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.

Alts For Freemium and the Demise of Randolph

I made another handful of characters in Vanguard, in preparation for the transition to freemium. The consensus as to how things will shake out is that SOE will grandfather in existing character races, classes and character slots, much as they did for EQ2 (after considerable and justified bitching.) So the strategy is to make those characters now, so when f2p goes up you’ll be able to play them without necessarily having to pay out of pocket for whatever it is you’d ordinarily have to unlock. There is, of course, no guarantee things will work this way, and the grandfather date could be set to or before March 21, when the announcement was made. But this will irk some people, including myself.

Despite this variable I would not be terribly surprised if SOE’s implementation of the freemium model in Vanguard ends up being a bit more liberal than it is in EQ2. I don’t expect any radical departures, mind you, but it seems to me a great shame to lock such a variety of races and classes behind a transaction. Vanguard’s class design is unique, and I think it’d be wise not to lock those great designs behind a paywall. I won’t say that the Warrior, Rogue, Cleric and Sorcerer are entirely uninteresting, but all of the game’s great classes — the Bard, Blood Mage, Disciple and Necromancer, and all those that are almost as neat, like the Psionicist, Ranger, Dread Knight, Shaman and Monk — would be unavailable to free players if the EQ2 model is ported over verbatim. But SOE has a lot less to lose now, and Vanguard has more to gain. It would be very good strategy, in my judgement, to limit the game as little as possible while still building the infrastructure needed for robust microtransaction sales.

With this in mind, though, one of the reasons I resubscribed almost immediately after the announcement was to get character made with an eye to them being grandfathered in if possible. Since I had lost a lot of characters to the server merge purge (all under adventuring level 10, and a bunch under 5,) and only had four characters on my account, three of which I created when I came back last year, I set about figuring out everything that I would realistically want to play and filed all twelve existing character slots. I’ll be happy to buy unlocks should the need come up, but there’s no sense spending more money than I have to — the SOE f2p model is not alt-friendly, and I am. Particularly in a game with as much variety in races and classes as Vanguard.

One buried but big change with this week’s update (updates which are coming noticable more rapidly now,) is that Randolph the Reindeer, the flying holiday mount that was given out several Christmases ago and subsequently made a year-round flying mount, was stripped of his flying ability. Some people are upset about this, and Randolph was incredibly handy, but more people are relieved to finally see the change made. I, personally, am in the latter camp.

The problem is that Randolph, in addition to being kind of silly, broke the game in some minor but non-trivial ways. You could use him to fly in and out of outdoor dungeons, for example, despite the fact that these tend to nominally be no-fly zones. Granted that this points to a problem with the underlying no-fly mechanic rather than being an issue specific to Randolph himself, but still. As an odd goodie during the holiday event I don’t mind it, but year-round flying was a bit too much, and additionally eroded the value of Vanguard’s other flying mounts, which take rather a lot of effort to get.

Now, the thing is, flying is one of the great beauties of Vanguard. Anything you can see, you can get to if you can fly. I am all for a flying mount at some accessible level and with a reasonable effort that doesn’t break the lore. Word is that there’s a level 20 questline in the works that will grant one, and I’m fine with that. I’m also fine with (as I expect) flying mounts bought through the store, as long as the best ones (currently the Griffin, the most spectacular mount in all MMOs as far as I’m concerned) remain things that you have to get through play.

Crafting, Diplomacy and the Hazards of Overpolish

Sometimes, starting fresh makes a big difference. Mnembao, my new Psionicist, is now level 10 in Adventuring, level 11 in crafting (Tailor) and level 4 in Diplomacy. At 17 hours in I still have not left the Khal chunk nor visited the third Adventuring quest hub. I had seen the Cliffs of Ghelgad (starter area for the Qaliathari and Mordebi humans) more than once, but despite having done some crafting down in Khal, I’ve never gotten much past it.

I’m working on that now; Ksaravi Hollow is a dungeon in the chunk intended for levels 7-11. Like all Vanguard dungeons it is open to the world and a large piece of it is pretty soloable if you’re careful, even with a brittle Psionicist. But I did get in my first corpse run, which was unexpected — the death penalty doesn’t take effect until level 11, but level 11 in any of the spheres will do, and I had already hit that as a crafter. Thankfully, all was well once I made it back down there and the XP hit really is pretty modest unless you manage a streak of deaths. And yes, I have seen a couple of other players down there, but have not (thus far) felt the need to group.

I’ve also taken up Diplomacy again, something I’d let slip by the last couple of times I’ve been playing Vanguard. It’s hard to keep track of stuff after leaving it alone for a long time, but starting from scratch there’s a lot to do. Level 4 gets you a bigger strategy hand, which helps a great deal. There is one quest in the early Khal diplomacy chain that’s hard to follow: you’re told to talk to some guards until the nearby guard sergeant has finished up whatever it is he’s doing, but you’re not told explicitly what will trigger the quest’s completion. It turns out that this is hitting level 4, which, if you haven’t done all of the lower-level diplomacy quests (I hadn’t) can take a fairly large number (like twenty) parleys to reach. I almost stomped off without completing it before I figured it out. I’m glad I didn’t, because if I had, it probably would have been another character I’d abandoned Diplomacy on.

Coming off of my experiences with SWTOR and Rift last year (both of which I decided not to buy based on their “strengths” in beta,) ancient, teetering old Vanguard seems like a breath of fresh air. Those games, like WoW, are highly polished — and like WoW today all of the fun seems to have been polished off of them. What was once an unquestioned virtue has now become, to my mind, a liability, with openness, dynamism, atmosphere and interactivity sacrificed at the altars of balance, ease and accessibility.

Whatever deficiencies it might have, there is meat on the bones of Vanguard. It’s a bizarre twist when the great strength of WoW becomes a weakness, and the great flaw of Vanguard becomes an asset. I have a funny hunch that Vanguard’s dilute “old school” pedigree, never satisfying to EQ veterans who wanted something similar to the old hardcore grind, is something that fans of vanilla WoW who have grown to dislike Azeroth as it’s evolved might find appealing. It’s still a themepark game, and it gives you some guidance and direction, but you also have the ability to run off the rails and do what you want to a much greater degree than in those other titles.

Whether that potential audience will actually try Vanguard when it moves to freemium is another story. Deciding to launch EQ2 Extended instead of making Vanguard free to play in a market that wasn’t yet dominated by games with no cover charge represents a huge missed opportunity on SOE’s part. It would have been a gamble, but, y’know, sometimes you should gamble. What I hope for now is a nice boost to the population, which should help the game a great deal.