Last week, while discussing the notion of the “free trial” in regards to MMORPGs (and what I felt were a pair of notable failures at the concept), I mentioned that there were some new business models debuting that could make the time-limited trial obsolete. “Free trial” has, in the last few months, been replaced by at least three major, established MMOs with a “free play” option instead: Dungeons & Dragons Online, Lord of the Rings Online, and Everquest 2.
The idea of a “free play” MMO goes back at least as far as Guild Wars, but Guild Wars expected (and still expects) you to buy the game first. Then there’s various recent attempts that let you start up and play free, but by and large I’ve found those of dubious quality and crippingly limited unless you pay for “optional” upgrades. So when Dawn told me that the venerable Everquest 2 was going to start a free-to-play version called Extended, I shrugged, considering the news on par with those cheaper “Special Edition” graphics cards people buy for their computers without realizing that the AssBlaster 5000 SE has only a fraction of the power of the AssBlaster 5000.
Given that attitude, I don’t remember what it was that possessed me to try out EQ2 Extended, but I was almost immediately shocked by the experience. Here’s the usual way these games go, even with free trials:
– you make an account and download the client, which is usually a fairly quick process.
– you go watch a movie, take a nap, or write the great American novel while all the core content and umpteen-thousand patch updates are retrieved and applied.
More than once I’ve just started the content and patching process before going to bed, hoping it will complete overnight without errors. So you can imagine how surprised I was to launch EQ2 Extended and be presented almost immediately with the screen for character selection and creation. Then, as I browsed through all the creation and customization options available, the game was still downloading in the background.
I kept expecting there to be a humungous wait, and there never was. I don’t know what deal with the Devil of streaming technology was cut, but oh how I wish now that all of the MMOs on the market could share in the dark pact. It’s just still mind-blowingly crazy to me how fast I was able to go from deciding “What the hell, I’ll try it” to running around the game world with my created character… and from a marketing standpoint, that seems to me like pure gold, the equivalent of putting the gum in the checkout line. “Oh hey, while I’m here let me grab some gum.” “Very well, sir, here’s your gum.” Only I’m not even paying for the gum.
It’s shitty gum, though, right? Maybe one or two flavors available, and they taste like sugar-coated cardboard? That was my next expectation, and yes, let’s be honest… for a free account, there are only a handful of character classes and races available to choose from. I’m not sure if this is a bad thing, though, especially starting out, since EQ2 has 19 different races and 24 different classes to choose from. It’s, uh… dizzying? So the fact most of them were locked off was sort of relieving to me. I suppose it could have been a dealbreaker if I’d had my heart set on playing a monk or a lizardman, but especially looking at this from a tryout perspective, I felt the choices available were more than enough to get started.
In the area I started in the graphics were somewhat dated. In fact, I felt the character models in particular left a lot to be desired, especially compared to what I remembered from back years ago when Dawn was actually playing the retail version of the game. That was until we realized that on the character screen, and in the in-game options, were buttons to set an ‘Alternate Appearance’. It turns out the default new look for EQ2 Extended (called the “Soga” version) is a direct result of trying to expand EQ2’s popularity in Asian markets by having a more anime inspired design for the races. Frankly, at least in the case of the humans I think it just makes them look like anorexics with bad hair and sleep deprivation issues, but I suppose tastes will vary. I appreciated the option to return to the original models, although this doesn’t necessarily hold true for anyone else looking at you in-game. Keep this in mind if you try it out, if you’re any kind of RPer you’re going to want to try to bring both appearances into some sort of resemblance to each other, so you don’t have people commenting on your purple mohawk, or your combover, or (in some cases) how pale your skin is, when according to what you’re seeing you’re a tanned woman with an elegantly styled braid.
It’s a weirdness, but here’s the upside of the system. Both of these appearances can be updated whenever you want, right from the character screen. That’s right, no customization charge, no need to visit some in-game “stylist” or reach a certain level, just change things around whenever you want to. This is another feature that blows my mind, because I’m so used to MMOs that restrict the option… and so this is exactly the sort of thing I was talking about last week, when I said show me what makes your MMO different. EQ2 Extended is very good at showing you these differences.
I said the environment I originally started out in seemed dated, but other areas I’ve been in look great. There’s impressive visuals and effects in EQ2 that I don’t see even in games that debuted just recently, such as waves crashing on a beach, or rainstorms that come complete with thunder, lightning, and an overlay for the ground that makes it look ‘wet’ for the duration. Your vision becomes very limited at night (unless you’re a race with compensating abilities), and blurs realistically if you dive underwater. A swollen river doesn’t just flow by you, it churns with billows of water, while a still pond casts a rippled, mirrored reflection of the nearby castle. On the other hand, it’s an older engine so I’m guessing you can also dial down the pretty if you need to run it on a not-so-new computer.
I don’t know how much of that fanciness was there when the game originally got released in 2004, but here I am running about and enjoying the immersion, for free. The world is exactly the same one the monthly subscribers get access to, the one that’s been developed and expanded on since 2004, and has the most extensive set of professional quality voice files I have ever experienced on any MMO. To begin with you actually have several different options for how your own character sounds: in World of Warcraft, for example, every female human PC has exactly the same voice. Here, you’ve got about ten different, complete sets to choose from. Then beyond that, a lot of the NPC dialog is fully voiced, and I’m not talking about just the starting areas (*cough*AgeofConan*cough*), but throughout the world.
Player housing is provided to you free and early, and is impressively freeform in how you’re able to decorate and customize. WoW to this day doesn’t have housing, while when I tried out LOTRO’s it was very limited in terms of where you could put things (I don’t know if that’s changed). Again, this is smart, EQ2 is showing how its experience differs. Where it also differs from WoW (but not LOTRO) is a blessed feature called the Appearance tab.
