Sunday, December 11, 2011

New EQ2 For The Non-Subscriber

Looking back at the EQ2X rollout as announced back in August 2010, it's striking how much things have changed.  At the time, playing the game without a subscription was effectively the longest free trial in the business - you could play the solo content all the way to the cap without ever paying a dime, but restrictions that could not be bought out for any price effectively locked non-subscribers out from group content, the economy, and even most higher level solo quest/rep rewards.

Today's version of the model is significantly different, and far friendlier to players who came to a non-subscription game because they did not want to pay a subscription.  However, while most absolutely critical restrictions are lifted, there are remaining restrictions that make the game inconvenient or otherwise non-fun for non-subscribers.  If you're wondering what you're in for, this post may help you out.

Account Levels
The game's three account levels are now called "free", "silver", and "gold".  Free is obtained by signing up if you have never played previously.  Silver, which I would suggest that basically all non-subscription players will want to take, is a one-time upgrade that replaces your free status with better privileges.  Silver is obtained by paying $5, and was also granted to anyone who paid for Silver in EQ2X (where it cost $10) and anyone who ever made a character in EQ2Live - I have an old trial account that I never paid a dime for that was reactivated in the F2P switch and upgraded to silver status.

Gold is obtained by subscribing, and temporarily overwrites your free/silver status until the subscription runs out.  This is why some subscribers received emails that they had upgraded to silver during the transition - they remain gold, but their baseline was upgraded to silver.  I'm going to do a separate article on payment methods/strategies for gold, because this is more complicated than you might expect.

My comments here are based on two accounts - my main account, with paid silver status and characters on both live and extended, and an old EQ2 trial account (which was flagged for silver and had no EQ2X characters).  My knowledge of the free level is limited to the game's official matrix, which contains inaccurate information, and I personally have no idea how my account arrived at its current number of character slots, so take with a grain of salt and ask customer service if you have questions.
  • Character Slots: New players from now on, or those who only played either extended or live, have 2 slots as Free (EQ2X only, since all Live accounts are now Silver), 4 slots as Silver, a temporary upgrade to 7 while Gold (i.e. renting 5 or 3 slots depending on where you were starting from), and as many additional permanent slots as you want for $10 each.  Note that when your gold sub expires, the slots you temporarily lose access to are determined in the order of least recent login.  Supposedly customer service can re-arrange your character list for you if your primary character happened to be at the back of the line the day your sub ran out.

    If you had characters on both services, things get complicated.  My understanding of the intent was that players would be given enough slots to play all their characters while subscribed.  I had 7 characters on live and 4 on extended, and therefore expected to have 8 after the rollover - enough so the three rental slots if I went to Gold would let me access all 11 characters.  Instead, I have 10 slots, and I have no idea how they arrived at that number.  (There was an additional wrinkle that people who had unfilled paid slots had those empty slots treated as occupied and preserved in the rollover, but this wasn't me unless I was granted slots in a promo I never heard about or something.)  Bottom line?  If this is you and you are unhappy with your outcome, you can try contacting customer service.
  • Races/Classes: Everyone has to pay for the new expansion to get Beastlords, and almost everyone has to pay extra for the Freeblood Vampire race (a $20 charge in addition to the two expansion boxes this year, though some subscribers got this in a promo with the Velious launch).  Other than these two 2011 additions, all of the races and classes that were in the game prior to 2011 are included in the Gold Subscription.  (This is an upgrade for EQ2X subscribers - races were the only thing that EQ2X subscribers had to pay for even though live subscribers did not.) 
    The race packs
    There are 4 races and 8 classes included for free or silver players.  The remaining 15 races can be permanently unlocked for your account through purchases of race packs ($7.50 for three races, which generally bundle popular options with ones no one wants).  The remaining 16 classes can be unlocked account-wide for $7.50 each.  These are the restrictions that SOE relaxed for returning players, flagging all characters from Live servers prior to the transition for per-character access to their race/class.  Note that you can (and sometimes have to) change your class when your character betrays to the other faction, and that opposite subclass for your character is not included.  I have no idea what happens when a character who was grandfathered in for their class betrays.
Overall, this situation is greatly improved from the early days of EQ2X, when even EQ2X subscribers had to pay for races and non-subscribers could not access the restricted classes for any price.  However, there are still some unfortunate side-effects to this model.  The reason I have two EQ2 trial accounts is that it actually took me a dozen tries to find a class I liked.  This cost is mildly prohibitive for players who want to try the premium classes.  Meanwhile, in the long run we would expect the population of new characters created to skew towards the free classes, which could leave populations short on important classes like enchanters, bards, and non-plate healers.  It's possible that the mass-grandfathering will blunt this effect, especially for the former Live servers (which never had these restrictions previously), time will tell.

