Monday, 13 June 2016

Guiding Principles : EQ2

If you zoom in tight on the center of the picture above you'll see a snappily-dressed ratonga with his back to the camera. He's proudly wearing Naylie's Nebulous Newsbag, a 66 slot inventory item that displays as a backpack with scrolls sticking out of the top.

This, one of the largest containers and most visually appealing back items in the game, can be obtained only by means of a quest, The Nebulous Newsies. I have a vague idea I might have blogged about the day I got my Triple-N Bag (as no-one calls it) but if so I can't find the post.

Desirable rewards from lengthy quests are meat and potatoes to many MMOs but there's something very unusual about this particular example. The quest only becomes available when a Guide appears on the server to offer it. This happens as and when it becomes convenient for the Guide to run the event, not when it might be convenient for players.

Guides aren't employees of DBG. They are players who've chosen to give up some of their free time to run events. They abide by a very lengthy and detailed set of guidelines and appear at times of their own choosing. On any given server that might be several times on a weekend or once in a couple of months.

EQ2Wire today published an excellent and comprehensive overview of this often overlooked institution. It makes for a great read that should explain just why so many EQ2 players are not just willing but happy to put up with a little inconvenience in the cause of encouraging their Guides to carry on the good work.
I have no memory of this event whatsoever but that's the entrance to Blackburrow in the background. I feel as bemused about it now as that poor gnoll must have been feeling when it was going on. Whatever it was...

For MMO players whose memory and experience of the hobby goes back more than a decade or so this all may not seem so strange. I played MMOs for years in the knowledge that many things would happen in the game that I would only hear about when I logged in and someone told me what I'd missed.

It was common practice back then for GMs and volunteers alike to run ad hoc events with no fanfare and no warning. The first you'd know would be when an excited guildmate started yelling about it in guild chat. Even when you'd found out something was happening there was the issue of getting there, which in the glory days of EverQuest or Dark Age of Camelot could mean a thirty minute run - and that's assuming you could survive the journey.

Those events were server-specific, random and of extremely variable quality. They could turn out to be zone-wide carnage or an hour of improvised roleplay. Sometimes both at once. By the time the event finished you might have acquired an amazing, extremely rare item or have lost a level. I had a friend rage quit when that happened to him.

Indeed, so wildly did the experiences vary and so disparate might be the potential outcome for characters of different levels or classes or races, you would frequently arrive at the zone in question to find a host of players running towards the locus of the action while an exodus of terrified refugees fled in the opposite direction.

The defining factor of all these events was that you had to be there. There was no appointment for fun. Fun happened. If you could call it fun. Some of the events would be repeated, sometime, who knew when? Some happened just once, ever.

This looks like it might have been an "event". Then again, maybe it was just a rift. I took a lot of screenshots, though, which suggests I thought it was something special.

As time rolled on and fashions changed this kind of "be there or be square" event-making fell out of favor. Every major attempt since to introduce the concept of genuinely "dynamic", one-off events to the infrastructure of an MMO has met with a disastrous reaction from a playerbase trained by years of post-WoW MMO design to expect convenience and consistency, not happenstance and opportunism.

Both Rift and GW2 fell at the first hurdle trying to bring something approximating full-scale, real-time event-making into the game. Trion opened the first Planar raid zone with a one-time event then had to spend weeks dealing with PR fallout, both from those players who weren't able to make the date and those who were there and didn't think the effort they'd made had been well-enough rewarded. ANet changed the entire direction of development for their game after the Karka debacle.

The risk that any developer runs by endorsing and encouraging this kind of old school thinking has rarely been exemplified better than in the comments following this much more recent post. Commenter Daemonsbane articulates the dilemma developers face:

I know that for me that when I logged on last night and learned that I had missed the unique opportunity to pick up the quest for perhaps a couple of months that it took the wind out of my sails. I had earlier visited a Mariner's Bell to investigate the quest area, and came away with the understanding that it would be a bit before I was the appropriate level to pursue the quest. But the feeling of waiting to level up to access the quest was totally different, for me, from the feeling of being denied the opportunity to get the quest for perhaps months.

