Alright, we've covered the ins and outs of EQ2's casual-friendliness on the player level. I think it's hard to argue that EQ2 is NOT a good choice of games for the casual player. Sure, it might take a bit more effort to level up than some other games, and if you craft you actually have to pay attention rather than have the game do 99% of the work for you, but there's plenty of content for the casual crowd nonetheless.
Now I'd like to take a look at a different aspect of the game: Guilds. Membership in a strong, healthy guild is a valuable part of many people's lives, but not necessarily necessary. Each character we make is required to have a race and class. Levelling up isn't technically required, but it is if you want to see your money's worth of the world. Wearing equipment is essential to survival.
I can only think of a couple core character traits that are optional: Your artisan class, and being in a guild. Just as anyone could solo from 1-70 if they choose, so could anyone do it without ever being in a guild. Pickup groups are also an option, though if you do a good job you're likely to get many queries about recruitment into a guild. Pickup raiding isn't highly likely, but you make enough friends in pickup groups and it could happen.
By the strictest definition of a guild, there's really no reason why one couldn't be an absolutely casual structure used by a handful of good friends who want an extra chatline. I even know of people who hire 5 folks to help them make a guild, then keep the guild as a 1-man operation to give them and their alts extra bank slots (not that I condone this).
Still, the EQ2 guild system offers a whole lot more than that, and most guilds choose to venture down the path leading to toys and bragging rights: Guild Levels. Quick Robin, to the Bat Time Machine!
As with so many things, EQ2 at launch had a pretty tough system for gaining guild exp. Firstly, only certain people tagged as Patrons were allowed to contribute to guild exp when completing writs and heritage quests. Anyone not flagged as a Patron could still do these quests, but only personal status would be gained. If you flagged someone as a Patron and they weren't pulling their weight, the whole guild was getting screwed. If someone contributed a lot as a Patron and then, say, stopped playing, you could un-Patron them to make room for someone new, but in doing so you would lose their contributions thus far.
What's more, that wasn't the only way to lose guild exp (including de-levelling, which wasn't possible for players, but guilds could sure do it). Every day (or was it hourly?), Patrons and their associated guilds lost a small chunk of exp, forcing a lifestyle wherein once you started working on guild levels, you were stuck having to grind out at least a certain minimum number of writs every day just to maintain the status quo, much less make progress.
One of my favorite memories of the Guild Level system at launch was the Maj'Dul carpet prize for Guild Level 30. Approximately 750,000 Status Points (a hefty sum before Status Items) and 66 platinum to get a totally unique, 48% mount. Can you say OUCH? I don't even have 66 platinum NOW, 3 years into the game! (admittedly, I am a bit spendy)
EQ2 guilds at launch were NOT casual friendly. Argue otherwise if you can.
Since then, with various intermediary steps along the way, we find ourselves in a much more relaxed atmosphere: Patrons are eliminated and everyone from a guild can contribute to levels equally, prices on the spiffier prizes (mounts and houses) have been made a lot more reasonable, and guilds NEVER lose exp, even if contributing members leave the guild entirely.
Most guilds are able to level a lot faster now than in previous times, not just because exp decay went bye-bye, but also because most of us have a much better Status-to-Exp ratio than we had before. Any time you earn status, the amount you earn is divided by a certain number - the result turning into guild exp contribution. That number used to range between 6 and 24, depending on the size of your guild. Now that number is 10 for everybody, which, again, makes MOST guilds level faster.
Uh oh..."most" guilds? Someone got left out of the joy of the 10% conversion rate? Yes, someone did. Very, very small guilds of between 6 and 9 members actually receive LESS exp per status gain than they did under previous rules. (Actually, so do guilds of less than 6 members, but while the strict definition of a guild only requires 6 members to form it, not maintain it, the spirit of the idea of a guild is still a band of at least enough members to form a full group with. As such, it's hard for me to feel sympathy for their loss of the ~17% conversion rate. Sorry.)
Annnnnnnyway, we do see a ding here against the little guy, and the little guy is most-often also the casual guy. Much as I can't quite relate, as my own guild hasn't had less than 10 members since its first 5 minutes of life, I do still feel bad for the legitimate small guilds of the world. You see, the giant guilds have had an advantage on levelling quickly ever since Patrons went away. A guild of exactly 24 people had the worst conversion rate of all, but anything over 24 contributing characters made the *effective* conversion rate slowly climb back up again, eventually matching or beating the prospects of the smallest guilds.
