More Vanguard Gameplay

Over the last couple of days I stocked up a bit on videos. I have two more Vanguard vids in the can plus a new one from the recent Guild Wars 2 stress test; it’s just a matter of getting them uploaded, which has been problematic of late. Nevertheless, they will appear as quickly as I can get them up, and then there’s the planned weekend orgy in Guild Wars 2, so I should have more next week as well.

This time around we start in on the Isle of Dawn’s crafting questline, with an eye to completing the quests in all three spheres before leaving the Isle.

One more minor leak out of the Vanguard forums, by the way: the issue with rendering rain in Windows 7 is getting fixed soon. As someone who has only played under Vista and Win7, it’s occurred to me that I have actually never seen the rain in Vanguard, which is depressing especially in a game with dynamic weather that actually moves across the world.

Word From the Vanguard Devs and Play From the Isle of Dawn

The new episode of Ardwulf Presents is up and available: Part 2 of my Let’s Play from the Isle of Dawn. The hour-long first episode proved pretty unweildy when it came to rendering and uploading, so I’m shooting for 30 minutes or a little less for the rest; I hope to have Part 3 available by Tuesday morning and to get to either Crafting or Diplomacy in it.

In further Vanguard news, there’s an interesting thread over of the game’s forums where lead developer “Silius” Grant talks a bit about what’s planned moving forward. Right now, plans are still in flux but what’s on the table includes:

  • A small content update hitting in the next couple of weeks, featuring a new overland raid and “A new system that will benefit everyone and reinforce the idea of exploration in Telon.” No clue what this latter might be.
  • Work on the next big update, City of Brass, has started. As I recall some work had already been done in the past, so this is presumably a resumption.
  • More items should be showing up in the marketplace.
  • Initial planning on the next big dungeon after CoB is underway. This place is not Stirrhad, the Nexus or the Cave of Wonders. The first two, when they do get worked on, will be a mix of group and raid content; the last may be 100% raid.
  • The general priority is to utilize parts of the world that are currently empty before adding any wholly new areas. Which is cool by me — it’s not like there isn’t plenty of space.

A F2P Addendum and an Extended Look at Early Vanguard Gameplay

First up, we have a brief (for a change) addendum to the last epsiode concerning Vangurd’s free-to-play transition, with a couple of clarifications and corrections.

For today’s more substantial second course, I keep promising a look at Vanguard’s actual gameplay, and here it is — an hour-long look at one of the four current starter areas, the Isle of Dawn, on a free account.

I plan to do at least another video or two to follow up on this last one, which hopefully will make it up by early next week. After that, expect some Guild Wars 2 vids from me after the headstart begins.

Ardwulf Presents: Vanguard is Now Free to Play

One of the things I missed while out in the woods for more than a week was SOE’s soft launch of free to play Vanguard. So one of the first gaming things (really the only one) I did upon getting back was to go in and poke around. So here’s what I found in video form.

I expect additional wrinkles to be added in the Tuesday patch/official f2p launch, but as it stands now there are some interesting departures from the standard SOE f2p implementation, some of them very good and some of them fishy or problematic. We’ll see how things shake out, but for the next couple of weeks Vanguard will likely be the main thing I play, so I’ll have more thoughts later on.

Under F2P, Whither Goes Diplomacy?

While watching the SOE Vanguard vidcast today… well, let me first just emphasize that SOE did a Vanguard vidcast. But anyway. While watching it some mention was made of the unique features of Vanguard that make it more than just a cookie-cutter MMO. Brought up were the big open world, the rich crafting, and of course Diplomacy, which no other game has anything like.

But that’s not true, exactly. EQ2, for those who don’t know, has a built-in virtual collectable card game called Legends of Norrath, which you can play right from within the EQ2 client or from a standalone client that you can download by itself. LoN (which I have never managed to succeed at getting into despite two attempts) exists outside the world of the MMO, although some cards that you can get can be redeemed for loot in the game, mostly (if not entirely) vanity stuff like house items and titles and whatnot. You can buy packs and decks of the cards and amass a considerable library of them over time. There’s no way to know how much revenue this generates from the outside, but SOE is still doing expansions for it, so I would presume that it’s at least somewhat profitable.