In fact, after finishing up what I was doing last night I no longer had the enthusiasm that I earlier had and so logged over to LotRO to quest there. Of possibly more concern to the devs is that after subscribing and spending money in the cash shop this past weekend I was still considering spending more in the cash shop to pick up some wings, but today I no longer have the urge to spend additional money on EQ2.
No business wants to lose customers like that and Daemonsbane is far from alone in feeling that there are certain benefits to automation and accessibility. On the other hand, as can readily be seen from the forum thread in which a player suggests that very thing, there's an equally vocal lobby in favor of keeping faith with the old way of doing things.

With the withdrawal of paid GM's from this kind of community-building activity the torch has passed entirely to the cadre of volunteers who make up EQ2's Guide program. Without our Guides Norrath would be in stasis.

As Feldon says
Guides provide an invaluable service for players and make Norrath feel a bit more alive.
That's a sentiment with which I wholeheartedly agree. It might, perhaps, be worth considering in future whether Guide quests should have such extremely desirable rewards attached, given that these are quests that most players may never be lucky enough to happen upon but really, if having a great reward increases the appreciation for the work these volunteers do in their own free time and enhances their status and reputation within the community, the inconvenience that accrues is probably a price worth paying.

Daybreak Games would seem to agree. Talking about the Newsie quest, Feldon reports that

Players line up by the hundreds to pickup the quest from a Guide (it cannot be acquired by any other means) when word breaks that they will be seeking player help on a server.  A comparable quest was just added to the Guides’ repertoire this month and it will be interesting to see how frequently it is made available.
My italics.

Can't wait to see what the new quest brings! Over to you, Guides of Norrath...

11 comments:

  1. I was a guide in EQ back in the day, and was asked to participate in a Guide led event where we spawned as really high level Gnolls in Steamfont mountains. I forget the backstory, but it was fun to play as a villain.

    Of course, it didn't take long for all the druids to port in and make quick work of us, even with our high level bonuses. There weren't a million blogs and podcasts back then to get good feedback on the event and it was a little disorganized, but it was fun for me anyway!

    Hopefully the new tools make it easier =)

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    1. Do you remember what server that was on? I was at that event, or one very much like it. You may have killed me!

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    2. The Rathe server, I believe. That was the one I was a guide on (but I also may have been pulled over to a different server to support another crew). I wish I was blogging back then there were so many guide stories that sadly, I did not record anywhere.

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    3. Ah, not me then. I never played on The Rathe. I imagine the same event ran across all the servers although not at the same time.

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  2. Thank you for the post!

    I did read the thread on the forums, and to be honest it's still not clear to me, from both your blog post and the forum thread, what the compelling gameplay that having the initial quest handed out by the "guide" is. Again, I had tried searching on YouTube to see what was special about this "event" that benefits from GM involvement, but my search skills did not reveal anything.

    Why an "event", and why a live guide? Why are those who don't understand the compelling reason for making it a guide granted quest evidently being considered anti-guide?

    A lot of the replies in the forum thread seemed more along the lines of what I mentioned previously in my blog post comment. We've all heard in the past from PvP'ers and hard-core raiders, that they deserve special status items, such as titles and cosmetic goodies, as rewards for their participation rather than PvP'ing or raiding for the fun of it, rewards that filthy casuals don't deserve. Now it reads in the thread like those who are dedicated members of the community also deserve something special that the casuals won't have.

    FWIW, I started MMOs back with a UO pre-order, played EQ, Asheron's Call, Asheron's Call 2, DAoC, etc., way before WoW & EQ2 came out, but no longer raid nor ladder PvP and could rightly be considered casual.

    My understanding is that when the content was new and fresh the guides were there frequently, but now that the content is old it's more along the lines of every few months, and good luck being on when the window for quest acquisition is available. At what time does it warrant inserting an NPC to hand out the quest if the frequency is no longer being supported, if there is not compelling gameplay reason not to? As posted in the forum thread "But with regard to this quest--and it *is* now an established quest, not a spontaneous guide event--they've let it fall to the wayside to the detriment of many new or returning players."

