Thursday, May 19, 2016

Where To Begin? : EQ2

A short conversation in the comments on the previous post outlined two of the biggest problems older MMOs have in trying to attract and hold new players: they're overwhelmingly vast and they don't look that great by modern standards. A few, Saga of Ryzom, comes to mind, were prescient or fortunate enough to go with a stylized graphic approach that ages well but most older games look, well, old.

As the anonymous commenter observes "the EQ2 graphics were also implemented with an eye to future graphic hardware upgrades". Certainly SOE made a big deal about that at the time. Anyone remember the pre-release video that got everyone so excited and which turned out to look nothing whatsoever like the actual game, when it finally arrived? In practice, though, for the first decade at least, that promise went unfulfilled.

Much though I love EQ2, for the longest time I would never have made any great claims for its visual style. Even back in 2004, coming to the new Norrath from the then five year old 90s stylings of EverQuest, it didn't look that great. Antonica and Commonlands were functional, Thundering Steppes and Nektulos Forest bleak and/or bland. I was always impressed by Freeport but Qeynos was famously so badly optimized that many people simply avoided going there altogether.

Over the years the post-Luclin version of Norrath grew and grew. The Desert of Flames expansion, visually, was much of a muchness with the base game, only with added sand. Kingdom of Sky was a lot more impressive with its soon to become familiar Roger Dean style floating islands but as the expansions rolled out year after year it was the increasingly enjoyable and complex gameplay that kept me coming back, rather than any expectation of anything amazing to look at.

Researching this post I was surprised to find that the EQ2 team only got the new Terrain tools that massively speeded up and improved their ability to create zones from scratch in 2014. That was no doubt why we saw all-new zones in the 2014 and 2015 expansions and updates whereas 2012's Chains of Eternity and 2013's Tears of Veeshan largely re-used and re-vamped older assets.

Something must have changed, though, because as I play through the ToV signature timeline and explore the sky islands of Vesspyr Isles and the alternate-Norrath dungeons they lead to I find myself doing something I rarely do in EQ2: taking screenshot after screenshot just because. As should be readily apparent from the illustrations in recent posts, Tears of Veeshan is a visually sumptuous experience.

It's not just the zones, either. The character models are elaborate and detailed. It's hard to appreciate the sartorial style of a shissar temple guard as he 's trying to cleave you down the middle but these are some snappy dressers and the bixies in the Fractured Hive have certainly followed an entirely different evolutionary path from those buzzing fluffballs I remember back in Misty thicket.

It's been like this for about four or five years. The post-level-95 zones in EQ2, open world and dungeon alike, are much more likely to make you reach for your screenshot key than for excuses. No-one needs to apologize for an aging engine here. The graphics may not be cutting edge but they have, at last, managed to achieve something of the timeless style of good graphic design.

A lot of it seems to have to do with a new approach to surface and color. The ToV zones have a lot of flat surfaces and color washes. Texture frequently seems to be provided by tiles, panels or patinas rather than, in older zones, those tired and tiring texture maps. It reminds me in places of the clean, classic expressionistic comic art of Alex Toth or, to take a less-exalted example, Trevor von Eeden

In other parts there's something of the lush, overripe, almost sybaritic indulgence of the "Studio" artists, Jeffrey Catherine Jones, Mike Kaluta, Barry Windsor Smith and Bernie Wrightson. There also seems to be a deal of constructivist influence going on as well. All in all it's a far richer mix than anything you're likely to encounter in the first few dozen levels and therein lies the problem.

When nearly all of your players are up in the canopy, enjoying the fruits of a decade or more of improvements in both the design of the game and the tools to apply lessons learned attractively and efficiently, how can you hope to draw fresh sap from the roots? Even with modern leveling speeds it's a long road from installing the game to the good stuff five or ten levels short of the cap.

I'm a huge advocate of low level gaming in MMORPGs. I prefer to be down there in the fields, helping with the turnip harvest, running off the gnolls. For me, EQ2's huge, sprawling hinterland is freighted with nostalgia and memory. Nothing there comes clean and raw. But could I start there now, with no foreknowledge, and stay? I don't know. 

EQ2 is an exceptional case, I think. In many, most MMOs I might well suggest the best of the gameplay is at the lower end. I tend to become disengaged by end games. EQ2 doesn't really go there. For a long, long time it's still the same leveling game only the scenery gets better and better and the plots become more and more involving. There isn't any huge change of playstyle when you hit the buffers on level.

