Free to Play Vanguard: Why?

As anyone reading this blog should already know, Vanguard is going free to play (freemium) some time this summer. Details are mostly still pending, but the major variables are the details of the model, the exact launch date and the content package that SOE is going to release alongside it. The big picture, though, points to a healthier game after all is said and done.

A couple of SOE MMOs have gone away lately. The big one is/was SWG, of course, but you can’t necessarily say that was shut down because SOE wanted it shut down. But there’s also EverQuest Online Adventures, shuttered at the end of last month, and that’s a call that can most certainly be laid at the doorstep of Smed and the people making the decisions at SOE.

SOE does not seem to me to be a daring company. I know that they considered launching a freemium server for EQ2, their most popular title at the time, to be a big risk, but viewed from the outside it was anything but. The success that SOE has claimed for it and the subsequent total conversion of EQ2 to freemium looks like it was inevitable to me. Too, their freemium model is very conservative, aimed at giving free and microtransaction players a good taste of the game and allowing for casual play but definitively steering them towards a subscription if they want to play seriously.

SOE has some projects in the pipeline that are big and expensive by its standards. Planetside 2 is headed to release probably next year, with a whole new engine that SOE designed in-house. EverQuest Next, which will share that engine, is further out, and is the third (well, fifth, but you know what I mean) installment in their flagship franchise. If they’re not going all-out with it, they’re making a huge strategic error. Big money spent elsewhere is often accompanied by cuts in marginal corners of the business.

Vanguard had been allowed to wither on the vine by SOE for a long time. We started seeing very modest updates last year, and those have ramped up lately, but there was a period of over two years where not a single update of any kind was forthcoming. Not just no new content, but not even bug fixes. The only updates were to patch in holiday events and to fix server issues that actually took the game down. During this period there was very little indication that SOE had any interest in Vanguard at all. A few statements were made here and there that the company was still behind the game, but not often, and words are empty without action anyway. FanFaire was barren of even offhand talk of Vanguard for two years.

So here we have a game with the clear appearance of being unloved by its publisher, with a visibly minuscule player population, in a period when cancellation would have surprised absolutely no one and would seem to make sense on the face of it for a number of reasons. Yet Vanguard, despite all this, and despite the proclamations by naysayers that shutdown is right around the corner, gets a new lease on life this summer. Why? I can think of four possible reasons:

  1. SOE is run by idiots, and is chasing bad money with good. There are people who believe this, but I don’t, and the idea is terminally rebutted, in my opinion, by the conservatism I mentioned above. Conservatism doesn’t imply good sense, but if there’s one thing SOE cannot be accused of, it’s throwing money around willy-nilly.
  2. Vanguard is doing better than is generally supposed. While this is possible, there isn’t a shred of evidence to support it. There may be some percentage of people maintaining active subscriptions who don’t log in very often, but I’m inclined to think that this number is very small. Vanguard does add value to the SOE All Access Pass, but SOE appears to be moving (haltingly) away from the subscription model as the primary means of revenue, and their entire catalog (save only Planetside) going free to play makes non-subbing more attractive to those, like me, who like more than one of their games but tend to dabble in them.
  3. The change may have been forced by the terms of the deal with ProSiebenSat, whereby SOE agreed to move all their games to freemium as part of the arrangement. It’s hard for me to credit the idea that Vanguard could have been leveraged in this way by ProSiebenSat, nor would this theory explain why Planetside is, as far as we know, staying on the sub model. The latest word (as of yesterday) on the incredibly unpopular ProSeibenSat deal is that Vanguard (and EQ) will not be included in the arrangement at all. So nothing to see here.
  4. Vanguard is doing as badly as is commonly supposed, but the team at SOE really does believe in its viability as a product, and recognizes that a big part of the reason it’s doing so poorly is simply the neglect they have lavished upon it. Based on my understanding of SOE as a company, and of the people involved, I think that this is the most likely scenario. I think there are people at SOE invested in Vanguard who care about it and its survival and future direction. But note that caring doesn’t guarantee success.

Vanguard fans have rejoiced at the news, by and large. Oh, there’s been some of the typical anti-f2p and anti-SOE grumbling, but mostly it’s getting drowned out. I’m also seeing a surprising number of people saying that they’ve resubscribed already just based on the news alone, although I can’t say that there’s been a meaningful impact on in-game populations, at least yet (but bear in mind that I play at weird hours, too.) Words like “renaissance,” “revival,” “relaunch” and “second chance” (and “last chance,” too, which can’t be argued with,) are getting thrown around, not entirely without justification. I worry that words like these imply more optimism than is warranted.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m optimistic, too. And there’s a lot of space overhead, if you take my meaning. But we shouldn’t pretend that Vanguard’s history doesn’t leave substantial cause for pessimism. The game is also coming to the freemium market rather late — a market that is now quite crowded. I think we will, even in the direst case, see a significant uptick in players in Telon, and it’s my hope that it gets some attention from people who would like the game if they gave it a chance. But how big the increase will be is an open question. Predictions of new servers opening up, for example, are premature, to say the least.

On the other hand, one of the limits of the technology behind Vanguard may actually prove to be a backhanded asset in this respect; unlike EQ2, which is heavily zoned and which spawns new instances of zones is response to heavy population in those areas, Vanguard is uninstanced except in one raid dungeon, and that’s limited to six copies. All players are right out in the same world, and SOE doesn’t have the ability to stack a finite but very large number of active players onto the same Vanguard server. A tenfold increase in active players, which is not at all unbelievable, might well trigger the launch of a new server. And that would be the “holy cow, the Vanguard Renaissance is real” moment for a lot of people who might otherwise doubt it.

