A Rift Too Far

Since Trion and Raptr were kind enough to provide me with a retail code for Rift, it’s been my more-or-less main game this week. A lot of others have come back as well in the wake of the announcement of a very substantial-sounding expansion.

Having played through all of Silverwood back in the beta before opting to pass on the game, I chose to go the Defiant route this time. The game is about as good as it was back in beta — meaning very well-done. The rift events seem better tuned and the pet and mob pathing seems less flaky, and there’s some quests and stuff that appear to be new. And you no longer have to unlock souls — you have your pick from all those available to your Calling (archetype) from the get-go. I’m not sure how you get PvP souls now, but I’ve no inkling that that’s changed.

And Trion has done a great job supporting Rift over the sixteen months since its release — such a good job, in fact, that even SynCaine, that whirlpool of scorn for all things WoW-like, has expressed his admiration for Trion’s management of the property.

I’m now level 21 and well into the second Defiant zone, Stonefield. I’m playing a Mage centered on the Pyromancer soul and am very happy with the way the character plays. Despite that, I am probably only good for another ten levels or so; I’d like to see the next couple of zones, but unless they somehow blow me away I will not be plunking down the $15 to keep playing, and indeed will probably have lost interest before the 30 days are up — as I predicted would happen before launch and which was my big reason for not buying the game in the first place.

I once wrote a post about Warhammer Online not having a soul. By that I meant that it was a sterile, by the numbers design which while well-executed in some ways ultimately lacked the creative spirit that belongs in an MMO. It played like a game and not a world. There’s a lot of titles out there like that now, and a big one (WoW) that has moved farther and farther in that direction as time has gone on. Rift is another. In fact, as I have pointed out in the recent Ardwulf Presents, Rift plays a lot like Warhammer Online, except that everything actually works. That it does is to Trion’s great credit, but ultimately there is a “something” missing despite the game clearly firing on all cylinders. It’s a terrific game in so many ways and the upcoming expansion sounds like gangbusters, and I went out of my way to start a trial even (just) before the Raptr giveaway — and I’m glad to be able to try it out without the level 20 cap and whatever other limits are on trial accounts. Yet I am strongly disinclined — at this point and I don’t see the next ten levels and two zones changing this — toward paying a subscription fee for it.

This isn’t just a resistance to subscriptions in the face of a field increasingly dominated by free to play titles, either. I’ve been paying monthly for Vanguard for a while now and just upped that to a three-month SOE All Access pass for a summer (hopefully) loaded with Vanguard and EQ2 and maybe even a whirl in Planetside since the sequel is looking more impressive every day. Would I play it if it were fully free to play, inasmuch as much games are? Yeah, probably. In fact, while I respect Trion’s decision to go all in on the sub model, in this respect it’s a game I would compare not to WAR but to LotRO, which was a title I couldn’t stick to until it switched over, and have since spent a couple of hundred hours in. And LotRO is in many ways not as well-designed as Rift. In basic handling and combat feel it’s not even close. But soul… now that it’s got.

I figure by the end of next week I’ll be done. And there’s probably another video ahead where I talk about this and relate it to some other factors and other games.

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.

The Collapse of Subscriptions Continues

In a few short hours, Fallen Earth will be free-to-play. Within the next few weeks Star Trek Online will be joining it. Now, Massively reports that Lineage II will be joining them. Rumors say that Dark Age of Camelot and/or Warhammer Online will be following. It’s a given that future SOE titles Planetside 2 and most probably EverQuest Next will launch free; John Smedley says (and I agree) that Star Wars: The Old Republic will be the last big-ticket subscription MMO, but that will boast a cash shop sooner rather than later.

Still, there are hangers-on, including some big names. World of Warcraft, of course, which I think has at least two or three years left on the old model even if the next expansion busts big. (The WoW “free to play” thing is rather a trial that’s level-capped rather than time-limited. It’s exactly the same deal WAR and AoC were offering, and nobody was calling those f2p.) And there’s EVE Online, and a parcel of smaller games, like Vanguard and Darkfall, that simply cannot afford to make the transition. In any event, it’s probably too late; the f2p market is now very crowded. The early adopters did well in the switch, but these are now routine, and it’s more surprising when a game doesn’t go free-to-play. Even those games which retain subscriptions are moving in the direction of also having cash shops.

I think that we will always have subscription games, mind. But they’re increasingly going to be seen as the nichey outlier rather than the standard of over a decade. The MMO market, with dozens of good games in it, is far more crowded than it was when the old model gained a foothold and committing yourself to a particular title only meant excluding three or four others. Even so, there was great resistance from certain parts of the PC gaming community. I remember thinking, in the early days when EverQuest was grabbing all the attention, that charging a subscription over and above the cost of the boxed game was nothing short of an outrage. I proved to be wrong about that. The anti-f2p crowd is going to be proven wrong today.

