Instantly 85

The latest new thing in the continuing saga of SOE’s embrace of f2p vis a vis EverQuest II is that level 85 characters are now on sale in the store. You can either make a new character straight at level 85 or promote an existing character… and you can try for free for one level before shelling out cash. Everyone can do this once for free until October 15, and otherwise they cost 3500 Station Cash — $35 at the usual rate. After dithering for a few days I decided to promote my level 12 Conjuror, who had up to that point been nearly 100% focused on crafting (he’s a level 35 Carpenter.)

So POOF, I have a level 85 character. My main, the character I have spent the better part of the last three years leveling the hard way, is still level 79. Many people are having a negative reaction to this addition to the game. I think it sets a terrible precedent and sends an unfortunate message, but I also see the reasons why it was done.

The trouble is not that buying a level 85 character devalues the accomplishment of having leveled yourself. That effort had been made irrelevant years ago, when it became possible to powerlevel a character to 80 in a matter of hours thanks to the broken mentoring mechanic. Even if you were doing it the hard way, however, as I was, successive waves of gameplay and mechanical changes had made the game far, far easier than it has been, in just about every way. When Age of Discovery brought mercenaries in pretty much every vestige of challenge had been removed from the game. I’m guessing that the internal narrative was about making EQ2 more accessible, but the development that resulted from it just made the game easier.

So the pre-85 content and the accomplishment of having played through it was already devalued. I’m not sure that buying a pre-leveled character outright really makes any additional difference. With challenge scrubbed out of the game all that was left was the sheer grind… and if you were leveling sans fromage then there was quite a lot of grind to do.

Which brings up the fundamental problem that the insta-85 is an attempt to address. EverQuest II is now almost 9 years old. It has aged very poorly in some respects, particularly in terms of graphics and art design. What it has done very well, however, is to have depth of content; if the gameplay is perhaps too easy, it is at least very, very rich, to the point that exploring it can be worthwhile even without being challenging. Were this not the case we would probably not have gotten to the point where the insta-85 was needed; very few other games could have survived the preceding efforts to remove anything like difficulty from the game. It’s a fine line between “accessible” and “trivial”, but I would say — and I think it is impossible to argue against — that the EQ2 development effort over the game’s long life has landed squarely on the latter.

The reason for it is a problem inherent to the EQ model; almost strictly vertical progression combined with a long and difficult leveling curve puts a huge barrier in from of new players, and the old players leave steadily and inevitably. EQ2 managed a big rush of new blood with the move to f2p; some of those players surely stayed but that boost was a one-time deal. This is an attempt to generate another one. Judging from the blogger buzz, a lot of folks who haven’t given EQ2 a look for years are checking in again, but bloggers are what you might charitably call a bad sample.

Interestingly, the original EverQuest has stayed vital in part by periodically offering a fresh start on a new server. That EQ2 has not done this is perhaps not mysterious; those new EQ servers always target nostalgia for early-era EQ, and the subsequent changes to EQ over the years are such that a minor effort can be made and a reasonable simulacrum of early EQ can be brought live on a clean shard. In EQ2’s case the changes made since launch are far greater and more fundamental; a retro server wouldn’t be credible unless way too much effort was put into it.

So we have instead the insta-85, designed to redress the same issue. It is a risky move, one that few other MMORPGs could withstand. I did give myself an out by advancing one of my crafting characters to level 85; all I really did was facilitate his crafting in some respects, by making it much easier to do harvesting and tradeskill quests in zone that vastly outleveled his old adventuring level. The flying mount helps too. And indeed, that’s how I have played him since then. I haven’t done any of the level 85 content at this point.

I’m not lifting any of my other characters to level 85. I’ll keep them where they are; I would rather abandon them entirely than promote any more. My Warlock will get to 85 on his own. Endemic or not to the EQ lineage of MMORPGs, I find this new development vaguely poisonous.

