Toldain Talks

Because reading me sure beats working!


Toldain started as an Everquest character. I've played him in EQ2, WoW, Vanguard, LOTRO, and Zork Online. And then EVE Online, where I'm 3 million years old, rather than my usual 3000. Currently I'm mostly playing DDO. But I still have fabulous red hair. In RL, I am a software developer who has worked on networked games, but not MMORPGS.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

The Two-hour Fix

In my last post, I listed a bunch of things that have changed since Everquest 2 launched a year ago. And there are a lot of them. The game has faced competition from World of Warcraft and other online games for most of that time. And it has certainly adopted some ideas from those games and earlier games. But in this post, I'd like to focus on the design ideas that I believe are new with Everquest 2, and add significant value to the experience.

  • The first item is combat mode. The game makes a clear distinction between fighting and not-fighting. When you are in combat, you run more slowly, and your pow and health regenerates more slowly. Effects of food and drink are suspended. Certain spells cannot be cast in combat, Call of Qeynos/Freeport comes to mind here.

    The effect of this is a huge reduction in down time. In Everquest 1, after a fight one often had to stop and rest to regain mana and health. Especially if soloing. This happens very little now, often by the time a group has identified its next target, it is ready to go. This can depend on how tough your opponents are, though.

    Changing run speed in and out of combat has a different effect. Namely, it makes kiting much more difficult. Kiting is a tactic that involves getting speed buffs for yourself, and something to slow down the mobs. Then you would continually run away from the mob and shooting at it (or cast spells) until it drops. If you did it right, you never really got hit. Druids and Rangers, and to some extent Wizards, were famous for this in Everquest 1, to the point where they could pull and kill a majority of the mobs in a zone, leaving very little else for other players, and that was a problem.

    Everquest 2 allows a little bit of kiting, though since the combat revamp removed the Rangers ability to shoot on the run, it got a lot harder for them. Slowing down run speed makes kiting harder while still allowing faster travel time, and making it easier to run away once combat is broken.

  • Another improvement of note is the fact that there is no such thing as meditation. In Everquest, mana (and health) regen was significantly faster if you sat down and "meditated". When I started playing Everquest, meditation hid the screen so that you could not see your surroundings. (Nostalgia Warning: Folks made special emote message hotkeys for their meditation, such as "Scooby takes his copy of Magic for Dummies"). This was so ingrained in us that for at least a month after launch, you could spot the EQ1 veterans because they sat down after every fight. And even during a fight if they became low in pow. This was the standard tactic.

    This is the fundamental issue that gave rise to the "camp". If you were fighting heavily at all, then your casters, especially your healer needed to be meditating as much as possible. So groups tended to stay in one place, killing whatever mobs they could get their hands on. Often they employed a pulling specialist, such as a monk or shadowknight or pet to pull from long distances to keep the battle going.

    There is no meditation now. The effect of this is that groups move around a lot now, by comparison. People do not just sit in one room in a dungeon, killing the things that pop there over and over, except on certain quests. But even then they are more likely to circulate between a few rooms. This has opened up the game and given it a more fluid feel. Combats are much shorter and more intense now, though that really isn't a design innovation, it's a design choice that plays into the more fluid, dynamic feel of the game. Unless you are trying to defeat the Creator for the Restoring Ghoulbane heritage quest or something.

  • Spawn times, while still feeling long in places, have been greatly reduced. Raster of Guk is a good example. In Everquest 1, monks needed to challenge Raster for their epic quest. So they would go into the dungeon of Lower Guk and stay at Raster's spawn point for hours on end, killing each placeholder. Many a monk stayed there for 30 hours or more, trying to get Raster to show up. There were many places like this, where a known rare mob would be farmed, with groups locking down prime real estate and attendant conflict over whether SOE enforced the notion of "camping" and so on.

    There is very little camping now in EQ2. The good drops come in chests. The really good stuff comes from chests found on especially interesting mobs, but typically they are in instanced zones, like Nektropos Castle, so there is no competition for them at all. The main reason to camp a rare spawn is to advance a quest, and in that instance, the game encourages cooperation: if you group together, you can both advance the quest from the same kill, as long as your levels aren't too different.

    Camping isn't quite dead, but believe me, compared to EQ1 it's greatly reduced.

  • Travel is quite different now as well. Zones are very large, but it isn't all that hard to get to any particular zone, travel wise. Anyone can go home, they have Call of Qeynos/Freeport (and now, Call of Maj'Dul). Everyone has this, not just casters.

    The bell/carpet system, along with the griffon towers, makes getting to the primary zone you want fairly fast and simple. Once in the primary zone, you may then be faced with a seemingly long journey through that zone to a dungeon, but mostly the art, music, and sound f/x will make that journey seem epic, though it may last no more than ten minutes. By the time you get to Nektropos Castle you feel you are somewhere really remote. I suspect there is no place in the game that a character cannot travel to from the starting cities in less than half an hour, and most places take less than 10 minutes. A big improvement.

