The conversion of Rift to Free to Play is the latest in quite a long series of such conversions; DDO, LoTRO, EQ2, Conan, Star Trek Online, Vanguard, The Secret World, SWTOR, Tera, Rift – the list goes on and on (disclaimer: not necessarily in chronological order!).
I have read on the blogosphere about a number of bloggers returning to Rift to enjoy the population boost (e.g. Bhagpuss, Liore). I’m left wondering how long this boost in players will last? I myself recently returned to EQ2 at least for the odd gaming session. I can well remember the crush of players on Freeport (when that was the only free server). Now of course all servers in the game are free to access and many other games have joined the wave of conversion. So the population isn’t looking so bustling anymore, certainly nothing like the hordes I see when I’ve logged into Neverwinter.
So with all these games, will any be the long term winners or will they all settle down to a “just above ghost town” levels of stable population? This trend isn’t anything new of course, but server population has a subtle but powerful effect on my experience of playing an MMO. I want to have people to group with, want to see other characters running around the world and I want to have a functioning Auction House to sell my crafted goods on. Guild Wars 2 still seems very busy to me. Perhaps it is because ArenaNet are busy pumping out updates at a good pace or because the game encourages players to play together out in the open world.
I’ve read before about the free to play phenomenon encouraging a kind of ‘follow the herd’ player, jumping from one flavour of the month game to the next. If that is true then there’s also another kind as well – players like me who actually want to play in a populated world. I continued to play on Rift’s Argent server long after it became a ghost town (prior to Storm Legion’s launch). I’m not happy to be hopping between servers chasing the bigger population, but sometimes it seems like that is becoming more necessary whether it’s between servers in one game or between different games.
Open world content, public quests or similar, is still far from perfect in any of the games I’ve played but it does encourage more visible concentrations and interactions of the playerbase. Doing dynamic events in GW2 is my current favourite activity, especially the big flashy boss fights. I’ll be interested to see variations on this type of content upcoming games like FFXIV ARR will bring.