Gamers could be forgiven for being slightly world-weary at the moment, as they are forced to sit and watch their once-beloved hobby become an industry. An industry in which publishers think it's OK to charge their customers £60 for something that doesn't work (and then lie to them by insisting that they have to connect to non-existent servers whilst doing it), or to release a game for £35 and then immediately ask for more money for different weapons (which should have been included anyway). It's enough to make a man turn to drink.
For example, look at Battlefield 3. The game was released in November 2011 and cost £40-50 to buy. After some time EA announced a load of downloadable content, and gave players the "chance" to gain access to it by paying another £40 up front for the "premium" version of the game. What's more lots of people did this and there are now 2.9 million premium members - earning EA another $108 million in revenue. Let's just go through that again. 3 million people happily paid twice for the game. Well done EA.
In fact EA are the common factor in all of these examples (they publish Sim City 5, Dead Space 3 and Battlefield 3) but it would be a mistake to think that they are wholly responsible for this precipitous decline into micro-transactions, always-online DRM and money-grasping cynicism. I mean, they are largely responsible and they're certainly the worst offenders, but they're not the only company who have come along to feast on your wallets. Gaming is a big money thing these days and it attracts the same kind of shiny-suited and shiny-haired shysters who infest the rest of the known world, vacant soul-less incubi who look at something beautiful and can only see ways of milking every last drop of filthy lucre from it.
So it is with a profound sense of relief that I can report to you, dear reader, that there are still some good people out there, making games. Tales of Maj'Eyal is a graphical roguelike (similar to Dungeons of Dredmor but without the facial hair), which has spent the last 15 years evolving into its current state and (whisper it) it's free. In fact, not only is it free but the engine used to create the game is also available for other developers to use, as the whole project is open-source (so anybody can modify it or update it or play with it). Now obviously a man has to eat so donations are encouraged, but they are strictly optional and left to the player's own integrity and honesty. Donators are given extra things, like a unique character class or access to a vault in which to store items, but people who play for free are still able to access the whole game without any restrictions. So there's a carrot but no stick, which makes a nice change from being treated like a pirate or an idiot or both. How refreshing.
The game itself is pretty interesting. Roguelikes seem to be all the rage at the moment (or maybe that's just in my little world) and TOME is a fine example. It has its origins in ASCII based games such as Angband but it uses a tileset to make everything a bit more graphically pleasing and accessible and this commitment to accessibility is something which recurs throughout the game. If there's a part of you which has always wanted to try out something like this but you've been put off by the unrelenting difficulty and impenetrable interfaces then this may well be the roguelike for you.
Part of the reason for this, as already mentioned, is that the game doesn't rely on using ASCII symbols to portray its world (although the purists amongst you can still do that if you wish). Instead things are presented clearly (if plainly) with pictures for different types of monsters - and trees, dungeons, mountains and so on. Anything important (like an area's entrance) is usually marked with a sparkly effect until you use it and tooltips come up when you put your cursor over things to tell you what they are. It may not be especially visually amazing but it gets the required information across and there is never any confusion about what is around you - a clarity which also extends to the interface. Unlike some other, earlier, roguelike games most actions can be completed with just the mouse - no more trying to remember that q is for quaff and :s20 will search an area twenty times. You can click anywhere on the screen and your character will move there automatically, you click on a monster to attack it and you select which skills to use and spells to cast by selecting graphical icons from a bar on the bottom of the screen. You can even auto-explore an area, just press "z" and your character will happily delve away until they find something you need to know about. It's all extremely user-friendly.
And TOME also softens some of a roguelike's traditional difficulty by giving the player more than the customary single life. Here your character gets extra chances as they increase in level and there are also items which can be used to resurrect them. Again, if you are a purist you can choose for this not to happen - but for the rest of us it gives the ability to experiment a little with some of the more optional areas (which are clearly marked with warnings, so that the inexperienced player has nobody but themselves to blame when a foray inevitably ends in their character's gruesome demise.) Death still comes often in TOME but at least the player gets the option of being able to learn from their mistakes without restarting the whole thing.
However, the game's greatest strength lies in its character creation and progression. There are 25 classes and 10 races - but most of these are locked when you start and can be unlocked during play. Each class and race has access to different skill and talent trees, and gain points to allocate to these as they increase in level. These can range from making it easier to hit things with your sword or shield, to summoning creatures, to creating a rift in the fabric of reality. I could pretend to sit here and tell you how many different combinations of class and race and talents and skills and spells there are but it's probably too large a number for my brain to cope with - suffice to say that it's a LOT. Players really do have a remarkable amount of freedom in how to sculpt their ideal character and, as most races and classes (and some skills) are unlocked by completing objectives in the game even a "failed" playthrough can mean that the player achieves some kind of tangible progress.
There also needs to be a special mention for the sheer amount of work that has gone into the game's world. It is HUGE, with different factions (which the player can join or oppose), loads of dungeons, masses of monsters and thousands of different items. It has a persistent back story, with an over-arching plot, and there are many, many documents and books to be found which give background and detail to it all. This is a world with a history and it is there to be discovered by the player as they gradually progress through the game. For it to be offered up on a "pay what you want" basis really is quite extraordinary and to be applauded.
Now, of course, nothing is perfect and this otherwise excellent game does have a couple of small flaws. Firstly it can feel a little bit pointless to be killing the standard monsters that litter the dungeons. There are usually a lot of these and it can sometimes seem that you are "ploughing" through them, rather than having to think about tactics or how to survive (the bosses are another matter entirely though). They don't give much experience to the player, so they don't feel especially important, and it can be a chore to slaughter endless hordes of low-level monsters in order to get to the next exciting boss fight.
And the other problem TOME has is that its areas and bosses are persistent and carry over from game to game - so, for example, Bill the Troll is always to be found in the "secret" area at the end of the Trollmire. The layout of the dungeons, the loot and the normal monsters are all randomly generated but the actual plot and layout of the game is the same every time - and this can make it a pain to repeat stuff you've already done when you (inevitably) have to restart.
However, these problems are ameliorated by the sheer variety of choices that the player can make with their character and the vast number of different approaches that can be used. An Archmage, for example, plays completely differently to a Berserker - in fact an Archmage who uses fire plays completely differently to one who uses cold spells. The game may keep the same objectives in place but it allows you almost total freedom in how to achieve them. There really is an option for everybody and that can make repeating the same areas and fighting the same bosses much more bearable.
So, there you go. A whole new world for free, hundreds of hours of gameplay with nobody telling you to connect to a non-functioning server or treating you like you're a criminal. Why not give it a go? And, if you like it, then give the developer some cash. After all you're an adult, it really is entirely up to you.
TOME is available from its own website, or from Desura (for $10) and it is also on Steam Greenlight, so go and vote for it.