But what if it was tied directly to the actual MMO world? And formed a part of that MMO’s suite of gameplay features? Like Vanguard’s Diplomacy does. This, then, is the great hidden opportunity in a cash shop-driven model for Vanguard. It could be the game’s sleeping giant made of money, if it were to me monetized in a similar way to how LoN is now. You’d get Diplomacy cards through play just as you do now (at one point LoN packs dropped in-game from mobs, but as far as I can tell that doesn’t happen anymore,) but you could also buy packs of them in the cash shop. It would require something of a retooling of the existing system, but you could probably keep all the current cards (and thus not take anybody’s cards away,) while adding new ones. Even people not otherwise bothering with Diplomacy might buy packs, as I suspect happens with LoN now, just on the chance of getting the loot cards.

Of course, this kind of arrangement might well sour Diplomacy for a lot of people. But it also has the potential to become a major revenue stream for the game — maybe even the primary one, considering how addictive collectible cards can get. In such a scenario we would have something very interesting: an online collectable card game with a full-featured MMO on the side.

What such a thing would do to the MMO could of course be argued over, much less what it could do to the Diplomacy system itself. I suspect that some would find the very idea unpalatable, although I also think it could be done without necessarily destroying the flavor of the MMO, or even Diplomacy, which I think is very approachable and robust as such things go. But it’s also potentially an important source of revenue for a game that appeared not very long ago to be dead weight on SOE’s roster.

Still More on the Vanguard Freemium Model

As mentioned in post #1000, SOE is asking for feedback with an eye toward tweaking Vanguard’s free-to-play matrix in several significant ways. None of this is firm yet and the discussion is ongoing, with many people including myself making additional suggestions. But here’s what appears to be on the table:

  • The currency cap may be raised from 1 plat to 3 plat. I should make clear that this is an immense amount of money in Vanguard. While it will indeed be a hindrance at the level cap of 55, at any point up to then it’s unlikely to be an issue unless you’re doing a lot of playing with the market. Three plat represents roughly a character’s entire earnings from levels 1 to 55.
  • The gearing limit for free players may be raised from “common only” to “uncommon and higher,” meaning that an additional level of gear will be available, plus some extra items of varying rarity. I confess that I don’t have a great handle on exactly what this will mean, but loosely, I take it that free players will have access to what in EQ2 would be Treasured and Legendary items, reserving the equalvalent of Fabled gear for subscribers and those who unlock the stuff with tokens from the store. I should also note that when EQ2 went f2p that process came with a gear revamp making Treasured gear much more worthwhile. This was good but unfortunately it left Handcrafted and even a lot of Mastercrafted items in the dust. I’d like to see crafting remain highly viable in Vanguard.
  • The limits on mail and broker access for free players wmay be dropped, but the fees for using these services will be higher. This would turn the ruling on these features from being a dealbreaking shackle for some players to a mild inconvenience.
  • Free players may get full access to chat. I think this is extremely important. Putting groups together with /tell is something Vanguard players have already adopted, but that won’t be as obvious to new players, and one of Vanguard’s great strengths is the group game.

All in all, this isn’t exactly how I would proceed, but these are definitely steps in the right direction for the Vanguard model, and address several of the most common complaints. Now, we have not yet seen exactly what’s going to be available in the in-game store. That may be something of a wild card, but I don’t think we have any real reason to expect that the selection will be dramatically different in scope from that in EQ2. So we’ll see how things shake out.

A Video Double Feature, and More Vanguard F2P Commentary

I have two new videos up this week. First up is this week’s Norrathian Odyssey, in which we delve into customizing the EQ2 User Interface. Not with UI mods, but with the relatively powerful tools built right into the client. The vid’s been up for a couple of days but I haven’t gotten around to posting about it until now.

