Along the Golden Path: EQ2 takes a shot at a smoother levelling experience

The MMOs I currently play are all several years old. This was never a deliberate choice, I have tried (and liked) newer MMOs, but like so many other players, I’ve drifted back to the virtual homes I’ve loved most and where my friends are after testing the new waters.

In any case, game design and MMO design shifts over the years. The trends are well known. Towards accessibility, away from enforced grouping. Towards instanced content, away from having to beat the other players to the named mob. Towards achievers, away from explorers. Towards the game, away from the virtual world.

LOTRO has offered complete redesigns of some of the low and mid level zones. They’ve introduced new content for levelling characters via skirmishes, and made it easier to complete book 1 of the epic questline solo. WoW has the dungeon finder, and a redesign of much of the world coming along. They’ve also eased the xp curve for levelling. Plus numerous other accessibility tweaks.

EQ2 is going to take a different tack. Instead of redesigning the sluggish zones (although I believe there have already been some revamps), they are going to offer a guide to players on how best to navigate the mid levels. The game already has so much content that one of the main sticking points for new players is trying to find a way through the maze. There has also been some tidying up of older zones, and a new epic questline to guide players through the good bits.

We want to make a path for new players or players that are making new characters where they can level up a new character quickly and effectively through a bunch of zones that we’ve gone through and really made sure are just top-notch content,

I thought this was an interesting approach. Instead of streamlining the content, they offer a guided tour option to those who want to take it. Chances are the guided tour is more fun than the DIY tour, but the other content is still there for those who want to explore. What I like is that this exploits one of the huge benefits of playing an older game – there’s tons and tons of content.

Also, it would be great if the guided tour epic questline dribbled in more information about the game’s theme and lore. I always felt that was lacking in the starting areas, and is one of the reasons why EQ2 is not as welcoming to newbies as games like WoW or LOTRO which settle you in with some lore and background as you explore the newbie zone. It isn’t that EQ2 doesn’t have tons of both lore and background, and it is out there to some extent for explorers to find, but not having racial starting zones does affect the experience.

EQ2 was never a sandbox game, so this isn’t about turning a sandbox into a theme park. But it might be about turning a chaotic theme park into a better organised set of levelling rails. Speaking of sandbox games, and in another example of blogger hive minds, Tobold explores the same phenomenon today in EVE Online. EVE is certainly closer to being a sandbox games, but new characters are nudged towards more familiar mission running (ie. quests) to help them acclimatise to the game. I suspect EVE is a game that you can never really ‘get’ until you join a solid corps (guild) because like most sandbox games, the sandbox only really opens up when you have a bunch of people behind you.

I’m going to be curious to see how EQ2 players take to the new golden path. Also, I’ve never been a fan of EQ2 mounts, my time in the game was punctuated by regular pauses to watch other players ride by on their flaming rhinos (I did not make that up) and think, “WTF?!” But the cloud mount is genuinely awesome.

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The nature of monkey was … irrepressible …

Battlegrounds for Everquest 2

In one of the more unexpected announcements I’ve ever seen, SOE unveil their next great idea for EQ2. Battlegrounds. Due for release on Feb 16th, there are going to be 3 instanced battlegrounds on offer, a 6v6 capture the flag scenario, a 24v24 hold territory scenario, and a 6v6 kill the dude with the thing scenario.

Now, EQ2 is not really a PvP focussed game, to say the least. There are two factions but they don’t really clash as such. And it doesn’t look as though the new battlegrounds are going to have any effect on the wider game, instead they give special new armour sets.

So my question is, were any players actually asking for this? Assuming the designers have taken a few notes from the best and worst of WoW and WAR, the new battlegrounds could be a great success and introduce some fun new gameplay into an aging MMO. But does the EQ2 playerbase want PvP?

I guess we’ll find out. I do feel it’s a shame that SOE aren’t capitalising more on the strong points of their game, instead rushing around to add features like achievements and battlegrounds in long after the competition.

You can only wonder if the player base wish they’d had their eye on LOTRO skirmishes instead.

How not to do a crafting tutorial

This is the tutorial that gave me SAN loss.

Notice that the text overlaps with my chat window (the green text in the bottom left). I could not figure a way to stop it from doing this. There is also a massive amount of text in that text box.

Also, whatever you do, do NOT follow the suggestion to go check out your skill book. I (foolishly) did this and was overwhelmed by pages and pages of evocatively named icons. None of them said which trades they affected so even if I had wanted to pull some out and put them on a quickbar, I would have had no clue which ones to use.

It turns out that in practice it’s a lot easier than this sounds. But my first reaction to this text was to run screaming to a friend and beg for a comprehensible guide. That’s a pretty good indication that your tutorial is not working as intended.

