Strategy you can't buy

The hottest trend in PC gaming these days is high-quality free-to-play games that make their revenue from advertising or microtransactions (players buying low-priced in-game items or currency), instead of a retail price tag. Right now, you can download and play free MMORPGs like Sword of the New World and Requiem: Bloodymare, and EA is gearing up for a bold experiment in free-to-play shooters with Battlefield Heroes. (You can also play the free-but-mediocre War Rock…though I don’t recommend it.) But so far, no one has made a true free-to-play AAA-quality strategy game. Where’s our free stuff?

We should be careful what we wish for. Could this crazy get-rich-eventually scheme even work in the strategy genre? That’s debatable; one of my favorite topics to rant on during the PC Gamer Podcast is how allowing players to use real-world cash to purchase an in-game advantage over other players is a terrible idea that will end in tears. The joy of online strategy gaming, and online gaming in general, is defeating an opponent who was just as likely to defeat you—so how much fun is a game if, no matter how good you are, you may get owned by some kid who blew his allowance on WMDs? If you don’t stand a chance in a “free” game without shelling out, then the game ain’t really free.

Spring is a free fan-made RTS. It’s a little tricky to get into a multiplayer game, though

RTS games in particular are poorly suited for an uneven playing field. Just look at the lopsided matches in the global conquest modes of games like Warhammer 40K: Dawn of War: Soulstorm or C&C3: Kane’s Wrath, which allow persistent armies to carry over between battles in order to see how those matches would play out. The player with the more powerful starting force immediately rushes, destroying or crippling the underdog within the first two minutes of play. Game over. Those modes are single-player-only for exactly this reason—it’s no fun to be on the receiving end of that. I think I’d avoid that kind of game, especially if it employed the same “buy more stuff or lose!” model you see in card games like Magic: The Gathering and tabletop games like Warhammer. I would, however, be all over a well-made free RTS that simply showed ads during loading screens and end-of-game score reports. Hell, I’d even accept an on-screen ad bug in the interface if it meant the playing field could remain level.

Persistent armies are a cool concept, but hopelessly unbalanced

Someone is definitely going to give free a chance, though, so the only question is who will do it first. Petroglyph (Star Wars: Empire at War and Universe at War: Earth Assault) announced in April that it has already begun development on a free-to-play microtransaction-based RTS, but any number of these projects could be in the works behind closed doors at various developers. By this time next year, I’d bet on at least one more surfacing.

In the meantime, a few free RTS games are available. Spring, the fan-made re-creation of Total Annihilation comes to mind. You can also play a free version of Saga, an indie MMORTS, though some features are gimped until you fork over $20.

July 16, 2008 


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