Next up is the new Ardwulf Presents, the first in a couple of weeks. Here I talk in a very rambly fashion about the Vanguard f2p model, and explain a bit about why it doesn’t bother me very much. You may want to either watch the video for my opinion on the matter, or read the borderline rant below.

There seems to be a lot of anger about the details of Vanguard’s freemium model, which I find both disappointing and a bit strange, since it’s a mild variation of SOE’s established and well-understood EQ2/EQ f2p model. So I wonder what folks expected out of it, and the way I keep reading a lot of the comments is that people are unhappy with not getting the whole game for free. That’s not a terribly fair interpretation, but the Vanguard model doesn’t differ very much from what we’ve seen in the past from SOE, which is presumably working very well for them since they’re leaving the subscription model that they help pioneer in favor of the new thing.

The way I see it, as with EQ2, you’re either going to play casually, in which case the free limitations don’t offer any very serious restrictions, or you’re going to be a serious player, in which case you ought to have no problem subscribing, since $15 a month in general offers very good value to people playing, say, more then ten hours a week. Where the model falls down somewhat is, as I have pointed out before, for players who fall somewhere between the two extremes, or who (like myself) oscillate between periods of heavy play and periods of minimal investment. But there are tradeoffs. Namely, that the SOE model that will soon be in use with most of their titles with relatively minor variations offers basically unlimited access to actual content, or at least to the vast majority of it.

The standard retort to this is to compare the SOE model to Turbine’s, usually noting that while you have to pay for content above about level 25 in LotRO, you can earn the store points through play. Which is true, but doing so beyond about that point is a gigantic pain in the ass, such that buying more than about one zone takes a massive amount of grinding in a game that is very grindy in other respects as well. I’m not dissing LotRO, here — it’s on my short list of games worth playing, and I’m still doing so (though only dabbling at the moment.) My point is that while the SOE model is neither perfect nor necessarily my own ideal choice for this kind of thing, it’s far less clear to me than it is to many other commentators that SOE’s approach is obviously inferior to anybody else’s. You can get at least as much quality play out of (for example) EQ2 while paying a similarly nonexistent amount of money. The points-for-play in the Turbine model is not relevant to this argument, since if you’re playing enough to get the points to unlock even just the content you need to level, you’re playing far more than enough to make that subscription a phenomenal value.

SOE is not a charity. While I would like them to make the Vanguard free package as attractive as possible for obvious reasons, they have absolutely no obligation to provide anything for free, much less basically unrestricted access to all the content in a game that’s content rich even without any updates for the better part of two years. Nor need they, or even should they, make it easy to access absolutely everything in the game without paying a cent. I’ve been over the ins and outs of their model several times already so I’m disinclined to do so in depth again, but I’ve hit on the highlights in this post.

The bottom line is that if the thoroughly anticipated details of the f2p model has unsold you on playing Vanguard, you were unlikely to come back anyway for anything other than a look around. That’s totally a fair call for anybody to make, but let’s not lay out some bullshit line of “I love Vanguard, but SOE’s model is so terribad that I will never return” in so doing. Because either it is bullshit or you’re just a fucking cheapskate.

Vanguard’s Freemium Model Announced

Today SOE announced the details of the plan under which Vanguard will operate under its new f2p model. So we have a new producer’s letter, the obligatory free to play benefits matrix and an accompanying FAQ. No launch date for the new model has yet been announced, but the aforementioned producer’s letter says we’re “approaching the final stretch.” I expect that means 2-3 more months, giving us a release in August or September, likely coming in before the end of the announced “Summer” date.

The membership matrix is shown above, but let’s dig in and take a closer look at the plan and the details we know — and don’t — so far.