It would be probably be better all round if DBG could split the game in two. There's more than enough content from 1-92 to make most MMOs with years of development behind them look skinny. That could be the retro, nostalgists' version.

The game already makes a step-change at 92. It would be the perfect new beginning, jettisoning the dead weight of a decade of overwrought and underused mechanics and systems, offering instead the much more coherent and visually appealing package that begins somewhere around the introduction of Withering Lands, half way through 2011's Destiny of Velious expansion.

Since that's unlikely to happen I think I would recommend would-be new players in Norrath to lay down a few extra dollars in the Store and begin at Level 90 with a Heroic Character. It seems counter to everything I usually espouse and support but EQ2 really is a different game these days and I suspect very, very few players who start at the bottom in 2016 will ever stick around long enough to discover just how different.

Of course, if you're an experienced MMO veteran who knows what to expect of an old game and isn't unduly phased by spending quite a long time staring at some really unappealing scenery then you're in for a real treat. There's an unconscionable amount of content in those first 90 levels and a lot of it is very entertaining indeed.

The best part is that there is a choice. A few years back it was very much like it or lump it and I suspect that after a few frustrating sessions many chose the latter. Most MMOs of a certain age now offer some kind of elevator to the top and the days of shaking our heads over the supposed entitlement issues that brings up are over. Or should be.


  1. Although it never really bothered me, two friends I tried to introduce to the game a few years ago were less than impressed with the starter zones in EQ2. Whether DBG can really afford the resources to revamp them is questionable but anecdotally it does seem important to player retention - Wildstar has revamped its starter experience at least two times since launch. I can't imagine either would be willing to buy a character boost to try another MMO, despite the obvious positives you highlight above to such an approach.

    We tried Frostfang together and I think the blinding white/blue colour palette was a turn-off. Separately I duo'ed with one of them in the Feydark starter area but the graphics are very, very dated. On a separate occasion I duo'ed with the other friend in the Darklight Woods zone and again the graphics didn't impress him but he did find the darker storyline a bit more appealing.

    It's interesting that Blizzard dev's have recently admitted publically that the leveling experience in WoW is now a complete mess due to the various stat changes, the power-creep of character abilities and the problem with over-leveling content due to accelerated XP gain. Again I question whether DBG would commit resources to revitalising the full leveling experience, and whether the EQ2 playerbase would welcome that at all...

    1. At this stage it looks very much as though DBG have, sensibly, decided that they are effectively in the fan service business when it comes to EQ, EQ2 and, most probably, the EQ franchise as a whole. Once they canned EQNext I imagine any thoughts of future market growth went with it. It's a shame that very few people who haven't already played EQ2 will ever do so but as you say the effort required to change that would never be expected to repay the cost so it won't happen.

      I think all four of the official 1-20 starting zones are very poor. The only one I ever really liked was Darklight Woods and even that isn't great. When I start a new character I always level in Antonica, Commonlands and the associated dungeons but nothing gin game sends you there any more and the gear and loot from them is inferior.
      They could try giving away one free Heroic Character with each free account but capping it at 95 without All Access. That would be a more effective free trial than having the whole game free but having to do 90 levels on 50% xp before you get to where everyone else is playing, which is the current offer. And All Access should give a one-time, uncapped, permanent Heroic Character with the first payment.

      Of course the current playerbase would be at the gates with pitchforks and burning torches but then, when are they not?

  2. The early content in EQ2 is a mixed bag. The overland zones do have a muddy blandness to them. I suppose one of the reasons I like Zek and Feerott is because they at least had a bit of color. And it always amused/annoyed me that it felt like SOE spent about 50x as much effort doing Freeport than Qeynos, only to have the rather simple looking Qeynos have all sorts of performance issues. Qyenos Harbor used to be horrible to get through.

    On the other hand, a lot of the underground stuff I though was very good. They Qeynos Catacombs had some very nice looking areas and I always enjoyed hunting around Varsoon's lair.

    I suppose I ought to level up one of my characters past 75 to see some of the newer stuff. I'm still in Kunark, which is coming up on being 9 years old in November.

