PC game developers seem to have an increasing amount of faith in the 'free' MMO model, as we're seeing with the likes of Maple Story and Dungeon Runners. It's even being employed in the development of Saga by Wahoo Studios, which is an online persistent “massive” strategy, set in fantasy realms.
The idea behind Saga is that players will undergo quests against NPC nations, but also fight each other in a struggle for land and honour in an online world. They'll pay for this either in the time they spend grinding away at the game, or in the extra soldiers they choose to pay for with real world cash. Wahoo are counting on their players wanting to command grand armies in the defence of their realms to pay for the game's ongoing upkeep and development – and you can see why that would appeal. Being able to spend a tenner to get yourself the mother of all monster hordes (or just a few quid to get that top-of-the-range dragon) has a certain appeal to it.
The vision that Saga creates is quite startling: trade between nations, with all the attendent politicking and back-stabbing that such things entails. Then there are the vast fantasy armies, the favour of the gods, and the city-building. You can't exactly decry its ambition. (I particularly like that you can have dwarves hanging from balloons and taking potshots at enemy units with a flintlock pistol).
What I think will count most against it is that it's currently an ugly, uninspired RTS. Wahoo just don't seem to have the cash to make this a thrillingly slick experience. There's some remarkable clunky interface stuff going on, like having to click 25 times to fill out a unit, and like a main campaign map that looks like it was designed in 1997. This will change of course, because the game is in early beta, but I don't suppose the overall visual drabness or the lack of animation will be addressed any time soon.
Don't get me wrong, I love the idea of Saga, but I have some major reservations. Not least as to whether the cash-influx idea of buying 'booster packs' to kit out your military is going fuel the game, or kill it. I think I'd be happy to play a small sub for a persistent RTS if it really felt like I was getting my money's worth. I wonder whether Wahoo have opted for 'free' because they know that there's no other way they'll get the traffic they need.
What isn't clear right now is whether Wahoo will limit the amount of cash someone can spend on their army. Are we going to see the same situation Eve Online faced on its Asia server, where one rich dude paid to conquer the entire world?
Saga is currently in an open beta, so you can log on and have a root around. It's worth a look, just don't expect Total War Online...