The award-winning game, City of Heroes is looking into a free-to-play model that will allow players to play the game without purchase and without subscription. Launching later this year, City of Heroes Freedom will provide the game as-is to players for free with only a very limited set of differences between free players and subscribers. Slated for “later this year” it seems highly likely that we can expect this to arrive sometime within the next few months.

City of Heroes Freedom will create three tiers of play: free players, self explanatory; Premium players, people who used to be subscribers and now are not; and VIP players who currently pay the subscription fee.

Although it’s a free-to-play model, it has some definite boundaries

As for the limitations for free players vs. VIP players:

Free players will find themselves limited to only two characters (where subscription players receive 12-slots per server as before); however, additional slots are available for purchase from the in-game store via micropayments or in-game coin called Paragon Points. VIP players will receive a stipend allowance of Paragon Points every month for being on the subscription plan and will gain access to eventual VIP-specific content automatically (most of which will also be purchasable by free players in the in-game store.)

Also, there’s news of a VIP-only server that will be unveiled upon the release of City of Heroes Freedom that is above and beyond the current servers.

Free players will also not be able to join guilds (Super Groups), cannot use in-game whispers (tells), in-game mail, and will receive read-only access to the forums. Obviously this limitation has more to do with the spammer culture than anything else, although the extra communication and ability to join guilds could be a powerful incentive to get onto a VIP account.

The part where free players cannot join guilds really baffles me, however; I cannot see any reason why that capability should be limited only to Premium and VIP players. Of course, only VIP players can create guilds. Disallowing free players to join guilds greatly limits the usefulness of guilds for VIP players as most players will not be VIPs after all. Hopefully NCSoft will rethink this policy.

City of Heroes Freedom also includes a new accolades and rewards system for VIP players that changes the Veteran Rewards program (awarding players for continued subscriptions) to fit the VIP program. Instead of receiving rewards every 3 months, VIP players receive rewards every month; also, free players who make purchases at the Paragon store will gain the change to receive rewards as well. Most of these rewards will translate into costume pieces and powers.

How do these limitations stack up against other free-to-play models?

As for the rest of the limitations—they stifle a lot of what makes the game really fun for altaholics and limit playability across archetypes but these are incentives to get players on board as VIPs. Limiting both free players and Premium tier players to only 2 character slots really dismisses what makes City of Heroes such an interesting game: nearly limitless character design and attempts at different power sets. This will be especially true for old subscription players who gave up due to not having enough money to support the subscription (but had lots of characters) suddenly they’ll have little to no access to characters they grew up with.

The fact that NCSoft has seen fit to leave most of the costume elements available for free players means that they understand what brought a great deal of people to the game: the near endless customizability and personalization of the characters.

From the looks of it, the policies they’re setting down seem to be experimental. It’s an attempt by a pay-to-play game to dabble in the free-to-play market by opening up as much as they possibly can.

This differentiates from the World of Warcraft limited-free-play offering in that players will be able to play the core game all the way to the end; they just suffer a number of limitations that are designed to protect VIP players from the onslaught of the unwashed masses and encourage players who want more out of the game to move up in tier.