So yeah, though by now the conversion rate changes happened long ago, it was still a hit to an aspect of surviving as a casual guild. In fact, a guild of 6 contributing members at launch continued with the same rate throughout the various changes, so far as I recall, up until the across-the-board shift to 10% during Game Update 29.
When we go all the way back in time, the Status Items I keep bringing up didn't exist for casual, hardcore, large, or small guilds to use. They later became a tool used by all types of guilds as a significant source of guild exp, but were abused by certain ass clowns leading to a major nerf. That nerf hurts all casual guilds, in my opinion, large or small, and it hurts us notably more than raiding guilds because they get status from killing epics.
Up to this point, I do see a couple changes to the guild system that aren't so great for casual guilds, but I see a lot of positives, too. The hardcore guilds were able to level up steadily even back during the patron/decay days at launch. Now any guild can level up at its own pace without having to set daily goals and such.
Something should be said about the Guild Recruitment Window/System, however. Having ANY tool in place is better than nothing, but the current tool is massively biased towards the established guilds that don't need as much help (this has been acknowledged by SOE). The pros and cons of that tool, as well as what simple improvements could make it more fair to all, probably deserves a separate column someday.
And the future? What will the future bring? I think what most are expecting to impact guilds of the future are the upcoming Guild Houses. When will we see these? Definitely not with Kunark, and most likely about 6-8 months afterwards. By then I'm sure we'll have a handful of Level 80 guilds in the world, though probably not too many thanks to the Status Item nerf ;)
We don't know what the fortress-like compounds will offer guilds, but I'd be shocked if we didn't see enough functionality to serve as mini-cities: Broker, mender, banker, vendor, and crafting. Perhaps even some modes of fast transport. To acquire these perks, expect guild level requirements for the right to purchase, and no doubt a LOT of money to buy what you've unlocked.
When a guild can offer a fully-functioning, one-stop shop for all your needs, that's a BIG lure to prospective members. We could definitely see a shift towards bigger guilds gobbling up smaller guilds like Pac-Man on PCP.
A smaller, casual guild made up of close friends that desperately want to maintain their distinct identity shouldn't be affected by this. It can be fun to make your own way from scratch, and you can bet many will choose to keep doing this.
Many other small guilds, however, will probably find a very-understandable distaste for the long, arduous guild level climb, and choose to merge into a bigger, more established guild.
The hardcore raiding guilds of the world shouldn't be too affected by guild housing at all, and almost definitely not in a negative way. The really hardcore raiders tend to keep their rosters trim and aren't likely to accept large numbers of refugees seeking greater uberness. Also in their favor is an often bloated guild bank full of funds that result from selling excess raid loot. That'll make building the actual house much easier without having to rely on the contributions of large rosters.
Family-style, raid-capable guilds probably have the most to gain from Guild Houses. They'll accept (if not seek out) merger offers, take in folks of all levels, and pool their resources to grow stronger faster.
As for guilds like my own - large, high level, but extremely casual and non-raiding - I expect we'll come out about even. A roster like ours flows in cycles anyway, occasionally losing clusters of people to raid-focused pastures. We'll have a nice guild house, but not the nicest. Smaller guilds seeking cool toys in a casual atmosphere may consolidate with the bigger casual guilds.
The end result for the future? I think we will see a shift towards fewer, larger guilds, but not exactly the death of the casual guild. I think casual guilds always have to be there as an option - especially as the players who first fed the MMO genre get older - and we need to remember the difference between small and casual.
Is SOE intentionally trying to destroy casual guilds, or any other part of the casual lifestyle? Nah, I think that's just foolishness. EQ2 wouldn't survive without a base of non-hardcore players who just want to relax and have fun in this virtual world.
I would caution the devs, however, to be very careful as they lay out the requirements and pricings for Guild House features. Make sure not to put all the most sought-after features in the upper level requirements. Please closely study the amount of money that 90% of the guilds have access to, and keep housing prices in the realm of something reasonable to work towards. If Guild Houses - or any other future feature - play too strongly to the top tier, THEN we'll find ourselves with a problem with EQ2's casual atmosphere.
That said, the overwhelming majority changes to adventuring, crafting, and guilds over the last 3 years have been to the benefit of casual playstyles, and making EQ2 a more accessible game for all. I *THINK* we can count on the devs to remember their evolution of guilds so far when making plans for something as major as guild housing, but we're also way too far out to judge at this point. We'll look again in about 6 months!