I started doing research on some of the more popular free-to-play MMOs, narrowing down the list of potential playables based mostly on the number of limitations placed on absolutely free play.
Paying "For The Win"?
Most MMOs are not PvP-centric however, and you never truly "win" in most of these games because they're meant to keep going endlessly (or at least very, very long until the next expansion). That said, there are always goals to attain that can be considered "winning" in the current environment (becoming the top weapons manufacturer on the server, defeating the final boss of the latest content, amassing the most game currency, etc.). This produces a lot of gray areas where players may not be directly opposed to each other (and in many cases must work together) to accomplish these goals, but can still be adversely affected by the game's item shop (or limitations placed on free play).
Restrictions EverywhereIn the majority of MMOs, free-to-play accounts are often limited by the number of characters they are allowed to have at any given time, a currency cap (often with escrow options), mail/auction/guild options, character creation/progression/abilities, and available content. Depending on how a particular game is designed, these limitations could be anything from minor inconveniences to crippling game-breakers.
As I looked over the various limitations applied to these games, I saw several that seemed quite harsh without investing a considerable sum on the title. The majority of games fell in a middle ground where you're allowed to play a substantial amount of the game (or technically all of it) though your character will be less effective than those who have paid for options. Some of the notable titles there were Champions Online (archetypes vs. free-form characters), Everquest I and II (spell/ability caps, equippable restrictions, class/race lockouts, currency cap) and DC Universe Online (class lockouts, currency cap).
As long as the races/classes are reasonably balanced (or the free options are at least viable), I don't have a problem with lockouts. While I dislike the limitations for mail, auctions and guilds, they're mostly just inconveniences that I'm willing to put up with. I'm bothered with the restrictions placed on equippable items, abilities, and currency though because they're arbitrary. In most of these cases, you've met the requirements to equip the item or learn the new spell (and in the case of currency, you've already earned it while playing), but must still pay real cash to be allowed access to it. That's a poorly designed BS arbitrary limitation, and you'll be hard pressed to convince me otherwise.
Of the two, I'd rather item shops were incentives, boosts and conveniences than unlocks for things that should come standard. Selling high or even max-level characters to players are at least not directly ruining the game experience for everyone else.
What About LotRO?I decided that out of the bunch, I'm most willing to give Lord of the Rings Online an honest try. Overall, I'd say Champions Online is perhaps less prohibitive but lacks content. It doesn't take long to get a character to max level and sadly there's not much to do once you get there.
LotRO is by no means perfect though - free players have restrictions on trait buffs and a currency cap (among many other things). The escrow system is more reasonable than SOE's games though because LotRO offers a one-time account-wide unlock as opposed to multiple microtransactions. Additionally, most of the game's quests and instances are locked out past level 30 or so, but you can accumulate points to use in the shop by completing quests, exploration, finishing tasks and doing other forms of grinding. What I'm saying is that in many ways it seems the lesser of the various evils found in free-to-play models.
Of the vast number of MMOs I've played, I must admit I've never really delved into LotRO very long. I was given a chance to beta test it, and at the time was annoyed by the seemingly constant load screens (every building is its own zone). At the time, I was mostly content with WoW and had no real reason to find something else. When LotRO went free-to-play, I gave it a quick try but ended up tossing it aside for other shiny new titles that in the long run were mostly disappointing. I figure I should at least give the game a chance to see how it is.
In an upcoming post(s), I'll detail my experiences as I see just how far one "Shall Not Pay" through middle-earth. Think of it as an experiment to test my patience, sanity, and attention span - things could get interesting.