  • Membership Levels: One interesting aspect is the lack of an intermediate tier of membership between free and subscription (“Gold”) accounts. Looking over the details and comparing the Vanguard f2p matrix with those of EQ and EQ2. This is a little bit of a surprise, but it shouldn’t be; EQ2’s plan in particular is a bit confusing for the newcomer, although that’s probably less true today than it was when EQ2 went free. Some of the benefits one might have otherwise expected under a “Silver” plan have been rolled into the free package, while others have been kept for Gold players.
  • Available Races: Those available for free are Halflings, Half Elves and the Thestran, Qaliathari and Mordebi Humans, with the rest purchasable in the store. This is not surprising; if anything, it could have been one race per contiennt, so I’m not entirely displeased with the options that will be available to free players. But then, I tend to favor human characters anyway.
  • Available Classes: Those available for free are the Warrior, Rogue, Cleric, Sorcerer, Disciple, Necromancer and Monk. One fear I had going into this was that the free plan would sequester all of Vanguard’s great and novel classes behind the paywall, leaving us with the straight and relatively conventional Warrior, Rogue, Cleric and Sorcerer. While those classes do have some interesting twists in Vanguard, Classes like the Bard and Necromancer are more interesting and unique. So it looks like they met me halfway on this: the Necro and Disciple are unique and desirable classes with great underlying mechanics, and the Monk is interesting as well.
  • Currency Cap: Even at the Silver level, the currency cap in EQ2 is low enough to cause problems in the upper level ranges. Vanguard’s cap of 1 plat seems pretty high, in contrast; Ardwulf is level 30 and has seldom exceeded 10 gold, let alone approached a plat.
  • Gearing Limits: Free players are restricted to “Common” items. This one is the big variable; if by “common” we mean only the very lowest level of gear above vendor trash, then it’s nearly a game-busting limitation anywhere north of level 10. I would guess that there will be some kind of purchasable token (probably cheap if EQ2’s method is anything to go by) that will let you equip higher tiers of items.
  • Quest Journal: Subscribers will get the current limit of 50 quests, while free players will be capped at 15. Given that this covers all three spheres and the quests therefrom, free players will need to manage their quest log very carefully.
  • Miscellaneous Restrictions: Free players cannot form (but van join) guilds, can receive (but not send) in-game mail, have a limited set of social commands (/say, /tell, /group and /guild) and are barred from Caravans, Brotherhoods, Fishing and Housing. Only the last is significant, and since Vanguard’s housing is open-world, it’s really kind of neccessary for it to be limited to subscribers. One open question is what happens when a subscriber lapses to a free account. Does their house just vanish? Or is it locked until they can re-subscribe?
  • Existing Players: Former subscribers get full access to their existing characters made prior to the f2p conversion, without having to unlock anything. Good call; anything else would have been met with great umbrage.
  • There are, as of now, no known restrictions on crafting, diplomacy, harvesting or boats. Although gear is a question, and some crafting is dependent on dropped mats that will be hard to impossible to get without doing raids that may be off-limits depending on how the gearing limit shakes out. Otherwise, free players will enjoy open access to the huge open world and all the game’s content and can level straight up to the cap of 55 in all three spheres.

There are no huge surprises either way, based on these details. The model is closely akin to those of EQ and EQ2, with more of the range of classes and races available to free players and with the currency cap less of a thumb-in-the-eye issue. We still need a date, of course, and more details need to be made clear. And we also need to see the cash shop in action to find out what kind of stuff is available there. But I am tentatively happy with what I see so far, and relieved that f2p is finally, finally on the horizon for Vanguard.

Vanguard Changes Have Landed

As Vanguard moves closer to its freemium launch, we have seen more or less weekly patches become a reality again. A lot of what’s been happening is mere cleanup, fixing this or that broken quest, borked item or misplaced NPC. And of course there’s the loyalty rewards that have been showing up monthly.

As of last week, though, we’re starting to see tweaks and additions to content, with the goal of improving “content flow, reward metrics, and gameplay issues.” And there are a couple of big changes here.

The most significant is that starter areas are being “consolidated.” So instead of every race or two having its own starter zone, there are now, effectively, four in the game: the Isle of Dawn, Tanvu, Cliffs of Ghelgad and Tursh. The highly desirable IoD diplomacy trinket is available in all of them, a move many predicted would eventually happen.

