Wednesday, September 1, 2010

EverQuest II Extended – does it hit the mark?

So, it’s of course old news by now that Sony are launching a free-to-play version of EverQuest II, known as EverQuest II Extended. It is technically still in beta, but there will be no character wipe between now and “launch”, so effectively, it is launched.

I played EQ2 a while ago. Can’t remember exactly when, probably mid-2008 when the pre-Lich King ennui made me suspend my WoW account. There was a lot to like about it, but ultimately, I didn’t feel it distinguished itself enough to keep my interest, as well as suffering from a few key issues like boring combat and a low server population.

But certainly my memories aren’t entirely negative, so I decided to check out the new F2P incarnation of the game. I’ve played a few sessions this week, getting my Barbarian Inquisitor to level 16, and have some opinions about the hybrid F2P/subscription model that Sony have come up with.

The hybrid model

We saw this idea when D&D Online went free-to-play – there is still the option of a traditional $15/month subscription, but it is supplemented by a greatly restricted free option, with microtransactions to unlock various restrictions. Turbine have also announced a similar model for the upcoming free-to-play change to Lord of the Rings Online.

EQ2X is similar – you can play for free (“bronze” membership), you can make a one-time $10.00 purchase to remove some of the restrictions (“silver” membership), or you can pay a monthly or yearly subscription (“gold” and “platinum” membership). And I get a strong feeling that Sony’s goal is to push people, not towards casual play and microtransaction purchases, but towards the subscription plans.

What do you only get with a subscription? There is a membership plan matrix here, but some highlights include:

  • Access to all classes - only 8 are available without subscription. You can’t even buy them individually, although I believe Sony have said that are planning to add that to the shop.
  • Access to the highest levels of ability upgrades.
  • Access to the highest grades of equipment, Legendary and Fabled.
  • Access to the broker system – although, again, this is to be added to the non-subscription accounts in the form of tokens on the cash shop, i.e. a cash fee for every item you wish to buy or sell on auction.

To me, that is starting to feel more like the bronze and silver memberships are an extremely generous free trial, rather than a genuine free game.

What I don’t think will work well

Class and race restrictions. The free game only allows access to 8 out of 24 classes, and 4 out of 19 races. On the face of it, selling access to classes and races might seem a good model, but the problem is: you need to get F2P players hooked in order to get them to spend money. And once they’re hooked, do they want to buy access to a new class and race, and then ditch their existing character to reroll from level one? I wouldn’t be terribly inclined to do so.

Chat restrictions. Bronze members cannot use “broadcast” channels, such as /auction, /level, /shout, or any other chat option that broadcasts to a large amount of other players. Many people feel that this both makes the game feel rather empty, compared to the buzzing chat channels people are used to; and also that it makes it rather hard for new players who are still getting the hang of the game to actually ask questions or seek help! This feels more like a restriction you’d put on a free trial account to discourage spammers than something you would inflict on people who you see as genuine customers.

The broker restrictions. I love to see a vibrant economy in a game. I’ll reserve judgement on this one until I’ve properly checked it out for myself, but I’m worried that banning non-subscription players from buying and selling at auction will seriously hurt the economy – and that this will hurt the subscription players as well as the free players.

Legendary and Fabled item restrictions. I’m not enough of an EQ2 vet to know how restrictive this is, but I’ve already read of the disappointment of finishing an epic quest chain and receiving a reward that you’re not even allowed to use! It has also been suggested that this renders group dungeon runs pretty pointless for free players since the loot will be unusable. But this is also an opportunity for Sony: why not sell consumable “legendary and fabled attunement” tokens in the cash shop, so each such item you get your hands on requires a nominal real-money spend to use?

But we’ll see

Look, certainly the game is drawing a crowd. Certainly, comparing the starter zone I’ve been playing in this week to my experiences of two years ago, it’s chalk and cheese. There are a lot of players running around. And this is playing in Australian evening time, not prime time. I’m having some fun, and I’ll certainly carry on giving EQ2X a chance to see how it goes this time around for me.

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