Nothing about the content model for EQ2 changes with the re-launch. 

Everything up to and including 2010's Sentinel's Fate expansion is now free for all accounts, which also includes the current level cap (90).  Destiny of Velious, 2011's first $40 paid expansion, includes an increased AA cap from 250 to 300, and all of the high level content that is planned for 2012.  (The just-released revamp to Freeport, and I believe the planned revamp of Qeynos next year, are free for all players.)  Age of Discovery, 2011's second $40 paid expansion, includes no content, a bunch of features I don't care about, and an increase in the AA cap from 300 to 320 (dunno what happens if you buy this before DOV) that I would argue makes the "optional" expansion much less optional. 

As noted above, there was also a new race added for $20, not counting its optional cosmetic add-ons, on top of the two expansion fees, in late 2010.  Given this track record, I would be surprised if we did not see another paid $40 package in 2012.

Gear and Spells
When EQ2X launched, non-subscribers could not use Master level spells or Legendary/Fabled/Mythical gear for any price.  The gear restrictions effectively made it impossible ever do dungeons added to the game from 2009 on, and also meant that solo quests starting in the 70's (and even holiday events) routinely awarded gear players could not equip. 
Since then, SOE has added unlock tokens, currently sold for $1.50 per pack of 5 to allow players to work around these restrictions.  In what is surely no coincidence, there is no longer any such thing as sub-legendary quality gear in current expansion content.  You might be able to limp through the solo content in Velious using treasured gear from the previous expansion, but dungeons are out of the question without unlocking gear to meet the required stat values. 

While this expense is non-optional, it is far lower than a subscription fee - at 30 cents per item (down from 50 cents when the unlocks first arrived), you can replace every piece of gear you own twice per month and still come in under $15.  The one unfortunate part about this setup is that it creates a financial disincentive to equipping minor upgrades, but I suppose that's more a problem with itemization design than business model. 

Spell ranks mean approximately 10% bonuses to the base numbers for each spell (which are then modified by your stats etc, so the jump isn't as large as it sounds).  Free accounts get apprentice, journeyman, and adept ranks, and there's no reason to ever pay for more tokens before upgrading to silver.  Silver players can add expert ranks (the highest player-crafted level), leaving only the master level (found as rare loot or researched once per month by the spell research tab) locked behind the 30 cent fees.  Moreover, unlike locked gear (which is unequipped when your subscription runs out), spells remain in your spellbook after your subscription lapses.  Many longtime players, myself included, have already mastered our most important spells as the game goes on two years since the last increase in the level cap, and I do not expect to pay for any of these tokens.

Storage is an area where there are subscriber only restrictions, but the overall amount of storage in this game has always been excessive.  Cheap, player-crafted bags have 40 slots and even free players have a ton of slots, so I don't consider this a major issue.  

According to the grid, free players still have 2 bagslots on their character and no access to the account-wide shared bank.  I'm pretty sure that they still have 2 slots in their personal banks, 6 slots in their house vault, and 6 broker slots (more on this later).  Note that you also can store an effectively infinite number of housing furniture items by packing them into a moving crate, which does not count as a bag.

Silver players upgrade to 4 bagslots on their character, 3 in their personal bank, and 2 shared bankslots (which are the only way to transfer heirloom items), along with the 6 house vault and 6 broker slots.  Players can also purchase the two locked slots on their character for $1.50 per slot per character.  (Free players can presumably also do this, but there's no reason to pay for this before paying the $5 to upgrade to Silver.) 

Gold players have temporary access to all 6 bagslots, the full 16 slots in their personal bank, and the full 8 slots in their shared bank.  When your subscription lapses, the extra slots become withdraw-only, but there's nothing forcing you to actually remove items from them until you need those items. 

