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Paragon is free-to-play, so should you buy it?

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A deep dive into the ways to buy a game that isn't out yet

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Paragon, the new Multiplayer Online Battle Arena (MOBA) from Epic Games, has been in early access alpha testing since March and moves into open beta testing on August 16. There are currently several ways to buy into Paragon, and it’s not clear whether Epic will continue to sell the same bundles after the game is available and free-to-play.

This isn't a review, we're not here to tell you if the game is good. We're going to dig into the different ways to buy a game that will, in the future, be free for you to try. This is an analysis of value while looking at the different options being offered.

If you’ve been keeping an eye on Paragon and you like what you see, you may want to pull the trigger on one of these.

So, what is Paragon?

Epic Games is the studio responsible for games like Unreal Tournament and Gears of War, but perhaps more importantly it’s also the company responsible for developing the Unreal Engine, a game engine it licenses to other studios. Unreal tech is the guts of many popular, graphically-intense games like Bioshock: Infinite.

Paragon is Epic’s entry into the crowded MOBA market, which is dominated by League of Legends and DotA2. League is the most popular game in the world with 27 million daily users, and League and DotA are the most-viewed games on Twitch, trailed by Overwatch, Counterstrike and Hearthstone.

MOBAs tend to require a significant investment of time and money to learn the games’ complexities and to acquire collections of playable characters, out-of-game augments and cosmetic skins. It can be very hard for a new game in this genre to attract the attention of players who are already engaged with the existing behemoths, because those players generally aren’t looking to switch.

Even Blizzard Entertainment’s Heroes of the Storm, which features characters from Warcraft, Starcraft, Diablo and Overwatch, seems to have settled into a distant third place position behind League and DotA, judging by the game’s Twitch viewership and the number of weekly ranked games counted by third-party stat-tracking site HOTSLogs.

Paragon is an action-oriented MOBA. It is played from a third-person over-the-shoulder viewpoint like Gears of War or SMITE, rather than the overhead view that League, DotA and Heroes of the Storm, use. On PC, Paragon uses WASD for movement, rather than RTS-style mouse-clicks, and abilities are aimed with a shooter-style aiming reticle. On PS4, the game similarly uses a dual-analog control scheme for moving and aiming that will be familiar to fans of shooters. That means ranged basic attacks have to be aimed and can miss, unlike in most other MOBAS.

But, although Paragon looks like a shooter and plays like one in some respects, it is definitely a MOBA. It is played by two teams of five players who start at opposite ends of a map with three lanes connecting two cores. The first team to destroy the opposing core wins. Waves of minions spawn at each core, and players must land killing blows on the opposing minions to earn resources to purchase items at the shop in their base.

Each team has two towers in each lane, and a more powerful inhibitor tower where the lane meets their base. When an inhibitor is destroyed, more powerful super-minions start spawning in that lane to assist in the final push. Between the lanes is a maze of jungle, which contains camps of enemies that can be killed to get experience, resources and special power-ups.

TL;DR: it’s a lot like League’s Summoner’s Rift.

In addition to the shooter-style mechanics, Paragon has a couple of interesting changes to the traditional MOBA format. The first is elevation; the different lanes are are on ridges or hills, which means that characters in the lanes can jump down into the jungle to engage in teamfights, but players coming out of the jungle must climb certain narrow paths up the hillsides that can be covered by vision wards.

The items players purchase at the store in their base to enhance the characters over the course of the game are now collectible "cards," like Hearthstone cards. This allows for a lot of potential strategic depth in customizing the deck of cards your character can take into the game to serve as his item shop, but you have to use the currency you earn for completing games to buy randomized packs of these cards so you can collect an array of options. That introduces a lot of friction to the game.

paragon muriel

It should be noted that since the game runs on state-of-the-art Unreal tech, it looks spectacular, and the character models and environments are far more elaborate than you’d ordinarily see in a MOBA with an overhead view. However, that means the game has much higher system requirements than other MOBAs. But, unlike League or DotA, you can also play Paragon on PS4, where the only major MOBA it competes with is SMITE.

And, if you like, you can play on both the console sometimes and the PC at others, you can play on both with one account or bundle-purchase, a nice quality-of-life decision I wish Blizzard had implemented for Overwatch. If cross-platform play is a priority for you, that’s a big plus in this game’s column.

But it’s free, right?

