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, even

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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