Everquest 2: Crafting, and Taking Things Easy

We’re still playing Everquest 2, but we’ve slowed down a bit on progress for a couple of reasons:

  1. I got to the end of my trial period, so I forked over some cash for a month. The EQ2 launcher responded by wanting me to redownload the game. That kind of ate one of our sessions.
  2. While I was doing this, Arb decided to experiment with a couple of other classes she was interested in. A couple of hours later she announced that Warden was The One :) (You can take the girl away from the healer, but you can’t take the healer out of the girl!) She then decided to reroll it so that we could both stay as fae.
  3. Found that we could both get some housing! Major excitement! Distracted us from questing for a while.
  4. New patch in LOTRO has been distracting for Arb. That basically gave me more time to get into the crafting in EQ2 (I think we both accept that if our main game puts in some new stuff, it’s likely that we’ll want to play that with other friends.) I do love that I can mess about with crafting without getting out of synch with xp.
  5. It’s been hot, so we haven’t been much in the mood for long sessions.

In any case, we’re all caught up now and the fae are at around level 12. So the fae starter area has been much slower for us than the Sarnak one, but we are both enjoying it more. The wings definitely help.

I definitely spend more time in EQ2 feeling puzzled or frustrated than I remember being the case in other games I’ve played over the last couple of years. That’s not particularly a bad thing, but the game doesn’t go out of its way to hold your hand, even when that seems to have been the intention. Once we got used to it, we enjoyed getting lost occasionally, having to stop to discuss what to do next, or figure out what was going on.

We’ve certainly had some quests where we had to spend a few minutes exploring or searching round and area to locate the specific place they wanted us to be. And quests themselves do a fairly good job of mixing up exploring (go to location X), with killing (and kill mob Y), and gathering (and pick up stuff Z while you’re there). We also finished the long quest line that ends up making you a citizen of the city, which was good fun. They get you to explore, to learn your way around the treetops, and you wind up by killing a mini-boss in an instance.

I’m also enjoying the 3D nature of Kelethin (the fae starting area), although I imagine it could be a pain without wings. For a start, we can easily jump off the fae treetop city without having to go via a lift. Now that we’ve spend some time running around it, the city is also growing on me. It’s a set of platforms linked by rope bridges and branches.

Unsurprisingly, I haven’t seen many other low level characters around. There are chat channels for levels 1-9 and so on. People who talk on them aren’t restricted to those levels, but we do sometimes hear people asking for help (and generally being answered). So the chat channel gives the lower levels a sort of community … kind of. I like the basic idea.

A room without a view

Most exciting part of exploring the fae city was when I found that we could each get some housing. It starts as a cheap one-room acorn and you zone into your room via the housing area. So the rooms are instanced and you pay a weekly rent, which you can pay in advance. It’s like being in a hotel.

You also get given a few items of furniture to start you off, and you can place them wherever you like in the room. I put my mirrors at fae height so I guess anyone taller will get a good view of their own crotch. There’s a vault too.

I know that houses can get very big and expansive but even right from the start it’s obvious why EQ2 housing has been so popular. It’s accessible, it’s fun, it’s easy to customise, and it’s useful. Thumbs up. Now I just need more stuff to put in mine.

I dip my toes into crafting

I knew a few things about EQ2 crafting before venturing into it. It is more involved and complex than the typical ‘hit the button and watch the green bar’, you get separate crafting xp from adventuring xp so you can actually level up as a crafter in this game, and … that I regularly got killed in crafting accidents when I tried the game in beta.

So I started off by locating the crafting trainer in the Fae City, who gets you started with a quest – to go and gather lots of stuff. Gathering is similar to other MMOs in that you wander around the world looking for herbs, ore, fish, or rats nests which are nodes that you use to harvest the materials. Maybe it’s my WoW (and LOTRO, and every other game ever) bias showing but I’m still not clear why you’d gather leather from rats nests when there are perfectly good deer and pigs around the place to kill.

Eventually, when you are done with this, you go back and are allowed to actually use the equipment located in an instanced crafting area. Each type of craft has its own table/ forge/ oven etc which has cool animations when you use it.  The crafting itself stymied me at first, I made the mistake of looking at my skill list which instantly resulted in confusion at the very very extensive list of craft related skills with no clues on how to use them.

But I decided to press on and just try making something, and that worked out much better. When you create an item, a crafting window comes up showing various green progress bars. Along the bottom of this window (and bound to keys 1-6) are various icons. As the crafting progresses, icons will occasionally flash up on the window. When they do, you hit one of the matching icons at the bottom.

Crafting progresses as a series of ticks. On each tick, your progress has a chance to increase, but the durability of the item also has a chance to decrease. Your goal is to get to the end of the progress bar while there is still some durability left on the last bar. So it’s a kind of pattern matching game. There is a bit more to it. Each icon you pick at the bottom has a bonus and a penalty (so one might give a bonus to success but a penalty to durability or vice versa) so as well as pattern matching, you have to balance up your success/ durability.

It’s definitely a lot less complex than I remember from the beta (at that stage you had to make lots and lots of subcomponents too).

I found it quite frustrating initially. It feels very random. Sometimes you’re just going to fail but you have to keep going anyway because you need the skill ups. But after a few practice tries, I was more able to understand the long email of useful crafting advice that Ysharros kindly sent us. I made some stuff!! I’m feeling that this process is a little deeper than it seems at the start and quite enjoying EQ2 crafting now.

