How a Free-to-Play Game Got My Money

EA resolution update: Still holding firm! On the one hand I am really not sorry I missed the Sim City debacle, but on the other I am sad to be missing out on the new Mass Effect 3 DLC, which has been getting rave reviews from ME fans. NO EA in 2013!


Last week TERA managed to separate me from some of my hard-earned cash. It’s not the first cash shop to lure me in — I, too, know the shame of owning WoW’s sparklepony — but it’s certainly the first time I’ve ever spent money in a free-to-play multiplayer game. I swore this day would never come, so what happened?

Don’t Nag Me!

You can ask my Mom or any employer I’ve ever had — I do not like being nagged and micromanaged. I was playing LotRO when they switched to the free-to-play model and even with a subscription I never could get past the coin symbols all over the interface. It was immersion-breaking for sure (and that’s coming from someone who usually doesn’t notice that kind of thing) and just felt like nagging. Did you know you could pay real money to take this horse now? Or try this quest? Or visit this zone? Or… GOD STOP TELLING ME WHAT TO DO, GAME.

Tera, on the other hand, puts its cash shop behind an icon in the main menu and otherwise never mentions it. Heck, the shop wasn’t even in the game for the first week of f2p. I appreciate that relaxed attitude. In fact, the closest TERA gets to nagging is reminding players how long they’ve played every hour, which is a holdover from its South Korean design roots.

Don’t Limit Me!

The most popular free-to-play payment model for online multiplayer seems to require limiting gameplay to prompt people to buy things. SWTOR has limits on how many dungeons you can run as a free player, EQII limits the quality of equipment that free players can wear, and Age of Conan requires people to subscribe to access last year’s expansion. It’s difficult to play many of these games for free without being made to feel like you’re a second class citizen. (“Please sir, can I have some more hotbars?”)

TERA, on the other hand, has a model closer to buy-to-play* titles like Guild Wars 2 and The Secret World, although you no longer purchase anything up front. The entire game, from 1-60, is available to free players. There are no limits on content, all races and classes are available, all dungeons, and so on. The result is that I’ve been able to get a thorough look a the game over the last month.

Instead of limiting free players, TERA and other positive F2P models add value for paid/subscribing players. Don’t remove access to content if I’m playing for free — give me bonuses. Elite (subscriber) level in TERA gives things like broker house posts with no fees, instant teleports, and a fancy pony, all of which are totally sweet, but my actual core gameplay changes very little.

Take My Money!

So the game doesn’t nag me and I can access all the content without spending a penny. Why did I spend money?

Convenience, certainly. Once it became clear to me that TERA is my new “dabblin’” MMO, I went for the time-saving measures of the Elite subscription. (Seriously, unlimited instant teleports to major cities makes my game-life a lot more awesome.)

Cosmetics are also a big draw, although I know that not everyone likes playing dress-up. I haven’t yet bought any costume gear, but I have my eye on a pair of black hipster glasses for my elf the next time I get the urge to spend money. Buying a month of Elite also gave me a shiny pony and a flaming halo that is totally useless for anything except looking awesome, and I am certainly not immune to looking awesome in games.

The final motivator, though, was just really liking their F2P model. I don’t want games to nag me. I don’t want them to create content gateways for freeloaders. I voted with my dollars, and me and my fancy halo regret nothing.


* “Buy-to-play”, or as we used to call it, “buying a game”. *roll eyes*

Tell Me What To Play Now, or work burnout indecisiveness

One of the reasons I got into technical and copy writing as a career, I used to joke, was because there’s no such thing as a “documentation emergency”. (Before that I did a lot of network operations, where everything is pretty much an emergency.) It turns out that I was totally wrong! Starting last week my workplace has been on high alert about a gigantic project that launches at the end of March, and the result has been many long hours and mentally exhausting days.

By the time I get home I am frequently burned out. I don’t feel like writing (sorry, blog readers), I don’t feel like chatting (sorry, guildies), and I don’t feel like doing anything too mentally taxing. My response to this so far has been to play the Auction House and level a bit in TERA, and watch a lot of Australian reality competition shows*.

