We've officially entered an era where more and more free-to-play games are coming whether gamers like it or not. The free-to-play market is a $10 billion dollar industry and growing. By 2014, freemium games will rival console software sales, and that means we'll be seeing a heck of a lot of free-to-play titles powered by microtransactions.
The biggest problem with free-to-play games, quality issues aside, is that not only do you never own what you pay for but it's like always-on DRM, limiting gamers to how they play and when they play. The solution? Offline modes.
Even single-player RPGs like Diablo 3 are moving away from being able to play at the comfort of your own convenience, enforcing gamers to play online even when playing alone. The thing that boggles my mind is how gamers are having less and less control over the products they pay for. And with freemium or free-to-play games piling on top of each other every year on end, it seems as if a lot of the newer generation games will completely do away with gamers actually "owning" the product they pay for.
Now, the counter-argument has always been that MMOs and free-to-play games are expensive to run. There are server costs. There are maintenance costs. Employees and general managers to hire. Constant funds required for updates, patches and expansion packs, etc,. etc., etc. In addition to this, most gamers will argue that anyone playing a free-to-play game without paying is essentially getting an entire game...for free!
The above argument is a good argument so long as everyone who plays a free-to-play title doesn't invest in it. The main problem with many free-to-play titles is that you could dump $1,000 into the game and a few months later the game could shut down. That's $1,000 gone. Again, the argument is that your payment was an investment for the time you were able to play the game and if the game ever gets shutdown, well...that's just the consequences that are attached to running an MMO.
The thing is, some games could do with an offline mode for when you feel like playing the game but you don't have internet access, or maybe the servers are down or even if the game is being shutdown for good (i.e., Tabula Rasa). Heck, it could even be possible to port your online character from the server-side to the client-side for offline play. I mean, why not? If you paid for that snazzy gear, that awesome mount, etc., etc,. why not be able to play with what you paid for at your convenience? What's more, is that this was even suggested for Diablo 3, enabling gamers to take their online, server-side character offline but not be able to take offline characters online. It could work right? I mean, what's the downside of restricting offline characters from being used online?
Now, I'm not saying every free-to-play MMO needs this option but there are a few out there (and a few coming to the market) that could probably benefit from an offline mode. I'm sure some DC Universe fans wouldn't mind, and a game like Age of Conan actually seemed to be designed with single-player in mind, even games like Fallen Earth, Alliance of Valiant Arms, Metal Assault, Dungeons & Dragons Online, Lord of the Rings Online or even a game like Mercenary Wars where it already comes with bots in every game mode -- such games could really benefit from an offline mode. Just as a way to give gamers an option.
What's more, and just for argument's sake, offline modes could even be cash-shop dependent if developers were really strapped for cash. I mean, again, what would be the downside?
Take a game like Project Torque (now known as Heat Online) for example, it was a great game with awesome features and snazzy graphics. However, due to a lot of legal disputes the game changed publisher hands several times much to the chagrin of gamers. This meant that progress, cars and investments into the cash shop were all lost each and every time the game's license was juggled around. An offline mode could have spared a lot of gamers a lot of heart-ache had it been included at some point.
As it stands, freemium games capitalize on keeping gamers dependent playing online. No matter how much you invest into the game you're never actually going to own a free-to-play title, you'll never own your character and your total play experience is subjugated to termination at the whim of the publisher. Would offline modes solve the quality issue plaguing many free-to-play titles? Of course not. Would offline modes at least give gamers a mild sense of ownership? Most definitely.
While some forms of video game content acquirement is finally being geared toward the convenience of the consumer, there's still a long way to go before gamers are actually back in charge of what they pay for. I mean, if I want to watch a DVD of The Expendables I don't have to sign on to Hulu, Netflix or Blockbuster to do so, so why is it so imperative that we have to stay connected to play our games?