Welcome EQ2 F2P Changes Incoming

Toady’s EQ2 game update will roll some significant changes into the game. In addition to a smattering of fixes and tweaks, the big changes are the recently announced changes to the game’s money model.

These boil down to the removal of a bunch of restrictions on Free and Silver players. All classes (except Beastlord) and all races (except Freeblood) will be available to all players with no additional restrictions or costs. To get the excluded races you’ll need either the Age of Discovery expansion for the former or the one-time unlock for the latter. The patch will also unlock all bag slots for all characters.

While nice, this is stuff you could have paid Station Cash to unlock before. I do still have a few characters who are locked due to these restrictions, so it’ll be nice to have access to them again… but then, I’d have paid for the races, classes and slots when it became important to me; I have plenty of characters already and the amount of time I have to play them is damn close to zero, even though EQ2 is one of the games I consider myself committed to in the long term.

On the other hand, the structure of EQ2’s money model up to now has posed a problem stemming from this exact issue. It happens to be spring break, so I have about a week to play games, after which it’s back to the grindstone until the end of the semester. Do I really want to pony up a month’s sub for five days worth of play to avoid the onerous hard limits of free and silver accounts in EQ2?

The answer is no, I do not. EQ2 has been my primary summer game for the last three years, because over the summer I can buy a three month sub and feel like I’m getting my money’s worth out of it. But if I’m not subbed, I find the quest cap limit, which you can’t buy your way out of, to be a big hassle in a game that tends to throw huge numbers of quests at you. I also find the unavoidable shared bank limits to be stifling; I use the shared bank to manage cross-character tradeskill and harvesting inventory (I run multiple tradeskill characters, and my array of alts are much more crafters than adventurers,) and having only two shared bank slots screws up my system for doing that. For some people these two limits are probably trivial but for me the one is a significant inconvenience and the other is close to a gamebuster.

Thankfully, both limits will be gone completely as of later today. I personally would have been happy to be able to buy back the shared bank slots or a bigger quest journal, had that opportunity been offered, but lifting them gratis is perfectly cool by me. Some other limitations, most notably the locked AA silder and the requirement to buy tokens to equip some abilities and gear and to be able to sell stuff on the broker remain in place. These are things some people have squawked loudly about, but for me, with my playstyle, they’re relatively trivial.

So good on SOE for making this change, which makes it viable to me to play during the periods of a week or two during the school year when I have the time but don’t want to subscribe.

Well, That Only Took Like Five Years

So it appears, with some encouragement from the massive Triple Station Cash sale from a couple of weekends ago and the fact that I am in fact still subscribed, I’ve been spending my limited free time in EverQuest II, working my way up in the levels, finally getting my glider mount (which takes some getting used to, lemme tell you,) and settling into new digs in Freeport. I have not felt terribly motivated to blog about any of this stuff, partly because it’s all old hat, but also because of the limited time available.

While I’m at it, though, I may as well pimp the latest Ardwulf Presents, which has been up for a couple of days now. I do have some plans for more videos and over the holiday break may actually get time to make them. Enjoy!

Under F2P, Whither Goes Diplomacy?

While watching the SOE Vanguard vidcast today… well, let me first just emphasize that SOE did a Vanguard vidcast. But anyway. While watching it some mention was made of the unique features of Vanguard that make it more than just a cookie-cutter MMO. Brought up were the big open world, the rich crafting, and of course Diplomacy, which no other game has anything like.

But that’s not true, exactly. EQ2, for those who don’t know, has a built-in virtual collectable card game called Legends of Norrath, which you can play right from within the EQ2 client or from a standalone client that you can download by itself. LoN (which I have never managed to succeed at getting into despite two attempts) exists outside the world of the MMO, although some cards that you can get can be redeemed for loot in the game, mostly (if not entirely) vanity stuff like house items and titles and whatnot. You can buy packs and decks of the cards and amass a considerable library of them over time. There’s no way to know how much revenue this generates from the outside, but SOE is still doing expansions for it, so I would presume that it’s at least somewhat profitable.