But really, I’d rather be playing games. Specifically, I think, a single-player meaty title with a good story. Occasionally I stare at my Steam list, and somewhat like Ellyndrial’s post about just Shutting Up and Playing I feel overwhelmed by choice and the perverse inner voice of optimization. Witcher 2 was supposed to be great, but I hear the combat is obnoxious. Deus Ex: Human Revolution was also suposed to be great, but I’m pretty terrible at stealth games. I’ve already played through the Mass Effect trilogy a million times, KOTOR 2 is apparently kind of dumb in the middle, and.. man, maybe I’ll just watch more reality shows.

So since apparently I am too brain-dead to actually pick my own game for the rest of March, clearly it is time to ask the internet! Qualifications are:

1. I’m fine buying a game, as long as it isn’t published by EA and can be found for under $50.
2. Great story.
3. Great story.
4. Not super complicated or demanding.
5. Any single-player genre (RPG, Action, Retro Emulator, whatever).

So whatcha got for me?

* Right now it’s S1 of Amazing Race Australia. I like AR anyway because of all the travel, and non-American reality shows are the best because everyone is so nice!

Cat Context 20: Are Retro Games Still Fun or Just Nostalgia?

It’s Retro Game week on Cat Context! We’re talking about some of our favorite hits from the past, and sorting out whether they were actually amazing or if we’re just nostalgic.

Retro gaming is where Aro is a champion, and she helps us cover all our bases by talking about old console games, modern day emulators, and how great retro games have a great story. Liore talks about her Tamagotchi and playing System Shock 2, and Elly is a grump who says he likes retro games, but we don’t believe him. Star Wars Galaxies is often referred to as a game that died before its time, but is it that great or is it all nostalgia? All three of us tried out the SWGEmu and are amazed at how less satisfying it is now. Also, Elly and Aro fight over which Final Fantasy game is best, which really shouldn’t surprise anyone.

Also, Elly and Liore get defensive about playing TERA! Talk about the Neverwinter and Firefall betas!

As always Liore is joined by the most excellent Arolaide and Ellyndrial. What’s your favorite retro game? Email us at, tweet @Liores, or call our voice mail at (347) 565-4673.

It would be downright awesome if you gave us a vote on iTunes. :)

* The SWGemu website
* System Shock 2 on GoG
* Free Music Archive page for our theme, in THE crowd by The Years


(Don’t forget to leave 5 stars!)

More Screenshots and Tips from TERA

More Screenshots and Tips from TERA

Okay, enough serious business posts for now! Let’s look at some pretty stuff.

I’m still plucking away at TERA, with a level 12 Slayer and a level 24 Priest. We talk a bit on tomorrow’s podcast episode about why the game is fun despite it having a load of sexist nonsense, so I won’t get into that too much now, but I will commend TERA for its combat.

(By the way, like 6 of us from the Cats and Twitter have a guild. /gapply Bad Cats on Tempest Reach to join in!)

tera6 More Screenshots and Tips from TERA

My awsome rock lady Slayer

I’ve read plenty of criticisms about “tab target combat” in MMOs and I never quite understood what the alternatives were, but in TERA your attacks go where you point them, whether there’s a bad guy in that direction or not. Some mobs will run away from you, some will roll right past you as a defensive maneuver, and there is often strafing and kiting and dodge-rolling in standard combat.

Last night I took on my first BAM, or Big Ass Monster (yes, really) with a slightly higher level guildie, and it was great fun. He played a Sorcerer, the glass cannon class, while I was on my Priest (a healer with low DPS, and there ain’t no dual-spec in TERA). My guildie died at about 40%, and I plinked and kited the giant creature for probably close to 5 minutes until he could respawn and get back to the battle. Sure, I only took off maybe 10% of the boss’ health during that time, but kiting it around on the brink of death was damned exciting.

Anyway, I get a lot of “questions” about TERA through Google search terms, so let me answer a few and then I’ll get on with the photos.

Is there a banker in the first newbie zone? Yes! About halfway through the zone you’ll come across the small town at Tower Base, and the bank/mailbox character is in the southwest of the city.