    My thinking is that non-compelling gameplay, whether "old school" or not, is non-compelling gameplay. Trying to make an event compelling by coupling it with rare and powerful rewards does not really work, in my mind. If it is compelling gameplay, then participation would be reward enough, would it not?

    As you relate in your Karka post, special events should be fun without the expectation of special rewards, I agree completely. I do wish we had more server-wide events, I especially like the ones that span a lengthy period of time that everyone in the server can contribute to in some way ... even if unable to be there at the culminating event at least contribute to the success of the endeavor.


    "It might, perhaps, be worth considering in future whether Guide quests should have such extremely desirable rewards attached, given that these are quests that most players may never be lucky enough to happen upon but really, if having a great reward increases the appreciation for the work these volunteers do in their own free time and enhances their status and reputation within the community, the inconvenience that accrues is probably a price worth paying."

    I'm confused as to why the guides need "their status and reputation within the community" enhanced? What is the problem that "such extremely desirable rewards" addresses? Not understanding this, my experience is more along the line of the forum post that "things like this don't enhance the game, they make it time consuming and frustrating, engendering resentment and anger rather than good will."

    I think in summation I'm perplexed that the discussion on this particular quest acquisition seems to have become pro-guide, and those who don't understand why it's only given out now extremely rarely by guides in a system that seems to cater to the hard-core in the community are not considered as also pro-guide supporters?

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    1. There's a comment somewhere on the forum thread, by a dev if I remember rightly, that says that the only reason the reward is so good (not just one of the best bags in the game but also 5 million status, which is a really big deal to some people) is because the delivery method acts as a limiter. In other words, if the quest was available all the time from an NPC the rewards would have to be nerfed quite significantly (or, I guess, the quest would have to be made a lot harder. It's pretty easy).

      As for why it's become such a touchstone for the guide program itself, I guess you'd need a Guide to answer that - maybe there's one reading this who might want to give their side of it. My interpretation is that allowing Guides to take responsibility for something this significant (it gets hundreds of players to gather when it happens and not much in EQ2 can say that) raises their status in the eyes of players (Guides are and always have been disrespected by a segment of the population) and also raises their own self-esteem. As an organization, when you have volunteers you need to be able to motivate them and esteem is a prime motivator.

      As for the reaction of the "community" to any suggestion that there might be better ways to handle it, you do have to bear in mind that the EQ2 community is very, VERY conservative (and that's being polite). Things have to be done the way they have always been done. Any change is bad. Anyone who questions the status quo is a threat. It's what happens when mostly the same people have been playing the same game for a decade and more, unfortunately.

      This quest began like this so it must go on like this. Had it began as an NPC quest and been changed to a Guide quest you can bet there would have been outrage but since it was the other way around...

      I think the really telling point is the first one I made, though. These rewards are simply too good to attach to a regular quest of this simplicity. My feeling is that your choice as a player is to get a shot at the bag via this somewhat inconvenient method or not get a shot at it all.

      What level are you now, if you're still playing? You need to be able to travel safely and kill stuff in Phantom Sea to get and complete the quest, which means being at least level 95, probably more like 97. The quest is listed as Level 100. If you're leveling up there's a very good chance you'll be able to catch a Guide at Carlin Ward (it's possible to travel there safely at lowish level I believe) at some point well before you'll actually be able to complete the quest. When I got it I hadn't even heard of it - I was just playing and people started talking about it in General chat - so it doesn't have to be "by appointment".

      Good luck with it - and with whatever the new one turns out to be.

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    2. I'm still maybe playing EQ2? I think I've logged on EQ2 twice since the Triple-N Bag disappointment? I didn't buy the wings and don't have any interest in acquiring them at present. May spend my Daybreak cash on Landmark instead.

      I didn't delete EQ2 out of my list of possible entertainment options, but in EQ2 I'm in an area that I have explored and is not all that visually appealing so when I consider what to do for an evening it has not been chosen often. It's possible that there is some lingering lack of interest, too, from when the events "took the wind out of my sails" and swept away my initial enthusiasm. Likely when you write another EQ2 post with beautiful screenshots that will get me back interested in EQ2. :)

      The biggest problem is that I have too many interesting MMOs installed on my PC, along with the fact that I enjoy spending some evenings just reading and relaxing.

