In the West, the perception of free-to-play games can be that they're poorer quality, or more rudimentary, or feature basic browser-based graphics, or are for younger audiences - or are simply off-putting for the two-tier culture that accompanies the sale of game items for real currency, real-money trading (RMT). Runes of Magic, however, could bridge the gap between such games and the fully-fledged MMOs in the West. It may be free to download, but it's also a deep, complex game with all the features you'd expect from a modern MMORPG.
In fact, as I discussed in our preview, the game - developed by Taiwan's Runewaker Entertainment and published by Germany's Frogster Interactive - is clearly influenced by World of Warcraft, and gunning for some of its market. But will Western gamers, who've traditionally been happy with buying a boxed game then paying a sub, embrace the free model?
When you first enter Runes of Magic, you start at the Pioneers' Colony, where you level to 10-ish bopping sundry fungi, wolves and bears. The gathering skills (mining, woodcutting, and herbalism) also have their trainers located here. If you want to use any of the game's six production skills – alchemy, amour-crafting, blacksmithing, carpentry, cooking or tailoring – it pays to get cracking with your gathering and processing straight away.
Although you can in principle do all six production skills, levelling them is demanding. They require a lot of time, and a lot of materials, and even then you're unlikely to be able to make über bits of kit. Even blue recipes are generally none too special; what makes kit special in RoM is what you do with it subsequently – specifically, what you do with it with a little device called the Arcane Transmutor.
This doohickey is at the heart of Runes of Magic, and something that helps it stand out from other MMOs. Each region in Runes of Magic features daily quests. Doing the maximum ten a day rewards you with Phirius Tokens, which can be exchanged for charges for the Transmutor (they also act as currency for other items). You can also buy charges with Diamonds - credits paid for with real money. You can use the Transmutor to strip stat bonuses from armour and weapons to transfer to other pieces of kit. There are also jewels you can buy – some with game gold, but the better ones with Diamonds – to level up kit. It's all a tad boggling, though of course many MMORPG players will love the statistical spreadsheeting.
Equipment augmentation and modification is one of Runes of Magic's main selling points, and while it'll be significant on normal servers, it'll potentially be even more important on player-versus-player servers. The PVP culture in Runes of Magic as it stands might seem a little odd to veterans of WOW or Warhammer Online, where you can choose to take a side in an ongoing war, and only fight your allies in duels. However, plans are afoot to introduce-guild versus-guild wars in RoM, where enemy guilds can attack each others' castles.
This is probably a long way off, though. Currently, new content players had been hoping to see at the end of open beta - specifically a new coastal region with sun, sea and pirates as well as long-mooted extra classes and a new playable race - has failed to materialise. This has met with a certain cynicism, as all that really did change between open beta and last week's launch was the introduction of yet more novel items to buy with Diamonds. It's understandable that the publishers need revenues, but it's also important to make sure a balance is achieved between keeping players happy with new content, and merely spamming them with new cash shop clobber. Sure, that's a funky new permanent mount for 299 diamonds (about EUR 14 / GBP 13), but where's the new region of Ravenfell? It's officially "not ready".
Bitching aside, let's talk a little more about PVP. Until those guild wars are implemented, a culture of player-killing, and ensuing hunting of the PKer is emerging (on the PVP servers; PVP is limited to flagged duelling on the PvE servers). Killing players can result in them dropping lootable items. It's perhaps a little more harsh than you'd expect, given how cuddly and helpful much of the game is (it even has an in-game World Search and "Follow" function with a big arrow to help you find quest locations, mobs and NPCs).
Arguably, the PVP is more in line with some of WOW's predecessors or more hardcore rivals, like Ultima Online or Asheron's Call. The bottom line is that if you play on a PVP server, you will be PK'd – or indeed, you can have fun PKing yourself, and earn yourself an "Evil" or "Good" status through reputation point changes. If you want to be the best of the best at PVP, you will have to invest more time, effort and money (both real and virtual) into augmenting your kit, as the level and stat bonuses will make all the difference.