Aion free to play closed beta key giveaway
Aion free to play closed beta key giveaway (Photo credit: audiovisualjunkie)

Single player campaigns are fun. At least until you finish the game and see the ending cutscene. Sure, there’s supermassive sandboxes like GTA, with their incredible action and storylines – not to mention superbly animated hookers –  but how many games have actually given us a fully social gameplay experience? A world with rivals, companions, and bystanders that you can have a full conversation with, complete with spelling mistakes, OMGs and WTFs? None. That particular sweet spot belongs to MMORPGs.

So, having little else to do, I decided to play an MMORPG.
Note:This is also not a hate review, but I mention games by name.

The first step: picking a game

Now I do NOT have a PayPal account or a credit card, or a solid income for that matter. No WoW. No Aion, no Rift. None of the big-league subscription MMORPGs. So where do I turn?  Free to Play. Now I won’t argue about the F2P model, because from my point of view it’s become a vital part of the MMORPG scene – and it’s what enables me to play. Gift horse, looky, mouth. The Freer, the Better.

OK . . . so it’s Google and MMOhuts.
Now here the problem begins. There are HUNDREDS of F2P MMORPGs. Honestly, these things must be breeding. This Online. That Online. The names themselves turn me off 90% of the time.
Straightaway there’s a “top five” that comes up after repeated Googling: Runes of Magic, a WoW-like F2P MMORPG with a few innovations on the gameplay; Lord Of the Rings Online; a few more, which I’m going to spare you. Now I’m on the verge of clicking the download button on Runes of Magic – except – ugh, the setup is 6 GB. No way: I’m on a package and 6 GB is my monthly limit.
#lookforsomethingsmaller . . .

In any MMORPG, it’s not enough to read the reviews; no matter how good the gameplay is, the game’s a wasteland without players. I found this out when I stumbled onto Fiesta Online, a cheery MMORPG that RouterHead gave me. In the first few minutes of playing, I was hooked. Not impressed – the quests and the questgivers are crap – but I was hooked by the sheer numbers of players strolling, talking, dancing, whatnot. The cute graphics got to me. I started playing. My first few monster kills were fun.

A week later: my views were turned. The game was fun, but it has turned out to be a horribly cheery grindfest with next to no class balancing. I played a Cleric. Ugh. Clerics are horribly weak, just healers; soloing is damn near cruel, what with all the grinding; class changes are linear until you get to LV 100;  and in the end Fighters and Mages rule the day thanks to spammable HP and SP potions (pots and stones).

To be competitive in the world of Fiesta, you HAVE to buy stuff from the Cash Shop – even your appearance flat-out sucks if you can’t purchase a halfway decent hairstyle. Repetive gameplay. No skill trees to speak of. Theoretically character building is open – but you get one measly stat point per level, and unless you put it in one of the optimal “builds” for your class, you can guarantee you’ll end up with a weak and screwed-up character after all that mindless grind.

Still, the game has a massive playerbase, which is frankly incredibly dedicated. The guilds are fantastic – I loved having conversations with people all over the world, virtually and in real life. And the Kingdom Quests, which are like scheduled dungeons, are sweet. The community is practically rabid in devotion. I even got a proposal. Even with all that, the game wore me down. Halfway into the 2nd month, playing became a chore. It’s awesome if you have the money for constant premium item and cosmetic purchases – horrible grinding if you don’t. I was at level 32 by the time I seriously realized this.

Back to the game. Even with all this grind, there are thousands of players that endure, and on any given day there are plenty of new players walking around. Why? One reason: the game is damn easy to get into. Simple to the point of loveableness – it’s like MMORPG 101. No depth to speak of, but in the shallows we learn to swim.

#uninstall

So: what have I learned?

                         THE GRIND VS THE GAMEPLAY


Free to Play is never really Free to Play: the objective is to get the player to spend a bit, after getting him/her committed to the game.
Fiesta does this by very effectively hiding the gap between Free and Premium users until you’re sunk in – and by the time you realize it, you’ve been grinding too long to delete that character and uninstall the game.

One way to hook a player is by this grind system; however, even better would be to provide gameplay as an incentive. The more you play, the more “game” you get. However, substituting grind for gameplay is not the answer (as is done here); equally, I feel some grind is necessary for a player to get attached to his/her virtual deeds.

Equal quantities of both grind / questing and gameplay is what you need – the player has to have an investment(time) as well as incentive(gameplay). Many F2P MMORPGs, Korean ones in particular, never hit peak because they substitute grind for gameplay; likewise, one reason for quite a few Western failures is the substitution of gameplay for grind.

                                 SIMPLE …… AND STUPID?

Fiesta is ridiculously easy to get into, and that’s applaudable. While the skill / class systems have almost zero depth, the simplicity draws players in by the droves.

But as I said, you need content, and content does not mean paying for better items. A good MMORPG, F2P or no, should reward players with more game for advancing – whether they pay or no. MMORPGs need the players. A player-less MMORPG is a fail.

The game need not be stuff like skill combos: how about collectible equipment, and several choices of armor sets for a given range? In the very least, equipment that increase certain attribute points – like in Dragon Age – so players genuinely have a whole variety of builds instead of just 2:1 STR:END? That gives the free players something to do.

At the same time, the developer has to make money. Fiesta forces users to buy elite weapons and equipment. Instead, why not let players pay to play certain races? Make them pay for premium questlines, with chances for rare items drops, rare monsters, and more exp. Make them pay to access premium parts of the world. Throw the equipment at them. Make them pay for more stuff to do.

                                           BUILD A COMMUNITY

You may have the best gameplay in the world. Bully for you if you haven’t a community to match. Bully twice if what little gameplay you have doesn’t supplement your community.

Here’s an example where Fiesta shines: the community. It draws you in. It makes you forget the grind. It’s like walking on glass. You do quests just so you can hang out with the level 50ers. Joining guilds, talking shop, discussing problems, helping each other out – yelling at the Cleric who doesn’t revive you – that’s the game.

What’s great here is that Fiesta actively brings players together. Early on, the players are pushed into “Kingdom Quests” – daily, mass PvE raids where players get together to basically slay through a linear area with tough bosses and massive numbers of unique mobs.

This is probably the most fun part of the entire game. A Kingdom Quest is a rush, and depends entirely on the players working together. Level restrictions ensure that no player can take on the KQ alone. At the same time, there are weak players and there are strong players. It’s an insane timed rush that keeps you on your toes and demands a lot of player coordination, which these players have to pick up on the fly – most of your fellow players are total strangers.


When the KQ ends, you’re invariably left with a few more friends, a grievance against that stupid mage who pulled all those mobs on your head, and alternating feelings of awesomeness and “OMG, I almost died”. You’ve teamed up with total strangers and – since you’re often successful – left with a goodish amount of XP, gold and good feelings. Probably guild invites. You’ve also got to know a lot more players who are around your level, and can share your grinding problems. Some of my best online friends were people I met early on in KQs; we worked well together, and we started hanging out. Screw forums.

Thanks to this sense of community, boosted on a daily basis, Fiesta has a mass following of dedicated players. It’s not a difficult trick to pull off – throw a bunch of players, daily, into a mass PvE battle situation –  but hell: pull it off, and viola: success.

Alright, so next game . . . . next lesson!                                              
[ To be continued ]