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Online Predators

January for shiftless UK games freelancers means frantic tax return time, in which we hand an eye-watering amount of the money we thought we'd earned in the last year back to the Inland Revenue. Going through the terrifying mountain of paperwork involved, something on a recent bank statement catches my eye.


SOE Subscriptions? Y'what? A frantic search reveals that whatever it is, I've been paying it for the last 11 months. SOE is, of course, Sony Online Entertainment, the MMO-centric arm of the Japanese games/tech despot. I log into Station, their central account service for all their games, and check what I've been charged for. It's not Pirates of the Burning Sea, the beta of which I tinkered with a while back. It's not Planetside, which is now free, and whose glory days I miss terribly. It's not Star Wars Galaxies, which I haven't played since 2004 (though I'm strongly tempted to revisit it for an RPS post some time). That means it's.... Oh no.

It's Vanguard: Saga of Heroes. This was the MMO released last year, with some fanfare, by Sigil, a new studio headed by some former Everquest luminaries, and was once the great hope for a smart, deep game to beat WoW and somewhat reinvent this often workmanlike genre. It didn't. Some great ideas in there, especially in terms of making a world that wasn't hung solely around hitting stuff, but it was horribly broken, depressingly characterless, wildly inconsistent and cursed with laughably demanding system requirements at its launch. It wasn't terribly successful, and Sigil and Vanguard were subsumed into SOE last May. The game continues still - several major updates down the line, Eurogamer reckon it's in slightly ruder health these days. It sounds as though it's still short on personality, the major shortfall for me, so I'm not likely to go back, but if anyone here's playing Vanguard, we'd love to hear your thoughts on it.

Edit - we were gonna save this for a round-up post rather than be filthy rumourmongers again, but, seeing as we're on the subject anyway, and people are bound to say "why haven't you jabbered about this?", here's an ex-Vanguard developer offering his entertainingly scandalous tuppence on what caused the game to be the mess it was. Opiates, apparently...

I specifically remember cancelling my subscription after just under a month of play, before my free trial ran out, but presumably the bailing out request got lost in the system somewhere. I don't have an email about it, but then I haven't had an email from SOE since 2005 and The Matrix Online beta, for some reason. The sum total of around £112 isn't a devastating amount of cash, and I don't quite know what my legal rights are here, but it certainly feels like it's been stolen from me- £112 of fun I haven't had. That's compounded by discovering that the bank card SOE have on file for me expired last March. It even says EXPIRED in big red letters on my Station account page, and demands I add a new card. And yet they've been merrily pulling cash from it on a monthly basis for almost a year. How can this happen - how can details of a dead card still be used to pull money from my account almost a year later? And can I get it back? Yes, I can. The lovely fraud prevention folk for my bank say they can easily strongarm the last four months of payment out of SOE, but the rest apparently can't be claimed because I didn't notice this sooner (which is fair enough, really).

This screenshot is the only reason I found to love Vanguard

While I'm childishly delighted about little old me getting to call in a fraud service on one of the biggest corporations in the world, I don't actually believe SOE are some great, corrupt evil to be avoided at all costs. It's just One Of Those Things. I'll be sticking to timecards rather than ever setting up a standing subscription with any of their games again, mind.

I guess my only hope of getting those first six months of cash back is pointing Sony at the records they must have, showing I've not logged into Vanguard since last February. That won't count for anything - it must happen all the time, and I suspect it's some of the financial bedrock the modern MMO is built upon. My mind spasms in mathematically-deficient panic when trying to guess how much money Blizzard, SOE, Codemasters, whoever must make each year from those hundreds or thousands or tens of thousands of gamers whose time in an MMO organically dwindles over the months, until they're no longer playing at all, but actually cancelling the subscription slips their mind. Either it just doesn't occur to them, or somewhere in the back of their heads they're still thinking "yeah, I'll go back in... when I have the time." Cancellation's something commonly done as an immediate reaction to a negative experience - my guild has split up, you've nerfed minstrels, a caption in your magazine says a rude thing about Jesus/the North of England/flight sim players... Gradual entropy of enjoyment seldomnly causes that burning need to demonstrate one's dissatisfaction.

In which case there's nothing they can do once they notice they're still paying, no-one to blame except themselves. No doubt that's one of the reasons MMOs are so beloved of publishers - it's a hook right into soft, yielding bank account flesh, and one that can stay attached for years, regardless of whether the owner's actually playing. Free, invisible money in vast quantities.

No wonder Microsoft thought it could persuade PC gamers to part with their cash for a Games For Windows Live Gold subscription - there's probably a whole bunch of damning demographic data that reveals we're capable of being an incredibly stupid bunch about our gaming money. I'd love to see figures on how many people are actually paying for a GFWL Gold account. I'd like to think it's not even in triple figures, but there's always that dread chance that a few thousand people who picked up Universe at War or Gears of War PC didn't manage to jump through enough legalese hoops to realise that they could play it online without paying extra. Even one RPS writer - who shall remain nameless unless he chooses to 'fess up - was initially convinced the GoW multiplayer required a paid-up Gold account, and wouldn't work with the free Silver version. Can GFWL Gold really have a future? I suspect so. It'd surely be dead already if it wasn't earning anything.

Rant ends. Any tales of gaming-related financial horror yourselves, mighty readers?

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