EQ2 Ditches the X, Goes Fully Free to Play

News at Massively. EverQuest II is abandoning the split model and going for something closer to the hybrid model that’s been widely adopted elsewhere. I’m tentatively excited, although a lot of things are still unclear. One of the major reasons why EQ2X felt not fully baked was the segregation of the player base into f2pers and subbers, and this takes care of that as well as the “power” items in the Marketplace. I expect changes to pricing and what non-subscribers will have to pay for as well.

I played a huge amount of EQ2 over the summer and frankly the only reason I haven’t been back much is that the sub ran out, my willingness to extend it was limited, and my interest in the more limited EQ2X side of things was pretty low. This will, provided things shake out so you can buy stuff like shared bank slots and don’t have to shell out cash to equip gear, get me back into EQ2 in possibly a big way. I’m willing to shell out money for microtransactions but a sub, not so much. At least I’ll get to play my actual characters (several of whom are in free classes anyway) instead of the short-timers on my Extended account.

A Long-Awaited Play Session

There’s been relatively little going on around here for the last couple of weeks due to sheer lack of time. The new quarter started on March 28th and I had a schedule shuffle at the end of the first week, necessitating a lot of furious studying to catch up to where the class I’d joined a week late was at. Thankfully, this looks to be a relatively easy quarter, so hopefully things will start to settle down now that I am caught up.

For the curious, I’m taking Discrete Math, History (of the Late Roman Empire) and Linguistics. The first of these is for my CIS major, while the other two fulfill general requirements.

Heading into this past weekend, I hadn’t so much as logged into an MMO in two weeks, just due to time pressures. I did manage to clock some hours on Saturday, however, about 5 into World of Warcraft and maybe 2 into LotRO, which I’d been away from for a bit. Turbine was running a sale on the Mirkwood content pack on Saturday, so I picked up a $10 points card and bought that in the store. This means that I now have access to all of LotRO’s quest content, save only Enedwaith, which I’m in no danger of getting to anytime soon. My long-term goal for the game remains getting my (Dwarf) character into Moria and then playing the hell out of that.

In WoW, I ran Straithcairn out to Swamp of Sorrows and did basically all the quests there, which netted me three levels in about three hours, with an aborted run into Blackrock Spire in there somewhere. By the time I’d finished he was level 59 and out in Hellfire Peninsula, a zone I despise. Hopefully I can run him through that fairly quickly, because the next zone in the sequence – Zangarmarsh – is one of my favorites in the whole game. As expected, he’s started replacing all his carefully-gathered blue dungeon gear with Outland greens that blow the old stuff out of the water. This will happen again when he transitions to Wrath content (where I’ll start with Howling Fjord this time around,) but it’s a bit more gradual when moving from Wrath content to Cataclysm content.

In another move that was overdue, I reinstalled EverQuest II Extended (which I hadn’t had on my system since the hard drive swap a few weeks back.) I didn’t do anything more than check in, but I’ll get into it sooner or later. I do note that now there’s an option to download the whole client in one chunk rather than stream assets as needed… which actually worked better for me anyway. I almost bought a timecard for EQ2 Live, but held off just due to my recent inability to scratch together play time – there’s more on my plate than I can get to already, and LotRO scratches most of the itches of EQ2. If only I had better class selection in EQ2X… that’s what had me wanting to go back to Live instead.

Finally, in real life matters, Mrs. Ardwulf has insisted, over my sternly-worded protests, on throwing a freaking birthday party for me this year. I haven’t had a birthday party since I was a kid. Lots of hushed phone calls with my mom and sister over that.

The Death of EverQuest II

A post over on MMO Voices asks whether EQ2 is dying. Karen at Massively (and also of Shut Up, We’re Talking and Journeys With Jaye,) uses Destiny of Velious as an example of how not to promote an expansion.

Anecdotal evidence from in-game varies wildly. It seems clear, though, that the lone EQ2X server, Freeport, is still hopping – I can vouch for this myself, as I dropped in the other day and there were plenty of folks in Butcherblock. As for the Live servers… well, like I said, reports vary wildly, but the population is clearly very top-heavy. Top-heavy is bad when it comes to getting new players into the game, and all the mentoring in the world won’t help new players find people that match their, and their character’s, experience levels.

