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Free for All: Playing pretend and the Vanguard F2P experiment

Beau Hindman
·- Columnist
·8-min read

For a little bit of fun, I decided to perform a mental experiment. You know that whole "make Vanguard free-to-play" thing? Well, let's just say that it happened. There, it's done. See? That wasn't so hard. All we had to do was close our eyes real tight, do the Slappy dance three times and wish with all of our heart and it was done.

Of course, it's not that easy. We need to see exactly how our pretend free-to-play version got to where it is now and how it might pan out in the future. How did pretend Sony Online Entertainment do it? Is it confident that this pretend move might bring in more pretend players? Do pretend players translate to more pretend profit?

Click past the cut and let's play with it. Leave your ideas in the comments section.

The pretend announcement was brief but potent: "SOE announced today that Vanguard: Saga of Heroes will officially switch to a free-to-play model by the end of spring." Sites ran with it, including Massively. The news post nabs the most comments of the week. Cut to the Ewok celebration scene at the end of Return of the Jedi.

Of course, no one can guarantee the success of the experiment. Heck, no one can guarantee SOE's ability to pull off the re-launch. Yes, the company did it with EverQuest II -- and did it quite well -- but that was a much more successful and older title that was based on an already-successful IP. Fortunately, there are several similarities between Vanguard's situation and other free-to-play transformations like Lord of the Rings Online and Dungeons and Dragons Online.

But the very first thing we must do is take away the term free-to-play. All of the games I have mentioned so far are not actually free-to-play, except in very rare circumstances; they are instead freemium games. Western developers have shown their love for tiered sub models and limited free offerings, while "true" free-to-play games like Mabinogi offer actual free gameplay. (Free as in, you can play all the way until the end.) Knowing SOE's pattern of development, it will more than likely choose a tiered model for Vanguard. After all, the company has experience with it, thanks to EverQuest II, so why mess with what works?

I'll go ahead and skip explaining how sad this makes me, this thought of a chopped-up and piecemeal cash-shopped Vanguard. I want a free Vanguard, with a nice little optional cash-shop tacked on top. You know the kind -- perhaps some clothing items are for sale, some experience potions, several sets of furniture, maybe even a mount or two (the flying mounts could fetch 10 bucks a pop). Instead, we would wind up with a basic Vanguard that demands payment for certain dungeons or areas. The open world of Telon is now a series of toll booths.

Still, it's something.

Let's be honest, anyway. The one true benefit of free-to-play gaming is the free, basic access. If a developer wants a game to stay on the hard drives of its players, it can offer the option. Sure, a free account cannot do everything that a "premium" can, but give it a while and many of those free players will either spend some money on a shiny new cash-shop item or will break down and sub for the month. There will be so many new players and so much new activity that the older players will feel invigorated and excited to show off to the youngins -- it's a win win, and a sneaky one at that.

"Meanwhile, more players subscribe because of the new excitement surrounding the game. Even older players who swore to never return will return and will probably spend more in a month in the cash-shop than they ever intended."

So our pretend Vanguard is released with this odd yet disturbingly brilliant western model of free-to-play. Any mention of the game will be met with the highest praise, simply because of this free access. Despite the fact that the subscription option was already there and the fact that many of those players were already paying $15 a month for basic access, SOE will be called heroes for opening the free gates to the world of Telon. Meanwhile, more players subscribe because of the new excitement surrounding the game. Even older players who swore to never return will return and will probably spend more in a month in the cash shop than they ever intended. Those backpacks and experience pots sure are tempting, and hey -- it's only five dollars!

This is the brilliance of the freemium model. I never thought I would see the day when players cried out for free-to-play to come rescue their favorite dying game. I also never in a million years thought I would see the day when players who might normally shun "those crappy free-to-play games" plunk down dollar after dollar to buy colored saddles and special titles in the cash shop. Beggars cannot be choosers, though, so I'll take the ironic twist that left Vanguard with much more hope than it has now.

Of course, more players in the game means more developers. As reality has it now, Vanguard players do not even know who their developers are. I'm not even sure they know who their community manager is! So where would these new developers come from? Some would come from other projects, and some would be new hires. Most, though, would be former Vanguard developers who were pulled away from the project months, if not years, before. They would all gather together for several months to put together a freemium version of Vanguard, design a new site that reflected the new version, and get with PR to send out the announcements to websites like

"The entire thing would take six months to assemble. Within six months after the 'new' release, subscriptions double and a permanent developer team is put in place. It's nothing fancy, mind you, but six developers are way better than... none?"

The entire pretend thing would take six months to assemble. Within six months after the "new" release, subscriptions double and a permanent developer team is put in place. It's nothing fancy, mind you, but six developers are way better than... none?

The truth of all this is that it costs money to go free. There would be coding to get done, and a lot of design. Cash-shop items would need to be created, balanced and tested. A new launcher would need to be made. All of the updates that currently need to get done would need to be done right now in order to fit into the new cash-shop theme. No one wants to buy a broken item, but no one wants those new cash-shop items to outshine current ones. Balance, balance, balance. Going free-to-play would be, at the least, a gamble for SOE. Is basic, free access enough of a temptation to counteract the fear of a 15-dollar monthly bill? Is getting a player's foot in the door really going to translate to more money? Is that all it takes?

It's my theory that it isn't the subscription cost but the thought of the subscription cost that matters. The average player isn't hurt by the 15-dollar monthly bill, but she might start to feel it when she maintains more than one game. It's a mental block. Basic free access is enough to push that player back into the game. It's enough to loosen the purse-strings of players who normally would not pay the same amount on a subscription. Free-to-play works on that spending impulse we all feel occasionally. If enough people log into Vanguard for free, the percentage of those who cannot resist a cash-shop shiny is enough to keep the game more than alive.

Could it happen? Let's say it has. Would it be enough to convince burned-out former raiders or explorers who gave three years of their gaming life to the same developer they mistrusted earlier? I think so. The proof is there already. At the very least it would give many players a chance -- or a mental push -- to finally try the wonderful game called Vanguard. Even players who didn't like the game that much before would find themselves logging in to do a little exploring and perhaps a little adventuring. The game, like a good book or a new musical collection, is given the time it needs to grow on people. Slowly, the game casts a spell on people who didn't look at it twice before.

Let's just pretend it happened. I like that idea.

Each week, Free for All brings you ideas, news, and reviews from the world of free-to-play, indie, and import games -- a world that is often overlooked by gamers. Leave it to Beau Hindman to talk about the games you didn't know you wanted! Have an idea for a subject or a killer new game that no one has heard of? Send it to!