Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Slaying The Dragon Is The Easy Part

Wilhelm and Everwake both posted yesterday about the problems of coming back to EverQuest II after a layoff. It's not just the familiar issue of looking at a whole load of items and icons you don't recognize and feeling overwhelmed. It's also knowing what to do next once you've gotten past that.

Inventory issues like Everwake's can usually be resolved quite painlessly, unless you're coming back to Lord of the Rings Online. In the case of EQII, which has what I believe to be the most generous storage offer in the genre, it's almost always possible to kick the problem down the road by emptying your bags into one of the many off-character storage options available.

Working out what icons mean is also straightforward in most games. Everything has a mouseover or a right-click tool tip these days. A few minutes kicking seven bells out of some unthreatening mobs in a familiar area should refresh your memory and return you to your preferred rotation.

Beyond those basics, though, lies unknown territory, which is where Wilhelm finds himself. Getting back up to speed in the upper reaches of an MMORPG you haven't played for a while can be a real challenge. By their very nature, these games aren't static. They rely on adding new content all the time to keep players invested and frequentlythat  new content either overwrites old content or invalidates it.

The knowledge you painstakingly acquired a few years (or even a few months) ago may not hold good any more, even if you can bring it to mind. Worse, the game almost certainly won't explain any changes in a way you can understand and any and all out-of-game resources may be compromised.

Wikis and guides are only as useful as they are updated. Even the most successful games don't necessarily generate accurate and comprehensive advice. When I first played World of Warcraft in the middle of the Wrath of the Lich King expansion, all the top results on a google search about how to manage Hunter pets went to detailed descriptions of the complex system that had recently been made obsolete. Only last night I was struggling to find up to date information on exactly how the Ascension system works in EQII these days.

Screen and spellbook c. 2007.

For the first many years I played MMORPGs, developers didn't really care all that much about returning players. Those were the days of post-launch growth and they were in the business of selling fresh boxes to new players.

To encourage entryism, EverQuest added complete new starting areas and leveling paths to the game twice in the first two-and-a-half years. The expectation was that populations would continue to grow and newcomers would begin from scratch, while current players would roll alts and join them.

As the genre began to mature and settle, expectations began to change. The games were lasting longer than anyone, especially their developers, ever expected. The potential lifetime of even a moderately successful MMORPG began to be measured not just in years but in decades.

With longevity came another unplanned and unanticipated phenomenon: the returning player. Running for years, a passably successful MMORPG could develop a tail of ex-players hundreds of thousands, even millions long. The tally of players who'd played a particular game and stopped far outnumbered those still playing at any given time.

Over the past few decades, entertainment providers have worked out how to sell old product to new customers as well as how to re-sell those same things to people who already own them. A favorite method is a change of carrier medium, always promoted as an improvement in quality. Vinyl to Compact Cassette to CD to MiniDisc to Digital Download to... vinyl again.

The other perennial is repackaging. Add some booklets or a bonus disc of demos. Put the thing in a big, shiny box. Slap "Anniversary" across the front.

Screen and spellbook today. Much the same only more of everything.
In this way and using a hundred other marketing tricks people can be persuaded to rebuy the same content almost indefinitely. The same process works perfectly well for games, although I've yet to see one re-released with in-game commentary by the designers and voice actors. Only a matter of time.

For MMORPGs, though, none of that really fits. For one thing, no-one in the genre sells boxes any more. Hard to repackage your digital download. Not impossible, granted, but hard.

The real problem is that these games don't conveniently sit on the virtual shelf, pristine, unchanged since the day they were created, just waiting for a re-launch. They grow and change. A lot. Often almost out of recognition.

And in doing so they bloat and age. Old, bloated games are, surprise, not as attractive as new, sleek games. Prospective customers, looking at the choice between a game made in 2007 and one made yesterday, are likely to skew new. It gets harder and harder to attract genuine new customers, leaving a choice of either making new product to attract them (very expensive and always high-risk) or re-selling the old product to old customers.

Except, as noted, the old product those customers remember, possibly fondly, no longer exists. A long-running MMORPG is an oxymoron: too old for new customers and too new for old. All at the same time.

