Beau over at Massively had a nice piece today about Vanguard, its upcoming 4th anniversary, and its apparent abandonment by SOE. And he notes that, despite that, there are still folks playing and happy in Telon, something that might be missed if you go by the forums.
I made a note in this space as recently as last August, when SOE president John Smedley went on record as saying:
We’re thinking about specific next steps for Vanguard, but we’re not shutting it down or anything like that. We want to add more stuff to it. Will we change the business model? That’s the question people keep asking me. Will it go free-to-play? I don’t know – we’ve discussed it. What we’ll decide? I’m not sure yet. We’re going to see where EverQuest II Extended goes. But certainly if we make a decision like that, it won’t be without deciding to add more content to the game.
Since then, we’ve heard… well, nothing. I realize that there’s a lot on SOE’s plate, what with two expansions for EQ and EQ2, the launch of EQ2X, and the build-up and launch of DC Universe Online, and that any news out of Vanguard is inevitably playing second fiddle to that. Add to that the blitz of releases around the holidays, and really, if there were news on Vanguard it’d likely have gotten buried.
Now, I haven’t played Vanguard in probably a year, but reports (that I’m inclined to believe) are that the population on the single remaining server is pretty small, perhaps seeming more so by the sheer size and space of the world. There’s already a working cash shop in the game, which is probably propping revenue up, although I can’t vouch for what’s all in it, since I never availed myself of it when I was playing. It seems to me that if the population is that small, the game’s bottom line might be improved by an order of magnitude – or more – just by making it free-to-play, and relying on a significantly higher population using the existing cash shop.
Note that this is not quite like EQ2X’s gated features model – it’s closer to the free-to-play system we see in Asian games, where everything is basically free but “game-enhancing” (i. e. stat-affecting) stuff is sold through the in-game store. Something similar to EQ2X would presumably require a lot more work down in the game’s infrastructure, locking features out for users with insufficient account levels. Comparatively speaking, the Asian model could basically be implemented tomorrow by flipping a (code) switch in the account management functionality. Not that this would be an ideal way to do it, but you get the point.
I have to think that SOE is looking at moving Vanguard to F2P, even if it’s not high on the priority list. I can understand, with everything going on between August and now, why SOE hasn’t been vocal about it. But you know, Smed, the clock is ticking. There’s competition between F2P games now, and if Vanguard gets in on that action too late, it won’t make as big a difference to the bottom line.
What might a free-to-play Vanguard look like? I’d start with that Asian model, with a beefed-up cash shop. I’d add some kind of in-game currency that you’d get from raids, but that you could also buy in the store, that gets turned in for high-end gear, crafting materials, flying mounts, and the like. Along with a relaunch you’d want new content to lure in lapsed players, much of it at the highest end, but more spread all across the level range as well. If things went as I’d hope, it would open up the possibility of additional new content updates as well, and maybe eventually another level cap increase.
The natural time for lower-tier MMO announcements is going to tend to be in the middle of the year, to stay away from early and late year launches. In this case, such announcements will want some space between them and the Rift launch as well, preferably about two months. So if there’s something in the works, I’d expect to hear something around, say, June, July or August. Which actually does fit the pattern of SOE Vanguard-related stuff in previous years.
An announcement of Vanguard going free-to-play would be an enormous boon to the game. Despite its rocky launch, its biggest flaw these days is a thinly-spread population, and such a move would probably fix that, maybe even in a big enough way to call for the launch of an additional server. But if such a move isn’t made by about September, then I suspect it won’t be made this year – which is likely to mean it won’t be made at all.
This is probably the last opportunity for Vanguard to become relevant again (as relevant as a niche game can be, but it can be a spacious niche,) and the last chance to reinvent it for a broader audience. And it’s SOE’s last chance to demonstrate that they’re interested in doing something more with it than keeping it eking along for another few years. If they are, with the game closing in on a year with no updates or news, it’s hard to see from the ground.