The original version of EQ2X seriously restricted player access to the economy, but the model has since opened up considerably.  All players can now open the broker and purchase stuff listed by other players.  All players also have the six broker slots, which will accept containers that can contain 40+ items each. 

Gold subscribers can place as much stuff as will fit in their broker containers.  Free and silver players must use a broker token, sold in packs of 10 for 50 cents (i.e. 5 cents per token).  One token allows you to deposit a stack of items into your broker slots. Once the item is in your slots, regardless of whether your gold status remains active, you are free to choose whether to actually list the item for sale, change the price, take the item back out, or attempt to claim your earnings.

I say "attempt to" because here is where we run into probably the single largest non-negotiable restriction on non-subscription accounts.  Non-subscribers are capped on how much currency they can own - 5 gold per level for free accounts and 20 gold per level for silver.  A level 90 character on a silver account is capped at 18 plat.  For reference, I have tipped crafters almost that much for making stuff with my materials.  Turning in your dungeon shards for adornments requires approximately 5 plat, and some items on vendors cost even more.  Stacks of food and drink will also cost you a plat or three.  The new mercenaries (for people who paid for AOD) reportedly cost 5 plat to hire and an additional 1 plat per 2 hours of playtime to use.  In my view, 18 plat is not a lot of money.

There are some workarounds.  Guild banks have no limit, so you can make a guild for your bank alts and stash your currency in there.  Crafting fuel can be sold back to vendors at the cost you paid for it, so you can attempt to turn all your wealth into crafting fuel until you get your cash supply back under the cap.  (I'm told that EQ2X players actually accept stacks of fuel as payment, but NPC vendors, mercenaries, and the broker are not so forgiving.)  When your gold subscription lapses, all the currency in your wallet remains there, so you can carry on as normal with the caveat that you can't earn any more until you are almost broke.  Even so, this is the one area where the absence of a way for non-subscribers to pay to alleviate the restrictions is a serious impediment to being able to play the game. 

Other Quality of Life Issues
There are a few other restrictions, but none I consider hugely significant.  Free players cannot use global chat or create guilds (both of which are lifted at Silver).  Neither free nor silver players can send in-game mail for any price.  Both account types are subject to a pop-up ad encouraging them to subscribe, typically around 5 minutes into your playsession, and both will force your web browser to launch and view the official EQ2 page when you close the game. 
Note that the ad text currently contains several pieces of inaccurate information - you only get 3 more character slots and two more bagslots because Silver accounts were allowed one more of each since this text was written.
There is also a reduced quest log - free players can have only 20 quests and silver can have only 40, compared to 75 for subscribers.  EQ2 hands out a lot of quests, some of which sit in your quest log for a long time by design.  The 20 quest limit is a bit low, but 40 is tolerable.  (Quests in progress are not lost when your gold status lapses, you just can't take anymore until you get below your limit.)  I would pay money to raise the quest limit further, but the limit as it stands isn't bad enough to affect my purchasing decisions.

Until this month, EQ2 was actually triple-dipping into player wallets, with the full priced subscription fee, full-priced expansion boxes that contain less and less content for the money, and a cash shop that gets items as significant as playable races for an additional fee.  As someone who plays a lot of different non-subscription MMO's, I believe the remaining restrictions that SOE will not accept money to remove demonstrate continued reluctance to allow players to ditch the monthly fee.  What has changed in the last year is an increasing willingness, however begrudging, to offer an experience at the non-subscription level that is attractive enough to be worth paying for.

As a former subscriber with enough plat on hand to last for a while before the plat cap becomes a pressing issue, I will likely sink about $15 worth of Station Cash into EQ2 for gear and bagslot unlocks over the next few months.  This is, as SOE fears, less than it would cost to subscribe for that much time, but more than I otherwise would have spent.  Moreover, this is a model in which what I spend depends on how much I play - if I started running dungeons every night or running multiple high level alts (especially if this included new alts that require unlocks) the numbers would increase. 

That is where SOE could come out ahead - if they can provide a quality, fun experience, I will be happy to pay for that product.  By not charging an entrance fee, SOE allows players to stick around to see what they're missing. 


Bhagpuss said...

Great write-up although I disagree with a few of your conclusions here and there.

