The Tattered Notebook: Are EQII expansions a square peg in the free-to-play model?

The Tattered Notebook  Are EQII expansions a square peg in the freetoplay model
Last week's announcement of a new EverQuest II expansion was a surprise in many ways, but I think the biggest surprise of all is the fact that there is an expansion coming at all. The game has gone through many changes in both its update schedule and payment model over the past few years, so it's interesting to see the announcement of Chains of Eternity, EQII's ninth expansion. We've seen the transition to free-to-play, free content game updates, and with the most recent expansion, a move toward features and away from game content.

So why is EQII going back to a traditional style expansion? And in light of free-to-play and not "pay to hope," should the game even continue with paid expansions? Let's look at a few things to consider in this week's Tattered Notebook.

Look at the past

Expansions have always been a staple of the EverQuest franchise (and the best one is still Kunark!). For fans, it was like a new chapter in a book, so it wasn't even a question of whether or not you'd pay for it. EverQuest's first expansion, Ruins of Kunark, launched with a new playable race (the Iksar), a level cap increase, 26 zones (10 of them dungeons), epic quests, and lots of raid bosses for guilds to fight over. Similarly, EQII's first expansion, Desert of Flames, had 21 new zones (11 were instances), a level cap increase, the Arena, Maj'Dul and all those wonderful factions, six raid instances, and the ability to climb (yes, it's important enough to include on the list!).

The latest EQII expansion, Chains of Eternity, has a level cap increase for adventuring, tradeskilling, and guilds, new prestige abilities, new prestige tradeskills, and organic adornments, which become more powerful as you level up. As for content, it looks like there are two overland zones (Obol Plains and Eidolon Jungle) as well as nine instanced dungeons.

Features vs. content

If we broaden things out even more and take into consideration the most recent EQII expansion, Age of Discovery, things get curiouser and curiouser. The expansion announcement at the time actually came as a three-pronged game announcement, and it's arguable whether the expansion was even the most newsworthy of the three. Probably the biggest news that day was the EQII's move to a free-to-play model across all servers, and the other piece of news was Game Update 62. The expansion, Age of Discovery, launched with lots of features, like the Beastlord class, Dungeon Maker, and new Prestige Home. Where was the content? It was in the Freeport Reborn free game update that launched the same day. Granted, the free content wasn't equal to the larger content chunks that have arrived in past expansions, but the fact that content and features were split up, and that the features were marketed in the expansion, is noteworthy.

The Tattered Notebook  Are EQII expansions a square peg in the freetoplay model
Pay to hope?

What's particularly interesting is the change in philosophy over time, and it seems as if SOE is still trying to sort out the best model to use. Age of Discovery's feature-heavy expansion was done by design, and Dave "SmokeJumper" Georgeson, Director of the EQ franchise, said as much at GDC last spring. During a talk about MMO studios going free-to-play, he said, "I want the players to play together at all times. What I prefer to do is restrict features. When you first get into the game, you feel like the entire world is open to you, but there are things that you can't do. Lots and lots of games sell the content, but we're trying very hard to not have to do that."

Interestingly enough, he later talked about how the evolving model affects expansions, saying, "We're getting away from the expansion model because it doesn't make sense to dump content that is devoured in three weeks and you have nothing for the rest of the year. You would have never done [frequent content updates] before F2P because the focus was on the big content drop."

The latest expansion, with the return of content, seems to indicate that SOE isn't ready to dump the expansion model, even though it's moved away from the traditional subscription model. Furthermore, it looks as if the feature-heavy expansion might not have been as successful as hoped.

Double-dipping?

Expansions have always been an assumed part of life for EQ and EQII fans, but they were largely produced during a time when subscriptions were the only way to go and people were content to play the same content and features for a year or two. It's funny how something can look entirely different when put in different contexts. EverQuest II has changed its payment model considerably over time, putting the concept of a paid expansion in different light. It's hard to rationalize why certain portions of content are free, while others are sold as an expansion. Sleeper's Tomb, the new raid zone, is arriving next week as part of a Game Update. Why is that free when we have to pay for the zones in the expansion? What makes the content in Chains of Eternity worth a fee, while zones like Sleeper's Tomb or raid mobs like the new Avatars are free?

I get it, and yet I don't. Realistically, it's probably a turn-off to break up the price of an expansion into smaller payments that would come with each Game Update; players just don't want the constant harassment of having to pay for everything new. And obviously, SOE can't give all its content away for free. But the move to more regular content updates doesn't quite match up well with the slower pace of yearly paid expansions.

In any event, it looks as if EQII is still feeling out the right models for both its payment plans and its game development. The good news is that players have a pretty big say in that, since we vote with our wallets. Chains of Eternity might end up being a successful part of the EQII revenue plan, but if not, there's plenty of recent evidence to show that SOE is willing to change things up in order to find something that brings enough change, at a satisfying pace, and with a price tag that's acceptable to players overall.

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.