SOE pushed EQ2X pretty hard for maybe a month after it launched. But after that, we’ve seen very little word from them. And we also, as both cited articles point out, have seen very little press for Destiny of Velious. Part of this is outside of SOE’s hands, as titles with releases on the horizon, like Rift and SWTOR, tend to hog the spotlight. Internally, DCUO is SOE’s Big New Thing, so their marketing resources are going toward that instead. Smedley himself has been tweeting about it.

I like SOE as a company. I like their games. But there definitely appears to be a disconnect between SOE and the community. A lack of communication even to how well their games are doing. Turbine switches DDO and LotRO to a free-to-play model and a couple of months later we start to see press releases. SOE makes a (roughly) similar move with EQ2, in my opinion the strongest game in their arsenal, and we don’t hear so much as a squeak publicly. Smokejumper says EQ2 is doing really well, but that’s buried in a forum post, and most sensible players follow my practice of avoiding MMO forums. So what’s audible to the public is silence, and folks are naturally apt to take that as a sign the game is doing badly.

It may not be, I hope it isn’t, and anecdotal evidence suggests that it isn’t. But the public perception right now is that EQ2 is a game in its twilight years, slowly declining in population. While there may be some truth to that, the problem is that the notion is self-perpetuating – who the hell wants to get into a game that’ll be empty for the first 79 levels anyway? SOE needs to get out there and challenge that idea, to get folks to take some notice of one of the strongest MMOs on the market, and one that really does have a ton going for it. A big push behind an expansion might do it, but we’re not seeing that, about a month before one launches.

Such a push isn’t necessarily the same thing as making huge, news-making changes or pouring dollars into marketing, by the way. An aggressive lead developer or community manager can do a lot for a game without spending a cent, by giving interviews, talking to people, running promotions with in-game prizes, and so forth.

What would I do? Phase out EQ2X and put free play into the live servers to liven up the sub-cap population and make the game newbie-friendly. Cap F2P characters at level 30 and let people buy cap increases in 10-level increments via the in-game store for $10 a pop. Run sales in that store constantly. Run contests every month that get people involved, with in-game prizes. Set fires under the community managers to get them to actually get out there and engage the community outside of the forums and in-game channels. Monthly developer letters and interviews with major MMO news sites. Give the individual devs blogs, like CCP does, and vet the articles if you have to. Put a team member into every third-rate podcast (like mine!) with even a peripheral interest in EQ2. Involving the community will at least give people the impression that’s you’re listening to them.

Is EQ2 doomed? No. It’s a strong enough game to mount a comeback. It’ll never make a million subs, but there’s no reason it can’t become one of the major players in the MMO market again, and it’s really not all that far away even now. All it’ll take is a little love rubbed on the community and the public by SOE.

Measuring the Success of Free-to-Play

A thread over on the LotRO forums shows off the work of some industrious Germans. My German is really rusty, but all the data we really need can be found in this graphic, which charts logins on the NA LotRO servers, and includes periods both before and after the transition to Free-to-Play. The interested and German-Literate can dig around for EU data as well. It’s there, but LotRO F2P just launched, so there’s not a ton of data yet.

The stats in the post are a bit speculative, but the bottom line appears to be that play of LotRO (as measured by logins per week) has about quadrupled from where it was before the switch. If we assume that the conventional wisdom is correct, and that LotRO was a healthy game with a subscription base of around 200,000 before, it’s looking like close to 800,000 people are playing it now.

These numbers are in line with Turbine’s revenue announcement during GDC in early October (about a month after the F2P launch,) and they look to be holding up fairly well. There’s a bit of a decline in the last couple of weeks, but it may be a statistical anomaly – and the November update that’s just around the corner should boost numbers again, even though it’s lacking any substantive content as far as I can tell. Although it does contain 250 new quests, plus the new task content, and will have a substantial impact on non-subscribers, since it’ll raise the level cap to 65, open up the rest of the world, and unlock legendary items and the rest of the epic questline for everybody. The next major content expansion (Isengard) should kick the numbers up even more.

