Monday, January 12, 2015

Level Best : EQ2

EQ2 is in a strange place these days when it comes to leveling. The devs seem keen for players to get a move on and not hang around in the low and mid levels. We get regular boosts, sometimes for everyone, other times just for the paying few.

This weekend Gold players (we used to call them Subscribers but that's Olden Days talk now, apparently) enjoyed a 150% bonus to both adventure and craft xp and last week SOE bumped up the instant high-level Heroic Character option so that it starts at 90 instead of 85. A while back, when someone was fiddling about under the hood trying to sort out the mess the expansion had made of tradeskill xp, the whole crafting xp curve got compressed so now leveling a crafter takes a fraction of the time it used to do.

The message coming from SOE Towers is mixed. Even though the devs want us to get on with it, they still seem to have clear (if occasionally conflicted) views on how and where we should be leveling. A number of changes came in along with the Altar of Malice expansion that were ostensibly intended to persuade players to do the final five levels in the newest content, changes that were seen by some as heavy-handed and coercive. Over the following weeks adjustments and tweaks were made to address some concerns but then the controversial decision was taken to remove all xp from player-made dungeons, thereby shutting down the most popular option for fast leveling. 

The whole thrust seems to be all about getting players through the first 90 levels as quickly as possible, skipping them altogether if necessary, so everyone can cluster together in a critical mass in the content that was created during the last 12-18 months. As a way of getting around the longtime problem of population-dilution that relatively-successful MMOs have always suffered it seems to be working.

There's another motivation behind the drive to get everyone to the top of the ladder, too, it seems: a belief that old content just doesn't do a good job of representing the best an MMO has to offer. The cutting edge content, artwork and gameplay are all to be found in whatever zones, maps or expansions the designers worked on most recently, goes the argument, so to direct players anywhere else would be to do them a disservice.

It's not a belief that's unique to SOE of course. Blizzard chose to funnel everyone into the last 10 levels by bundling a free Level 90 character with the current expansion. That clearly paid off - well enough that we should probably expect to see something similar become an industry norm, at least for the few themepark MMOs that do well enough to get expansions.

Companies using a F2P model will necessarily hope to monetize the process (a Heroic Character in EQ2 will run you $35 if you buy your Station Cash at face value, although most regular EQ2 players probably get theirs for a lot less than that) but it may well be that future expansions will see everyone get one free bunk-up to somewhere near the top.

No doubt there will be variations on the theme. There's speculation that GW2's "expansion", if and when it comes, will use some kind of level-splitting mechanic to encourage (or even force) players to start over, all in the same place, perhaps effectively creating two separate games. Whatever the mechanics used, though, it does begin to beg the question "So what are all these levels for, then?".

It's not just levels though, is it? Once you start to pull on this thread the whole tapestry begins to unravel. Why keep all these old, barely-used maps and zones and dungeons? Or these ancient quests and events and raids that no-one ever does any more? In fact why waste time on a "world" in the first place? Instead of spreading everything out wouldn't it be easier to sell each of these "expansions" as a brand-new, standalone game - the next episode in an ongoing series? Just close down each version when the new one's ready.

Transfer the characters (maybe just the names) and you're off and running. All the thrills and all the publicity of a new product launch without the trouble of having to come up with an actual new product. You could even sell alpha/beta access to the new one for, oh, what, say half the lifetime of the old? Run them in perpetual overlap.

The benefits are obvious. No need for divisive stat squishes or re-balancing: there's no power creep and the "inflated economy" resets before it becomes a major pain. Could probably even re-use a lot of the art assets if you go with the ever-popular cataclysm scenario. Once you start to look at it this way it's hard to remember why anyone ever thought a truly "persistent virtual world" was a good idea in the first place.

Naturally the games need to stay online. We need that social media integration. Can't keep the digital downloads flowing without all those Twitch streams and Twitter feeds. We can keep "massively multiplayer" too - more players = more microtransactions (although perhaps we should start calling them macrotransactions? "Micro" is a tad unambitious after all...). So I guess we can still market these things as MMOs. Be a shame to lose the brand recognition...

Eh? What? What's happening? Hmmm, I think I might have nodded off for a moment there. Was I having some sort of bad dream? What was I going to write about? Oh yes, my weekend in EQ2.

Well, the berserker didn't quite make 100. Topped out at 99.7. Even with 150% server xp, full vitality and a 110% potion running, the xp that dribbled in from the AoM questline wasn't all that impressive, so it was back to Freeport to see a Chronomage and off to good old Chelsith for a couple of circuits before banging through a few mentored dungeons. If they want us to do the new content perhaps they might make it competitive. Wait, I didn't say that! I like my mentoring xp!