Necro pet stats c. 2007
The problem was probably first identified by Sony Online Entertainment, who began experimenting with "Progression Servers" almost a decade ago although they may only have been feeding off the interest generated by the then-illegal Project 1999. That faithful reconstruction launched a decade after the original and offered proof of concept in its immediate success. This summer we saw the apotheosis of the trend in WoW Classic.

These retro-servers attempt to re-create their games in a form readily recognizeable to those who remember it with blurred affection. Technological and practical obstacles may render the experience less than pristine but compared to the alien and alienating landscape presented by the Live game it feels just enough like coming home after a long trip away. Sure, a few things may look a little different to how we remember but it's the same old place, right?

All fine and dandy but what about that Live game? For most companies the extra income from re-selling old successes is welcome but current product remains the focus. How do you get old players to try that? More importantly, how do you get them to stick not bounce when they do?

The glue of MMORPGs has always been the social bonds between players. Allegedly. Don't buy it myself but it's the accepted narrative. The problem with long-running MMORPGs is that the "community" is often invisible to both new and returning players alike.

The bulk of active players reside at the level cap and in high-level zones, inaccessible and invisible to newcomers. Or so it was for a long time. Developers came up with several ways to break this dam blocking their income stream, the most prevalent of which are Level Boosts and downscaling.

Level boosts simply skip all the old content completely. Downscaling makes all content available to all levels. About the only MMORPG I can think of where this really works is Guild Wars 2, which was designed for it before the game even launched. In most other games, where I've experienced both methods, either comes with as many problems as it solves.

Take EQII, which both Wilhelm and Everwake were talking about in the posts linked at the top. All recent expansions come with a level boost that lets you jump an existing character or start a new one in the ten level range below the current cap. In theory that should be enough time to learn or re-learn the ropes before joining in with the population bubble on current level-cap content.

Only it doesn't really work. Daybreak, to their eternal credit, pump out a new expansion every year.
Necro pet stats today. Now with scroll bar.
Each of those expansions includes a number of changes to systems, as do some of the major updates between Xpacks. Frequently, sysytems that formed the core of an expansion receive extensive revision, often because they were poorly received or were intended to take up time that the developers now prefer to direct elsewhere.

As Wilhelm eloquently describes, the effect on a returning player can be discombobulating, although it can be ameliorated if the player has come back to play with friends or to rejoin an active guild. All of the problems can be most effectively resolved by other players in game, either explaining systems or by grouping up and guiding the returnee through content.

Alone, though, a returning player is thrown back on their own resources. These include any crumbs the game might toss out. Some developers hand-hold better than others.

The EverQuest titles have never been long on breadcrumb trails. Other players are the best resource. Asking for advice or guidance in General chat can elicit helpful responses but the average returning player will have a lot of questions and the patience of the crowd can wear thin.

Out of game resources for EQII, almost all maintained as volunteer work by players, are among the best in the genre. The wiki should be the first stop for any unresovable in-game issue other than bugs. It's not infallible, though, and crucially it does require that you know what you're looking for. If there are systems you don't even know exist you can't look up how they work.

Gearing up is a huge part of traditional MMORPGs and EQII is particularly gear-centric. Wilhelm was having some problems with mobs taking a long time to kill which he thought might be related to his character's equipment and abilities. And he's probably right. Most likely that's the root cause.

I would have liked to give some pithy, succinct advice that, together with a couple of links to online guides, would fix the problem. Only I can't do that.

After several years of playing modern EQII fairly regularly, having six level-capped characters and having completed almost of all of the current solo content, I still don't entirely know what I'm doing. Not even after spending whole afternoons and evenings researching systems and reading guides.

Commonlands Wizard Spires Construction Project c. 2006

I have a working knowledge of how equipment and upgrades work in the game now. My Berserker sits at 75 million Hit Points and 50k potency, which is functional if not ideal. All his Combat Arts, give or take a few he rarely uses, are at Master level. Getting him there has taken me a couple of years, on and off. I still have to go check things when I want to make changes.

