EQ2's Time-Limited Expansion server Stormhold continued to exert an unexpected hold on me across the weekend even though I had other plans. When I logged out at around midnight on Sunday my ratonga shadowknight had just dinged 19. Earlier in the evening he'd reached the same level as a Scholar.
One of the many, many original functions, features and foibles that caused EQ2 to struggle so badly at launch was the tri-partite class system. In the original game, using a mechanism that seemed new at the time, your character first stepped out into Norrath in the guise of a basic archetype - Fighter, Scout, Priest or Mage.
Although something similar was soon to become a defining cliche common to any of a hundred, generic F2P MMOs, in most of those games the story ended there. Not so in EQ2.
At level 10 the path you had chosen took a tripartite split. A fighter had the option to become a Warrior, a Crusader or a Brawler. Scouts shaped up as Bards, Predators or Rogues. Priests had a very traditional choice of Druid, Cleric or Shaman, while Mages settled for Sorcerer, Summoner or Enchanter.
The choice you made at ten, somewhat confusingly as it would turn out, was your character's true "Class" but it wasn't the end of the process. In another ten levels the road forked once more, leading to a third and final decision at Level 20 that would set you forever in a Subclass that almost everyone would henceforth refer to, erroneously, as your "class".
The Zam Network has a handy chart that makes it all very clear, although there have been a few additions to the structure in the decade since. The whole thing was made even more complicated by the harsh, rigid and entirely inflexible Good vs Evil binary represented by Freeport and Qeynos, something which deserves a post of its own. Suffice it to say that the choice of Classes, and therefore Subclasses, throughout the first year of the game was even more restrictive than shown in the Zam chart.
All that changed in January 2006. This Producer's Letter from December 2005 spells out in great detail not only the changes that were made to the Archetype/Class/Subclass framework but the reasons behind those changes:
Despite all those very sound reasons (so sound, indeed, that you might wonder why they didn't occur to someone a year or two earlier, when the game was still in beta) the change was not greeted with unrestrained joy and celebration. The opposing viewpoint is well summarized in a pithy comment later in the thread by someone named Foolsfolly:
"I can't believe you are removing the class progression 1-20. IMO, this is the worst change since the creation of this game."
As Wilhelm often observes, there's no feature in any MMO so bad that you can't find someone, somewhere willing to defend it with their dying breath. I felt at the time that it was a good and necessary change, one of very many such needed to pull the game around from the disastrous course it had set, which otherwise seemed to be headed straight for the rocks.
All the same I did have some reservations. We were the players, after all, who had struggled through all these obstacles and come out the other side. Even now, more than a decade later, I can recall my Cleric's rite of passage to become a Templar with disturbing clarity. It wasn't fun. I'd done it once in beta and I dreaded doing it again on Live. But I did do it.
As with most awful enterprises taken up voluntarily and successfully concluded, when it was over I felt pretty good about myself. This is what people mean when they sing the praises of "challenging gameplay". The trouble with challenge of this kind is, to my mind at least, it's only fun after you've done it.
Which, really, was the whole problem with the Archetype system. It was based entirely around deferred gratification. Over the years MMO gamers have demonstrated time and again that they're willing to wait a long time and put in a lot of hard work to get something they want - an Epic, a Legendary, a Title - but before they'll commit they need an emotional connection to their character that binds them to the fire. That isn't going to happen in the first twenty levels.
So, it was a bad idea and it went away. Which makes it all the odder that here we are in 2015 with the exact same structure still in place for crafting.
I decided that my SK should become an Alchemist because that's the crafting class that makes spells and combat arts for what used to be the Fighter Archetype (there's another post there on how deeply interdependence is still woven through EQ2 and I may even get around to writing it sometime). You can't become an Alchemist just like that, though.
The structure for crafters is a little simpler than it was for adventurers but it looks very similar. Everyone begins as an Artisan for the first ten levels. At 10 you take your Class as a Craftsman, an Outfitter or a Scholar and when you ding 20 you decide on your Final Class or, if you prefer, Subclass. Alchemist in the case of my new ratonga. Again, Zam has a table although the person who wrote it muddles his terms in the introduction, which just goes to show how confusing people have always found the whole thing.
Why, then, do we still have the original scaffolding for the tradeskill professions when that structure was swept away for adventures what seems like a lifetime ago? My guess is because crafting in EQ2, despite what some people may tell you, is a lot easier than adventuring.
True, that wasn't always so. In the dark days of interdependence, when Provisioners were the only crafters who didn't rely at least in part on other classes to make components for them, when Mrs Bhagpuss named her horse Stinky Ink after the millstone round her Sage's neck, crafting was hard.
Once that was swept away, however, crafting became the doddle it has always remained, at least compared to adventuring. For example, it took my Shadowknight around eight hours yesterday to quest and kill his way through levels 17 and 18. It took him less than fifteen minutes to craft through those same levels.
As for a "rite of passage", there isn't one. There never was. When he hits the buffers as a Scholar at the end of Level 19 and stops gaining crafting xp he won't have to fight his way down to the bottom of Vermin's Snye and enter an instance filled with aggressive mobs his own level to save the life of the idiotic knight, Sir Wembley. He'll just have to toddle around the counter in the crafting house in West Freeport and ask the trainer to sign his papers.
He'll be doing that later today all being well. It's an old system, largely unchanged in all these years, but it still works.