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The Shadow of Things to Come?

Phil James Posted:
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Vanguard is switching to free to play! Hooray!!

Ok, ok, so I made it up. Hopefully anyone who only reads the first line of an article before hitting the forums for flaming rants has now gone. It’s just us normal folk left here. As I said, I made it up, but I think a lot of people would agree that it’s certainly possible. SOE has set a precedent; EQII has already launched a free server, and that game was in good health. Vanguard isn’t in a similar shape. I can’t help but shake the feeling that Vanguard may go the way of the Matrix Online if something isn’t done to save it.

But does it even need saving? I don’t work for Sony Online Entertainment and I’m not privy to any meetings or intel regarding Vanguard, but I’d probably go with yes. Even the briefest of glances will give you an idea of the state of the game. Vanguard launched in 2007 with 14 servers, but failed to hold on to much of its player base and is now down to two servers, which isn’t a good sign. Few games can be counted as success stories with so few realms to choose from (Eve fans don’t hate me, your game is a notable exception). On top of the withering player base, SOE don’t seem to be lavishing a lot of attention on the game. There has been a lot of work smashing the bugs that plagued the game, but actual content patches are a bit scarce. The last large and update came two years ago in the form of the “Isle of Dawn” which serves as the game’s free trial and a streamlined and polished newbie zone. Since then there has been very little in the way of new stuff, a few raids and some tweaks here and there. The official site has an “In the Works” section which hasn’t been updated since July 15 2009! Clearly the game needs some love and does need rescuing before the only option is to pull the plug.

Once again, I’ll ask, but does it need saving? Again, I’d have to say yes. The game is a worth pulling back from the brink. It’s a great way to spend your evenings and weekends. Despite the lack of shiny new things, Vanguard has a lot of content in the form of its three spheres of advancement: adventuring, crafting and diplomacy. For those who with an eye on the horizon, it has immense maps to explore. Crafting is complex enough to get your kicks that way and diplomacy is a fairly engaging card game. Character classes fall into the main areas of tank, dps and healer, but many of them play out in interesting and unexpected ways. I’d love to see Vanguard saved and eventually flourish.

I’m making the assumption that moving to a subscription free model is the mouth-to-mouth needed to breathe new life into a game. We don’t have many case studies, but what we do have looks promising. Dungeons and Dragons Online was not in the greatest shape before letting people play for free. Did it work? Well, many people maintain that the game should never have been subscription based in the first place, but it’s certainly been given new life; the game is busier than I’ve ever seen it. If any more proof were needed, Turbine followed that up with giving us Lord of the Rings online for free too. LotRO was seemed to be doing well at the time so changing to a cash shop model must have made financial sense to someone.

Vanguard is of course a different beast to LotRO. The latter had two expansions under its belt and many content patches too. While playing you can buy content as and when you need it. Vanguard doesn’t have much new stuff to sell you so taking this path might be tricky. It could be done with an expansion which could be given free to subscribers and sold as premium content to free players. I suspect, however, that SOE would be reluctant to take this path, given that this would take a cash and resource injection up front. And all this with no guarantee that the player base would increase substantially.

The free realm on EQII plays out a little differently. You can get into the game at no cost, and play pretty much the whole game bar the latest expansion. The profits come with upgrades to your package, starting out with a small fee for Silver Membership, then moving on to Gold which is pretty much the same as a regular sub. Finally there is the hefty annual fee for Platinum. I would guess that this is the path SOE would take if Vanguard were to switch to F2P. But again, would this increase its numbers by much?

The trial isle is a great introduction to the game, but once players had left there then I would imagine that the devs would need to add some more new content to streamline the play experience for more casual players. I suspect that this would have the effect of turning off existing subscribers. Vanguard is a pretty complex game - many see it as the real successor to Everquest – so an attempt to make it more user friendly may look like “dumbing down” to it fans.

I’m finding it difficult to draw a conclusion to this problem. On the one hand I love Vanguard, it’s a great game despite its flaws. I’d love to see the player base boom and inject some cash into it which could then be spent on a new expansion. My gut says that it should go free to play, if only because I suspect that it may not last long the way things are now. There’s no guarantee that changing payment types would give the game the shot in the arm it needs, but I’m sure that fans would rather this happen than saying goodbye to Telon. Before I get flamed, I admit that I could be wrong and the game might soldier on in its current form for years to come.

Whatever the future of Vanguard may be, I hope it’s a long one.


Phil James