The Tattered Notebook: What free-to-play means for EverQuest II

EverQuest II
Thursday was quite the news day for EverQuest II. Normally, the announcement of pre-order specifics and details on the new expansion would be pretty big news by itself, but it was completely upstaged by the announcement that all EQII servers will be free-to-play.

As expected, there are lots of mixed emotions from the players regarding this new transition. Here at Massively, readers generally welcomed the move with open arms, but on the official forums and on the fansite EQ2Flames, there was a lot more trepidation. That's understandable because this move could change quite a lot going down the road. In this week's Tattered Notebook, we'll look at what the free-to-play transition means for the future of EQII.

Pay to hope, hope to pray

Executive Producer Dave "SmokeJumper" Georgeson made an interesting analogy between the traditional subscription/expansion model and the free-to-play model that the game will now follow. He referred to expansions as "pay to hope" and explained that players have to put a lot of money upfront and then essentially take a leap of faith that the expansion will deliver enough enjoyable gameplay to make their investment worthwhile. With so many different playstyles, and such a broad swath of content that needs to be included in an expansion, players can be left feeling like they didn't get their money's worth. On top of that, expansions have a long development cycle, and a certain percentage of players will consume the content so quickly that they're left waiting for months and months until something new goes live.

With the move to free-to-play, it's likely that players will see the game focus much more on regular game updates, which have been delivering meatier chunks of content and game improvements in recent months. And while Georgeson didn't say it outright, his description of the changing MMO market made it almost sound as if the game might be moving away from expansions completely. Will Age of Discovery be the last "traditional" expansion? It will be interesting to see whether the free-to-play transition will change the way players pay for new content and features.

EverQuest II
The 99%

The pay to hope model has its drawbacks, and Georgeson explained how, going forward, content and features will be designed around what players will pay. That is a double-edged sword, though. It does mean that players will have greater voting power and a bigger voice in what gets put into the game; if not, they can vote with their wallet. But because the model is limited on what it can produce, and there is an endless variety of playstyles, some ideas will be forced to remain on the drawing board.

EQII launched as the standard DIKU-based MMO, with a heavy emphasis on adventuring, leveling, and raiding. But over time, the game has done an amazing job of placing importance on other approaches to the game. Tradeskilling was improved upon greatly and could stand on its own as a separate game now. Housing and decorating has a much greater importance with the addition of the leaderboards. The challenge of being chosen as a top designer is on par with completing difficult adventure content. And soon, players will have the chance to play GM and compete to see who has the best designed dungeons.

It's great to see that in EQII, you can have lots of fun adventuring, PvPing, and raiding, but you can forego all of that and still have a great time doing some of the less-traditional MMO gameplay. Suppose, though, that dungeon designing becomes so popular that the majority of players prefer that to raiding. Given the fact that such a small percentage of players consume raid content, and that it takes a lot of time and resources to produce, will raid content begin to take a back seat? If you're limited in what you can produce, based on the constraints of the budget and the size of the team, does your game try to get a couple of dollars from the "99%" or a more sizeable amount from the "1%" of players who raid? Obviously free-to-play won't mean the complete and utter end to raiding, but if the game will be designed around the players' pocketbooks, as Georgeson indicated, it might have an effect on the focus of future game updates.

Budget friendly, but what if you want more?

Right now, the free-to-play model that EQII offers gives players lots of low-cost options. You can essentially play all of the content in EQII up to, but not including, the current expansion, and not pay a single cent. You can pay an additional five dollars and increase limits on things like bag slots, broker access, chat, and spell tiers. You can go even further and purchase unlockers to open up even more inventory space or equip legendary and fabled gear. In other words, there's a lot of freedom given to players who are more budget-minded and want to pay for features they want and not for the ones they don't want. It's not a "pay-to-win" system as much as it is a "pay-as-you-go" plan.

What I'd love to see down the road is a way for the most loyal and die-hard players to be able to pay more and get more. And by that, I don't mean uber items but rather something more along the lines of expanding the veterans rewards program. The gold plan is a nice catch-all plan, rolling everything up into one nice monthly payment. But there are players who are so active and so loyal to the game that they would probably be willing to pay a little more if they could get meaningful rewards that would add even more enjoyment to their experiences in game. This is a fine line to walk because putting things like content in the cash shop will probably trigger a revolt. But if there's an option for players to pay a few more dollars a month, in return for something extra, it might be a welcome choice for the most loyal fans of the game.

Overall, EQII's free-to-play move across all servers is something that needed to be done. It's nice to see the wall finally down, and I'm looking forward to seeing the game as one unified game again. But the transition raises lots of unanswered questions, and it will be up to both the players and the team to hopefully find common ground down the road. It could be a bumpy ride, but I think it's better to wade in and meet things head on rather than punting the issue by fracturing the community and walling off free-to-play in its own hamlet.

From the snow-capped mountains of New Halas to the mysterious waters of the Vasty Deep, Karen Bryan explores the lands of Norrath to share her tales of adventure. Armed with just a scimitar, a quill, and a dented iron stein, she reports on all the latest news from EverQuest II in her weekly column, The Tattered Notebook. You can send feedback or elven spirits to karen@massively.com.

This article was originally published on Massively.