Update, December 2012: Greetings, people who are finding this post over a year later courtesy of Google after the main EQ2 service went Free to Play. This post describes the state of EQ2X as it was in August 2010, and is significantly out of date. I have written updates here and here.
Whatever my general thoughts on whether EQ2's new F2P model is good for the game, the reality is that it is here, and probably here to stay. I've had the chance to pay the new service a visit, and the new client does indeed install fast, though it would be nice if it did not require a second 11+GB of hard drive space for players who already have the subscription game installed.
Though things are still technically "web 2.0 beta" and subject to change, they're accepting real money for characters that won't be wiped, so it's probably safe enough to start asking the practical questions about how the restrictions affect me personally as a player.
Subscriber-only activities (show-stoppers that cannot currently be bought out individually)
- Group content: There are two major restrictions on overall character power for non-subscribers, who cannot equip dungeon gear and cannot learn the two highest quality spell upgrades (approximately 10% increase in the spell's base power, before modifiers from gear and other stats, PER UPGRADE). Though players are constantly beating things that are not meant to be beatable, Ferrel tells me that EQ2's raid game uses strict gear checks that might not be possible under the non-subscriber restrictions.
(Subscribers beware: Players who do subscribe are still stuck on the free servers, which may or may not have the right demographics for group content, but this is a moot point for me - if I'm going to subscribe, I'll do it with my live account so I can play with my live guild.)
- Access to the economy: Non-subscribers are barred from the auction house, and are also stuck with a gold cap that could impede their ability to get enough money on hand to buy things directly from other players. There are also limits on bag and shared bank slots, but these are less serious than the first two because EQ2 bags get so huge that you don't really NEED more bags than free players can carry for regular questing content (especially if there's no reason to pick up loot because you're already gold capped).
- Character Options: Some races and classes are free. Yeebo discovered that the developers will change the original plan and allow non-subscribers to purchase the non-free classes. Races can also be bought, but irritatingly are only available in packs of three utterly unrelated races for $7.50 (see the screenshot up top for the races in each pack).
There's talk of selling additional character slots, but I couldn't find that option in the store at the moment, so it appears that non-subscribers are limited to two slots - upgraded to three with the one-time "silver" purchase - compared to seven for subscribers. Finally, the silver upgrade is required for any access to the shared bank, but this is less of a must-have feature in an environment where a non-subscriber may not be able to equip heirloom gear in the first place.
(Subscribers beware: The $15/month subscription does not lift the race restrictions, which do not exist on the traditional subscription servers. You must still purchase races under the same terms that non-subscribers face - paying for two races you don't want along with the one you do want.)
(Character Tips for newbies: Ironically, I'd argue that the free half-elf race is one of the best for solo players because they get tracking as a racial ability. Tracking allows you to home in on any mob (or player) in a wide radius around you, which is very useful when a kill quest specifies that you must look for a specific type of rat amongst the local rat population. The only other ways to get tracking are to roll a scout class (such as Swashbuckler/Brigand) or pay to unlock Kerra, Wood Elves, or Halflings.
Amongst the free classes, non-subscribers might want to consider the plate-wearing melee healer Inquisitor class. The Inquisitors are good soloists to begin with, and their AA melee attacks should not be affected by the non-subscriber restriction on spell quality.)
- Solo content: With few exceptions, solo content is not balanced assuming that the player has anything that they are prevented from obtaining by the non-subscriber restrictions. There are some solo quest rewards that are "legendary" quality and therefore cannot be equipped as a non-subscriber, which is irritating, but not insurmountable. Otherwise, all solo content up to level 80 is 100% free to play and the remaining content from the current expansion is subscription-free once your Station account has an expansion key (SHARED with the subscription servers).
(Tip for new players: You might want to wait for February's expansion, which will almost certainly include the current one for free, rather than pay for the last 10 levels now and still have to pay full price for the next one as well.)
- Tradeskills: Some crafted gear cannot be equipped by non-subscribers, and the economy access restrictions hurt anyone who was hoping to actually craft for other people. (Remember, even if you subscribe, the BUYER also needs to subscribe to buy from your broker boxes.) As with solo content, 1-80 is 100% free and the new expansion requires an expansion key. There might be a recipe or two somewhere that only drops in group content that you might not be able to run due to lack of groups. Other than these points, crafting - one of EQ2's most highly regarded features - is 100% free.
- Player Housing: Some house items drop in dungeons that may be hard for non-subscribers to clear. Other than that, EQ2's housing system - IMO the best anywhere in MMO's - is 100% free.
- Guilds and Guild Housing: There's a one-time fee of $10 to create a guild, mostly to ensure that the database doesn't get overwhelmed with a million one-player guilds. (The chart currently claims that the guild creator must also be at least a silver-level player, I don't know if that became obsolete with the fee.) Non-subscribers may or may not have difficulty paying to buy and maintain guild halls due to the gold cap (though the cap could also be viewed as an incentive to donate, as excess gold is simply discarded). Otherwise, EQ2's guild system, including guild housing (again, IMO the best in MMO's, at least when it comes to decorating potential), are completely free.
Though I don't dislike EQ2's group content, dungeon runs in the game take too long for them to be a serious considering in my purchasing decisions. As long as I'm prepared to write off dungeon runs and play a free race/class (or pay one-time unlock fees), I can have basically everything that I used to pay to do in game for free. If SOE is going to make it inconvenient for me to participate in the economy, I can just ignore that part of the game altogether, other than perhaps to get a pair of bags for my two free bag slots.
If I didn't already have a level 90 character in a guild I'm fond of on live, there's no reason why I would ever consider paying a single cent beyond expansion box fees ever again. You might argue that this represents bad microtransaction design, but I was never the target market for this shift. Their main concern appears to be keeping current year-round raiders from ditching their subscriptions, and it will be very hard to change that structure (e.g. the gear and spell restrictions) now that the game is accepting cash.
In addition to the current expansion, my Station Account happens to own 1750 in Station Cash that I got through various promotions. I could, in principle, save this balance and apply it towards the box fee for a future expansion, or I could use it to pay for some unlocks, such as the Silver upgrade or races and classes. I also have a mount attached to my Legends of Norrath account (subscribers get five packs a month for free to try and lure us into the TCG, and this appears to be my year for winning mounts) that could provide a ride to my hypothetical EQ2Ex character instead of an alt on my subscription account (who would be better positioned to buy a mount with cash from Auntie Lyriana).
(That said, I will not pay for three races when I want one as a matter of principle. If this forced bundling does not get fixed before I roll up a character I plan to stick with, I'm fully prepared to go half-elf - like I said, one of the best choices in terms of mechanics anyway - and keep the Station Cash so that I can pay SOE less for something else in the future.)
Overall, it's moderately likely that I will, at some point in the future, roll up a half-elf Inquisitor (a class that I've meant to try but never got around to on live servers) and give EQ2Ex an extended trial. If that happens to mean less money that I give to SOE this year, that's their fault for the way they designed this service.
(Then again, EQ2's annual $40 expansions are comparatively expensive for solo players because they don't actually contain that much solo content. I might be more willing to pay $40 for next year's edition if it wasn't also going to cost $15 for the month it will take to beat the new content. Or I might not, if I won't be able to use any of the gear due to non-subscriber restrictions. Who knows?)
Update: Official dev comment on the race packs here.