An Early Visit to Telon

Model of patience and restraint that I am, I grabbed 30 days of Vanguard yesterday. The download and install happened in a very quick couple of hours, and I was back in Telon for the first time in the better part of a year. I love Vanguard, and even though I get tired or annoyed with it, I always seem to come back. I hadn’t been especially tempted but was spurred to it by the news of the impending free to play conversion, about which I’m seeing the traditional grousing drowned out, for a change, in a shower of support for the move. Let’s face it, you’d have to be kind of an idiot to oppose it in this case.

I’m having a weird account issue where most of my old characters are showing up on VGPlayers but not on the in-game loading screen. I filed a support ticket for that, and meanwhile the game is running like a charm at highest settings on a computer that hadn’t been asked to run it yet. We’ll see, hopefully, how well it holds up for grouping.

The population was pretty light in the low levels at an admittedly odd time, not really different from what I remember. Vanguard’s big open world made dynamic by a much larger pool of players is something I’m very much looking forward to. Open world dungeons are going to be amazing.

I did make a new character, a Thestran Human Necromancer. It’s a class I have never gotten very far with and a race some might find boring, but I like their starting area and I’ve always favored the human-types in Vanguard anyway. Part of the reason for my return is to feel out what race/class combinations I’d like to play over the long haul, so I can spend wisely if anything needs to be unlocked. I have a veritable mountain of Station Cash left over from last year’s triple Station Cash sale, so I’m not at all worried about it.

I have a few days left on my break and plan to make the most of it.

Commentary on F2P Vanguard

The news (mentioned earlier) that Vanguard will at long last be moving to a f2p model could not have been bigger, as far as I’m concerned. Lots of people won’t care, of course, but it matters to me that a game with the virtues of Vanguard survive, and I think going f2p stands the best chance of making that happen.

Of course, as when SOE makes any decision, the cries of “cash grab” began to go out immediately from the standard roster of SOE haters. The idea that somehow a “cash grab” is even possible with a game with numbers as low as Vanguard’s is really pretty freaking stupid on the face of it. Let’s not kid ourselves — Vanguard isn’t going to jump into the top tier of MMOs, or even the middle tier, with this move. I think it does have a shot at developing into a strong niche title, which is reasonably the best that SOE can hope. But even so, if you look at what might happen as a percentage increase over the current number of players Vanguard or amount of revenue that the game is generating, this move has the potential to break records. The number of active players could easily increase by ten or twenty times. Granted, this is an anomaly caused by how low the numbers currently are, but still.

I’m not going to rehash Vanguard’s terrible launch on the assumption that everyone reading will already know the story; if you don’t, just accept that it was legendarily bad, perhaps the worst MMO launch ever. Despite its shaky history, it’s a game that’s improved immeasurably since it launched over five years ago. I do not think that every change had been an improvement, but overall the net effect has been way, way into the positive. And I think it’s a game that has a lot of strengths that are rare in the MMO field these days. If SOE’s newly-recreated development team can focus on those strengths instead of simply trying to make it more friendly to the mass market, I think that players looking for that big open world might flock to it in modest numbers. I don’t think it has anything to do with “hardcore” versus “casual” people, either — plenty of casual people would enjoy a slower progression and time to explore the world of Telon at their leisure, and I think that can be done without watering the game down.

The biggest thing that Vanguard needs is simply a bigger population. It’s a game that would thrive on that; imagine Trengal Keep or any of its glorious open-world dungeons when there are three or four different parties down there at any given time. Even if the change isn’t as pronounced as I think there is reason to expect, this will be a big, big help with that. Plus, the move itself shows that SOE are serious about keeping Vanguard afloat — this kind of thing does cost money after all, and if they were content to let it simply continue its slide into oblivion, we wouldn’t be seeing it.

That aside, I think another motivation is for SOE to transition entirely away from the subscription-only model. With EverQuest Online Adventures sunsetting at the end of this month, and Vanguard going f2p in the summer, the only sub game SOE will have left is Planetside (as Wilhelm points out,) so don’t be shocked to hear an announcement of note there as well. We already know (as in, it’s been announced,) that Planetside 2 will be f2p, and I for one would be stunned if EverQuest Next wasn’t as well. Speaking of which, Vanguard could potentially serve as a testbed for new technological or microtransaction ideas that SOE might have in relation to EQ’s eventual successor. Because the bar for Vanguard is so low, SOE might feel it has more room to experiment than it did with its current flagship title, EQ2, which it pushed very tentatively into the f2p market.

Beyond that, I wouldn’t necessarily expect any hugely new ground to be broken in the f2p realm when details finally start to come out. But SOE did shake things up a little bit with the way they handled DC Universe Online, and that appears to be turning out rather well for them — it went from a game with a middling launch and a fast fade to PC Gamer’s MMO of the Year thanks to the move.

Bearing in mind that we have just about no details right now, if I were in charge of the project, and in the context of how SOE has handled their other f2p packages, here’s what I’d do to set things up. You can take these more as predictions than as “how Ardwulf would prefer to do things.”

