I made a new year's resolution this year to write fewer posts about the EQ2 business model. Part of my reasoning was what I wrote at the time - I felt that I had added what insight I had to the topic. The other was a lingering fear in the back of my mind that something like what happened today was in the game's not too distant future. The damage could have been worse, as the team lost "only" two members, but this does not bode well for the game.
A no win situation?
The game's current producer, David "Smokejumper" Georgson, takes a lot of flack for the state of the game and the seemingly constant push for more revenue over the last year. It now appears that there was an "or else" behind these efforts - earn more revenue or else your staff will be cut to balance the books.
I still strongly disagree with the decision to implement free to play as a separate service rather than biting the bullet and converting the existing servers to the new model. I can also see how the way the game is today might leave longtime players feeling left behind as Smokejumper dictated a focus on streamlining the game and adding more low level content. To those of us on the outside, this shift calls to mind the notorious Star Wars Galaxies NGE, which also alienated the existing players while failing to bring in the new blood that SOE was hoping for.
But what choice do you have in a six year old game when you're told that you are no longer paying the bills? Stay the course and lose staff, leaving you less able to produce content so that you lose more customers, and then lose more staff?
The two layoffs at EQ2 were actually a very small part of the bloodbath today.
SOE's entire online TCG studio reportedly got the axe. I never actually played Legends of Norrath, other than to open the cards that come with my EQ2 subscription in hopes of getting in-game loot, but I did play the old Lord of the Rings Online CCG that was made by Worlds Apart before SOE bought the studio. I hate the TCG business model, but that was no fault of the team in Denver - the client and everything else about the game was solid work, and I'm sorry to see them go.
The other casualty is the entire idea of having MMO's on consoles in general. It's always risky to base a business model around a platform that someone else owns, because they will almost always someday be in a position to choose their own interest over yours. SOE seemed poised to overcome this obstacle, because the relevant console was owned by their own parent company.
Instead, DCUO has to delay all its patches (if any more are forthcoming) on the PC while the PSN folks do their own testing, and the game's servers need to be segregated by platform (PS3/PC) for reasons that have been confirmed to be non-technical. (Most likely that the two divisions of the same company couldn't come up with any other agreement on how to split the revenue.) Free Realms finally launched on the PS3 more than a year late and with the same server split. The Agency will never launch at all.
If this is the deal you get your own partners, is it any wonder that third party devs aren't making much headway on the console?
What's at stake
Ironically, I'm one of very few who let a Rift subscription lapse yesterday so I could spend more time with a recently renewed EQ2 sub. Most of the game's biggest champions - people like Ferrel and Karen Bryan and Feldon - are now spending their time in Telara, rather than Norrath. Most likely I will be back to join them in a week or a month or two, but for right now EQ2 was the game that I wanted to be playing.
I never played the original EQ, so I don't have the advantage of knowing the world's lore (or the disadvantage of being offended if the latest expansion is inconsistent with it). Instead, my experience with the game is straight up on its own merits. On the merits, EQ2 has the best crafting content - actual separate non-combat questlines - in any game I've played. The game's player and guild housing blow everything else on the market out of the water. But most of all, even with the non-sparkly vampires and the complaints that all the classes now play the same, the game is the one and only MMO where I actually have stories for my characters.
I tried a Rift bard once, and I now understand why Ferrel gripes when you dress a Cleric in something other than plate armor. I have a bard. She has eyes and wings and hair of brilliant green and a pair of flashing blades, and when she fights, she swoops and darts behind foes to cut them down before they even realize where she went. She believes that things happen for a reason, to the point where she's developed way more of a chaotic neutral streak than I ever intended. She joined a guild that hailed from Halas back when that was merely a name in the history books - things happen for a reason, remember - and now that guild hall is such a part of her identify that I don't know that I could transfer her to the free to play server, even if it would save me money.
Her name is Lyriana, and she is a bard. The weird girl in Rift who kills stuff by throwing musical notes at it is what us LOTRO players call a minstrel. Of all the other characters in all the other games and all the time and money I've spent on MMO's, there isn't a single one anywhere else that has as much backstory as my level 20 crafting alts in EQ2. That, for me, is what SOE has accomplished with EQ2 - I'm actually paying them money because I missed a character. That is what is at stake if they can't find a way to make their situation work.
I'm pretty sad that the job just got that much harder.