Monday, 26 December 2016

Expanding Expectations : EQ2

Here's one of those posts that began as a comment to someone else's blog - Stargrace's MMOQuests in this instance - and then grew out of all proportion. Not done one of those for a while.

Stargrace, a very experienced EQ2 player who's not long returned after a while away, has been playing through the new expansion, Kunark Ascending. She's recently had a baby (Congratulations, Stargrace!) and begins her observations with the caveat "I mentioned in my previous post that I don’t have a lot of free time and that what free time I do have is pretty sporadic".

I find this somewhat hard to parse. I've played EQ2 most days since the expansion came out. I don't keep a log of how much I play, but throughout November and early December I was in the habit of popping in for an hour or two after I'd done playing GW2 each evening. This last couple of weeks I've played two-to-three hour sessions almost every day with a couple of longer runs at weekends, to the point where it would be fair to say that, right now, EQ2 is my main MMO and GW2 my secondary.

With this level of involvement I have only just completed the main Signature Adventure questline on a single character. Far from becoming an Ascended, my Berserker hasn't even found where to start the learning process yet.

Dawn over Obolus.

He's made some progress with his Crafting. He has the plant that gives daily harvestable rares which means he can at least think about crafting some adornments to upgrade the new gear he's been getting from the quest rewards but so far he's only gotten around to making a couple of those. He's done the craft timeline as far as the part where you need to speak to the guy in Bathezid's Watch, which he can't do without completing Proof of the Pudding, so that's on hold for now...

I've been inside maybe three solo dungeons and done them once each, just where the questline requires it. I tried one Advanced Solo dungeon so far, again just once, for fun. I haven't even found where the entrances to the others are. I've done the PQ's (which I love) a few times - maybe eight or nine in total. I've done almost no faction work or timed quests and I'm still finding new side quests I haven't done almost daily.

Some of my recent time in EQ2 has been spent on my Stormhold Shadowknight and also on getting my Inquisitor to 100 (currently at 98.5) so it hasn't all been about the new expansion but so far I estimate I've had around 20-25 hours play just doing the above on my main character. That in itself seems like a fair return for the box price (I bought the basic edition as I always do) but as you can see from all the things I haven't finished (or even started) that tally is going to double or treble before I ever begin repeating myself or grinding for alts (if I ever do, which I most likely won't).

Moon over Jarsath.

I would guess that, by the standards of non-MMO players, the amount of time I put into playing EQ2 would be considered obsessive at maybe 15 hours a week, especially considering it's not even, really, my main MMO. Stargrace considers her play is constrained by not having a lot of free time. Either she is massively more efficient than I am (highly likely) or her definition of "a lot of free time" is radically different from mine.

Much though it differs from my own, however, her point of view and concomitant assessment of the value and worth of the expansion is hardly unusual. The expectations of regular MMO players about what they can reasonably expect from an expansion seem to me to be challenging for game developers, to put it mildly.

Every expansion in any MMO I play I seem to hear veteran players talking about having done everything other than the grind repeat parts in a matter of days, let alone weeks. At this point I'm usually still trying to come to terms with the opening stages. Sticking with EQ2, even the last several, admittedly more modest expansions (when compared to huge, sprawling epics like Rise of Kunark or Echoes of Faydwer) have each taken me a couple of months to complete on a single character.

Jaled Dar's Shade awakens.

Listening to WoW players talk about the generally well-received Legion expansion it was evident that most had begun to feel they'd done as much as they were interested in doing by about six weeks in. Less than four months after it launched everyone seems to have drifted away again. I have yet to set foot in Legion, even though I added it to my account a couple of months ago, my issue being, ironically, that I don't envisage being able to find enough time to do justice to what's on offer.

GW2 certainly made a better fist of keeping players invested in Heart of Thorns, which was de rigeur for most of the year after it dropped and remains, arguably, essential and unavoidable even now. ArenaNet achieved that level of continued relevance, however, at the expense of a great deal of player good will and with a reportedly significant drop in number and income.

The endless dissatisfaction of MMO players with the entertainment provided has been a constant since I first began playing. I came across the term "Bored 50s" in my first month of EverQuest, back in November 1999, when the game had barely been out for six months. With a level cap increase Bored 50s soon morphed into Bitter Vets, the term we still use today to describe people who keep playing even though they don't seem to be enjoying it very much.

The Iksar Hero walks.

Regular injections of new content, be they free updates or paid expansions, are intended to keep these jaded habitués if not happy then at least docile but they rarely have that effect. Instead they become yet another stick with which to beat the developers for not providing all the entertainment and excitement all the time.

As a player who, by and large, rarely even touches "Heroic" or Raid content and therefore, by definition and choice, misses out on a substantial portion of what he's paying for, I would be hard put to think of any MMO expansion I have ever bought that I don't consider to have been good value for money. Indeed, the only one I regret purchasing in almost twenty years is the first Rift expansion, Storm Legion.

As is apparent from the posts I've written since it came out, I think the Kunark Ascending expansion is both excellent in its content and extremely good value.Two months after I bought it I have yet to get to what many players, even casual players who mainly solo, would consider the "meat". I imagine I'll still be picking away at it by the time the next (already confirmed) expansion arrives in late 2017.

