It was Oblivion's horse armour that set the alarm bells off for me. There was a mixture of amusement and incredulity, which quickly descended into horror as the numbers started rolling in. It was the beginning of a fragmentation from the boxed product you'd scurried away from the shops to greedily indulge yourself in, towards one where a breadcrumb trail of further expenditure lay between you and completion of an adventure.
It didn't stop there of course. Fast forward a few years, close your eyes for a moment, and picture the scene where blue-sky terms like free-to-play and - I'm so sorry for using this word - freemium, are being conjured from thin air. Chances are you're imagining a boardroom full of marketing executives, rather than a team of talented games designers toiling over your next great escape.
And while it may seem rather obvious, let's take a moment to call these terms out for what they really are - a rather patronising contempt for anyone's common sense, masked in marketing flim-flam. What they represent, in fact, is your freedom to be without - a system that takes the special personal value of gaming and holds it ever out of reach, one little micro-transaction at a time. From the perspective of gaming purity, it feels bankrupt.
There's a tangible difference between wandering around in an online world where the price of admission lies behind you, and wandering around one littered with invisible walls. When the moment arrives, and it turns out that the majestic building lying in the village just over the next horizon isn't a cathedral but a cash-point, I cease to feel like a gamer and instead become a consumer - one whose financial potential lies ready to be exploited at any moment.
While we've always been consumers at the point of sale - whether at retail or via a subscription - in these magical worlds that we like to call our second homes, a peek behind the curtain now reveals a Wizard of Oz muttering vague incantations about 'planned obsolescence' and 'commoditising communities'.
It's different for those games built from the ground up to support the free-to-play model. I have nothing invested in them and, more often than not, choose not to play them. At the extreme end of the spectrum there are titles like FarmVille, where your investment doesn't just erode over time but extends the same social benefits to your circle of friends as, say, herpes.
But if you find yourself agreeing with any of this blustering, then you're guilty of sharing a dirty little secret with me: we don't pay enough up-front for our games. It's a summer Saturday morning so I'll spare you the torture of reading through statistics from the Retail Price Index and stick to what we can all see and hear in our everyday lives - the cost of cinema tickets, travel, or any number of living expenses.
All have increased steadily in time and - with the exception of that chance-your-arm pricing of the early 360 games - game prices have more or less stuck at a retail point that might have been good enough for James Pond in 1990 but doesn't really cut the mustard 21 years later when games are so much more expensive to produce. In an industry that competes with ever-increasing investment in order to retain your attention, it's no surprise that the rules are changing.
MMO gamers in particular have had it too good for too long. The driving force behind the free-to-play revolution that's currently spreading its fingers into wider mainstream gaming comes from the MMO scene and it's not hard to see why. £8.99, the gold standard set by WOW eight years ago, has been a standard that many MMOs were foolish to aim at, leaving unprofitable titles saddled with the debt of development.
The model has become the last chance saloon for a certain section of games that really don't deserve it. Free-to-play doesn't miraculously make a bad game great. Instead it simply exchanges one currency to another, from your cash to your time. Bad games are worthy of neither.
Admittedly, there are exceptions in the world of free-to-play. To date, Lord of the Rings Online has achieved the most elegant balance between immersion and profitability in a genre where stepping out from the shadow of World of Warcraft is nigh-on impossible. It's also been a profitable move for the game.
LOTRO achieves this delicate balancing act by offering everything from quests to XP boosts to instances for a multitude of prices. Yet it also provides a way out through a subscription that takes the vast majority of these micro-payments away. It pacifies the long-term subscribers while giving the game a second chance to live up to its original design intent. Here's a rope, it'll costs you some money, but we'll pull you out of the hole.
If, by some strange quirk of personality or mallet-blow to the head, I then decide that my hobbit isn't complete without the kind of ermine robe that Liberace wouldn't have been seen dead in - well, that option's available too. On paper, it's a system that works and satisfies all audiences.
The free-to-play game effectively becomes an extended trial, and Turbine isn't coy about showing its hand: if you enjoy the game enough to regularly spend money on trinkets and quest packs, sooner or later you'll come to realise that it's far more economical to pay for a subscription. But regardless of how you dress the window, there's no getting away from the fact that players are now living in a shopping centre, rather than a world set apart from the real-world monotony of earn and consume, earn and consume.
Worryingly, the free-to-play approach has led to some abominable Frankenstein creations where dollar-eyed executives have seen the potential to take an existing subscriber base and further monetise it - to change the rules mid-game as it were. Seeing the adaptive business models and the opportunity to capitalise on their player base, CCP recently hybridised their game by introducing micro-transactions in addition to a subscription.
As a result, boundaries were pushed, tempers became frayed and - in the MMO genre at least - there's a feeling that close relationships are being gambled in exchange for a greater stake on the table. Hard though it may be for a long-term player with countless hundreds of hours invested in a universe to commit to a decree absolute, it certainly strains the relationship and sullies the experience nevertheless.
There aren't yet enough hard figures to clarify the stickiness levels of the free-to-play model but it's entirely possible that the new influx of players are less casual than the hardcore subscribers might like to believe. It's easy enough to put a lighter to a tenner, ignore the change, and get stuck into an all-you-can-eat feast once a month. Items purchased piecemeal on the other hand retain a permanent sense of value and attachment.
It's an important rule of life that whether you're muddling your way through an interview - or even just in the company of people who really do know you better - then it's absolutely essential to express your undying love for change. It's one of those awful human traits that we like to see in others, even if we secretly despise it ourselves - I'll admit I'm a man of habits.
But creating a world that belongs to the players, where communities can have the same experience and share their own stories - without chapters being closed to those who can't open their wallets any further- is something that matters in gaming. In an escapist world, all of its inhabitants should be born equal.