The Tattered Notebook: F2P bombs and views from the fallout shelter


Well, this week takes the proverbial cake when it comes to the least amount of time spent head-scratching over a column topic. Thanks to Dave Georgeson and the executives at Sony Online Entertainment, I pretty much had this little opus sketched out by dinner-time last Tuesday.

Anywho... a week ago tomorrow the bomb dropped. It wasn't a stink bomb, a 50-yard bomb, or even an F-bomb (though there were no doubt plenty of those uttered in some circles), but rather a Hiroshima/Nagasaki type of bomb that changed the world and effectively ended the war between P2P and F2P, at least as far as Norrath is concerned.

Or did it?

Turn the page to find out.

Unless you've been living in a vault for the past six days, you know about SOE's EverQuest II Extended. I won't spend a lot of time going over the nuts and bolts here, but rather I'll highlight a few of the interesting reactions as well as verbalize my own.

The end of the world as we know it, or not

First off, despite the fact that I'm about as meh towards F2P as it's possible to be, this isn't the end of the world (or even the gaming world). Why the notable lack of heartbreak, hand-wringing, and (dare I use a popular cliche) hate from a die-hard P2P fan? Simple. My game isn't going anywhere, at least for the time being. Yeah, I have some doubts about the long-term validity of the subscription servers once Sony's infrastructure becomes inundated by the sheer weight of all the freeloaders heading their way, but for the next little while, I'm perfectly OK with them spinning off a few separate shards. As Georgeson said in our interview last week, nothing changes for current subscribers, at least in the short term.

Speaking of Georgeson's interview, it was quite the fascinating read. The most interesting thing about it was what was gleaned from reading between the responses. In effect, what he didn't say was as enlightening, if not moreso, than what he did say. He comes across as apologetic for the whole affair, even going so far as to say, and I quote, "we need to do this as a business, we need to look into this opportunity because if we don't the rest of the industry is going to move on without us. I don't like putting us in the position where we're reacting to the industry." That's hardly a ringing endorsement of the merits and/or moral correctness of F2P, and yet plenty of people supporting the agenda took the time to email me this week and herald this great "victory" for the cause.

Notice also that he didn't say "we're doing this because we think our customers want it," or "because we want to do it." In fact, in the very next paragraph, he mentions that EQII's existing customers quite clearly do not want it. So, this whole F2P episode, at least in SOE's case, is about survival and forced hands rather than willingly embracing an avant garde business model. I got the feeling that Georgeson doesn't really care what the recipe for success happens to be. Whether it's F2P or $30-a-month subs, SOE will do what must be done to survive. This is capitalism in a nutshell, and it's quite intriguing because so much of the quasi-intellectual discourse surrounding F2P touches on concepts of entitlement, class divides, socialism, and any number of other controversial issues.

Coveting other customers, part deux

Also fascinating is the fact that SOE has of course been here before, in terms of courting a bunch of customers it doesn't have and theoretically taking its existing ones for granted. Now, I'm not saying that EQ2X is the NGE -- far from it, at least from a communication and mechanical-change perspective -- but it's not hard to see the parallels. To Sony's credit, it seems as if the team has learned from that mistake.

For example, Georgeson points out that "most of the opportunities you see to do this are going to be 'well this is the way it is and all of our players have to adapt.' We don't want to do that." This is clearly a reference to Turbine's decision to lump new F2P customers in with previous subscription folks on the same server, changing the gameplay and community dynamics for the latter group. EQ2X, apparently due to the very vocal wishes of existing subscribers, will be an entirely separate enterprise, and so SOE has in fact catered to the wishes of its current customer base while simultaneously managing to keep up with the Joneses.

It could be cynically argued that maybe SOE just wanted to differentiate itself from Turbine's model, since every good rip-off needs to have some sort of semi-original twist. I guess it's possible that SOE planned to have separate services all along, and the fact that this happened to dovetail with the wishes of their core playerbase was nothing more than happy coincidence. Either way, it suggests that SOE should get a few brownie points for trying to please everyone, whether it was intentional or not.

Elitism, choice, and the sub's rosy future

Crazily enough, SOE's brash move has been labeled "elitism" by bloggers and forum users over the past week, as if it's somehow an unspeakable evil that dedicated (i.e., invested) fans of a product would want to share it with those who are similarly committed. Tribalism isn't a new thing, though, and it's also not a unilaterally bad thing. Yes, extreme examples on both sides of the fence litter our history books, but really this is no more complicated than forcing Mets fans to carpool with Yankees fans. There's just no need to remove personal choice from the equation and mandate that all players get along.

Diversity has become such a silly, politically correct (i.e., useless) buzzword that people have forgotten that it is actually OK to hang out with people who have similar goals and interests, particularly when it comes to things that ultimately don't matter (like online gaming or any number of other hobbies). Exposure to forced diversity is fine on the college campus, some workplaces, and the political trail, but if I want to associate with like minds when I play games, at least Sony is one company that still has the stones to allow me to make the choice myself. Isn't choice a large part of the F2P rallying cry?

Is it [...] the beginning of the end of the "dinosaur" that is the subscription model?


So what, if anything, does all this mean for the future of MMOs in North America? Is it, as more than a few snarky email commenters have informed me this week, the beginning of the end of the "dinosaur" that is the subscription model?

Hardly.

The reasons why are two-fold. First, as I mentioned above, SOE isn't doing this because the company thinks F2P is the awesome utopia that many of its supporters believe it to be. It isn't an altruistic experiment designed to help the poor afford to game, or to give current customers more value for their money (actually the goal is less value, but I digress). No, it's about cold, hard survival and adapting by any means necessary. When the market changes again, whether because the number of moochers renders a truly free-to-play model infeasible or whatever the change-instigator happens to be, SOE, Turbine, and everyone else will change right along with it.

The second reason isn't so much a reason as it is a series of examples. Many folks seem convinced that the entire industry is heading toward F2P (and it may yet be; I can't say for sure, other than to point out that I think such talk is premature, especially in America). Invariably, their conversations steer clear of TERA, DC Universe Online, and Final Fantasy XIV, three of the four most anticipated AAA MMOs of the next year. Guess what all those titles have in common? Yeah, that's right, a subscription model.

Maybe the industry is completely F2P overseas (where they're also fond of child labor and David Hasslehoff), but here in America, AAA F2P is still reserved for games that are otherwise going down. The poster child for American F2P success is DDO, but let's not forget that its continued existence was born out of desperation. EQII, while probably not in similar dire straights, has been on the decline for a number of years (Georgeson says as much early on in the interview). LOTRO is the supposed oddball here, due to most industry folk assuming that it was one of the healthiest sub-based games (if not the healthiest) not named World of Warcraft. Obviously, though, it wasn't healthy enough.

Anyhow, that's about I all I can muster for this week (and for this tiresome topic). Hopefully next week we can return to talking about EQII, and forget about how (or whether) we pay for EQII. Until then, keep the blue side up.

Jef Reahard may be an eternal EverQuest II newb, but he writes a weekly column about the game anyway, through the eyes of a Ratonga Wizard (or any one of 3,720 other alts). If it has to do with the huge and ever-expanding world of EQII, it's been jotted down in The Tattered Notebook. Send Ratonga fan mail to jef@massively.com.

This article was originally published on Massively.