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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.

Sometimes A Step Forward is a Step Back

I have been playing MMOs since 2007. That’s not a long time compared to many MMO bloggers who came into the hobby with EverQuest or Ultima Online, but it’s five years, which is a while. Coming in I bought into the Big Dream of an immersive virtual world, but that’s gone nowhere, and major publishers have opted instead to chase the Big Money by making a relentless series of nigh-indistinguishable themeparks.

At this point, while I have certainly had some good times with MMOs and have no intention of abandoning them entirely, I feel like I’m wasting my time in making them the sole focus of the gaming I do. It would be an oversimplification to say that Skyrim is the culprit here, although it did highlight for me just how much MMOs lack and how much video games in general lack in comparison to tabletop RPGs.

In that hobby I go back thirty years, and am inching into old-timer territory. I can go on for hours about memorable events in tabletop games that happened ten or fifteen years ago. My experiences in MMOs simply can’t match that. I am, to be blunt about it, largely bored with MMOs at this point, barring something new and radical coming along (and there are some upcoming titles that may fit that bill.) Too, there’s the issue of MMOs eating up huge quantities to time, often just to get to the parts of the various games that are alleged to be fun. I spend more than my share of time parked in front of a computer, and would like to spend more of what I do have with Mrs. Ardwulf and doing social things with actual people and not avatars.

I have played very little on the tabletop in the past year or so, just due to an incredibly tight schedule that allows me very little opportunity to do much else. MMOs have been okay for that, since I can log in at odd hours and get a few things done. But I’m becoming a cantankerous hermit in so doing, and I’m tired of it. So I have decided that it is time to refocus. Games are always going to be a part of my life, it’s time to make tabletop games a part of it again, and if that means I spend less time n MMOs (which is already happening anyway,) so be it.

So what does this mean for you, Gentle Reader? Well, less than you might think, actually. I will still be posting about MMOs (I am still playing a couple) and assorted video games of interest to me, but the volume of such posts will go down a bit. I will also, however, be posting about tabletop RPGs. This is something I have written about here very occasionally and have tried to do in a more serious way a couple of times, but I’ve never managed to quite find my “blogger’s voice” for tabletop games, which is just weird. I think I now have a good hook to develop that, and that’s what you’re going to be seeing more of around here in months to come.

Why Play MMOs?

Games, even just video games, are varied. There are lots of different kinds available from the preposterously fantastic to the incredibly realistic, from the casual to the hardcore, from brain-rottingly easy to the extremely challenging, and in a diverse array of genres. So what is it about MMOs in particular that interests us in them? What drew us in at the start, and what keeps us around?

Having done a lot of reflection on the subject both over the last few years and recently in the wave of Skyrim, I think the basic appeal of the MMO is threefold.

First of all, you have the big nominal selling point for many, especially among the commentator set, in that in an MMO you’re playing with other people, often “friends” of some description. Yet most MMO players (but not necessarily most commentators) play mostly or exclusively solo, either be preference or due to problems getting together with the same bunch on a regular schedule. Surely, the presence of other players is appealing to some, but just as often other players in the game can be a distraction or an annoyance. In quasi-MMOs like Guild Wars or multiplayer Diablo their presence is entirely optional, such that you don’t even have to notice them if you don’t want to. It’s my thought that the presence of other players, no matter that it may be very important to some folks, is a secondary concern, and the other two factors don’t rely on it.

Second, you have immersiveness. Many different types of games can be immersive, while others don’t even try, but almost anything calling itself an MMO, as well as a few examples that fit only marginally into the category, at least make a passing attempt at it. Some level of immersiveness is a commonality among MMOs. To me, the social part of the game, while attractive, is less important than this, but the two factors are unalike in that nobody plays a game becuase it’s not immersive, but plenty of people play multiplayer games because they are profoundly antisocial. For some it’s a social outlet that they find they can manage, while for others it’s an outlet for their antisocial tendencies. This last type of verminous individual has an impact beyond its numbers.

Third is the open-ended nature of the MMO. Few examples are really open-ended in truth, but they can seem so in practice, because some players will simply never exhaust the finite content, or never get bored with the repeatable content. You can, if you want, play regularly for years and never see the same stuff, or just deal with it. There’s a sense of progression, but you have that in many kinds of games, not just RPGs, let alone MMORPGs. In an MMO, though, you should ideally not very often feel that you’ve reached the end of the line as you would in a game like Dragon Age… and if you do, you may quit or at least put the game aside for a while until there is something new to do. This is the one that gets mentioned the least, but is perhaps the most important. How many folks do we know who left an MMO because they felt that they’d done all they wanted to do in it?

This last is also where the World of Warcraft formula, of easy advancement made even faster and more trivial over time, starts to look counterproductive. It’s a good thing for a game to be accessible, as WoW is, yet it burns players out faster, too. Lost in the fact that WoW has more players than other MMOs is the related fact that more people leave it, too, and I would bet that happens at a higher rate. It’s an easy jump to thinking that, for example, EVE players, in a more open-ended game with a steadier advancement pace, might be by and large more loyal to it.

This calculus also says something about why Skyrim has, by and large, been so immensely appealing to MMO gamers in particular, and why it took over the MMO blogosphere to such a great extent before players were wrenched away by the must-play SWTOR… and why some didn’t make the jump, despite all the hullabaloo. It’s an immersive and open-ended game that happens to lack an MMO’s social multiplayer aspect. Not that there aren’t other factors, of course, but this is one of them.