I've been playing on Freeport since EQ2X started and I think that many of the things that EQLive players have seen as "issues" with the F2P restrictions simply haven't been issues to actual new-to-EQ2 players. Our little guild consists of myself and Mrs Bhagpuss, who have played EQ2 since mid-beta in 2004, a gaming friend who played at launch but hadn't played for several years until EQ2X appeared and about half a dozen people we've met on Freeport, none of whom had played EQ2 before it went F2P.

Neither our returning friend nor any of the newcomers have had any significant worries or concerns over the payment model. Neither has anyone been confused. Everyone has found the options pretty easy to follow and has been happy to pick and choose the bits they want to pay for and the bits they don't. I think everyone has gone Silver, a couple have been gold on and off, and two bought DoV to get the flying mount, the Velious crafting content and the Pack Pony.

My strong feeling is that most people who haven't had a sub to EQ2 but have played other F2P MMOs will think they have died and gone to MMO heaven when they try EQ2 under the current F2P ruleset. The amount of free content available for no money at all is overwhelmingly vast and the restrictions that will actually concern anyone that would balk at paying a sub in the first place are minimal. Anyone who becomes sufficiently invested to get as far as needing the Velious content to progress is surely going to be happy to pay for that expansion and unlockers or a sub. You don't just fall up to 90th through not paying attention!

On a substantive point in your write-up, are you sure that if you let your Gold sub lapse the gear you are wearing but which now exceeds your permissions will automatically unequip? I thought it stayed equipped but you couldn't re-equip it if you took it off.

On Age of Discord vs DoV it's a playstyle thing. As I said, I've been here for seven years. I have four level 90 adventurers, two level 90 crafters and a raft of each at all levels below. I didn't feel the need to buy DoV for 6 months after it came out and still haven't on two accounts but I pre-ordered AoD on all four accounts. I'm recommending AoD to anyone in our guild who asks while advising that DoV is not needed. For my money, as a veteran but one with a very different playstyle to yours, I think AoD is the best expansion since Faydwer and very possibly the best expansion EQ2 has ever had.

Overall though, I think these are great times for EQ2. It actually looks like someone has finally decided to sell the damn game as the great MMO it is and concentrate on getting new people to try it rather than to keep pandering to the ever-declining, increasingly cynical hardcore that have played it for years. (And yes I am aware of the irony there! )

Green Armadillo said...

@Bhagpuss: Lyriana had all her gear unequipped and placed in her bags when she logged in this weekend. I'm about 99.9% sure that I didn't intentionally unequip 21 separate items the last time my subscription lapsed just to see what would happen if the game announced and implemented a free to play conversion before the next time I came back. :)

On the expansions, I definitely agree that TSO, TSF, and DOV all had minimum levels, with zero reason for players below that cutoff to purchase them. AOD definitely feels like a box that's designed to remedy the defect that low level players don't feel obliged to run out and buy $40 expansion boxes. I would have relatively little problem with this approach if they hadn't included AA's in the "optional" package.

More generally, I absolutely agree that what you get for free in EQ2 is a lot of content. I think most players will want silver status, and probably some gear unlockers for quest rewards once they get into Kunark (68+), but that is still a very good deal for the time /played all the way through 90 in solo or small/static groups. My guess is that Mercenaries are a great addition to that playstyle, until you get into TSO and later content, with scripts that will wipe the group if the Merc AI can't figure them out.

I have no problem spending money on MMO's- I've paid for something like 10 of them this year. What rubs me the wrong way is when I pay money for the promise that I am unlocking my character for use without recurring subscription fees and then you mention that by-the-way I need to convert 350 plat into tradeskill fuel and hope they don't nerf that loophole, or accept that I won't be able to earn another copper until I'm nearly broke unless I subscribe. It's vaguely ironic that SOE's response to this was to say that fine, they won't charge me to unlock my character.

In the long run, I agree that SOE's strategy appears to be to cater to new blood, even if it's at the expense of the old. Whether this is a good plan depends on how many people there are who have yet to try a seven year old game that has had something similar to its new model on the Freeport server for over a year.

Bhagpuss said...

Yep, you are absolutely right on the Legendary/Fabled gear unequipping thing. I think I was confusing it with Unlocked gear, which is unlocked forever.

Actually, that's a point in favor of buying unlockers rather than subscribing, come to think of it.

If I didn't need my All Access to play EQ and Vanguard I would definitely drop my sub and go Silver/Unlocks.