Wednesday, August 25, 2010

EQ II extended: great game with a sub-par FtP model

Apologies for the radio silence, I was at a conference last week and playing catch up early this week.

The first thing I did when I had some spare time was try out Everquest II extended. Everquest II is one of those MMOs I have dabbled in a few times, and like quite a bit, but have never subbed to for more than a month or two. I tend to get bored with it in long doses, despite the fact that it's overall a very solid game. Because of that, I was really excited about the announcement of the FtP variant of EQ II, EQ II extended. The idea of being able to stick my head in whenever the wild hair strikes, and yet not have to sub, is appealing. I've worked my way up to 9 and 7 in two different starting areas on two different classes, and thought I'd share my impressions.

First I should start with the good. EQ II remains a solid game, X or no. It has a character customization system that is flexible without being overwhelming, has a very solid crafting system, a full featured housing system, a good appearance slot system, and a great guild leveling system. The latter is only rivaled by DDO among MMOs I have played.

Character progression is very quick. You will hit level 5 within an hour of logging, and have roughly twice as many abilities by then as you would in the great bulk of MMOs. Questing in Timorous Deep and New Halas also gets you gear upgrades extremely quickly. You can expect to have a full set of gear with solid stats by the time you hit ten, and that's a time commitment of perhaps three hours.

The tech behind this new version is also amazing. I hit the EQIIX website and was playing the game within less than ten minutes, on a fresh install. The time barrier to entry for a new player is now practically nil. It runs considerably better than I remember from the last time I played, but then again this is by far the best PC of the three I've played EQ II on. It's hard to say whether the client has been streamlined or average PCs have finally caught up to their poorly optimized client. I'll give SOE the benefit of the doubt and assume there are some improvements to their to their engine in this version.

Finally, there is a ton of content available on a free account. There are months of quests available to a new player whether you ever decide to pay or not. Rumor has it enough content to get you all the way to 80. That's kind of insane.

To summarize to this point: mechnically and technically EQIIX is an extremely solid MMO. There is no reason it could not become the best FtP MMO on the market.

Unfortunately, without changes to their current pricing model, it never will because FtP accounts are gimped no matter how much you spend on them.

This has been covered elsewhere, but to summarize Bronze/ Silver players (i.e., non - sub accounts) will never be able to access the following features no matter how much they are willing to pay:

-most of the classes [Edit (update): this afternoon it was announced that classes will be available in the future]
-the auction house
-the ability to set up a merchant in their house
-more than three character slots
-the ability to send mail
-the ability to change the amount of XP that goes AAs versus levelling addition to other features. I may spend the ten dollars to upgrade to a silver account. It gives you an extra character slot, shared bank slots for passing items among alts, some extra bag slots, and better abilities. But at this point, knowing that I will never be able to play the classes that I really want to play or access the auction house, I'm really not inclined to invest much money into the game.

I could always sub up for $15 a month (i.e., go gold) and remove most of those that I'd still have to pay for extra races beyond the base four and for the most recent expansion. Or I could buy the most recent expansion for about the same price that it costs on a gold account, and get the entire game and all the races for free with a $15 sub to any of the regular servers. Any way you slice it, EQ II extended is a poor value. The sub options are a worse value than subbing to their normal game, and a silver account is so restricted as to be extremely annoying to play. It's about on par with a completely free account in most FtP MMOs.

I really don't think SOE gets the whole concept of FtP MMOs. They give away access to 90% of the content for free, but then refuse to sell most of the classes to anyone that doesn't sub. Those are both enormous potential revenue streams that they are setting on fire. Anyone prone to sub would be foolish to do it in a gold account that charges extra for races. In addition, anyone prone to sub to EQ II likely already is subbing on one of the regular servers. This isn't a good strategy for getting new subbers, and it's a horrifically bad strategy for retaining and monetizing FtP accounts.

I have had decent fun the last two nights in EQIIX. However, even after the few hours I've played, the restrictions on the FtP accounts have me so frustrated that I'm likely putting this game on my back burner as soon as I get through the new starter area. DDO, Wizard 101, and soon LoTRO all provide a much better FtP experience. Until SOE pulls their head out of the sand and makes FtP accounts viable long term investments, I honestly can't see spending a lot of time or cash in EQIIX.

That isn't to say EQIIX is a bad game. It's a great game. It just isn't a very good FtP game with the payment options that SOE has chosen. If you have never played EQII, want a FtP game with a lot of content, and don't mind being cutoff from the in game economy and most of the classes; it's a decent choice. However, if your idea of a good FtP game is being able to buy lifetime access to a full featured MMO piecemeal (ala DDO or Wizard 101), it's not really an option. FtP in EQIIX is really an extended trial that can be gimped or severely gimped depending on whether you go for silver or stay bronze.

Edit (update): SOE, proving that they are not completely insane, has decided to start selling classes in a future update. I find this news encouraging enough that in addition to going silver, I'm buying a race pack as soon as I get home tonight. There are still going to be a lot of restrictions on silver accounts, but this was the one that irked me the most by a wide margin.

