Norrathian Notebook: Are membership changes a benefit to EQII players?

While I had another, happier topic all ready to ring in the new year, SOE surprised us with a questionable decision this week that I felt necessitated an immediate response. So today we'll focus on this hot topic instead: All change is not good. And SOE's announced change in membership benefits for EverQuest II is really not good.

Previously, with the removal of the remaining free-to-play restrictions, EQII subscribers saw their benefits whittle down to essentially a buff to mount speed and coin, AA, and XP accumulation (basically what was offered during the Gold Rush event) and the monthly 500 Station Cash allotment. While that seems as if players lost most of their advantages for subbing, there wasn't too much murmuring because at least we were happy that our comrades had the freedom to choose the classes and races they wanted and enjoy the game better. And besides, we still had the 500 SC, so we still had some worthwhile benefit. Well, now that's changing.

SOE has decided that this last benefit must be retooled from 500 SC that accumulates until you use it to the ability to buy one single item for up to 2000 SC per month. While it may sound like a better deal on the surface, it's not -- not for SOE or for its customers.

I know what you're thinking: Wait, MJ is speaking ill of SOE? Yes, it happens. It's no secret that I am by and large a fan of SOE; the studio has a spectrum of titles to choose from, and I have played -- and continue to play -- a number of them. I am also one of the throng just waiting to dive into EverQuest Next Landmark later this month. But that does not mean I think the company is infallible, and I think this decision is bad on many fronts. In fact, the decision baffles me. Not only does it cheat customers out of freedom, but I suspect it will cut into profits. And that's not even addressing the fact that the announcement itself can lead to misunderstanding.

Clarity is a virtue

Let's touch on the clarity issue first (since this entire rant is based on the announcement being interpreted one way, and that way isn't necessarily universal). When the news first popped up, one Massively staffer noted that the wording implies that the new benefit of the 2,000 SC item will not carry over to subsequent months, necessitating dropping the next allotted 2k on the same item to keep it or selecting a new one. A temporary item? Ugh, no thanks! I am convinced that what it meant to say is that the benefit is the ability to select the item, and that ability to select will not carry over and stack (ergo you can't get two 2K items the next month). You can see why clarity matters. I don't like the change either way, but the former would be way worse than the latter! So at least for this article, we are going with my interpretation.

Let's talk freedom

Or the loss of it. As the memberships benefits stand now, players are granted 500 SC for every month they are subscribed. Under the new system, which goes into effect the week of February 3rd, 2014, players will be allowed to buy one single item valued up to 2,000 SC per month. Just a glance at the numbers might have you all excited that you won't have to wait months to save up for something. But there is a catch -- many catches, in fact.

One, the monthly item doesn't stack. That means if you miss logging in for the month, or you simply forget to claim something, you lose the chance to get anything. No more coming back from a hiatus with some tangible reward for your monthly sub fees. At that point, if you didn't play, you've literally thrown the money away. It's like the change to Legends of Norrath: If you forget to log into it for the month, you lose your five free packs.

Two, you can get only one item, no matter the cost. What if you wanted to get five 100 SC items? Too bad: You can have only one. Try decorating a house with one building block a month. The 2K SC deal is a good deal only if you really want a 2K SC item each and every time. You might even select something for less than 500 SC, which means you are getting way less value for your sub, not more as is (laughably) claimed.

Three, there are restrictions. I love how SOE doesn't actually come right out and lay the restrictions on the table; instead, it says, "Players Studio, bundles, and additional exclusions may apply." (italics added) Want a bundle of building blocks? looks like that's a no. But what is restricted for sure? Who knows! And it can change daily for all we know. There is wiggle room that maybe one Player Studio item or bundle will be available, or maybe more, maybe none. What I am really seeing here is that my choices are being reduced and can arbitrarily change further, at that.

And four, you don't actually get any Station Cash. You see, SC is usable among all SOE games, so having a sub in EQII could mean grabbing something for your PlanetSide 2 character if you didn't spend it all in the fantasy game. That might even get you to try the other titles. With the changes, that will be impossible since the sub for EQII will grant you an EQII item. On a positive note, the letter sent out by SOE states that if you are an All Access member, you do get the 2K gift in EQII, PS2 and also EverQuest, along with loyalty points (that do stack each month) in DC Universe Online. That benefit definitely makes the All Access a sweeter deal as you get a 2K item in each game instead of spreading 500 SC between them. However, if you sub to only one game but play others occasionally, restricting the gift to the game further limits what you can use your SC on. And that, my friends, is precisely why I think the switch is happening.