The new zones are gorgeous though. A visual feast and beautifully designed. Tons to look at and pleasingly little to fight before you get to see it. I took a lot of screenshots and gosh-wowed all over the place. That globe is freakin' amazing! And I got a version for my house!

The storyline continues to be interesting if completely confusing. I lost track of what was going on a while back but I know the Akheva are in it up to their necks and something about the Shissar? Anyway, the last few quests should just about see me over the line even without bonuses.

Also I got some crafting in that took my Sage from 62 to 75 in just over an hour. I remember when that would have taken a week. And the sage started Raffik's questline. It was nice to see the little fellow again. So, a fun weekend, all in all. Let's do it again sometime soon. And when I'm a hundred I might start a new character. Er.. when the Berserker is level 100 I mean. Not much chance of me going a hundred hours without making a new character somewhere.

There's nothing like leveling up, is there? I love it. Can't get enough.


  1. It is (mostly) still there, though. OK, the Isle of Refuge isn't, and the Qeynos / Freeport villages and those cute little intro quests are gone. But most of the world is still there.

    I'm running around with my tank and my wife's healer and a pair of DPS mercs. We are all level locked at 50, busy completing zones and going through the dungeons and finding all the runes that make up the draconic language so we can talk to Lord Nagafen.

    And having a great time.

    1. It's all there and it's hard to imagine any established MMO opting to remove old zones outright. Look at the outcry when they removed the Isle of Refuge, which no-one could visit without making a new character anyway. I would guess the existing zones of existing MMOs are as "safe" as anything online can be - they might get revamped and repurposed but while the game is running they will probably remain.

      I would be less confident about the prospects for new games launching with the "ever-expanding" world concept we used to take for granted though. It's starting to look quite old-fashioned, I think. As are levels. Where we go instead will be interesting to watch.

  2. Isn't WoW basically a lobby game anyway? Perfected by D3? Take your character to lands with you and your friends!

    I think most MMO games would play better this way. The newer ones, anyway.

    1. I don't play WoW enough to judge but weren't they said to be moving back from the Lobby/Instance model post-Pandaria? There have been lobby MMOs though. Guild Wars was (is) a lobby game. Dragon Nest is another. There used to be endless arguments over whether those were or weren't MMOs though.

      Lobby games are fine but they are a slightly different thing to what we used to mean when we used the term MMORPG. I suspect that we will see the lobby concept used more and more in the next round of online multiplayer games with RPG mechanics NOt sure we'll still be calling any of them MMORPGs by then.

      That would be the round after the upcoming wave of sandboxes fails, of course.

  3. Your bad dream sounds horrible. Why would anyone come up with such obviously terrible ideas...

  4. I would love to get into higher level EQII, but I always feel so overwhelmed even with some decent knowledge. I especially loved exploring, which I thought the game did a fair job of emulating from the original. Yet, it really is so much content that I feel like I am aimlessly wandering forever to actually get anywhere new (to me) before I get burnt out/bored/annoyed by the game's clunkier mechanics.

    I'd welcome a BIG CRUNCH though I doubt the game's fans or SOE's pocketbooks would.

    1. I think the long-established MMO companies are finally realizing that there is no real percentage in trying to attract large numbers of brand-new players to older titles. Future income streams from MMOs that were developed before WoW and the tranche which followed WoW's model for most of the following decade are going to come from existing and former players of those titles.

      No matter how radically you revise and revamp a 5-10 year old MMO you are never going to gain the interest of a significant number of players who previously didn't play it but you do risk alienating a significant number of players who are currently giving you money. The problem has always been that MMOs move from a Product-based model in the 2-5 years they take to develop to a Service model from the day they launch. A lot of MMO companies have struggled with that transition and there has always been a strong inclination to keep producing (i.e. fiddle with the product) rather than get fully behind the service model (i.e. keep existing customers happy).

      I don't think, though, that we are heading into a dreamworld of great customer service. More likely shorter development cycles which are monetized through alpha/beta buy-ins and MMOS designed intentionally to have a relatively short post-launch arc before going to maintenance mode or closing. Make the money up front during the production cycle, when customer service expectations are much easier to manage, then dump the product into the F2P market, where customer service expectations are very low.

      Basically, I don't think MMO companies ever wanted to be in a customer-service-led business and I believe they are close to finding an exit strategy that works for them. The bright side is that as long as the older MMOs keep bringing in the bucks they will be maintained as cash cows and given the nature of many old-time MMO players that could keep most of them running for a long time yet.

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