Can I skip the queue by paying for TERA? No! Right now skipping the login queue is only available for Founders, or people who bought the box. Folks have reported the odd box still being available in out-of-the-way stores, but personally I don’t think it’s worth the effort. There are also Elite players, which are the folks paying a subscription. They have fewer limitations, like more character slots and auctions, but not queue skipping.

How do I leave a guild? Actually, leaving a guild is pretty easy (the guild menu is “g”). The trick is that there’s a week-long cooldown before you can join another guild, so join and leave wisely.

What class should I play? Dude, I don’t even know what class I should play. They’re all super different, so just try them out.

So first, pretty vistas!

tera4 500x318 More Screenshots and Tips from TERA

A woodsy landscape in TERA

tera2 500x321 More Screenshots and Tips from TERA

Mountainous landscape in TERA

I came across this giant, strange-looking egg in the wild while doing a quest, so of course I shot it. Then it unfolded into a giant crab/spider hybrid thing and ate me. :(

tera3 More Screenshots and Tips from TERA

Creepy egg monster in TERA

One of the best things about TERA is all the weird crap in the world.

tera5 More Screenshots and Tips from TERA

What.. is going on here?

tera1 More Screenshots and Tips from TERA

I had to kill this guy for a quest, but it felt like killing a Katamari. :(

“Because Money, That’s Why”

Last week I wrote about my disappointment over the initial Wildstar character options and their overuse of broad-chested guys and big-chested ladies (and ladybots). Someone suggested to me via Twitter that the reason we constantly see “hot chicks and cool dudes” as character models is that they’re the most economically successful choices. We, the gaming public, like to be sexy and cool in our video games.

No slight to the fellow on Twitter, but man, as a whole I’m starting to make a face whenever a current game development habit is defended purely for being the profitable option.

First, that response neatly removes all responsibility from the marketplace and places it all on the player. If we’re overwhelmingly offered the option to play generically sexy humanoids, to use an example from the Wildstar post, is it really surprising that people overwhelmingly play generically sexy humanoids? And what about marketing? Player preferences certainly seem less organic and democratic when you consider that close to a billion dollars* is spent each year by the game industry in the hopes of influencing our playtime decisions.

In fact, while games featuring only male protagonists sell 25% better than games with both male and female character options, on average the latter game will get a smaller marketing budget. Apparently having a female protagonist in an action game is “tough to justify”, but is this the will of the people, or a self-fufilling prophecy?

I also have concerns about money being a grand arbiter of game development and publishing because it seems like a slippery slope that historically we are not good at avoiding. Bioshock Infinite is downplaying both the character of Elizabeth and its unique retro steampunk vibe in its advertising to appeal more to the “frat boys” because that’s where the big money is apparently, and while on its surface that might not seem so bad it also seems to set a boundless precident.

When the driving question is “what will appeal to a larger market”, the answer can almost never end. What if the Bioshock Infinite folks took out a bit of story in the middle and put in another shooting level? What if they put Elizabeth in a bikini on the front cover? No wait, what if they got rid of Elizabeth completely and instead gave lead character Booker a posse of wise-cracking white dudes with big guns? Hey, the market gets what it wants, baby!

And exactly how small does a gamer market segment have to be to not earn the attention of developers and publishers, anyway? Perhaps generically pretty character models do statistically attract the most players, but at the same time approximately 32% of Guild Wars 2 characters are the tiny dog-faced Asura or weird giant cat Charr. Shortly after it launched, roughly 21% of WoW players played a decidedly unsexy gnome. Heck, Star Wars Galaxies had one human option and a bunch of weirdass aliens and it still hit 200k subscribers at its peak, which is not an amazing number but certainly not peanuts for 2004.

Developers and publishers can probably wring the most profit out of their game by avoiding innovation. So what? Once you factor in things like the industry’s own marketing efforts, the (lack of) availability of alternative options, and fact that games that offer something different have an existing audience and receive higher critical scores.. well, I don’t think “because money, that’s why” is a reasonable argument.


* That’s an estimate based on the fact that game marketers spent 824 million in 2008, the only hard number I could find.

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