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In-Depth with the New Free-to-Play Everquest II

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I count count the number times I've written news about a popular MMO making a move to the free-to-play model. At this point, saying that an MMO is free-to-play is pretty much like saying a car has rubber tires. Barring those few fancy exceptions with their diamond-plated rims (hi threre World of Warcraft), most every consumer vehicle is going to be running on the same wheels, and free-to-play is now the established norm for the genre.

Thing is, it makes perfect sense, as  Everquest II producer Dave “SmokeJumper” Georgeson explained in a recent press roundtable regarding EQII's move to the free-to-play model, just announced earlier today. By making the game free, players don't have to take a risk on purchasing the game retail and paying for a subscription, without knowing whether they'll enjoy the game or not, a payment model Georgeson dismisses as "Pay and Hope."

 "The free-to-play model puts a burden of quality on the developer" Georgeson said, stressing the benefits of FTP. "Players don't want to pay up front and gamble if the game is good. Now, if it isn't good, they simply don't pay."

Everquest II previously allowed for free play through what was called Everquest II: Extended. Unfortunately, Sony Online Entertainment was having troubles trying to manage too separate products, with the membership restrictions confusing many gamers.  Gold membership remains the standard for dedicated EQII junkies, only now almost all of the games races are immediately available to these subscribers, who previously has to purchase race packs in order to get their character of choice. Meanwhile, the price of the mid-level Silver membership has been dropped to $5 (previously $10). The free membership enjoys no real changes, though should benefit from the new content being packed into the game as part of this big re-launch.

Additionally, SOE will be refunding the price of race packs and other purchases made within the last two months, to bring them in line with the new model. "It's just the right thing to do" said Georgeson, proving the developer's dedication to his players.

Obviously this is just one half of the exciting EQII news, as a gigantic new expansion is slated for early December. "If you're bored after this release, I don't know why" Georgeson jokes. DC Universe Online, Sony's other big MMO, has apparently provided much guidance for the EQII team, especially in terms o getting players involved. For instance, DCUO players recently got to pick the next big Villain to appear within the game, and Georgeson seems excited about doing similar promotions with EQII.

"We're in the business of making entertainment that makes money. But there's nom oney if we don't entertain!" He exclaimed, saying that many developers get in the habit of doing the same thing over and over again, simply because that's been the model for so long. "We're not interested in doing stuff just because that's how it's always been done." He pointed to the new character race Beastlords as an example of using fan-input to shape the game, as the class had been requested for years without answer. Now, it seems that SOE is definitely listening.

Perhaps the biggest new feature mentioned was DungeonMaker, a system that lets players build their own dungeons using some preset layouts, then throwing monster spawners and traps around. "It kicks ass!" was Georgeson's remark on the builder, going on to explain how easy it is to use as compared to things like City of Heroes' architect mode. "What we are doing is making everything incredibly intuitive right at the beginning." He says the mode will be much like EQII's existing house-decorating features, with players able to hop from dungeon to dungeon, and rank those creations on a leaderboard, "putting the creativity and flexibility in the hands of the players."  Players will earn special tokens for completing these player-crafted dungeons, as well as for creating dungeons which rank well on the leaderboards. Exactly what sweet loot will be available to purchase with these tokens, remains to be seen.

Georgeson did reveal quite openly that players will not actually use their own characters within player-created dungeons, due to what he called "serious gameplay balance issues." Instead, players will find "adventurers" as loot within the main EQII game, unlocking the ability to use those playable characters within the DungeonMaker world.

Overall, this is a very exciting time both for longtime Everquest II players, as well as those who have lapsed accounts and are looking to get back into the game. The question though is whether this will be enough to entice new players, given the incredible amount of competition out there right now. DC Universe Online seems to have benefitted wildly from the move to Free-to-Play, and we'll have to see if Sony can recreate that success here. 

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Vito Gesualdi GameZone.com Senior Editor, DraftMagic.com Editor-in-Chief, NoNoComedy.com Contributor, and the hardest working man in show business. King of video walkthroughs for new games. Follow me on the twitters @VitoGesualdi.
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