WoW to this day suffers from a curse. To be effective, you need the best gear… but that gear has a certain look to it, and that look may be fugly. So if you don’t like those puffy, blazing orange boots with your crimson platemail, too bad; you can’t even change the color, much less that they look like astronaut wear. I mean, you could stick with the ones you had before, but your stats will suffer.
So how about this for a mind-blowing feature (at least for any of us used to WoW)… you have one tab of your character that’s your actual equipped gear, for the stats… and another tab that you can slot for pure cosmetic looks. Something I’m still giddy over is that this doesn’t just extend to what you’re wearing, but what you’re fighting with. So for instance, as a “tank” character you really ought to be using a tower shield, and whatever one-handed weapon you can grab with the best stats… but what if you had imagined your character swinging around a big maul, instead? Or fighting with a dagger in one hand and sword in the other?
In most MMOs the answer would be “reroll, noob”; in EQ2, so long as your character class can legally use a certain weapon or item, you can stick it into your Appearance tab and that’s what they’ll look like they’re fighting with, while still getting all the benefits of what they’re actually equipped with. My Guardian could look like she’s dual-wielding two whips, but she’d still enjoy the protection of her shield and can use all the abilities that require it. Want to have the range and power of a longbow, but look like you’re hurling axes? Slot ’em in. LOTRO has something similar, with the drawbacks being that your outfits still take up inventory space and you can’t customize the weapons and shields.
You’ll never find it happening on WoW, though. The hardcore PvPers are too invested in recognizing certain sets of armor and weapons on sight in order to gauge someone’s threat level, so being able to hide that away would be considered a height of unfairness. I can see their point of view on this, certainly, but man does it make for some ugly-looking outfits. In EQ2, your gear is only going to be ugly because you don’t care, or are intentionally making it that way.
So, this is all great, especially with no startup and subscription fee, but let’s get back to the original topic: can it make for a viable business model? Well, the keys here are getting people to spring for a better subscription and/or getting them to open their wallets and shell out some micropayments. Let me be totally honest, here: as much as I’m gushing about what I’m able to enjoy for free, there are still plenty of features locked off to me, such as the entire auction house system, or only being able to receive mail and not send it, or not being able to equip certain high-end items. My bag and bank space are also limited. Every so often, a window pops up reminding me that for just $10 I can upgrade to a Silver membership and get this and that. Am I finding this crippling to my enjoyment of the game so far? No, I’m not, which actually surprises me. Even the pop-up somehow has managed to not do anything particularly obnoxious like appear in the middle of a combat.
This doesn’t speak well for the business model, but not everyone is me. Dawn wants to give them that $10 so that she can access channel chat. People are buying things from in-game vendors that cost real-world money, in the form of credits purchased to your account called ‘Station Cash’. If you have SC’s you can buy the l33t gear as seamlessly as if you were paying with your in game silver and copper… thankfully (and this is very important), you don’t need this gear to feel like you’re being effective. SC’s can also be used to unlock options in the character select without exiting the game. Doing this is expensive at about $7.50 real money per class or race unlocked, but if all you want to do is keep your free account but play a Troubadour, then you make that one-time payment and you’re good to go.
And this more than anything might be a look to the future for MMOs, the idea of the customizable experience. EQ2 has already implemented a feature where those with free accounts can temporarily use the auction house if they make a small SC micropayment. The $10 Dawn is considering is again a one-time fee that will unlock certain options without any recurring commitment. LOTRO seems to be doing a similar system with its “Turbine Points”, letting people unlock premium character classes, character slots and extra inventory space as they wish and are willing to pay for.
Also, if you’re not familiar with the phenomenon on MMORPG’s known as “Gold Farming“, a quick summary: for years, people have been paying real-world cash to third parties in exchange for having in-game money and rare items transferred to them online. This is a huge business, so much so that an entire illicit industry has formed around it with people whose entire job is just gaming the system to accrue gold to sell. They’re not interested in the game at all and often get in the way of those actually trying to play and screw up the in-game supply and demand economy. Often they’ll have automatic programs set up so they barely even have to be at the keyboard. So yes, it’s an illicit practice, banned by all legitimate MMOs… but also very hard for them to police. It’s like a much nerdier version of Prohibition.
And to continue the Prohibition analogy, stuff like Station Cash and Turbine Points are Legalization. It’s an acknowledgement that the problem isn’t going away no matter how much it gets cracked down on (and MMOs have tried for years), so the game sets up its own system of goodies for cash and sates the player’s lust for digital stuff without them having to venture into the seedy back alleys of the Internets. We’ll see how that works. I will say I have yet to get a single in-game “tell” message from a gold farming outfit while on EQ2, whereas in WoW you can’t go more than a day sometimes without getting several such spams.
World of Warcraft is still trucking along just fine on the ancient month-to-month subscription model, but it’s interesting to see how the smaller guys are innovating to try to compete, or at least carve out their own sustainable niche in the market. In this case, the beneficiaries are definitely us… because seriously, even in limited form EQ2 beats the ever-loving shit out of Mafia Wars, Farmville, or Evony, and now it costs the same to play.
If you’ve never checked out a fully armed and operational MMORPG, this is a great time to try, especially with EQ2 being so ridiculously quick on the set-up. I linked DDO and LOTRO’s pages already at the beginning of the article, although be warned they haven’t made the pact with Satan that avoids the long data retrieval time.
http://everquest2.com/free_to_play is the page for EQ2. If your experience is like ours you should be up and running within 20 minutes or less. None of the trial pressures of having only seven days to check things out. And if you don’t like it, you have no commitment and no feeling like you wasted money. Also no credit card on file. Pretty sweet deal if you think you might like occasionally firing up the ol’ computer and fireballing a few orcs.