Saturday, December 31, 2011

New Year, New Dungeon: EQ2

As I write this there are nine hundred and sixty one published player-made dungeons on the Freeport server. Really, who thought it would be this popular? Apart from EQ2 producer Smokejumper, of course. He loves the Dungeon Maker so much he was on the official forums answering threads about it on Christmas Day.

So, there are a lot of them already. Less than a month in and we have nearly a thousand on one server alone. We're down with quantity, how's quality? Well, that's the hard part, isn't it? In a way, your guess is as good as mine, because I can only tell you what I've seen and so far I've played through maybe a dozen.

This is what I know. First you have to decide who you want to be because you can't be you. You choose from a list of "Adventurers" who appear to have been drawn from the dregs of the Norrathian underworld. The default selection offers a Drolvarg, a Drachnid, a Siren and a couple more ne'er-do-wells that you're more familiar with seeing on the other end of your sword. You can add to this selection with Adventurers that drop in chests around Norrath. (That's a sentence almost devoid of semantic content in the outside world). Mrs Bhagpuss got a very nice Ettin in The Feerrott and he seemed significantly more powerful than the regular tank adventurer.

Each of the Adventurers fills a traditional role - tank, healer, dps, utility and so on. They each have four abilities and autoattack. They are all level 50. It takes about 30 seconds at the most to get the hang of any of them. Once everyone's pressed the big "Ready" button, off you go.

What happens next varies wildly. Players made these things, you know!. Every one is different. Well, kinda. I didn't mention layout yet. Makers only get a relatively small number of set layouts to work with. Something like four or five subsets of each of four themes - Crushbone, Mistmoore, Chardok and Lair of Scale. Some people don't seem to be doing much more than throwing down some mobs and calling it a day, but in most of the ones I've done, even the least ambitious, there's been some creativity on show.

Did I leave my umbrella somewhere?

I've already seen several really impressive decorative efforts. I was expecting that, given the astonishing work that's been done over the years in EQ2's housing instances. Almost anything you can place in a house you can place in a dungeon and it really is about time SoE added a Kitchen Sink recipe for Carpenters because some people are already using everything but.

What's apparent already, though, is that the Dungeon Maker is attracting people whose creativity lies in areas other than decorating. Like comedy. More specifically, puns and satire (I use the term loosely. Very loosely). You can name all the mobs you place and give them a number of different things to say. It's been a surprise to me to discover just how many Norrathian creatures watched 1970s sitcoms and know the lyrics of hits from the Golden Age of Doo-Wop.... Tells you something about the age profile of the average EQ2 player...

The family that slays together...
So, some of the dungeons look good and some of them raise a laugh (or the hackles on a roleplayer) but how do they play as dungeons? Again, they're made by players, remember. Some play wonderfully smoothly, a joy to fight through. Others maybe not so much.

The Dungeon Maker is designed to scale with the number of players in the group. If you go in solo then the dungeon is automatically a solo dungeon. If there are six of you it's the full Heroic. The way this scaling happens is very basic. The mobs just get tougher according to how many players there are. So far I've only done them solo and duo and the difficulty setting of the mobs has been the same in both: even-level "No Arrows" mobs with a smattering of "One Arrow" and the occasional yellow-con boss. I usually play the Drolvarg, who I think might be a Guardian (hard to tell with only four combat arts to look at) and he easily ploughs through anything up to four mobs at a time.

I was having a small discussion with Stargrace over at MMOQuests  about this. It seems to me that all dungeons are all soloable by default. There is no penalty at all for dying and you are often back in the fight faster after a death than you might have been if you'd won and had to heal up (although that only takes a few seconds). Consequently you can wear down by attrition anything the creator throws at you simply because your Adventurer respawns and his mobs don't.

/shout Derv 2 is CAMPED !!!
Whether a dungeon is enjoyable to solo is another matter entirely. That's down to the player who made it. Another Dungeon Maker surprise has been what a huge difference placement and pacing makes to otherwise identical dungeon layouts. It should be obvious but it's very clear that some people get it and others don't. I played one last night where the creator had chosen to put the word "solo" in brackets at the end of the name on the Leaderboard. It's just as well I was doing it in a duo, because about eight mobs attacked us before we could step off the zone-in point and both of our Adventurers were almost dead before we dispatched the final rat.

Enough with the minutiae already! Are the damn things any good? Are they fun? Are they worthwhile? Are you enjoying them?

Yes, yes, yes and yes.

Some of the dungeons are just laugh-out-loud funny. I really enjoyed "Everquest 1999", unsurprisingly and the T.V. and Dr Seuss themed ones had me loling. Some have been well-paced, fast hack-and-slash romps that have kept my attention focused and left me satisfied. Some have handed me a whole AA and a thick purse of Dungeon Marks (the currency that buys you some very nice stuff for your regular character) and some have had me exploring and taking screenshots after the mobs were cleared just because the set design was so impressive.

I'm guessing the one on the right is winning.
Dungeon Maker dungeons are a Lucky Dip. There are hundreds to choose from, you can do one in anything from ten minutes to an hour and a half, you can go alone or with friends and anyone can group regardless of level. The quality varies wildly but the Like system will winnow the chaff. In the end we should be left with the gems that combine excellent playability with great art direction, witty dialog and a compelling plot. I've played one or two that are almost there already.

Build them and we will come.

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