Did you hear that noise? That's the sound of thousands of fanboys, screaming out in pain, as they realise that their favourite payment model for MMOs is under attack. The free-to-play model, where an online game is free to play but funded through micro-transactions from an item shop, used to be something traditionally exclusive to Asian or child-friendly MMOs. These games, it was said, were all low-quality products, unbalanced, and no one in their right mind would ever play them for long. Except, perhaps, for the millions of players that were already playing them.
At least, that's what most of us thought - I used to be a staunch supporter of the subscription model that we are so used to here in the West myself, fearing the day when developers on our side of the world decided to try it out the "Asian" model. Surely there's no way a Western company would be able to give us such quality titles as they have done before while keeping their games free for everyone to play? Surely a MMO, founded on Western design principles, couldn't stay balanced using an item shop to fund its servers?
It takes a lot of guts to try out the F2P-model (as "free-to-play" is usually abbreviated), which so far hasn't been tried at a larger scale here. I'd say it takes even more guts to try it out with a game reminiscent of World of Warcraft. But that's exactly what Runewaker has done when they decided to fund Runes of Magic through micro-transactions. It's a regular Fantasy MMO, with levels and crafting and loot and all the classical trappings of the genre - yet it's free. Just create an account, download and start playing.
Of course there's nothing like a free lunch, you will sooner or later stumble upon things in the game world that come with a real, monetary cost - mounts, for example, all costs diamonds instead of gold. Gold you get through questing, diamonds you get with your credit card. The developers have been nice enough to include a system where gamers can sell diamonds for gold in the game, kind of like what CCP did with their PLEX-system in EVE Online, but in the end "f2p" doesn't stand for "we don't want your money".
In the end, Runes of Magic works like any other MMO, it just tries to get your money in a different way. It still asks you to plough down hours and hours to level your character, it still wants you to invest a lot of your time into it. So what do you actually get back if you do?
Let's start out with a disclaimer. I have played a lot of Runes of Magic, but there's no way I could've reached the magical mystery that is "end-game" yet. My max level is 20ish, I still have a lot to see and do in the game. I haven't found a guild that suits me, so I haven't been able to do any large group-raids or helped build a guild castle. I am, when it comes down to it, a newbie at Runes of Magic. Writing these kinds of reviews is always hard and I will always miss something or leave something out, something that players that have played more than me usually aren't slow to point out. For that, I am sorry, but that's also the way this particular genre works.
Let's also be honest here, Runes of Magic does look a lot like Blizzard's World of Warcraft. In many ways, it very much is a classical MMO that takes a lot of inspiration from older games. The quests are traditional go to Y, kill X mobs of a particular type, find N boar ribs and deliver them to person A. If you've ever tried out World of Warcraft, EverQuest II or almost any other MMO during the last 10 years, you've seen this before. You do quests, you get gold and you experience points.
It's also in these parts that the game tends to be lacking. The graphics look pretty, the character design is average, and the quest design is classic - nothing about these parts stand out. Together with the crafting and harvesting, which at times can feel extremely grindy, Runes of Magic shows that Runewaker and Frogster don't have the budgets of their larger competitors. It's all well-made, it's easily approachable and functional, it just doesn't have the same shiny glow that larger games do.
If you only play for an hour or two, there is a risk that you will only see it from this side. It's a free game, easy to download and start playing, which makes it just as easy to uninstall and forget about as well. Especially the starting area, Howling Mountains, could use a lot more polish to easier reel people in. Being sent out to kill magical, walking fungi and wolves in a forest lacking in detail doesn't really send a message of "awesome" to the new player.
That's not to say that Runes of Magic is a bad game. As noted above, it is functional - I've played full-prize subscription based MMOs that were a lot worse than this, especially this close to the game's official launch. It's stable, the graphics and the world become more interesting as soon as you get to leave the starting zone. The dual class system, that allows you to level two different classes (such as warrior/priest, rogue/scout or whatever weird combination you can think of), doesn't come into play until you're level 10, which is about the same time you can finally leave Howling Mountains behind.
What Runes of Magic have is some really good ideas. Remember when Mythic said that if you had to wade through hundreds of bears to get to a quest giver and that quest giver offered you a quest to kill bears the bears you've already killed would count towards completing that quest? Do you also remember that it never made it into the final version of Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning? In Runes of Magic, more or less every monster you kill drops an item that you can bring to town and use for a repeatable quest - you don't even have to be on that quest for the items to drop. For me, it makes it a lot less painful to kill another few mobs when all I really want is to get back to town. After all, every kills gives me something that I can use at a later point.
Player owned housing and guild castles is also something that Runes of Magic brings to the table, even though it's not new in the genre it's nice to see them in another game when the largest MMO in the world doesn't even seem to consider implementing them. A guild castle is such a great idea in any fantasy MMO, and the housing you get for free is nicely done (and, of course, opens up a whole new avenue for getting the players into the item shop). Also, the dual class system works great, giving the player a lot more to play around with and new ways to customize his or her character.
Runes of Magic, despite all the bad things a few paragraphs up, is fun. It's simple enough for anyone new to MMOs to quickly grasp the basics, while having a depth at higher levels that will keep MMO veterans busy. It combines the streamlining of World of Warcraft while keeping the harsher realities (such as experience debt at death) from other, older games.
Also, the live development team is hard at work and many new features have already been patched into the game since launch, including a horse race and a new, high-level area. With the guild castles to rally around, the game has something for guilds to rally around and stick around for, which is always good news for a MMO that needs a breathing and living world to feel...alive. To be a virtual world, you need people to inhabit it, after all.
Given time, and players that are hungry enough for mounts and furniture for their houses to pay up cash for diamonds, Runes of Magic can become quite successful. And the more successful it becomes, the more eyes around the world will open up for the f2p-model. Runes of Magic, despite being developed by a rather small company and being published by a fairly small publisher, could very well be, together with Sony's Free Realms, one of the most important MMOs to be released this year.