Pretty pictures are all very well but here's the heart of the furnace.

I don't think it's that I'm particularly undemanding. As I've often said, I miss the days (the eight or so years, in point of fact) when the main MMOs I played pumped out expansions every six months. Some of those were so huge they would today be greeted as generously-proportioned new MMOs in their own right. Even the smallest (Legacy of Ykesha springs to mind) would be competitive in present day terms.

Even so, even with expectations formed in richer times, when content spewed out of all MMOs in a torrent rather than a trickle, I still find my main problem isn't finding enough new content to keep me amused but finding enough time to do justice to what's on offer.

And I play MMOs obsessively by the standards of anyone other than another MMO player. Oh, I tab out and web browse a lot these days. I don't put in my 40+ hours of pure, focused play like I did in the old days. Still, an average week sees me giving my full attention to the screen for 20-25 hours. That's a lot.

Sometimes, it's what they don't tell you...

It's more, in my estimation, than any single game can be expected to provide, week in, week out, all year, this year, next year, in perpetuity. I deal with that by playing many MMOs. How MMO developers are expected to deal with the players who expect to get all their entertainment from a single source - even if that means only all their MMO entertainment...well, that's the problem, isn't it? That's a circle that no-one's been able to square.

Hence the stampede towards more forgiving formats: sandboxes and survival sims, where all the developers need to manufacture are the sets and the props; MOBAs and Arenas, where all that's required are rulesets and scorecards; chapter-books, where each release comes as a finished, finite chunk of story with a beginning and, most definitely, an end.

All the more praise, then, for those developers who take the hard, thankless path of building on what came before, expanding their vision, integrating their systems, opening their worlds out instead of closing them in. They'll never please everyone. Every expansion will be too hard for some and too easy for others. Someone will have "finished everything" by the end of the first week (first day!) while someone else will be still begging for more time when the pre-events for next year's model begin.

No, they'll never please everyone but so long as they keep on keeping on they'll please me. I'm looking forward to next year's expansion round already.

Anyone there, ANet? I'm looking at you. Try to keep up...

3 comments:

  1. I am enjoying this expansion and I probably am only playing 3 hours a week which is normal for me during the holidays. My free time jumps up in January. My main point about the expansions and price is it does not compare to content of previous expansions. Same price or close to it but less content. It is a trend that bothers me and I have skipped expansions because of it.

    For the content because I do enjoy doing heroics, is that it is a grind to get ready to even start doing the easiest heroics. I have all but abandoned the idea of having alts do heroics this time around. Tithe is important now and the resolve mechanic is just ridiculous.

    Either way, I do enjoy my play time but I am definitely hindered in doing what I enjoy most in the game.

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    Replies
    1. It's undeniably true that the current expansions are smaller than they used to be but that's been the case for many years. The last really big expansion for EQ2 was what? Rise of Kunark nine years ago?

      How you assess the "size" of an expansion depends in part on your playstyle. Personally I have always used the number of non-instanced overland zones as the primary measure. By that rating EQ2 expansions shriveled in size with The Shadow Odyssey in 2008. That had just one overland zone, although it was a huge one and one of the best in the game. After that and for a good while the norm was two good-sized ones, but Chains of Eternity and Tears of Veeshan re-used old maps so they weren't entirely new.

      Altar of Malice returned to the template of two completely new zones but the transition from SOE to DBG gave us by far the smallest expansion to date in Terrors of Thalumbra, which had just one, smallish new zone. I'm guessing a single new overland zone per expansion will be the new norm but I'd say Obulos Frontier is a big improvement on Thalumbra.

      The plain facts are, EQ2 is an aging game with a shrinking population, developed by a smaller team working for a smaller company. To compare a 2016 expansion for EQ2 with a 2006 or 2007 one is very much not comparing like with like. My feeling is that the days of large-scale expansions are over for all MMORPGs. I doubt we will ever see another expansion like Echoes of Faydwer for any MMO, one that adds a complete new through-line from character creation to end game, complete with new race, new starting city, and a full set of leveling zones, dungeons and raid zones going all the way to the cap.

      Frankly, that's not an expansion; it's a new MMO. SOE really did bolt entire new MMOs onto their old ones and call them expansions. It was always a crazy idea and one of the reasons they were always my favorite MMO development house but there were reasons they were able to throw money and resources at game development that, I suspect, had precious little to do with the actual profitability of the titles themselves. Now they no longer have the giant, protective wing of a global megacorp to hide under they have to make the expansions they can afford, not the ones they can imagine.

      They're doing a pretty good job of it, too.

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    2. I agree that has been awhile and we will not see an expansion like EoF again. But the dwindling population started with those changes of smaller expansions. It was internal decision to cut the development team for other projects. It was an error on their part as I really think that was when the game lost a lot of its players, my guild included. I do not think that a huge expansion will help at this point, the damage is done. It just feels like each expansion gets smaller and everyone just says well its a smaller team and we should just accept it.

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