I strongly suspect that the number of subscribers since the change has risen substantially, rather than fallen, based on the record of DDO (which tripled subscribers when it went free-to-play,) and on the fact that no reasonable person would have quit the game in protest over the change. And LotRO has a remarkably low population of knee-jerk asswipes, even judging from the forums, which are the most pleasant video game (not just MMO) forums I’ve ever visited.

It also seems to me very likely that a decent percentage of total players are spending money on Turbine Points. I don’t think you can take the statement that 53% of players have used the store quite literally – were those points acquired through actual cash expenditure or were they earned in-game or as part of the bundle of VIP perks? In other words, how big a revenue stream outside of subscribtions do they represent? We don’t know, but with subscriptions on the rise and at least some people spending money that Turbine wouldn’t otherwise have gotten, F2P LotRO is looking like a roaring success.

So yeah, F2P is full of fail.

Now, I will concede the possibility, until we see some real numbers or at least some long-term secondary data out of other converted games (EQ2X, CO, PotBS,) that nobody can do F2P right but Turbine. That’s possible, although the population on the lone EQ2X server seems large and happy enough to me. Certainly this is in line with public and commentator perceptions right now – both SOE and now Cryptic have taken a lot of flak for not measuring up to Turbine’s example. Examples from outside traditional western MMOs have a far spottier record, but I can’t say with absolute assurance that there are no quality (high-quality games with a fair minipay model, that is,) examples.

For the record, I think that the Turbine implementations in DDO and LotRO are better and fairer than the competing models in EQ2X and (insomuch as I can see so far,) Champions Online. I took a look at the Pirates of the Burning Sea F2P plan the other day and came away pretty sure I wouldn’t bother with it. But I don’t think any of those examples are fatally flawed (and even Turbine’s in not perfect.) For me, the appeal of Free-to-Play is in my ability to decide on my own commitment level, and pay accordingly, and in its explicit promise that I’ll have time to grow fond of a game at my own pace, rather than being limited to a trial period after which I will almost certainly decide that I don’t want to pay a subscription for it.

I feel kind of funny taking a position championing free-to-play titles; I see as many potential pitfalls in the idea as anybody. But facts trump feelings, impressions and opinions. And the fact is that we have at least a couple of examples of high-quality games that went to an equitable minipay model. It may be that it’s terminology that’s failing us again – we may be better-served by calling these examples Turbine-style MMOs than we are lumping them into the F2P label along with stuff like Allods Online. After all, the Turbine model is different from previous examples. But it’s also different from those that have followed it. Time will be the test – but I have a feeling that LotRO and DDO at least will be thriving games a few years down the line.

ADDENDUM: There’s also a marketing difference between Turbine and its followers; Turbine pushed out TV commercials for DDO, for Christ’s sake. Whereas nobody who wasn’t at least reading MMO news sites even heard about EQ2X. That has to be making a difference in the success of the model.

Station Cash On Sale

Players of EverQuest II Extended take note especially. From 11/3 to 11/9 Station Cash is 50% off. So spending $10 now gets you 2,000 Station Cash instead of 1,000. During the week there will also be special daily discounts on various items. This latter applies to EQ/EQ2/EQ2X, Free Realms, Pox Nora and Star Wars: Cone Adventures. SWG and vanguard are not on the list, and may or may not have such special offers available – is there even a Station cash Store in SWG? There is in Vanguard.

I suppose this is SOE’s way of making up for the fact that their in-game stores run much less robust sales than Turbine’s do. This is a great deal, though, and anyone thinking of picking up some Station Cash, for EQ2X or whatever, should do so now if at all possible.

That Was Fast

Yeebo broke the news that an EQ2X update this morning added purchasable classes and broker tokens to the game. I expected this to take weeks, but it’s good that SOE has been this responsive.

Interestingly, the classes are not available in paired bundles, which is suboptimal. So if you buy and make, say, a Dirge, as it stands today you’d need to buy the Troubador class as well if you want to change it in the future. This is kind of dumb.

The classes are selling at 750 ($7.50) SC a shot, while broker tokens are a relative bargain at 150 ($1.50) for a stack of 10. A good deal for those wanting to load up on some decent gear for play, not so much if you’re wanting to broker bunches of your loot (which I’m actually not sure is even possible.)