Edit(update2): in a further response in the same thread, senior SOE staff member (head CM guy?) Smokejumper implied that we will be able to buy extra character slots in a future update, but that the AH restrictions will most likely remain firmly in place for the time being.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

WoW did not kill innovation in MMOs

I found a recent post at Don't Fear the Mutant and the comments that followed really thought provoking. In certain corners of the web there is a running meme that goes along the lines of "Every major MMO since World of Warcraft launched has been a WoW clone, WoW murdered innovation in the MMO genre. " Of course this relies on defining every MMO that has classes, quests, levels, and turn based combat (i.e., the great bulk of CRPGs, online or off...and a lot of PnP RPGs as well) as a "WoW clone." However, let's just accept that lunacy at face value and move on.

The basic problem with this meme is it's myopic focus on big hype big budget MMOs. A lot of MMO commentators seemingly only pay attention to the MMOs that have the biggest development and advertising budgets. Yes, indeed, the really big budget MMOs to tend to be Everquest style games with classes/ levels/ turn based combat, and have a lot of design similarities with WoW. Like WoW they are usually solo friendly, have a relatively easy to understand class/ level based advancement system, include a lot of quests, and have a UI very similar to the one pioneered by Asheron's Call 2.

However, seeing these these features in a big budget MMO should not surprise anyone because such games are by definition aimed at the mass market. Everquest was the most financially successful MMO of the first generation, and World of Warcraft was the biggest success of the next. If you are designing an MMO budgeted for more than 100K players, you'd be pretty stupid to ignore the mechanical similarities of the most successful past MMOs. And it is for this very reason that big budget MMOs don't count when evaluating whether the MMO genre is stagnating. No one sane is going to put a WoW budget behind a niche / experimental game design.

As soon as you take a single step away from the mainstream, you can see that there are actually a lot of successful post WoW MMOs that bear little resemblance to it. For example Dungeons and Dragons Online has the deepest character generation system this side of EVE, real time combat, and a guild leveling system more involved than anything I've seen elsewhere. It's also the third most popular MMO in North America according to the NPD. Wizard 101 is doing well enough to put out a new world roughly every six months. The card based combat, pho Harry Potter setting, and mini-game method of mana regeneration draw absolutely nothing from WoW, save perhaps bright colors. Puzzle Pirates is also doing quite well and has as little in common with WoW as I can imagine and still technically be an MMO.

Take two or three steps off of mainstream into the really niche products [and in many cases not financially successful at all, I will allow], and you will find even more innovative MMOs. For example Myst Online URU, a completely free to play MMO where there is literally nothing to do except solve puzzles and explore. Or A Tale in the Desert, where as far as I can tell you mainly craft. Or The Endless Forest. You play a deer. There is no combat, crafting, or even chatting. You communicate with others using only emotes.

Just because the only MMOs someone pays attention to are all DIKU/ WoWish doesn't mean that WoW has ruined the genre. It means that some MMO commentators need to broaden their horizons. Innovation continues to occur, and even be rewarded financially on occasion. When I see commentators say "WoW ruined MMOs", what I mainly hear is "no developer has been willing to put a huge budget behind a niche product that caters to my peculiar tastes."

Friday, August 6, 2010

The Quandary of Value

In responding to a recent post over at Bullet Points, it occurred to me that the makers of sub based MMOs have an odd quandary. Every time they add content to a game for free, the value of a sub goes up since it buys access to more. A side effect of this is that if you are thinking about subbing to a game but can't decide whether to do it now or later, waiting until later will always be a better idea from an economic perspective. High value sub fee games such as City of Heroes/ Villains or year one LoTRO, where tons of content is added for free, suffer most strongly from this effect.

At the extreme are games such as Everquest II that offer "all in one packs," where the core game and all previous expansions are included free when you buy the latest expansion. From a pure economic perspective, every year that you put off starting the game adds enormous value to it. Compared to someone that has been playing all along, a late comer gets tons of content for very little money.

Compare the above games to a game like World of Warcraft, where new content is only rarely added for free, and a late comer has to pay for the client and every expansion pack separately. There is little incentive to put off subbing, because it won't get you much additional content and it will make the game more expensive to buy. If you are thinking about subbing now, you may as well because waiting doesn't get you much.

Even more extreme is a FtP game, where waiting to start playing gets you nothing. The same parts of the game will still be free, and you will have to pay exactly the same amount to unlock additional content. The only difference is that there will be more content to unlock, which will potentially make the game more expensive to have unfettered access to for a completionist.

The better value a game provides (in terms of free content) for an ongoing sub fee, and the more generous the handling of past expansions, the stronger the economic incentive for potential customers to put off subbing. Of course the flip side of this is that the more quickly a MMO builds value, the more quickly it will build up to some critical threshold where customers only mildly interested in it might do the trial. That is exactly what happened to me with Star Wars Galaxies. Seeing that I could potentially get half a decade of content for $20 was enough to get me to take it for a spin (even if it didn't stick). Which of the two effects is stronger probably varies from one customer to another, and how interested they are in a game to begin with.