  • My priorities for fixes would be the broken leveling rate (it needs to be slowed down to match the quest progression again) and itemization.
  • Primary world fixes would be addressing any remaining broken quests and polishing up the older starting areas, which in my opinion give players a much better feel for the game than the Isle of Dawn does. I wouldn’t redo them completely, but I’d tweak quests and quest rewards and maybe add a few quests where gaps exist, particularly for Diplomacy and Crafting.
  • There would be no restrictions regarding content for free players. Restricting access to chat channels would be hugely problematic in a game as group-centered as Vanguard, so you’d need some way around that, either with some kind of Silver upgrade that drops those restrictions or by just not having them in the first place.
  • The priority for substantial new content would be at the high end, where it’s needed insanely badly.
  • The Cleric, Fighter, Sorcerer and Rogue would be the free classes.
  • I’d make two or three races from each continent free. This probably means the Thestran, Kojani, Qaliathari and Mordebi humans, and probably the Half Elf (from Kojan) and Dwarf, High Elf or Halfling from Thestra.
  • Free players limited to two bag slots. Later SOE additions to the game junked up inventory substantially, but I don’t consider SOE’s bag slot purchases to be terribly onerous.
  • One or two character slots for free players. If there’s a Silver option, add two more and probably an extra bag slot.
  • Get rid of Randolph, or at least take away his flight ability. Its presence is an artifact from an earlier era, breaks the game in some important ways, and it at odds with the atmosphere of Telon. If he cold only fly during the holiday event, I’d be okay with that.

Vanguard Going Free to Play At Last

The news that some of us have long waited for has arrived. This summer, Vanguard: Saga of Heroes is going free to play. Story at Massively, FAQ at the Vanguard forums.

The last firm thing we’d heard about this was that f2p was apparently off the table for Vanguard; it was such a tiny game that the required investment was seen as not worth the trouble. Now SOE, with big successes in converting DC Universe Online and EverQuest II (and recently EverQuest,) have changed their tune. Most likely, this is the end of the line for SOE games on the old subscription-only model.

Details are thin on the ground at this time, but what we know so far is that there will be a larger development team, more frequent updates. I would expect we’ll see something not dissimilar to SOE’s other f2p models, although they do have more room to experiment in this case; it’s not as though they can drive the player numbers down.

For me, and I realize I’m stating a minority interest here, this is the biggest possible news to hit in months, amid all the press for high-profile games like SWTOR and GW2. It is, for me, the final death knell for subscriptions.

Revisiting Star Trek Online

As we all know, Star Trek Online went freemium last week, and since then I’ve managed to drop a couple of hours into the game. I’d last tried STO a couple of months after launch, I think, and kind of liked it, rough and half-done as it was. But there’s that little guy in my head that asks, when trialing a subscription game, “do you like this enough to pay $15 a month for it?” And the answer was no. It’s the same process I went through with Rift and later, SWTOR, that led me to not buy those games as well, even though neither was bad in any substantive sense.

Although I am indeed able to spot some changes, I don’t know that I can see a remarkably changed game today versus when I was last logged in. But then, a big part of the issue at that time was lack of content, and that seems, by all accounts, to have been remedied — at least as long as you’re Federation, and aren’t at the level cap. There has been an almost year-long content drought for reasons Cryptic discussed with Massively today.

Star Trek Online is a conventional MMO in most respects… very conventional if you look only at the ground game, which functions mostly as a veteran of WoW or any of its clones would expect. But not entirely — you have an Away Team to back you up with their own progression and abilities, and some of the missions do seem to require some care and attention to get through. So that’s novel.

There’s also crafting, which appears unsophisticated to my eye. It’s similar to but narrower than the system in Champions Online. The in-game economy… well, I haven’t seen any sign that one exists, really, so this really isn’t out of line with the source material.

And there is, of course, the space game, and I give Cryptic a great deal of credit for including both ground and space operations in the finished product. The space game is both more interesting and better-developed than the ground game (which I’m told is much improved from where it was.) It’s no EVE Online, but it captures the basic feel of starship combat in Star Trek fairly well; I’m definitely getting a Star Fleet Battles vibe, although it’s not nearly as complicated at least at the start. Just as you can improve your character as you advance, you improve your ship as well, and eventually you unlock new ship slots and ships.

STO is also pathy and linear, but not quite in the usual way. In most such games there’s a linear quest/mission progression that you go through one piece at a time. The main story sequence in STO is like this, and there are side missions as well, but there’s also a great deal of content that scales to you, and a regular cycle of in-game events. I think the variety of content I have seen so far is pretty good, although I am guessing (and I hear) that this gets stale after a while.

It’s early yet (I just hit Lieutenant 7 today) but I’m enjoying myself reasonably well so far. STO is not a flawless game by any means, but you know, at least it took some chances, and I’ll take an ambitious but flawed game over a polished but pedestrian one any day.