    And the ability to come and go from the home cities allows the whole idea of the customized living quarters to be viable as well. This took a while to catch on, but most folks have now embraced this system as a way to display trophies and sell via the broker if nothing else. But many find it fun to express their character by decorating their room. And it's a good way to curb inflation by taking money out of the game via room rents. And with pets, holiday decorations, strange looking furniture, books, and all the wild constructions that folks have come up with (lofts, fireplaces, hot tubs, etc.), it's been a lot of fun, too.

  • Not only does everyone get the spell equivalent of Dorothy's Ruby Slippers, but in fact everyone gets spells. With Scouts and Fighters, they are called Combat Abilities, but in practice they are spells. And everyone gets at least one new spell every level. This makes the melee classes, especially tanks, much more interesting to play, since there's more to them then turning on autoattack and spamming taunt.

    It also makes power use/management a concern for all classes. And you get a new spell each level, which makes the level always mean something to you. Even-numbered levels get one of the "differentiation" green pluses, too. This is much more satisfying to the player than getting new spells every four or five levels, and having to go buy them. Yes, you still have to play the upgrade game, but you still get something new or improved with every level.

  • The quest system is a big improvement over what came before. I don't know enough other MMORPG's to say whether the quest journal is new for EQ2, but other non-multiplayer computer games have had something similar. Still, it's extremely useful. The use of speech balloons as choices for what you might say next is a big improvement over having to guess how to phrase the next response. And there is feedback that a step in the quest has been completed. I can't say that this was the intent, but that sound serves to condition players to feel they've done something good. Sometimes I feel as if I am one of Pavlov's dogs, salivating at the sound of the quest "dingy".

    And there's a lot of interesting variety to be had, as well. Access quests open up an instanced zone with a special storyline. Book quests are fun for those who like books, though I'd like them to be a bit more solo-friendly. Collections provide another way for players to have positive interactions, via trading items. And of course, heritage quest give you something to work on over the long term, and often have the most interesting storylines, in addition to providing a link to Everquest 1, and giving a great way for guildies to collaborate on leveling a guild.

    There are so many quests in a zone that players cannot typically do them all before outleveling the mobs in that zone. This is good, because it gives the players a sense of purpose, a feeling that they are doing something more than simple slaughter. And with lots of choices, it means that everyone isn't doing the same thing.

  • Storyline is driven into the game in a much more strongly in Everquest 2. The combination of the quest system, instanced zones, and books really allow for a lot of dramatization. Stories and history make the world seem more substantial and interesting, and they can be a lot of fun. Instanced zones are not strictly new with EQ2, Everquest had them. But EQ2 will use them at nearly the drop of a hat, whether for a boat ride, or a special zone with Fippy Darkpaw. They allow not just a private dungeon to the player, but a private stage, where a drama can take place without interference, something that is difficult in a shared instance.

  • One of the things I like the most about EQ2 is the class and subclass quests. They really do a good job of dramatizing what the class/subclass is all about, and make the player feel like he is really filling the role of that class. Rogues have to sneak around and discover information. Enchanters need to solve puzzles and discover influences. Guardians need to, well, guard someone. Brawlers, at least in Freeport, get to take on a thinly disguised WWF. This is really fun, and dramatizes what's special/unique about a class.

  • The crafting system is the most elaborate I've seen. Multiple levels of quality are possible on the same combine, so your skill actually seems to matter. And there is opportunity for interaction with other players here, too, since rare components can drop in chests as well as be harvested, so even a strict fighting-only character might get one and have something made.

I think that hits the high points for me. If you read this blog much at all, you know that I love to play it. The most important idea in Everquest is that a player can accomplish something meaningful in a two-hour play session. Reduced down time, travel arrangements, a rich array of quests, and the relative lack of camping are all a factor here, be it questing, crafting or just leveling. Which keeps people who can only play for two hours at a time coming back for their latest fix of Evercrack.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

The More Things Change

We are fast approaching the first anniversary of Everquest II. I thought I would review the past year with a few posts. First, I'd like to remember all the things that are different now from the way they were at launch. So here they are, in no particular order:

  • At launch, guilds had level decay. A guild's level would decrease over time, so some work, writs or Heritage Quests was necessary to just maintain a guilds level.

  • At launch, guilds had patrons. If a patron left a guild, or stopped being a patron, the guilds status was lost. (The patron lost personal status too, but that was a bug)

  • Only patrons could spend status to buy stuff from status merchants.

  • There were few or no solo-rated mobs in the game.

  • Harvesting in Antonica and Commonlands required a skill of 40(it's now 20). The tier 1 zones were so crowded with people trying to skill up that it was hard to find some nodes at all.