Again, though, it’s a step in the right direction.

EQ2X So Far

I have a long post brewing about the ups and downs of EQ2X, but for now I’ll just say that I more or less agree with Yeebo, in that EQ2X is a terrific MMO whose free-to-play incarnation is unfortunately hobbled by an ill-considered pricing structure.

However, as Yeebo pointed out to me in-game this evening, there are signals that this may change. In particular, the ability for Bronze and Silver players to buy classes is coming. We also need the ability to lift restrictions on gear and skills, and inventory. The non-sub option needs to be legitimate for the model to work; right now it’s just a very expansive trial.

The Ebon Tribunal is getting off the ground with a bang. (The site’s HERE, but GuildPortal has been down all night. Hopefully it’ll be up by morning.) Today I signed up member account number 32. Which is a bit extraordinary, really. Now, we still need to get about a third of those folks actually in the guild in-game, but we’re facilitating that as best we can. Things are going swimmingly so far, and we’re setting the right friendly, casual tone.

EQ2X is Live

As of today EverQuest II Extended – the new free-to-play server – is up. I spent some time in it, and worked myself to level 10 in the Frostfang Sea starting area.

Bluntly, EQ2’s free-to-play model (still in Beta, although characters will not be wiped from this point forward,) needs some work. In terms of content, you get quite a lot (far more than you get for free in LotRO or DDO,) but some basic game functions, including the ability to create guilds, are crippled unless you pay. Your ability to buy upgrades piecemeal is severely limited – indeed, almost nonexistent. And the Gold ($15 a month subscription) membership is sorely lacking in comparison to what you get for that amount of money in DDO and LotRO. I may get into more details of what I think ought to change later.

The appeal of EQ2X for me is the ability to play at my own pace, without committing to a subscription – and I have to say that I am increasingly leaning away from subscription games, given the free choices available now or in the next few months. I plan to upgrade to Silver tomorrow, but I don’t see spending much more for a good long time – the Gold package as it stands today isn’t worth it, and I’d never consider sinking $200 into Platinum.

But like I say, this is still technically Beta – the details could change, and indeed some of them have already shifted since the original announcement.

The Ebon Tribunal is not yet formed in-game, by the way, but we have an excellent start and I’m looking forward to getting us going properly tomorrow.

The EQ2X Reaction Rundown

So what’s the MMOG-O-Blog-O-Sphere reaction been to the announcement of the new free-to-play option launching for EQ2 next month? Here’s a rundown, but I’m just hitting the highlights and not going point-by-point:

  • Keen seems to be diffident about it because it’s F2P, but positive on keeping the option separate from traditional subscription servers. Then he seems to feel that they may as well have gone whole hog and made the whole game F2P, which he hates. I’m a bit hazy on what position he’s taking, exactly, but I’m pretty sure it’s negative, considering that he blew his stack when Turbine made a very similar announcement about LotRO. But he also makes the very good point that the community that will develop for EQ2X is different from the one that currently exists in EQ2 Live.
  • Green Armadillo posts a typically analytic reaction. I think some of his tangential points (such as the change causing players to gravitate away from group content and into solo stuff,) are a stretch. But more importantly, as far as I’m concerned, this is the very first time I think I’ve analyzed an assumption more deeply than he has.
  • Gordon crosses his streams by stating that EQ2X will drain players away from the subscription servers while noting that the traditional subscription is a better deal than EQ2X’s Gold level membership. He is right on both counts but doesn’t put it together at the end, failing to realize that one point should more or less negate the other.
  • Heartless starts with a typically outraged headline and then makes an atypically laudatory post, which threatens to ruin his schtick if he keeps it up. His biggest issue is with the lack of customer support for free players. It’s a valid point, although I will heartlessly ask whether a 100% free player really qualifies as a “customer.”
  • Tipa makes the most thoughtful post of all those I’ve seen so far. But she seems also to be hedging her bets, because (I surmise) she knows all too well the population decline situation that EQ2 was already in – any given server is feast or famine, and there are more famines than feasts.
  • Salaryn wonders what other games might be worth trying if they had a way to get started for free, and points out that on some level, such a move represents a failure to perform on a game’s part – which is true, but it might be due to factors outside the control of either the game or the developers, and may in fact have nothing at all to do with whether a game is any good or not.
  • Anjin takes a wait-and-see attitude, which I find very sensible.
  • JayeDub gushes a bit, and seems to mirror my own feelings on the affair most closely.
  • The Ancient Gaming Noob provides a gush-free breakdown of how the new scheme will work, and wonders how it will affect, if at all, what Turbine is doing with LotRO. My guess is that it won’t have any effect until at least next year, when both games are over the initial conversion and can react to what the competition is doing – now that there will be competition, since prior to this Turbine had the whole “decent MMOs you can play for free” market sewn up.
  • Syp predicts – correctly, although things have settled down a bit now – that the EQ2 community will collectively shit its pants. His post probably also has the best and most reasonable comments.