I am not one hundred percent behind the way this shook out. I think the game will be in some respects poorer for the limited choice and loss of the flavor of the individualized racial starter areas. I personally think that a broad selection of such is a desirable and underappreciated trait in MMOs, and many of the starter areas in Vanguard in particular were rich in flavor. However, no content was actually removed, as far as I can tell; although future new characters will have a much smaller selection of starter areas, characters can still go back to the racial areas if they like, to wander the plains near Lomshir or the highlands of the Varanjar. And there is reason to do so in the later game, if you’re following the Diplomacy questlines or want the racial mounts.

But don’t get me wrong: I can see the reasons for doing this. For one, not all of Vanguard’s starter areas were equally cool, or equally well executed. Which ones were awesome and which ones were lousy differs by who you ask, but everyone will agree that some were very weak. The three that the dev team is hanging on to are all fairly decent, if a bit generic.

Too, the consolidation allows limited development man-hours to focus on bringing those other three start areas up to the Isle of Dawn standard without the Isle’s annoying boxlike limits. A lot of small improvements in the linked patch are moving them in that direction, and there’s even a couple of entirely new quests added. Make those starter areas that are in the game as strong as they can be, and that’ll go a long way towards ameliorating the loss of the others.

Also, just as four starter areas will bring a tighter focus to the development effort, they’ll also focus incoming players. It’s not yet clear just what the impact of the new players who’ll be coming in with f2p will be yet, but having four starter areas instead of thirteen will help to bolster the perception that Vanguard is hopping, which is, perhaps, the biggest barrier that the title has to overcome. Just the idea that Vanguard is alive and being played again should be of great benefit.

Trengal Keep… Without a Net

One side effect of the venture into Wailing Winds Asylum was that shortly after completing it, Mengku received a gift from a random friendly player; a yellow weapon that was about a 300% DPS increase from what he’d been using. Thus equipped, he’s been a bit more potent. That’s good, because upstairs from level 10 the challenges of Vanguard become more pronounced.

After ridding the world of some Gulgrethor filth Mengku is now level 14, has three very nice songs in his repertoire, and is disposed to venture into places like the Tomb of Lord Tsang, perhaps the premier dungeon on the Kojani isles. However, as he’s continued to mature I’ve started thing about how I’m actually playing Mengku. He’s doing a lot of work with his bow, for example. Mostly this is just for pulling, as the Bard doesn’t really have any archery-specific abilities. When enemies close it’s melee time.

Given that this mix of ranged and melee seems to be my preferred playstyle in Vanguard, my thoughts naturally turned to Ardwulf himself, who has been sitting in the second half of the twenties for four years or so, and a 28 for at least a year. A quick hop in to work a bit of the start of the Unicorn mount chain gifted me with a couple of deaths, despite the three and four dot mobs involved being low enough to grant me no experience. Getting killed and taking the XP hit without getting any back is a bad cycle — clearly, I was out of practice with the Ranger. So I went in and did a thorough ability audit, adjusted his rotations and made some small upgrades to gear. He hasn’t got all that much money for whatever reason, but I was able to scrape a couple of things out of the brokerage.

Venturing back down to the Trengal Keep area, it wasn’t long before I’d gotten a blockbuster 2-piece drop off a random mob, found myself in a TK dungeon group, and hit level 29 without even completing any quests in the area (though I did make progress.) And my retuning was effective. Our TK group consisted of a Monk, a Rogue and me (a Ranger,) so without a healer it was fairly harrowing and there was a full wipe near the end. It was also an incredible amount of fun.

It does seem like the population has ticked up a bit, although we’re in an SOE-wide double XP weekend and that may have something to do with it. In mere months, though, Vanguard is going to be free to play and at the very least Telon is going to feel absolutely packed with people. Imagining three or four group all clawing their way through Trengal Keep and other mid-level dungeons has me pretty excited.