Free To Play

Remember back when the only controversy surrounding Mass Effect 3 was to do with its inclusion of an obligatory Horde-alike multiplayer mode?  Okay, so mentioning Mass Effect 3 and the word “controversy” in the same sentence could be misinterpreted, but before I continue can I just say that this is not a rant about how BioWare gave in to those unentitled, whinging crybabies who demanded the ending be changed.  No, I’m way over that now.  Way over it [clenches fists].  Instead, I want to talk about how BioWare, with a multiplayer mode that isn’t anything particularly special and nobody wanted, have set an example for how the rest of the industry should support their online games.

It’s been seven months since the final chapter in the Mass Effect trilogy launched and in that time BioWare have released no less than four multiplayer DLC packs, the last of which, Retaliation, came out just last week, with each consisting of new maps, weapons and character classes.  And guess what?  Every single expansion costs the grand sum of nothing.  Zilch.  It’s all free!  Don’t you find that odd?  A huge game of Mass Effect’s calibre would normally cost you an arm and a leg for single map, let alone an entire pack.  Heck, come to think of it, there are lesser games out there that charge just to add a new gun.  Granted, you could argue that these multiplayer packs offer little in terms of content (three maps a pack, with a sprinkling of weapons and characters), but how much more do you get from the DLC in Call of Duty, Halo, or Gears of War?  And how much do they cost?  I rest my case…

Fair dos, in terms of usage you probably get more out of those games, but, at the end of the day, you’re still paying an exploitative sum of money for what is essentially the same amount of content that you’re getting for free elsewhere.  There’s been a lot of debate this generation over DLC, particularly the ethics of pricing.  My opinion: single player DLC should come with a cost because, in the best instances, it’s something new, something that expands upon the full game (GTA IV’s The Lost and Damned/The Ballad of Gay Tony, Mass Effect 2’s Lair of the Shadow Broker and BioShock 2’s Minerva’s Den being prime examples).  Multiplayer DLC, on the other hand, isn’t essential but an extra.  You have access to the full online game on the disc (let’s leave Online Passes for another day, shall we) and the downloadable maps and weapons are merely complimenting it, not technically bringing anything different you haven’t already got, and therefore should be totally free, or, at the very least, cheaper.

This is something BioWare seems to recognise, charging reasonable prices for their single-player add-ons and keeping the online modes fresh with new maps and extras for free, and there are plenty of other developers (and publishers) out there who could learn a thing or two from the same approach.  But BioWare are earning some income through Mass Effect 3’s multiplayer and fair play to them, because they’ve taken the initiative and smartly incorporated aspects of the free-to-play model.  Players are allowed to spend both their real world money and in-game credits earned through play to purchase tiered equipment packs, each pack acting like a lucky dip, offering a random mix of weapons, upgrades and extras.  It’s a clever way of ensuring that players with bulging wallets can’t get their hands on all the most powerful weapons and steal those all-important kills from the off, while at the same time bringing in a gradual stream of revenue.

But, when it comes to supplementing us with free DLC there is one other way in which we can be catered for, and although it may be tricky to produce it can prove an invaluable and powerful tool for both the player and developer if done right.  Trials: Evolution does it.  Far Cry 2 did it, and so will Far Cry 3.  LittleBigPlanet is designed around it (dead giveaway, that one).  Yes, I am of course talking about user generated content (UGC), and as it stands at the moment it’s the closest console gaming will ever get to a modding scene like the PC.  Can you imagine if COD ever ships with a map editor?  The numbers on the first day would be in the millions, guaranteeing a near infinite supply of free DLC forever and would mean that we would never have to pay for an overpriced map pack ever again.

Of course, it means there are going to be heaps of utter tripe maps from amateur designers (practise makes perfect, kids), but perhaps Treyarch and Infinity Ward could select a handful of maps that have caught their eye each month and add any necessary tweaks before plonking them into the core playlists for everyone see.  It’ll probably never happen in COD’s case (Activision do like their dosh, after all) but I can’t see why UGC can’t be integrated in more games these days.  Perhaps it’s a technical thing, something us common folk couldn’t comprehend, so maybe it’s on the to-do list for the next generation.  It’s certainly on my wish list.

However, it’s not just about free DLC though, because unless developers push their multiplayer in other ways the servers are just going to become ghost towns as players return to the more popular online games.  It also helps if the multiplayer is actually worth playing, or even worth including for that matter.  Slightly straying off topic now, Spec Ops: The Line lead designer Corey Davies recently spoke out about how the team at Yager were pretty much arm-twisted by publisher 2K into building a multiplayer mode that they were wholeheartedly against from the outset.  He said the mode was “never the focus of development” and called it “a low quality Call of Duty clone in third person” before pointing out that “no one is playing it”.  The same goes with Binary Domain, a surprisingly engaging and thoroughly entertaining game in single player, which you really should consider checking out.  But good luck in finding a multiplayer match, although this is probably down to the game selling approximately 14 copies, I must attest – go buy it now!

Luckily for BioWare, Mass Effect 3’s multiplayer has been successful and people are still playing it today, if only for the sole purpose of boosting their Galactic Readiness level in the campaign (basically, the higher the level the better the outcome at the end).  Then again, heading back to the original point I was trying to make before that little tangent, unlike a lot of other multiplayer games BioWare have been pushing it, keeping the reasonably sized online community on its toes with a wealth of special events and challenges on an almost weekly basis, with in-game items and bonus XP being rewarded for taking part.  Unfortunately, the Retaliation Pack heralds the end of all that but still, it’s been a good run.  Sure, other games have the odd double XP weekend once in a blue moon, but other than Gears of War 3 I can’t think of any other game that engages the community in this way so often.  In fact, I can’t think of any other game this generation that has supported its online component with as much free content and community events like Mass Effect 3.  And for a developer who hasn’t had much multiplayer experience, with a mode that nobody asked for, and was expected to wither and die like so many before, it isn’t too shabby.  Other developers, take note.

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