    1. The catacombs/sewers of both cities are close to the best-looking and best-designed zones in the original game. I always thought that was strange, although of course until they revamped the original newbie experience you did spend an awful lot of time down there.

      Kunark is an excellent expansion, well worth working through the whole thing, although it is incredibly large. Whole MMOs are smaller than that xpack. After that The Shadow Odyssey is all dungeons except for the excellent overland zone Moors of Ykesha and Sentinel's Fate has pandas of which the least said the better. I got to like it eventually but I would suggest skipping it.

      Velious suffers from the same issues as Frostfang (too white) although the quests are good. It really starts to pick up around Withered Lands, which was a free update to Velious, as was Cobalt Scar, which is a really excellent zone with great stories and scenery. From that point on its all pretty good although there is a certain SOE/DBG formula that can become a little too apparent without the year-long gaps of the original expansion schedule.

  3. Question about starting boosted to 90: What about crafting - do you have to go to low level zones to start gathering those nodes to level a crafting discipline?

    1. Hmm. Good question. EQ2 has a complete alternate leveling process for crafting that mirrors adventuring all the way, including long quest lines, signature and epic quests and a very significant gear progression. You can just grind writs and level without any of that but you would miss out on a lot of very important and desirable rewards.

      EQ2 also has a less-rounded but still substantial Gathering leveling-up route too, primarily via the love-to-hate him Qho in Mara. If you do his entire sequence you would gather through every tier of mats, some of the twice, and thereby get probably as much as you needed to grind out writs. You also get the very important gathering pony and goblin that way, if I'm not misremembering.

      Alternatively you could just take your level 90 and make plat with him then buy the mats off the broker. That's easy but expensive and you'd miss out on all the goodies.

      The more I think about EQ2, the more I realize just how insanely content-packed it is. Best not to think about it - just muddle along and look up stuff when you get stuck, I would say.

    2. I will think about this then. I enjoyed EQ2 but got bogged down pretty quickly (started at echoes of fay deer for the winged class). Leveling 1-90 is basically never going to happen. But really enjoyed the crafting element. Thanks for the list of options.

    3. There is a crafting quest line in Frostfang that will get you to lvl 20. After that yes, you will need to gather the same tier of materials to level through that crafting tier. If you do the writs in the tradeskill area of the cities after getting to lvl 20, leveling is insanely fast.

  4. "Most MMOs of a certain age now offer some kind of elevator to the top ..."

    One of the contributing factors to my starting an EQ2 Necromancer based on your EQ2 blog posts and screenshots, was the two level 80 boosts that ArenaNet gave me in Shared Inventory Slots on my two GW2 accounts.

    I was trying to gauge my interest in another level 80 GW2 character but decided that rather than tinker with a GW2 Necromancer on zones that I've already explored on other characters, I would instead rather experience an EQ2 Necromancer on fresh (to me) content in EQ2.

    Having explored Darklight Woods and Neriak, as well as poked outside Darklight Woods to take a peek at the Commonlands and Nektulos Forest, I'm enjoying EQ2 enough that I'm inclined to consider your thoughts and boost to 90 this weekend to experience the newer EQ2, to include the possibility to explore on the flying mount that my veteran's rewards gifted me the sumptuous eye-candy ‎screenshot areas you've been sharing. :)

    1. I did go ahead and "Heroic" boost to 90 this weekend. It wasn't that I didn't enjoy the week I had spent in the starter areas, but rather that, while enjoyable, it just doesn't look like the EQ2 that you post the drool-worthy screenshots of. :)

      In fact I found the experience was enjoyable enough that it was worth continuing on with a subscription and boosting to 90.

      I'm such a slow leveller, anyway, and with all the content and advancement paths available at 90+, even if I ever do finish up I can always head down there with this character, start over with a different character, or pick up where I had left off with an earlier character from years ago and work through the earlier zones to 90, if I feel the urge.

      I suppose due to the power creep, while the boost is to 90, they've given me five orbs to teleport me to the Eidolon Jungle as my recommended starting point with level 92 mobs. With my Necromancer accompanied by my Veteran's Rewards mercenary, Lord Valkiss Ssi'sh, it is definitely not an issue. If my understanding is correct, they've pretty much implemented your suggestion that "reboot the game from the Withering Lands update, making level 92 the new Level 1", but perhaps placed me one step beyond the Withered Lands questline into the Eidolon Jungle questline?


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