Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Spiral Knights: A truly Free-to-Play experience.

Free-to-Play. We've all heard it. Seen countless games out there that label themselves this way. And time and again, you'll find out just how misleading it is.

Oh yes, you can play for free. Briefly. Most of the time, it ends up being more of a "demo" than anything else. You can freely play the first level of a game. Or get to maybe the first ten levels in an RPG, out of the 50 or 100 that's in the game. But if you want to progress further, or see that next zone... well, you'll have to pay up. World of Warcraft is even now "free-to-play". Of course, what that means is you can start off and do the newbie zone... but then you're cut off. If you want to see the full game, you have to pay. Meaning all you're really getting, is a brief demo.

Then there's other games, usually ones with a Player vs Player focus, that also hide behind this label. And in these, you can often play all the way through the game, or access all areas. However, if you want the better gear, better weapons, and basically what's required to give you a fair footing against other players... well, that will cost you. You hit max level, and have your nice +10 sword... and face another max level player with their +100 sword which was only available to those who paid into the game.

For many players, the whole Free-to-Play thing is just a scam. They know that they're not going to get much out of the game unless they pay up. And they're not going to bother.

But once in a very long while, a game comes along that breaks that tradition. Spiral Knights is one of these games.

Created by Three Rings, and published by SEGA, Spiral Knights is a multi-player dungeon crawler. Similar to Diablo and the many clones it has inspired. Players hack-n-slash, shoot, or bomb their way through the levels. Going further and further down, facing increasingly dangerous foes of many varieties, and of course collecting their "phat loot".

The game has a somewhat cartoony feel to it. And the graphics are definitely highly stylized. It's a fun environment, full of bright and vibrant colours.

The gameplay is deceptively simple. While the basic controls are very straightforward, there's a lot of skill required to survive deeper levels. And of course, you need to equip yourself well. With weapons and armours that focus on various elements and attack types, as well as supplying resistances to varying types of attacks.

You can easily play the game solo, but a lot of the fun comes from grouping with others. Joining up to three other players, to take on challenges together. The game balances for this. The more players in the dungeon, the tougher the enemies are. But teamwork will help you pull through.

The story of the game is rather straightforward. The players are explorers who have crash landed on a strange world. They explore the clockwork dungeons to try and uncover the planet's secrets, and find a way home. There are various bosses along the way, and a nice story to tie everything together. Though it's quite easy to just enjoy the game without worrying about the underlying story.

The dungeons themselves are varied. They will focus on various enemy types (slimes, gremlins, etc) or specific elements (fire, shock, etc). And the dungeons are actually created by players. There are four open dungeons, which slowly cycle out and are replaced by the next closed dungeon on the list. These closed dungeons are modified by players adding in crystal shards, which they collect on their travels. These shards and the amount and types added to closed dungeons will help shape just what each level will contain.

A big aspect of the game is crafting. Players will craft their own gear, out of components collected during their dungeon runs, obtained by defeating various enemies.

Everything in the game, from exploring the dungeons, to crafting, requires energy. And this is where Spiral Knights' free-to-play model comes in.

All players receive 100 Mist Energy over a 22 hour period. It slowly fills up over that time (one point every 13 or so minutes). This energy can be used to do anything, from traversing the dungeon to crafting and upgrading new gear.

You can also get Crystal Energy. Which will supplement your Mist Energy, and be used to craft even higher quality items. Things requiring over 100 Energy, that would take more than your daily allotment of Mist.

Crystal Energy can be bought. Now, you can pay real money to get yourself large quantities of it quickly. However, the beauty of the game, is that you can buy this Crystal Energy with Crowns, the in game currency. This means that you never have to spend a cent on the game if you don't want to. In a day's run, going through your 100 free Mist Energy, you can often make enough Crowns to buy yourself 100 Crystal Energy. While it may take you longer than someone who just pays real money to stock up, you'll get the same results as everyone else. You are not punished for not paying money into the game, unlike other supposedly Free-to-Play models.

Crystal Energy bought with Crowns actually comes from other players. There's a market where all players can buy and sell CE. The prices will fluctuate, as any open economy will. Many players "play the market", stocking up on CE when prices are low, and selling when high. Others simply stockpile all they can for whatever crafting they wish to do. But either way, it's up to the players to set the prices, and decide what works for them.

This Free-to-Play model has been working well for Three Rings. Spiral Knights has been making quite a name for itself, and has been padding their pockets nicely. It seems that when given a choice, instead of being forced to pay for game content, players are a lot more willing to donate. Whether you choose to spend money for a quick boost, or prefer to just earn your way up in game, everyone gets to the same standing in the end.

Three Rings deserves praise for giving us a game that is truly free to play. A game that anyone can enjoy. It's available both on Steam or through their official site. I highly recommend this wonderful title.