Why this switch, and why now? My bet is because EQN Landmark is coming out soon and SOE wants to prevent players from building up SC by subbing to one game and spending it in EQNL, thereby forcing players to buy SC for the new sandbox if there isn't any kind of subscription benefit offered. Additionally, since there hasn't been definitive confirmation that EQNL or EverQuest Next will be a part of All Access, you may be forced to sub separately for any benefit.

Let's talk profits

Or potential lack of them. Under the current membership benefits system, if players want a 2K SC item, they have to pay for four months of subscription at $15 bucks a pop, or they can go the quick route and buy an SC card at Walmart to get the 2k for $15. So in the first case, SOE gets $60 for an item, and in the other it gets $15. I may not be a business genius, but I am pretty sure that 60 is more than 15.

What about the loss of profits from consumer backlash over feeling cheated? How many customers are already saying they won't be visiting the Marketplace any more. There have already been many disgruntled murmurings about the loss of double- and triple-station cash days (replaced in only one case by a 50% rebate sale), so why add to the negative view that the company is just finding more ways to gouge its player base? A customer scorned is a customer lost.

And why is Player Studio being punished? Granted, SOE had to pay Player Studio submitters whether the item was purchased with accrued SC or purchased SC. But it's not as if SOE was paying out of pocket. Be it from subscription funds or outright Station Cash purchase, SOE received money from the buyer. Now, with the new changes, it is more likely that people will avoid buying things on the Marketplace that fall into the "exclusions" category, and that includes the Player Studio. I'd hate to see the life get snuffed out of this program.

Obviously, I can see where SOE benefits if you forget to claim the item each month because it has your sub money and you have nothing. I can also see how buying something that costs very little does line the studio's pockets more. Maybe this is really what SOE wants. But in all honesty, I see more people actually dropping recurring subs, maybe to pick it up once in a while if there is a big item wanted, and SOE losing the constant revenue. Is this all planned? It seems as if SOE wants to just take the subscription offering out back and shoot it and henceforth rely only on cash shop purchases!

EQII screenshotI've got a bad feeling about this

The problem with the aforementioned scenario is that I personally prefer subs precisely for the reason that they provide more flexibility and freedom. The current 500 SC allotment allowed me the freedom to go in and grab a couple things that caught my interest, even player-designed items, whenever I wanted. And that flexibility is exactly what's going away. The fact is I don't even buy much and have a bunch of SC accrued (including purchased), so it's not as if SOE has lost money on me, but I am certainly not going to reward a company for limiting my options and nixing my flexibility by buying any more SC.

On top of that, I don't even like the consumerism espoused by the new changes; you are forced to get something you may not even want or need just so you don't lose the benefits you are paying for. With many items already being no-trade in the Marketplace, you can't even give anything away to someone who might want or need it.

Possibly the worst part of this whole impending debacle is that SOE is proclaiming this change is a great value, mentioning it not just once but twice! Losing freedom is never a better value, no matter how prettily it's gussied up. Customers are going to lose out, and I think SOE will also lose out, not just from a hit to consumer confidence but in actual profits when subs dwindle. I don't see there being more profit in this any more than I see players feeling this is a wonderful change. SOE, I think you are shooting yourself in the foot, and there will be collateral damage.

You asked for feedback, so there mine is. The deal seems nice for All Access members, but it hurts those who are committed to just EQII. I hope you reconsider this change. DCUO gets stackable points still; why not EQII? Or perhaps give players the option between the two choices, locking their choice in for six months at a time. Or maybe consider adding something more to the subscription to add value because this switcheroo missed the mark.

[Update: CEO John Smedley announced on Reddit that the company has heard player feedback and listened; he offered proposed changes to the changes, including access to all games for the price of a single sub ($14.99), a 10% Marketplace discount, removing the Player Studio restriction, and keeping the 500 SC monthly allotment that stacks (but you have to claim it). Feedback is still welcomed.]

The EverQuest realm is so big that sometimes MJ Guthrie gets lost in it all! Join her as she explores the franchise's nooks and crannies from the Overrealm to Timorous Deep. Running every Saturday, the Norrathian Notebook is your resource for all things EverQuest Next and EverQuest II -- and catch MJ every 'EverQuest Two-sday' on Massively TV!

This article was originally published on Massively.