All in all, I’d call it about even. After re-reading through all the posts to put this together, the overall reaction seems to be substantially less negative than I’d gathered earlier. Not positive, exactly, but less negative.

EQ2X and the Death of Subscription Servers – The Number Story

A lot of the anti-buzz surrounding the addition of a free-to-play service for EQ2 is circulating around it meaning the death of the existing subscription servers. So I’m going to break some numbers out, and make a lot of assumptions. And I won;t consider at all the changes the shift will make to the revenue stream; that’ll be the subject of another post which I may or may not get to.

Let us assume that EQ2 has an even 100,000 active players right now. That’s not a real number – I have no idea how many active players (as distinguished from paying subscribers, since that’s irrelevant to server health as long as incoming revenue is sufficient to keep the game afloat,) EQ2 has and I’m pulling it from my ass – but it’s probably good to a first approximation, so let’s use it to make the point. In any case, if we change that number the figures will all work out the same.

So let’s consider the existing server set, at 100k split between all servers. Let us further assume that this population is stable; more specifically, that the game is losing 5% each month to attrition, and gaining 5% each month in new players. That 5% growth figure is probably too generous by half – but we’ll let it stand. And month after month, as long as the current situation holds, EQ2 has 100K active players.

Let us now speculate that EQ2X will quadruple the number of active EQ2 players over all servers. Judging by the DDO example, that’s probably a bit conservative; DDO’s Xfire numbers (indicative in a broad sense of the number of active players,) are about six to seven times what they were before that game went free-to-play.

If we assume that general attrition (people actually leaving the game,) from the existing servers stays at 5%, and that people leaving the new EQ2X servers (also leaving the game entirely) is also at 5%, we may as well assume the natural growth rate of EQ2X servers will also stay the same, at 5%.

Now we work in the ‘server death’ argument. Let’s say that on top of general attrition the standard servers bleed 3% of their population each month onto the free servers. And that new players entering the traditional servers slows to a trickle of 2%. (Remember that retail boxes will still be directing people to EQ2 Live, and for a variety of other reasons I don’t believe for a minute that a flood of paying subscribers will flock permanently over to EQ2X.)

Given this, we postulate a total EQ2X population of 300K. Let’s assume that paltry 2% of those people, enjoying the game but feeling the limitations of the EQ2X program, will migrate to EQ2 Live. After all, they’d be paying the same $15 a month as they would under EQ2X’s Gold plan and not suffer those limitations. They’d have to get a retail box as it stands today, but I’m not concerned about revenue – and if people want something, they’ll spend the $20 pittance on a retail box to get it.

So each month, here’s what we have: Traditional servers lose 8% (8,000) to general attrition and loss to EQ2X and gain 2% (2,000) in growth. That puts the new figure at 94,000. But wait. In addition, the traditional servers gain 2% of 300,000 – which is 6,000. Which puts the traditional servers back at 100,000 after all.

Yes, these numbers are both highly speculative and somewhat contrived, and lack for real data to back them up. But nothing I’ve guessed at here is particularly unbelievable, and in places I have been conservative. What I’m getting at is that a reasonable analysis of the numbers doesn’t indicate, necessarily, that the traditional servers are any more doomed than they were before the addition of a Free-to-Play option.