But what if it was tied directly to the actual MMO world? And formed a part of that MMO’s suite of gameplay features? Like Vanguard’s Diplomacy does. This, then, is the great hidden opportunity in a cash shop-driven model for Vanguard. It could be the game’s sleeping giant made of money, if it were to me monetized in a similar way to how LoN is now. You’d get Diplomacy cards through play just as you do now (at one point LoN packs dropped in-game from mobs, but as far as I can tell that doesn’t happen anymore,) but you could also buy packs of them in the cash shop. It would require something of a retooling of the existing system, but you could probably keep all the current cards (and thus not take anybody’s cards away,) while adding new ones. Even people not otherwise bothering with Diplomacy might buy packs, as I suspect happens with LoN now, just on the chance of getting the loot cards.

Of course, this kind of arrangement might well sour Diplomacy for a lot of people. But it also has the potential to become a major revenue stream for the game — maybe even the primary one, considering how addictive collectible cards can get. In such a scenario we would have something very interesting: an online collectable card game with a full-featured MMO on the side.

What such a thing would do to the MMO could of course be argued over, much less what it could do to the Diplomacy system itself. I suspect that some would find the very idea unpalatable, although I also think it could be done without necessarily destroying the flavor of the MMO, or even Diplomacy, which I think is very approachable and robust as such things go. But it’s also potentially an important source of revenue for a game that appeared not very long ago to be dead weight on SOE’s roster.

A Video Double Feature, and More Vanguard F2P Commentary

I have two new videos up this week. First up is this week’s Norrathian Odyssey, in which we delve into customizing the EQ2 User Interface. Not with UI mods, but with the relatively powerful tools built right into the client. The vid’s been up for a couple of days but I haven’t gotten around to posting about it until now.

Next up is the new Ardwulf Presents, the first in a couple of weeks. Here I talk in a very rambly fashion about the Vanguard f2p model, and explain a bit about why it doesn’t bother me very much. You may want to either watch the video for my opinion on the matter, or read the borderline rant below.

There seems to be a lot of anger about the details of Vanguard’s freemium model, which I find both disappointing and a bit strange, since it’s a mild variation of SOE’s established and well-understood EQ2/EQ f2p model. So I wonder what folks expected out of it, and the way I keep reading a lot of the comments is that people are unhappy with not getting the whole game for free. That’s not a terribly fair interpretation, but the Vanguard model doesn’t differ very much from what we’ve seen in the past from SOE, which is presumably working very well for them since they’re leaving the subscription model that they help pioneer in favor of the new thing.

The way I see it, as with EQ2, you’re either going to play casually, in which case the free limitations don’t offer any very serious restrictions, or you’re going to be a serious player, in which case you ought to have no problem subscribing, since $15 a month in general offers very good value to people playing, say, more then ten hours a week. Where the model falls down somewhat is, as I have pointed out before, for players who fall somewhere between the two extremes, or who (like myself) oscillate between periods of heavy play and periods of minimal investment. But there are tradeoffs. Namely, that the SOE model that will soon be in use with most of their titles with relatively minor variations offers basically unlimited access to actual content, or at least to the vast majority of it.

The standard retort to this is to compare the SOE model to Turbine’s, usually noting that while you have to pay for content above about level 25 in LotRO, you can earn the store points through play. Which is true, but doing so beyond about that point is a gigantic pain in the ass, such that buying more than about one zone takes a massive amount of grinding in a game that is very grindy in other respects as well. I’m not dissing LotRO, here — it’s on my short list of games worth playing, and I’m still doing so (though only dabbling at the moment.) My point is that while the SOE model is neither perfect nor necessarily my own ideal choice for this kind of thing, it’s far less clear to me than it is to many other commentators that SOE’s approach is obviously inferior to anybody else’s. You can get at least as much quality play out of (for example) EQ2 while paying a similarly nonexistent amount of money. The points-for-play in the Turbine model is not relevant to this argument, since if you’re playing enough to get the points to unlock even just the content you need to level, you’re playing far more than enough to make that subscription a phenomenal value.

