It takes getting everything you ever wanted, and then losing it to know what true freedom is.
It was around a year and a half ago that GW2 moved from a "Buy to Play" business model to what ANet call "Free to Play". In common with many such transitions it's very arguable whether the result is "F2P" in the true sense or some form of open-ended free trial.
The majority of new content added since that changeover requires the Heart of Thorns expansion, which has to be purchased separately. That seemed to make some kind of sense when the action was taking place in the region of Tyria known as the Heart of Maguuma but the latest addition to the world, Lake Doric, lies slap up against the walls of Divinity's Reach and yet you still can't go there without a HoT flag on your account.
Whether you call it true F2P or not, the entirety of the content that launched with the original game and most of what was added in the first three years is available for no more than the bandwidth it takes to download it. Already having three accounts I managed to resist the temptation - until last week.
It was returning to LoTRO as a free player that inspired me to try the same in the MMO that's taken up most of my attention and gaming time over the past four years. The first few hours of my return to Middle Earth reminded me of something I discovered when John Smedley first tried to nudge a reluctant clutch of Norrathians in the general direction of what would become "free to play - your way".
When the Freeport server, EQ2's first attempt at a F2P offer, went into beta Mrs Bhagpuss and I were comfortably settled on Test. We'd been there for five years. We had multiple max level characters, houses, a guild, all the trimmings. We went to Freeport out of curiosity. We never came back.
The Freeport experience was probably the high point of my time in EQ2. Some of that was the inevitable attraction of starting afresh on a new server but most of it was due to the restrictions - and to the options available for circumventing them.
Having less inventory space, fewer character slots, a limited selection of gear and spells, being throttled back in experience gain, controlled in use of the broker and of chat channels - all of this, far from making me feel constrained as a player made me feel more free to play the way I wanted to play.
Of course I could always have played that way. There was no restriction that the Freeport ruleset imposed that I couldn't have imposed upon myself at any time, on any server, simply by an effort of willpower. Having an outside agency make those choices for me, however, was something I found surprisingly empowering.
A great part of that sense of empowerment came in the knowledge that any and all of these restrictions could be overcome, incrementally and discretely, at a time of my choosing. I found it much more involving, enjoyable and, yes, immersive, to know that I would need to obtain and use an "unlocker" to equip a Legendary or Fabled item or that I'd have to buy a token to place something for sale on the broker.
What the particular set of restrictions on Freeport did for me was give me back control. Instead of "everything now", which is what all MMOs under the subscription model purport to offer, every session became a series of interesting decisions. What's more, those decisions added to my sense of immersion because it felt as though my characters had both a deeper agency and a more interactive relationship with their world.
Some of this same sense of solidity and "thereness" returned to me when I began to explore LotRO's free to play experience. As on Freeport, where I paid the one-time $5 fee to upgrade to "Silver" status, which imposed a different, more lenient ruleset than the bare-bones offer, in LotRo I'm playing as a "Premium" member because I was once a subscriber.
The first and greatest benefit I noticed was that, as a Premium player, I find myself relieved of any need to quest. I have more to say about this but it will keep for a separate post. Suffice it to say, I am finding the freedom to mount up, ride out and take adventure as it finds me to be far more in keeping with the magnificent setting than the old "go here, do that" ever was.
The "task boards" and the free crafting materials tasks in towns and settlements provide all the structure and reward that's needed. If I end up playing more than the hour a day I was expecting (and I played for nearly four hours yesterday so that may happen) then I'll be happy to pay to extend the number of tasks I can take.
When I was a subscribing player I found the Auction House overwhelming so I avoided it. Now, limited to five auctions, I'm using it with pleasure. Inventory space remains a severe problem but that's a "feature" of LotRo for players of all access levels and always was.
I still believe the EQ2 "Silver" account as it operated during Freeport's heyday represents the gold standard (ironically) for F2P conversions but there is one way in which LotRO's model is preferable. There was no way to buy upgrades in EQ2 other than with Station Cash, which itself had to be purchased with real money (albeit often at a stupendous discount).
In LotRo you earn LotRO points simply by playing. Granted the gains are small but so far they are also steady, a drip drip drip of five points here, five points there. I very much like the idea that the more naturally and organically my characters experience the world in which they live, the more their options open up. It seems to me to bring a degree of immersion to the underlying structure that marries imagination to practicality almost seamlessly.
GW2's free play has fewer restrictions than either Freeport era EQ2 or current LotRO. The sub-cap game is already heavily level-gated for everyone regardless of account status and many of the additional restrictions in F2P mode are intended only to prevent gold-spammers and other non-playing parasites from exploiting the lack of a box fee.
There are some very significant changes to the rules nonetheless, all of which I feel enhance rather than diminish my enjoyment of the game. There are strict controls over what can and can't be sold on the Trading Post, which means that the search for suitable gear becomes a core part of gameplay, something I always find deeply immersive. I also found the requirement to reach level 10 before entering a racial capital and level 35 before being allowed to set foot in Lion's Arch to be both aspirational and motivating.
Overall, though, once again I found that moving to the more restrictive environment of what is supposedly the least desirable account option had precisely the reverse effect on my interest and involvement with the game. I haven't felt as much "in the world" in GW2 for years.
There is, naturally, a scale of diminishing returns to consider. A player who begins with only the basics and chooses to stay will, over time, almost inevitably buy his or her way out of most of the very constraints that created the positive impression in the first place. In a worst-case scenario the end result would be an experience functionally identical to the fully paid version.
Even so, the process will be slower and there will be ample opportunities to consider the implications of each upgrade. Under these kinds of buy-in systems it becomes possible to manage or even micro-manage the impact of every inventory upgrade or quality-of-life improvement. It's an approach that allows for each new acquisition to be properly anticipated, appreciated and enjoyed.
None of these counter-intuitive benefits is or should be specific to the payment model. The exquisitely ironic twist is that in attempting to make their "free" offer sufficiently unattractive to induce players to spend their way out of the restrictions imposed , what developers have managed to do is re-discover some of what made MMORPGs so immersive and addictive to begin with.
Far from seeing these design choices as penalties MMO developers should be extending them and building on them within the mainstream structures of their games. The developmental stages shouldn't be imposed by Account status - they should be integral to character development, something to be amended or removed at a time of the player's choosing not by payment of real-world cash but by in-game actions or payments in the currency of the character.
Free to play rules are too good to be wasted on free players.