Trying to stand out in a crowd.
Depending on who you ask, free-to-play is the way of the future. Granted, so was the Virtual Boy. In fact, I can remember a conversation I had 15 years ago with my future brother-in-law where he assured me (being as involved with the tech world as he was) that VR was going to be perfectly accurate and consumer viable… inside of 5 years. My point: We follow an industry where people with something to sell pass off their pitches as prophecy. The only way I'll start playing games without a controller is if you cut my hands off, and unless we inadvertently stumble through a transdimensional wormhole into a rightless, Orwellian future, digital distribution isn't replacing physical products.
But I digress. Whatever you think of the F2P model, the powers that be are certainly very interested in keeping it around, which means we as gamers and consumers have to start deciding what a fair business model looks like. From the time I spent speaking with Jon-Enée Merriex of CJ Games, District 187: Sin Streets sounds like it has the right idea. Not a single weapon in this team-based, urban-themed FPS is available for purchase with real-world currency, something he explained to me while I watched him getting clubbed to death by one of the devs he was playing with over a server in Korea.
They were waiting for the rest of the team to jump in, but in the meantime, it was a good-old-fashioned one-on-one duel with melee weapons. I watched as he juked and feinted, trying to get his opponent from across the world to swing early so he could dart in for the kill. After several pummelings he explained to me that it takes 3 or 4 swipes with his knife to get a kill, where the club only takes one or two. Smelling pay-to-win fishiness, I asked why he didn't have a club. Seeing where I was going, he made his philosophy on the fast growing business model clear: Companies need to show respect for their customers, even the ones that haven't paid them anything. Novel concept, huh?
Everything that enhances performance—every scope, attachment, and firearm—is unlocked using the in-game currency, which you earn by playing… playing well. The real money comes into play for cosmetic alterations, like new character skins or camo patterns for your weapons. The only other real money sink is in the form of boosts, which can be purchased to increase the rate at which you earn in-game moolah. Uber Entertainment's stellar F2P third-person MOBA, Super Monday Night Combat, follows a similar model to great success. It's the only F2P game I've played where I didn't feel cheated or sold to, and District 187 looks to follow suit. Giving players the choice to trade some money for time, while still a bit skewing in a competitive environment, is much less intrusive and slimy than charging someone $10 for a gun they need in order to keep pace with everyone else.
And as for good guys vs. bad guys multiplayer FPSs go, District 187 sure… uhhhh… is one. Honestly, trying to gauge whether it will stand the test of time from a couple of quick matches is nearly impossible. After all, I don't think anyone who played one match of Counter-Strike in its earliest stages thought that it would become a perennial go-to for well over a decade. Sin Streets has a lot in common with Valve's definitive competitive shooter, from the cops and robbers setup, to the game modes and map layouts. There's no in-match “buy” mechanic like in CS, but the options you have for gear and weaponry are similar, and can be changed out quickly and easily between deaths.
In an interesting twist, rank-ups and leaderboards are married with one another. Gaining XP only allows you to reach level 30, after which your rank can only be increased by holding a certain spot on the leaderboards. It's structured in a way so that only a finite number of people on a server can ever reach a certain rank, and it can constantly shift depending on who's been playing better. Imagine being one of only 2 people in your region who sport the highest character level. Pretty novel, in my opinion.
Whether such wrinkles are novel enough to make District 187, a real hit remains to be seen. From a visual and control standpoint, it hits all the genre standard notes for a F2P FPS, but the devil is always in the details with these things. CJ Games is entering an excessively crowded market, where players have grown increasingly jaded, so it may be an uphill climb. But if nothing else, they seem to have the right attitude. Make it fun, make it accessible, and treat players like human beings. While it's too early to tell if those tenets will be enough to bring them success, their competitors in the F2P space would do well to follow their example.