Free-to-play games are always tricky beasts to evaluate. I've generally liked all the ones I've played so far, but only one, Path of Exile, really managed to make me forget I was playing a free game (it is probably not a coincidence that it's also the only one, so far, I've spent real money on, but if I could figure out the psychology behind that, I'd probably have a lucrative career in the game marketing business waiting for me).
This isn't a problem, per se. All of those people who made the game need to get paid for their work and the premium services are how that happens. However, as someone who is going into this tentative and uncommitted, I can't help feeling like a bit of an interloper. This is, of course, silly. They wouldn't have made the game free-to-play if they didn't want people playing for free. Yet, when I see people riding around on their fancy mounts, there's an irrational part of me that feels like, for lack of a better word, a peasant.
I think part of it might have to do with Neverwinter's inexplicable pricing structure. It's a good enough game that I wouldn't feel bad about dropping 10 bucks on some of its real-money currency and unlocking a few pieces of premium content. However, 10 bucks will by you approximately squat. Okay, there's a wolf companion for 8 bucks that sounds pretty cool, but most mounts cost between 20 and 35 dollars and unlocking a new race costs 60 bucks for Moon Elves and 75 for Dragonborn. Call me old-fashioned, but I think if the prices were a tenth of what they are now, they'd sound pretty reasonable.
I guess that's why they're prestige items, though. You buy yourself a gelatinous cube to ride around on to prove you're a Neverwinter super-fan. Fair enough, even if it does trigger my class envy. What's truly aggravating, though, are the functional uses of real money. Look, I won't say that I'm not intrigued by the dozens of enchanted chests I've picked up in my travels, but there's no way I'm paying $1.25 each to open them.
Now, don't get me wrong. I'm not the sort to object to spending $75 on a video game. And in theory, I understand the argument that you're not really paying 35 bucks for a mount or 20 bucks for a demon to follow you around, you're really voluntarily paying $55 for the whole game, most of which you were generously allowed to preview for free. However, there is some inflexible part of my gaming psychology that just can't come to terms with this. I'd much rather just pay an fixed cost upfront and then play the game without being confronted by any extra-textual gatekeepers.
Call me spoiled, if you must, but I live in a world where I can buy the Fallout 3 Game of the Year edition for five dollars. From an economic perspective, there is very little room to offer a better value than that. In fact, I'm not sure that it's actually possible. Even if Neverwinter was cleared of all of its cash-shop annoyances and everything was attainable with the gold you find from random monsters, it would not be as good a game as Fallout 3. It wouldn't even be five dollars less good. Aside from already owning it on every platform you regularly play, there's no situation where someone coming around and saying "you know, instead of Neverwinter you can get Fallout 3 for just five dollars more" would not be a tempting offer.
Which I know seems like a harsh assessment of Neverwinter, but truthfully I just meant it as an example of today's over-saturated video game market. Maybe you think I'm being too generous with my assessment of Fallout 3, but I could say the same thing about Borderlands 2, Civilization IV, or Super Mario World. It's something that still continues to blow my mind. If I had picked up the hypothetical feature-complete version of Neverwinter for 20 dollars, I would have no complaints about it. It's easily a solid second-tier game, better than The Last Remnant, but not quite as good as Kingdoms of Amalur. However, I doubt I will ever again be so hard up for entertainment that I'd be willing to pay out that 20 dollars piecemeal, just to unlock those chests the game keeps dangling in front of me, unbidden and unwanted.
I guess Neverwinter had taught me where I draw the line on free-to-play business models. I'm fine with the cash shop as long as its trivial stuff that doesn't make a difference to gameplay, like that five dollar hat I bought for Path of Exile or the 35 dollar unicorns you can buy in this game. However, once mechanical weight is attached to the purchases - if paying real money makes the game easier or less frustratingly random or even just notably different, then I start to lose interest. I want all the widgets up front or I don't want them all.
This isn't a moral stance. I'm not objecting to the companies setting up their games that way. It's mostly an aesthetic issue. I've bought DLC in the past. In fact, it's often been my favorite part of the associated game (I've got one question for you - EXPLOSIONS?), and functionally that's not too different from cash-gated content in a F2P game. It's really just a matter of presentation. Regular games are presented as complete-in-themselves. Even without the DLC Fallout 3 is still Fallout 3, an amazing action-rpg epic. The DLCs, then, are presented as a sort of demi-sequel. "You know that thing you loved, well here's more of it." Whereas with an MMO, you never get that sense of completeness. It all boils down to a single question "how much money do I have to pay to not miss out on anything?" and for most regular games the answer is a finite number that may, in my opinion, sometimes be too high and for most F2P games the answer is "how much you got?" And there's no situation in which I prefer the second answer to the first (it also doesn't hurt that even many of the more expensive "finite" games eventually go on deep discount as they age and a greater portion of their income comes from the long tail, which, almost by definition, F2P games can't rely on).
Okay, long post, but here's the takeaway - I like Neverwinter, I look forward to playing it for another five hours, but its revenue model keeps me at arm's length and I don't think that's a distance I'll ever be able (or perhaps, more accurately, willing) to bridge.