  • Harvesting nodes didn't guarantee 3 drops, they only guaranteed 3 tries at getting a drop.

  • The Glowing Black Stone Heritage Quest didn't use up your palladium torque, so you could keep it in inventory, check off that step of the quest and pass it on to the next person.

  • There were no skill books for Apothecary (or Weaving, Geomancy, or Timbercraft, for that matter.) so you had to trade for your WORT.

  • No one knew what Vitality was, and it wasn't shown.

  • Combats were locked, and no one could interfere unless someone in the combat yelled for help.

  • Heroic Opportunities were hard to start, because the wrong spell during the starter chain would cancel them. But they were easier to finish once the wheel was up, since they had much more time to complete.

  • Most items and spells improved as you leveled, up to a point. Jewelry had mitigation.

  • Breeze was cast only on individuals, and only lasted 3 minutes, thus giving all Enchanters repetitive stress injuries

  • The Language Drops were tradeable but only dropped in chests in one zone, for example, Chirranite Threat Totems only dropped in chests in Blackburrow.

  • Sneak and invisibility used to slow you down from normal running rate

  • The guild tool didn't have events or a place to make notes about Alts (and silly nicknames).

  • You needed to complete fairly elaborate access quests to be allowed to go to Enchanted Lands or Zek before you were level 30. And many other zones.

Wow, things really are different now. If there's a theme to these changes, its that the hand of the game designers lay a bit too heavy on the players at launch. Many of the restrictions seemed a tad artificial, and could be viewed as a means to force a particular style of play, or to slow down the really gung-ho types.

Over the summer particularly, SOE has walked away from that approach. In a sense, there is less of a need to slow down leveling now, since many players have reached level 50 even with all the obstacles. Group play is still strongly rewarded with better loot and experience, but not forced, since there are plenty of quests and mobs for the solo player. Power leveling is now possible, though I haven't seen much of it, since a knowledgeable player can level an alt pretty fast without it, as long as the vitality holds out.

Next, I'll be writing about the things that are still there-the good ideas that Everquest II had and still has.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Why don't you come with me, little gnome?

I took a magic carpet ride to the Sinking Sands and thence to Maj'Dul, City of the Desert, and the main base of operations for Everquest II'2 first expansion, Desert of Flames.

The theme that becomes apparent when comparing Maj'Dul to the first two cities of EQ2 is: Let's do everything the exact opposite!

Everyone, Freeporter and Qeynosian alike, is equally welcome in Maj'Dul. Which is not to say that they are necessarily welcome, since all of the NPC's in Maj'Dul can be fought with, and some are even KOS to the newcomer, though they have very short aggro ranges. Oh, and remember that business where the enemy guards don't kill you, they just toss you out of the city. Well, if you get in a fight in Maj'Dul, it'll kill you all right.

Of course, there are powerful wizards who rule Maj'Dul, and don't like fighting, so if you should start feeling your oats and slagging guards for some reason, they will intevene and zap you both.

Characters can align themselves with one of three Courts in the city, the Court of Blades, the Court of Coins, and the Court of Truth. Each of these courts controls parts of the city, and the game indicates this by placing the correct banner on towers around the city. Doing missions for a Court will gain you faction with them, but it will also earn you the enmity of the other factions, making their portions of the city distinctly less safe.

The rules change that happened with the expansion enabled PVP duels. (A huge reversal of SOE's position, by the way.) Maj'Dul takes it a step further with arena combat. The Arena is a zone with ramps and tunnels and the usual fare for first person pvp combat. Any player may set up an arena session, and they may be free for all, or passworded. Play may be individual or in teams.

The most interesting twist to the arena is that, in addition to fighting as yourself, in the arena, you can fight as an avatar. These are tokens which, if in your inventory, allow you to take on a new form, with a few powers. Your hotbars are reconfigured automatically to give you access to your combat arts. These are different than combat arts on any player character, though they employ familiar concepts.

The beginning avatars are very inexpensive, and in fact, you get the first one for free. They can also be placed in your room, where they act as pets!

There was a fair bit of player dissatisfaction over the distinct non-competitive stance taken by EQ2 at launch. Some players wanted pvp and dueling. They wanted to go into the enemy city and kill the guards.

SOE took the stance on the idea that EQ2 was to be a game that attracted a different crowd than that. People who liked the idea of roleplaying but more as a cooperative PVE venture. People that wanted to play for a couple hours in the evening without being harrased, trained, challenged, kill-stolen, or otherwise griefed by the more competitive and anti-social.

But while hyper-competitiveness can often become anti-social it isn't inherently so. And it appeals to a particular part of the audience. So, the folks at SOE have come up with a way to serve that audience without allowing it to intrude upon the games original target audience. They can have duels. They can have dangerous cities, guard killing and arena combat. But it's all stuff that can be chosen, or avoided.

Maybe they CAN have it both ways.