Wednesday, July 28, 2010

EQ2's Unsustainable F2P Divide

"A house divided against itself cannot stand."
- Abraham Lincoln

Everquest 2 is joining the free to play bandwagon, but with an unusual twist.  SOE has opted not to jump into the F2P pool with both feet.  Instead, the current stated plan is for the game to maintain the existing subscription game as a parallel separate service to the new "EQ2 Extended" F2P model.

This model is untenable and a bad deal for both free and paid players. 

A hollow win for the solo player
Any time you add a new option for paying for an MMORPG, there's going to be someone, somewhere, who comes out a winner.  On paper, that winner would be the solo WoW Tourist demographic, like myself.  If you are prepared to settle for one of the extremely limited number of free race/class combinations, or to pay a one-time fee to unlock something more interesting from the full list, you can have the entire game up to level 80 indefinitely, for free. 

(By "extremely limited", we mean that 15 of the game's 19 playable races and 16 of the game's 24 playable subclasses are locked down.  This leaves free players to choose from four races and eight classes for a total of 32 out of the 456 race/class combos in the full game.)

As a solo PVE experience, this content was good enough that I was willing to pay to level through it last year.  On paper, I don't think that I absolutely needed anything on the list of paid perks to level.  However, the reality is that I spent a ton of time on my trip to level 80 working on crafting (pointless, the free tier can't even use the expert-level spells that I went to so much trouble to craft), leveling alts (locked down by an extremely low character limit and the race/class restrictions), and running the occasional group content with my guild (more on this in a minute).  Without these things to break up the grind, I don't know that I would have made it all the way to the cap.

Buyer's Remorse for the Free Player?
If that's the story of the winners in this transition, the losers are anyone who intends to continue playing beyond the most cursory sightseeing tour of the leveling content.

As the system is currently described, all non-subscription players are completely barred from equipping legendary quality items (and, of course, the higher quality Fabled).  In the 70's and 80's, even the solo quest and rep rewards are legendary.  This also rules out literally all loot from group dungeons.  That's right, a game called "Everquest" just banished all group content to a subset of players who choose to pay a recurring subscription, which rings in at the same $15/month that everyone else has to pay. 

So let's say that, after a few weeks of using the new Free to Play version of the game as an extended trial, you decide to pony up.  The subscription offers temporary rental access to the 16 locked down classes, but you'll STILL have to pay individually to unlock the 15 races that are included FOR THE SAME PRICE in the original subscription game. 

Worse, your options if you actually decide to go looking for groups are going to be hamstrung.  Free players have zero reason to ever join your group, as they cannot equip the loot that drops.  On top of that, the free class selection deliberately focuses on the most basic options, leaving out popular group classes like Bards, Enchanters, and Shamen.  Even if you chose to unlock one of these classes, earning yourself plenty of group invites, your groups may struggle as the population skews strongly away from the other utility classes that you need to complete the content. 

Maybe all of these drawbacks are making you reconsider your choice to play the free to play version of the game after all.  If that's you, kiss all the time and money you've spent on the game so far goodbye, as characters cannot be transferred to the subscription game and anything that you pay to unlock (other than future paid expansion boxes, which both payment models are required to purchase) will be irrelevant if you switch over. 

Given that option, you'd have to love the game a whole heck of a lot before you even consider paying SOE to start over. 

Abandonment of the existing servers
Meanwhile, what of the existing players?  Well, they're to be left alone, exactly as they are today, out of supposed deference to the wishes of existing players not to have items that confer in-game power sold through the item shop.  (This deference excludes experience boost potions, which have been available in the "cosmetic" item shop since day one.) 

The problem here is that new players will be funneled first to the free to play model, and those that decide to upgrade will want to jump to the most populous server possible.  SOE might as well go ahead and merge all of the servers besides Antonia Bayle (the game's most popular) and Nagafen (the last surviving PVP server) now, because populations everywhere else will only continue to dwindle. 

Meanwhile, with group content so heavily locked down on the free servers, the game's demographics will likely shift dramatically away from players who group. The addition of new content to the game will follow the money.  That's not a good thing if the reason why you are playing EQ2 is for the group content.  Perhaps this is as it should be, if the numbers who aren't doing group content represent more money in the long term.  Unfortunately for SOE, attempting to shift a six year old game away from its strength and towards things that other games do better (solo, PVP) is a very risky proposition that will only pan out if the game can stand up to head to head scrutiny against competition that focused on those areas from day one. 

Ending the hedge
Personally, the argument that they're leaving things separate out of deference for existing players would ring more true if SOE didn't have a consistent track record of pushing through unpopular expansions of RMT and item shops in defiance of those same customer expectations.  I think that it's more likely that they're just holding off on sending the golden subscription goose to the butcher for as long as possible so that they can get a better idea of whether people will actually pay to see the golden wolf cub they're planning on feeding the carcass to. 

Perhaps there would have been turmoil and upheaval if SOE had instead chosen to rip the band-aid off.  That said, as with previous expansions of RMT in SOE games, relatively few players would have actually followed through on threats to quit (and many of this vocal minority may quit anyway, seeing which way the wind is blowing in this compromise).  More importantly, with all players under the same roof, SOE would have been forced to confront and address the problems that everyone faced together.  Instead, the team will pit the two sides against each other to see who can bring in more money. 

The irony is that the damage this struggle is likely to cause may ultimately leave the game - along with its market and brand name - weaker for the lack of resolve.  

7 comments:

Jayedub said...

Isn't it still a bit early to be claiming doom and gloom for EQ2?

Yeebo said...

You raise some great points. However, I believe it comes down to how much things will cost for silver players as to how gloomy things really are. If a player that is willing to spend twenty dollars or so has a good incentive to group, there will still be a lot of players that want to group.

Green Armadillo said...

@Yeebo: Under the currently announced price chart, silver players cannot purchase the ability to equip dungeon/group quality gear for any price. If that is not changed, pretty much all of the current in-game incentives for grouping are moot.

Yeebo said...

Wow, I didn't pick up on that. Hopefully SOE will change that before "beta."

Anonymous said...

@Jayedub, I would look to SOE's track record of destroying MMO's with similar decisions, and have to say the outcome of this is fairly predictable, and the losers will not only be SOE but the established EQ 2 community that so loves the game as it is...

Jayedub said...

@Anonymous - What other games has SOE destroyed? As far as I know the only game SOE has closed down was MxO. So unless you have some facts, I am going to assume that your comment is based on pure speculation or lack of information.

Anonymous said...

@Jayedub SWG for one