I'm well aware that there's a good deal more I could and probably should do. I read on the forum last week that a "casual" character should easily be able to hit 80k Potency. Unfortunately the person who made that claim neglected to expalin how it might be done. I can't figure it out for myself.

There is one exceptionally useful resource which helped me enormously a couple of years back: EQ2 Library, whose tagline is "Endgame progression made easy". For anyone trying to get to grips with the game's ferociously over-complicated progression and gearing, this is the place to start.

Unfortunately, Ablivion, who runs it, hasn't updated it since the last expansion. It's close to being current but not quite. He's had a number of technical and hosting issues but hopes to re-launch the site in time for Blood of Luclin.

Let's hope so. In the meantime, EQ2 Library is still the best information on endgame progression, be that Solo, Heroic or Raid, out there.

Commonlands Monument Construction Project 2019. Systems may change but content remains the same.

The upcoming expansion comes with the bi-annual 10 level cap increase, meaning it will be a full gear reset. All those painstakingly upgraded spells and abilities, all that Panda gear, all those augments will be invalidated on Day One as we move onwards and upwards in the search of ever-more inflated numbers.

For anyone wanting to re-learn the game, a new expansion provides the best opportunity. Even the base offer comes with a Level 110 Boost and there will be a full set of augmented gear better than Panda, free for the taking, in the hub zone on Luclin. (I know that for sure from the beta forums).

What's more, everyone will, briefly, be in the same boat as there will inevitably be vital resources attached to the solo signature line, meaning everyone from raiders to casuals will enjoy a brief window of communication. Then the doors will slam shut on the silos again and we won't see each other outside of Public Quests for another year.

Consequently my advice, just for the next couple of months, would be to buy the expansion and not worry about the fine details until then. By next Spring, with a bit of luck, maybe EQ2 Library will be up to date and I can just point returning players there.

It's a hell of a way to run a genre but we are, as they say, where we are. We'll just have to make the best of it until someone comes up with something better.

IntPiPoMo count so far: 100.


  1. To be honest, as great as getting a new expansion each and every year is, EQII's content cadence always was a bit too much for me, the reason being that I felt exactly as you describe once a year without actually having taken time off the game.

    I never had my gear maxed out or all important spells at master level by the time an expac hit. I believe I was never, ever, at the AA maximum with any of my characters.

    Granted, my playstyle is neither quick nor efficient. Still, I'm usually not the slowest to progress either, yet I've always felt at least as much dread as anticipation for a new expansion.

    I can only imagine how hard getting into the game must be for someone who wasn't as deeply into it once as you or I.

    1. I formed my expectations for content flow in the years when EQ was putting out a full expansion every six months with several major live updates inbetween. One expansion a year still seems on the low side to me.

      That's why GW2 amazes me. The only thing ANet ever did right was to build in almost infinite replayability. If they'd made the game more linear it would have become a ghost town years ago because the rate they add new content is glacial. As it is, people seem reasonably happy doing the same stuff over and over on dozens of alts.

  2. 80k potency is not realistic for a casual solo player. 60k sure and that is if you go with mostly mastercrafted gear and infuse all of it to the top tier. The curve to go from solo to grouping and then to top tier grouping was a mess this past expansion. Firs time that you could finish all of the solo zones and still not be ready for the lowest tier group zone. I stuck with soloing this expansion.

    To your point, it is easy to fall behind. I pay pretty close attention but a daily familiar quest was added during one of my breaks. Had no idea until I started looking into the double familiar xp going on right now.

    1. I thought 80k was an exaggeration. 50k seems plenty for solo stuff, anyway.

      I posted about that familiar quest when they added it and suggested I'd be doing it regularly and of course I never did again, not even once. EQII has more maintenance tasks than any game I've ever played - and a lot of them are well-designed and enjoyable, too - but who has time for thjem all? Min-maxers must have a full-time job keeping up.

  3. 'The same process works perfectly well for games, although I've yet to see one re-released with in-game commentary by the designers and voice actors. Only a matter of time.'

    'Portal' did this (when 'Portal 2' was released?). When playing through the game there would be certain objects you could interact with that gave a voice-over with the designers. I never accessed them all, but it was pretty cool.


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