So, Lineage II. I tried it and hated it a few years back. I may give it another shot for free… but probably not. I ain’t got time to play every game that I might like, especially when it’s already got one strike against it. If NCSoft brought back Tabula Rasa in an f2p format I’d be all over it, but that’s spectacularly unlikely.

Fallen Earth, on the other hand, is all installed and ready for the Wednesday f2p patch, and I’m looking forward to taking a dip in those waters.

Breaking News: Age of Conan Going Free to Play

Age of Conan is going free to play under a “hybrid business model”. See the press release HERE.

The new business model will give players the opportunity to choose whether they want to play for free or become premium subscribers, and Funcom is also introducing an in-game store to the game where both free players and premium subscribers can purchase exclusive content such as weaponry and mounts.

There’s a pointer to a FAQ as well, but I’m not finding that right now. More details as they develop.

UPDATE: Massively article HERE.

UPDATE: Free to play FAQ HERE.

Champions Online Goes F2P on January 25

Cryptic has finally announced the date on which Champions Online will be going free-to-play, after a few months of “some time in Q1” being the only official word. That date is January 25th.

I figure the move to F2P was prompted by three things: continuing competition from the excellent City of Heroes, the impending launch of DC Universe Online, which hit today, and most importantly CO’s own underwhelming numbers. But the news breaking today was certainly an effort by Cryptic to steal away a little of DCUO’s thunder.

In any event, CO is a game worth playing, in my opinion. It’s not as mature or as feature-rich as CoH, but the gameplay, for my money, is a lot more fun, and it feels less grindy overall. And for the low, low price of free, you can’t go wrong.

Champions’ F2P plan is set up in two tiers, one for free players and one for subscribers (or Lifers.) Free players (Silver accounts) will have a number of limitations: only two character slots, no access to the Adventure Pack content unless they buy it in the store, only one costume slot per character, AH and resource caps, and one inventory bag slot. They’ll still have full access to CO’s very nice character/costume designer, although new costume pieces that can be unlocked by subscribers through play will need to be purchased via the store. The most important difference, though, is that free players won’t have access to CO’s customizable power sets. Instead, they’ll choose an Archetype, which is essentially a preset build and progression. This keeps free players out of one of CO’s best and most central features, but on the other hand, it increases accessibility by keeping players out of suboptimal builds.

Subscribers (Gold players) have all this stuff unlocked already, have more of all the limited stuff like character, bag and costume slots, and get access to Adventure Pack content included in the cost. Plus they get (and I’m very happy to see Cryptic doing this,) a stipend of 400 store points per month to spend on whatever. This was one of several looming gaps in SOE’s implementation of F2P in EQ2X – an incentive for people to actually subscribe and stay subscribed, despite an option to play for free. The whole arrangement strikes me as slightly less attractive than Turbine’s scheme for LotRO and DDO, but much more so than EQ2X.

Lifetime subscribers, by the way, are automatically Gold. As one of those who hasn’t actually logged in to CO for a couple of months, I will most definitely be checking things out as soon as F2P goes live to see how the population is doing and how the new, revamped store looks. And hell, it’s a fun game anyway, so I may as well get in some play while I’m at it – I left a couple of characters in the neighborhood of level 20, and it’s past time to move them upward and check out the Adventure Packs. Hopefully the move to F2P will revitalize Champions Online and make a minor player in the MMO market into a much bigger one, as a similar transition did for DDO.

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.

Play Report: LotRO

Much of my in-game time of late has been spent in Lord of the Rings Online, as followers of the Twitter Feed can attest. I’ve been playing largely on the laptop, on which the game runs surprisingly well, albeit with every setting turned down to rock bottom. The game doesn’t have the visual impact it does on the home box, but it’s playabale and not too sluggish.

I had earned close to 600 Turbine Points through play, plus the 500 I’d gotten from my month at VIP, which has now expired. This lost me access to Lone-Lands and North Downs quests for my Guardian, who’s now at level 29, not quite high enough to transition to the next zone. However, North Downs was on sale for 20% off last week, so I picked that up, which cut my supply of TPs way down… but now I can get pretty much any character to 30, and I should shortly have enough points to get into the next zone (either Trollshaws or Evendim,) even if they don’t go on sale in the next few weeks.

For those who don’t know, Virtue and bag slots get locked in when you go to VIP; you don’t lose them again when you revert to Premium, even those Virtue slots your level hasn’t entitled you to yet, unless for some reason you don’t log into the character while you’re VIP. You also keep the two extra character slots you get from Mines of Moria, although you lose the two extra slots you got for VIP. In other words, as a Premium player, I had three slots; when I upgraded with Moria I went to seven. Having reverted to Premium I’m now down to five. I am of course all set on Moria content when I eventually reach that level range, which is probably quite a ways off – but Moria is one of the parts of the game I am most hoping to see, and my guild still does stuff there.