Paragon has been in paid early access since spring 2016, Epic gave free access to all PS+ members in July 2016, and since June 2016 there has actually been a disk-based version available for sale at retailers, which I’ll discuss more below. However, Epic still characterizes the game as being in a pre-release state. On August 16, it will be free-to-play as an open-beta. There is currently not a scheduled date for the final 1.0 release, though it is listed for some time in 2016.

All the characters in Paragon are free, which is nice. However, each character has a "Master Challenge," an experience grind which must be unlocked for each character for $13 or 75,000 of the Reputation currency that you earn for playing.

You get about 1200 Reputation for winning a 45 minute game, so buying one of these with in-game currency requires at least a couple dozen hours of play. Unlocking the Master Challenge gives you a "challenger" cosmetic skin which is a color-swap of the character's base model, and completing the challenge gives you access to a special master cosmetic skin and a special emote. The master skins overlay the characters with an animated texture that looks like molten lava. You also get several "master tributes" as you level your character up to the level 10 master tier. These randomized boxes can contain currency or cards.

Cards can only be purchased with currency earned in-game, but you can pay real money to boost the amount of currency you earn from playing. This kind of system should be pretty familiar to anyone who has ever played a free-to-play game.

So, if it’s going to be free, why should I consider buying it?

Getting in on the ground floor of a popular online multiplayer game often means you get some cool, special stuff.

Players who bought the retail collector’s of World of Warcraft got three special cosmetic pets: A mini Diablo, a zergling and a panda cub. There has been no other way to obtain these minipets in the 13 years since the game was released.

League of Legends has several unique cosmetic skins that were only available to beta testers or players who bought various packages at the time of the game’s release in 2009. Beta testers got a King Rammus skin, which makes League’s Armordillo look like Bowser from Mario.

The master skins overlay the characters with an animated texture that looks like molten lava.

Pre-order purchasers of a retail collector’s edition package got an exclusive Human Ryze skin (now called "Young Ryze") and pre-purchasers of the digital collector’s edition got a Black Alistar skin. Only a few tens of thousands of players got each of these skins. The millions who have joined League since will probably never have an opportunity to get them.

There are some similar exclusive goodies in some of the early access packages for Paragon. Also, Paragon’s founders packs offer bargains that give you substantial discounts off the price of the same content purchased a la carte in the game’s store. The question is whether the stuff in those bundles is worth getting, and whether you care if the items are never available again.

What are they selling?

There are three options to buy the game online:

The first option costs $20, and Epic says it's a $40 value. It gives you one three-game currency boost and Master Challenges for three characters: Gadget, Rampage and Murdock. This entry-level pack was available for free as part of PS+ during July, 2016.

The second option costs $47.99 and gives you a three-game currency boost each week for 5 weeks and you get master challenges for the first 13 characters who were released in the game. You also get an extra $20 founder's pack to give to a friend, and an exclusive Hotrod skin for Rocket … I mean Rumble … I mean Howitzer. This original and unique character’s name is Howitzer. Anyway, Epic says this is a $204 value.

The third option costs $79 and gives you all the stuff from the second bundle, but you get three-game currency boosts each week for 15 weeks, and you get master challenges for 39 characters. There are only 20 characters in the game so far, so that means you get challenges for every character currently available, and also every character that will be released for the next year or so. Epic says this is a $553 value. That’s arguable, but if you want to pay once and make sure you get everything you’d likely want, this is a good option.

There is also a physical disc available through retailers called the Paragon Essentials Edition. This comes with five master challenges and five skins, one of which -- the Wasteland skin for Lucian… I mean Twinblast -- is exclusive to this package, five three-win boosts, and $60 worth of the currency you buy in the game with real money.

Epic says this bundle is worth about $160 and you can currently get it for less than $30 on Amazon, which means buying this gets you money to spend in the game for about half-price.

But is it worth it?

What Epic doesn’t tell you is that the bulk of the claimed value of the larger bundles isn't something that most players can ever plausibly realize, because each of those Master Challenges requires an enormous amount of experience to complete.

You’ll have to play about 150 games or 100 hours of regular play on each character to completely finish them. You’re only buying the opportunity to start these lengthy grinds, but you probably won’t ever finish most of them.

You can shortcut that a process somewhat by purchasing experience boosts with more money or playing when Epic is running double-experience events, but most MOBA players generally only cultivate that amount of experience on a handful of characters; certainly not 39. Even extremely dedicated players who use paid experience boosts are unlikely to finish more than a few of the 39 character experience grinds included in the largest bundle.