SOE is not a charity. While I would like them to make the Vanguard free package as attractive as possible for obvious reasons, they have absolutely no obligation to provide anything for free, much less basically unrestricted access to all the content in a game that’s content rich even without any updates for the better part of two years. Nor need they, or even should they, make it easy to access absolutely everything in the game without paying a cent. I’ve been over the ins and outs of their model several times already so I’m disinclined to do so in depth again, but I’ve hit on the highlights in this post.

The bottom line is that if the thoroughly anticipated details of the f2p model has unsold you on playing Vanguard, you were unlikely to come back anyway for anything other than a look around. That’s totally a fair call for anybody to make, but let’s not lay out some bullshit line of “I love Vanguard, but SOE’s model is so terribad that I will never return” in so doing. Because either it is bullshit or you’re just a fucking cheapskate.

Personal Best and the AA Slider

For something like 2 years my highest level character in EverQuest II has been Friyja, my Berserker. I’ve played a fair amount of EQ2 since reaching that point, but almost entirely on other characters, or on the EQ2X service when that was something running in parallel to the rest of the game. Last summer I played quite a bit but most of my play was done with my Warlock and Brigand, or was Tradeskilling work. So that level 50, though a level cap increase and a lot of changes to the game and to progression, remained my personal milestone in EQ2.

Over the weekend Iskaaron hit level 51 in Everfrost, finally besting that personal high. One significant factor has been the presence of the AA slider. When I first leveled to 50 it was in the days before the slider, when your option for maximizing AAs was to lock and unlock your adventuring level as you played, something I didn’t really have the patience for at the time. With the slider it’s much easier to manage, but you still have to find the sweet spot for the slider to be, something that’s dependent on both personal preference and personal playstyle. The default setting of 50/50 that free and Silver players are stuck with is not terribly suboptimal, but in a way it’s kind of the worst of all possible worlds for a certain kind of player. You’ll do fine with it as far as AAs go, but you’ll also find that enough of your XP is being diverted into AAs that you won’t level all the way through the “Golden Path” zones before completing the content there. There is more than enough other content, mind, but you’ll find that the questing in, say, Nektulos Forest is very different from the more direct way that it’s constructed in Butcherblock, for example. I personally rather like the variety and the less linear questing in the older zones, and with a Merc in tow there is very little that you can’t complete even solo.

The stock answer as to where you should set the AA slider is that if you’re going to be doing lots of quests (the completion of which gives you lots of AA XP,) you should set it at 33%, whereas if you’re going to be doing lots of grinding you should set it at 66%. This is a very decent rule of thumb, but even so you’ll want to tweak those numbers a bit based on your own preference and playstyle — and you may find that you want to vary it character by character. For Iskaaron, walking the Golden Path but also doing the other zones in those level ranges, I am finding that the 75% AA setting that I’d mentioned I was trying out before is pretty close to optimal. Leveling is slow but not too slow, and AA gain is fairly rapid, with about 2-3 AAs coming per level.

Here’s the big reason this is important, though: the current level cap is 92. The current AA cap is, I think, 320. But you need to have at least 280 AAs in order to advance past level 90, and in any event you don’t want to be stuck at 90 with 75 AAs or something like that. Assuming my current rate holds up, I should hit 90 with around 210 AA, which isn’t bad at all. And I might kick the AA slider up to 80% at some point after hitting 60.

This Week on Norrathian Odyssey: Basic Gameplay

This week on Norrathian Odyssey we tackle the very basics of EverQuest II gameplay: quests, the UI and the general look and feel of the starter zones (Timorous Deep in this case.) With this out of the way we’ll be able to dig deeper in further episodes.

Enjoy, and don’t forget to subscribe!