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Mabinogi: Not So Free2Play After All

A few days ago, I ran down a list of MMORPGs I was not willing to play and noticed that there were a few of them I was willing to give a try.  The foremost of these was Mabinogi, a game produced by devCat, a studio under the South Korean MMORPG company, Nexon, also known for MapleStory - a game boasting about 100 million player accounts.
Nao's asking for your money, so be a dear and hand it over. Or just tuck it into the hose there.
Of course, I don't play games out of brand name appeal, I play games because they have a fairly interesting mix of mechanics and, while the grind is heavier than I like, Mabinogi is definitely one of those games. The activities are well varied, the combat is genuinely challenging, and there's a focus on the virtual world that I feel is sorely missing from many MMORPGs.

So it is that I shelled ~$10.00 for one of their "premium character cards" in order to reroll a 108 year old character of mine (aging actually stops at 25) and give this game a serious shakedown.  Unfortunately, 8 hours in, I encountered a fatal snag: for a "free to play" game, Mabinogi is pretty damn expensive.

Here's some of the basic costs you'll encounter that may not be immediately evident:
  • Mabinogi Premium Service: ~$10/mo.

    The Mabinogi Premium Service package rolls together a number of things they used to sell separately and includes vital functions such as guilds, housing, the ability to transfer items between characters.

    Most importantly, it contains extra storage, both in the form of unlocking the second half of the bank and allowing you to use storage expansion items (which can double as a merchant stall). In a game with as much "fantasy life" content as this (not just adventuring but crafting gear, ect) inventory is a vital resource you cannot do without.

    You get the premium service for free up until any one of your characters reaches level 30 (this includes levels prior to "rebirth"). When it expires, you'll find that the right half of your bank inventory is being held for ransom.  Very tacky. It's a bit of an odd time for it to expire because chances are you will not use the majority of the services by level 30. Housing and guilds are really more of an end game activity and you won't have much worth selling to other players anyway.

    If this was the only charge the game levied, ~$10 a month is not so bad when the more typical charge is ~$15 a month. However, the potential for spending does not stop here...
  • Character Cards: ~$8 for basic, ~$10 for premium.

    For each character your have on a server, you will need a character card. These come as either "basic" or "premium" cards with the primary difference between the two being the number of options for character appearance (hair styles, eyes, mouths, colors - all crude yet endearing features). You get one "basic" card for free, but only if you have no other characters to log in with - once you've purchased a character card, your free card goes away.

    The sneaky thing about these cards is that you will want to purchase them more than once per character because the aging mechanism. Your characters age one year per real life week, starting at your choice of age of 10 to 17 (your choice). Age determines base statistics, but most importantly it grants bonus "action points" which are used to finalize any skill gains (rewarding the player with xp and statistic boosts in the process). Action points earned become less and less with age until, by the time they reach 25, they still essentially stop aging. The solution is to "rebirth."

    Rebirthing allows you to change your age, appearance, and gender. You can change your character's age for free at 20 years old, but aside from this minor exception you will need to purchase another character card for them to rebirth. Your character will age from 10 to 25 in 15 weeks, but for quickest gains with the least stat penalty you may be looking at using a rebirth card every 3 weeks.

    So, depending on the your rebirthing preference and how good you are at catching a character at 20 years old, you could be looking at an additional $5-$15/mo per character.
  • Pets: ~$2.50-$10 apiece.  Additional maintenance cost.

    Pets in Mabinogi are more than just cute, they actually fulfill a variety of important roles:
    • Each pet has a separate inventory which can facilitate Mabinogi's many sources of inventory bloat. (Certain items, such as most books, cannot be placed in pet inventories.)
    • Pets are effective combatants with combat skills not unlike your character has. They can be very helpful in battle and gain experience from participating. You can even reprogram their AIs, which enables potentially deadly tactics with the right timing.
    • Some pets are mounts - purchasing one of these pets is the sole way to cut down in travel time for crossing big stretches of empty terrain.
    • Some pets have special abilities such as being able to detect mimics or transmute monsters.
    The good news is that, once you buy a pet, it stays bought.  Pets have "pet cards" just like characters have character cards. They can then be summoned by any character on the server they were created on, which is much better than having to buy a pet for each character you have. It's a pretty slick mechanic where your pets become independent characters in and of themselves.

    But there are catches. Pets are only available for so many minutes per day (usually about an hour and a half, give or take a half-hour) and while that's plenty if you summon and dismiss them rapidly, it can go fast if you have a reason to leave them out. After awhile, pets begin to lose their luster - pets age just like characters do, some even get weaker with age, but the main change is that they will offer less fringe benefits (such as providing a companion stat boost).

    For all the downsides of pets, a solution can be found to those willing to spend some NX. You can "rebirth" them the same way you would a character with a pet card, even as different kind of pet, thereby migrating skills that type of pet would not normally have. You can also choose to buying age reduction potions. Of course, if you don't care about the buffs, you can just ignore when your pets linger fully withered at their maximum age... although when your henchmen are this cute, it's hard to be that cruel.
  • The Item Shop: Loads of optional frills.

    What I've covered so far is just the "premium services" - the game also has an item shop that contains the usual assortment of goods you'll find for F2P Korean grinds, such as potions that temporarily double experience gain, potions that knock a few years off your pet or character, dyes, and so on.

    These run a wide rage of prices from a few cents to $10, and basically offer a perpetual temptation to the player who wants to have it all.
Nao might seem like a sweet and innocent type, endowed well with pure anime sex appeal, but deep down she's really a hard working company mascot, a high priced escort for what could run $25/mo or more.

A Frugal Gamer's Apprehension

I am generally an extremely frugal gamer, so I recognize that the game is playable with minimal investment.  Without any of the above fees, I could limp my way to the end game with a tiny one-character inventory and half a bank, true.   However, I would be going without some vital features such as housing and guilds.  Without at least investing in some additional storage via a pet or two, I'm likely to be extremely uncomfortable.

I do know that I just wasted ten bucks. I didn't particularly need to rebirth an ancient character I haven't played for about a year and a half, and my doing so just caused me to hit level 30 and lose my free premium service offer prematurely. I should have used that card to start a whole new character instead. My perpetually pre-level 20 (due to rebirth) character did not even accumulate half the gold needed to take advantage of an of the services offered. I screwed up, and it rankles my frugality to the core.

It also bothers me a bit that half of my character's bank inventory has just been held for ransom. Do I invest $10 for 31 days of premium access to get these cheap newbie knickknacks back, or do I play on having stare back at me whenever I open the bank? To resolve the issue would also require investing in a pet for alternate storage. That's a good $15-$25 (depending on the cost of pet) right there just to resolve a minor inventory snafu.

Another concern is that I hear Mabinogi 2 (not to be confused with Mabinogi: Heroes) is in the works with an estimated late 2010 to early 2011 release. It doesn't make a lot of sense investing in this game when a potentially-better-in-every-way sequel may be just around the corner.

The whole situation makes me sick to my stomach. Mabinogi may be the most interesting little MMORPG I could be involved in for awhile, but all these heavy financial restrictions are tough to deal with.
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