      I feel a little motivation to make it to the end of LotRO before the license comes up for renewal (my sense is that WB will want to retain the license and spend the money, even if the WB company doesn't care anything about LotRO) just in case LotRO goes away. I don't have the same sense of urgency about EQ2, I don't see Daybreak shutting it down. (I'm not really anti-Daybreak, I was hoping for EQ Next to be great but I don't hold Daybreak accountable that it wasn't to be, I picked up Landmark this past weekend and have been tinkering in it the last two evenings.)

      I'm interested in seeing how the WildStar Steam release goes, if they strike out on Steam then I'll likely try to budget some time to explore WildStar before the servers shut down. I'm not an action combat type, GW2 is pretty much my limit, but I feel it would be a shame if I missed the opportunity to explore and experience the colorful sci-fi Western theme of WildStar, even if I find the gameplay itself not compelling.

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    3. I like WildStar but it's one of the least "relaxing" MMOs I've ever played. I always feel tired after I play it, which is why I stopped. I managed to play quite effectively into the high teens with all the annoying ground targets switched off and without doing any dodging at all. It wasn't the "action combat" that wore me out, it was the Haribo color palette and the abrasive ambient soundscape.

      I do wonder about LotRO, not that I'm likely to go back and play to any serious degree. I wish they'd do a proper "buy a max level character" deal - then I might buy one and go sightseeing for a while.

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    4. Agree on WildStar. I desparately want to finish the single player story line, but the game is... exhausting to play. I feel worn out after long playsessions. Overstimulation, A-D-D fueled combat is ruining my story experience!

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  3. I am leaning towards Daemonsbane PoV (and wholeheartedly agree with the irony of needing rather massive bribes for supposedly-'best' content), especially because EQ2 is a Themepark MMORPG.

    With Sandbox(y) games the 'shoulda been there' factor is a given as they are truely evolving games, but personally I am not convinced Themeparks should really bother with trying to create the illusion of a changing world esp. if that means stripping content because they are not convincing as evolving worlds to begin with. If they were, there would for example be little to no respawns (let alone of 'Named' foes), the idea of downing the exact same Raid boss for the nth time would be especially removed as either that big bad had been stopped or killing him doesn't seem to work anyway.

    Or, to put it in another way, for players like me a (part of) Themepark may represent a 'happy place', and without any REAL need for changing (as, again, Themeparks are entirely artificial worlds to begin with) I do not fancy the extra pressure of content being flat out removed in a leisure activity.

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    1. I'm not oversold on the sandbox/themepark dichotomy. EverQuest, which is often touted as the first "themepark" MMO, was nothing of the kind and EQ2, while it's more of a themepark than its ancestor, isn't all that much of one either. Indeed, after more than a decade. EQ2 is a vast, sprawling tangle of systems and ideas that encompass most of what can happen in a persistent online environment - apart, of course, from players fighting other players, now that's been excised.

      I wouldn't be all that interested in a true theme park experience, where everything really does always stay the same, but then I've yet to play an MMO that was still being developed where that was the case. The whole concept seems antipathetic to the genre, really. Whether developers need to add extra randomness beyond what naturally occurs from the constant updating and revising that goes on, though, is another matter entirely.

      In this case the whole thing is massively complicated by the whole Guide issue, which is more bizarre the more you think about it. Since I *have* been thinking about it I have come the conclusion that the quest in its current form exists ONLY because it is given out rarely and in unpredictable circumstances. I think that a 66 slot bag and 5 million status, were it to be available otherwise, would be attached to a Raid level quest or a hugely lengthy crafting quest like the Shawl, which would thereby gate acquisition by time or raid timers. In other words, no-one is going to be getting a best-in-slot item just for a regular half-hour runaround quest given out by an NPC.

      Of course you could have an NPC that pops up semi-randomly. That's been done plenty of times. That really would be going back to the dark ages of MMO design, though.

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