In other words, direct gameplay advantages can be purchased from their stores... special weapons or armor, stat boosts, XP boosts, etc.  The other major type of items sold are "conveniences" such as mounts, bag expansions, and bank expansions.  This is how they encourage players to spend money, and I get that.  Developers and publishers need to eat too.  But this is not what I want to spend my money on.  I would much rather pay for something else, and that's where the other type of F2P comes in.

The "converted" F2P's such as LotRO and Dungeons and Dragons: Online go about encouraging cash shop purchases another way.  Yes there are still some special items to be had, and yes there are conveniences to be purchased, but these games primarily get you to spend money by selling you content.  These games ask you to buy quest packs or expansions in order to access all the content the game has to offer.  I know I am in the minority on this, but I'd much rather pay for content than conveniences.  Maybe it is due to my more limited play schedule, or just my attitude towards buying things in general.  But selling me items ends up feeling like I'm being "nickel'd and dime'd" to death, and it makes playing the games themselves feel very unpalatable unless you are willing to buy the offered conveniences.

So that brings us to DCUO.  In terms of payment model, they are somewhat "in between" the two approaches.  There are no content barriers in the main game, but there are DLC packs that add additional content and abilities.  Free players also have some rather strange convenience limitations, for example free players cannot trade items or use the auction house.  I can't say if I prefer this to either of the more traditional F2P "enticement mechanisms," and since my time with this game will be short, the lack of conveniences probably isn't going to affect me too much.  But before I get into my actual time with the game, I will say up front that DCUO has been the most enjoyable F2P I have sampled to date.

First off, DCUO looks good and plays smooth.  I didn't notice any graphical glitches or substantial bugs.  This is another thing that "converted" F2P's have on the pure ones, in my experience.  These games are much more polished.  Yeah there are some good looking F2P's out there (Allods Online for example) but most of them look as cheap as they are.  DCUO didn't look or feel that way at all.  Now granted I am playing it nearly a year out from release, so take that with a grain of salt.  But this is definitely a good looking game.  I also have to give props here for the voice overs.  Your mentor and quest adviser are fully voiced, and this really adds something to the game, in my opinion.  Having experienced this in the SW:TOR beta, I can tell you that it makes a big difference.

In terms of gameplay, DCUO is different from your standard hotbar/cooldown MMO like WoW.  Yes you have abilities, but you can only equip six of them at a time.  Now at this point I will mention that I have only played up to level 10, but at this point, most of your damage dealing is done through melee and ranged combos controlled by the left and right mouse buttons.  Your powers and abilites play a secondary role in terms of buffing, debuffing, and dealing additional damage.  This is a major difference from the WoW-type model where spamming damage abilities is much more important.  This has the effect of making combat feel more fast paced.  I'd say DCUO almost feels more like an old-school "beat 'em up" kind of game... which isn't a bad thing.  Overall I found the combat to be fun and entertaining, definitely a cool change of pace from the model I am familiar with.

I cannot comment on "endgame" or PvP as I am only a third of the way to the level cap and I really have no interest in PvP.  Overall I'd say if you're looking for a high-quality free game to kill time with, DCUO will fit the bill.  I couldn't see myself ever spending money in it, even if I were playing it more long term, but it is a fun diversion.  I'll probably keep it installed even after SW:TOR launches for the occasional change of pace.  It is far from perfect, but it is the first F2P I've tried this month that didn't make me want to gouge my eyes out and uninstall it after a couple hours.

It's almost here!  Check back tomorrow for my "Getting Ready for SW:TOR!" post. :)

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