At the exalted tiers of crafting level 9 I now get to select a crafting skill in which to specialise. I can pick between being a crafter (can make furnishings, food), outfitter (can make armour and weapons), and scholar (can make potions, jewellry, scrolls). I have no idea which of these might be useful to us or work well for making some cash in game. But I’m not really attracted by the idea of Scholar –- I’d rather make stuff we can wear, eat, or put in our rooms.

In a typical example of non-handholding, the materials you gather from the first part of the crafting quest are not actually quite sufficient to let you craft all the items that they ask for in the second part. I decided I was too lazy to gather more so instead I checked out the broker who is also located in the crafting area. It’s not really an auction house so much as a combined player vendor. So players from all over the game can give items to a broker to sell, which he’ll do in return for a small cut of the profit.

So I browsed the vendor for my missing rawhide leather hides, and bought a handful of the cheapest ones. They were transferred immediately to my bag without needing to go via the mailbox. I think I much prefer this scheme to an auction house for commodity type goods. Auctions are great for rare or high value items where the actual value isn’t well known. But so often I just use it like a shop – I think I prefer having an actual shop in those cases.

And … the exit questionnaire

After I subscribed, I immediately unsubbed so as to avoid any kind of automatic resubscription. I always do this on MMOs, even if I know I’m in for the long term because I like to at least have the choice to get out at regular intervals even if I decide not to use it.

EQ2, like many games, sent me off to answer an extensive exit questionnaire when I unsubscribed. Most of the questions were very irrelevant, especially since I have every intention of resubbing as long as we’re still playing and enjoying it.

But I do give them props for including “I don’t like automatic resubscriptions” as a selectable answer in the first ‘Why do you hate us??111!!!!’ question. I like it when drop down lists actually include an answer that does reflect my thought process, it makes me feel less weird. I’m pretty sure that WoW, by contrast, doesn’t give that option and makes you fill out the ‘you must be some kind of weirdo’ “Other answer, please specify below” box.

What makes a good guild website?

I think it’s pretty much de rigeur now for MMO guilds to have their own websites, even if it is just a free bboard so that members can communicate when they aren’t in the game. Semi-professional guilds like Ensidia go the whole nine yards with forums, player blogs, articles and guides, advertising, and I’m quite surprised they don’t sell branded T-shirts and mugs too.

There are also specialist services like wowstead.com and guildportal.com which present guilds with the ability to easily set up complex and game-specific functionality (like rosters, contents of the guild bank, raid calendars, armoury access, etc). And I think EQ2 offers a similar service to guilds directly, although not for free, which I always thought was a fantastic idea.

For me personally, I’m happy with a basic bulletin board. Although calendars where you can sign up for guild events have also worked well for us.

What do you look for in a good guild website?

Some Star Wars: The Old Republic Thoughts

So there’s been a lot of buzz about SW:TOR this week, it’s E3 week anyway so it’s hardly unexpected.

1. New Trailer

Vwoom Vwoom blue tentacle girl lots-of-jedis plane-crashes-into-a-building bullet-time DROID omg-that-battle-looks-awesome vwoom

It’s exciting, it’s beautiful, it looks like Star Wars, I’d go see the film if it came out tomorrow. (Incidentally, does anyone else think that ‘plane crashing into a building’ has become cinematic shorthand for a really really evil enemy?)

Tobold is grumbling that the hype machine is kicking into action too soon on this MMO. After all, it probably won’t be out for years (I reckon 18 months at the absolute soonest) and when it is, it probably won’t look anything like this trailer.

I’m undecided about hype, but I do think he misses what trailers are all about. A game trailer simply isn’t the same kind of beast as a film trailer. It isn’t supposed to be an edited highlight of the final version, carefully cut together to make sure you get to see the only funny line and some total spoilers.

It is a simple appeal to mindshare. It has to say ‘Hey hey hey! Look at this gameworld! Does this look cool? Is this a world you might want to come explore virtually? Do you wanna be like this person? How about this one?’.

Blizzard have been very keen on releasing trailers for Warcraft; each expansion has had one and many of the major patches also. They in no way are supposed to represent actual gameplay. They’re flavour. They’re meant to stir up some excitement. Maybe let the player catch a glimpse of the world they’re being invited to enter.

WAR released a stunning cinematic trailer before they launched. Again, it was never meant to represent accurate game footage. But it did show a cool battle in a city, and showcased some of the races and classes – this did tell players what the game was intended to be about. Maybe the players didn’t all stay, but the trailer helped to stir up interest in the Warhammer background, setting, and game.

My main issue with the Star Wars trailer is that it doesn’t have enough droids. I am still hoping against hope that at least one of the as-yet-unrevealed classes will be a droid of some kind. Meanwhile, I shall shun the hype machine by finishing KOTOR because that will not at all make me pine for SW:TOR …. DOH!

2. Announcement made that SW:TOR will be the first ever fully voiced MMO

Broken Toys points out that EQ2 also made this claim 5 years ago. I will note that not every quest in EQ2 is fully voiced, which is a good thing because it can be really annoying.

More to the point, how much disk space is this MMO going to take? How long to download patches? Will we have to run it with the CD in the machine?

Tune in for more later this week. I’m still hoping that Bioware will have some kind of playable demo to show.