If you wanted to finish a bunch of the characters in a reasonable amount of time, you could spend more money: For $12, Epic sells a boost that doubles your experience for all the games you play in a month, and for another $12, you can buy a boost that doubles your experience for the next 30 games you win (losing awards less progress, so paid per-game boosts only trigger on wins).

These boosts stack, so if you kept both kinds of boosts running all the time, you could probably cut the challenges down to around 33 hours each. But completing all 39 master challenges would still take about 1000 hours of play and keeping the boosts running would cost you around $400 extra.

By comparison, Heroes of the Storm, which has a similar experience-based cosmetic unlock system, lets you reach master level with a character after about 25 hours of unboosted play, and you get 50 percent bonus experience in that game for free whenever you play the game in a group with someone on your friends list, which means it is possible hit mastery on a character in around 15 hours of play without using a paid boost.

Heroes of the Storm requires you to spend a big chunk of the currency you earn for playing in order to unlock the skin when you reach level 10, and you have to pay for characters in that game with in-game currency or real money. But that doesn’t change the fact that Paragon’s experience grinds are brutal, nor does it change the fact that Epic doesn’t disclose how implausible it is to complete a large number of Master Challenges when it is trying to sell you a bundle that contains 39 of them.

paragon

Paragon is still in what is considered to be a pre-release state and Epic is patching the game on a weekly basis right now, so there’s a decent chance they’ll lower the amount of experience required to complete Master Challenges at some point in the future, in which case unlocking a bunch of master skins might start to look like a more plausible endeavor.

However, if you complete about six Master Challenges, you probably get your money’s worth on the largest bundle, and there’s some appeal to paying once and not having to think too much about which characters you want to pursue unlockables on. And if you like Paragon and expect to play a whole lot of it over the next year or so, getting the bundle might end up resulting in significant savings. But nobody was actually going to spend $500 unlocking Master Challenges for every single current and future character.

The other significant component of the bundle is the per-win boosts. These give you double currency for three games you win each week for one, five, or 15 weeks depending on which bundle you bought, and if you don’t use all your boosts in a week, it carries over, and the new boost is added to whatever’s remaining.

Since each game gives you about 1200 of the Reputation currency, three wins are worth about 4600 bonus currency. A pack of five random cards costs you 10,000 Reputation, so you get almost seven extra packs over the course of four months. Nice to have, but not that big a deal.

The break-even point on these bundles is 700 hours of play

Multiplayer online games are not discrete 40 hour experiences like single-player console games; they’re designed to be played for hundreds of hours over a period of months or years, and they have high skill-ceilings at competitive levels to reward the commitment and dedication of the best players.

Paragon, in other words, like League, DotA, WoW or Destiny, wants to be pretty much the only game you play. If you engage with this game on that level, you might end up saving a lot of money by buying the $79 bundle. If you don’t intend to play hundreds and hundreds of hours of Paragon, these Master Challenges likely aren’t something you’ll compete. Epic isn’t lying when it says that the bundle is worth $500, but it’s only worth $500 to a very specific kind of intensely committed player.

The challenges cost $13 individually, so you need to want to buy more than 6 of them individually for the largest bundle to be worth your money. That means you need to be expecting to spend at least 700 hours playing Paragon to finish seven challenges and cross that break-even point, or you need to be planning to make a significant additional real-money spend on experience boosts to cut that time requirement down.

paragon

Any new MOBA competing with League and DotA faces the same problem: The existing games are deep, expansive and demanding enough to fill all the MOBA needs and consume all the MOBA time of the people who play them.

If you’re a current player of an existing MOBA, and you’re pretty happy with it, Paragon might be worth checking out when it is free to play, since all the characters are unlocked by default. But if you’re probably going to keep playing the game you’re currently playing, then you won’t end up finishing many Master Challenges, so you will probably want to save your money.

Similarly, if you’re a console player curious about MOBAs, Paragon is a pretty, polished new MOBA you can play on PS4. It’s worth checking out. But you need to be aware of the commitment level required to unlock all the master cosmetics before you spend money on a bundle for the opportunity to try.

The value of the bundles, which are expensive, comes down to how highly you value the exclusive cosmetic skins, and whether you expect to be the kind of dedicated player who will try to complete a bunch of the Master Challenges.

Hopefully, you now have enough information to decide.