Monday, January 27, 2020

Try Another Flavor: EQII

If you believe the forums, itemization is the biggest problem with EverQuest II's latest expansion, Blood of Luclin. If that's true, it wouldn't be the first time.

Itemization, like balance, is a perennial issue in all MMORPGs that rely on gear as a progression mechanic. In many cases items represent the "Reward" in the "Risk vs Reward" equation. Get it wrong and the whole game comes off the rails.

As with most things, it's not quite as simple as that. The question of how "good" crafted gear should be, compared to quested or dropped, has dogged many games that I've played. Too good and adventurers start to complain that their supremacy is being undermined; not good enough and crafters begin to wonder loudly what the point of crafting even is.

Crafting in Blood of Luclin has changed significantly, changes that aren't to everyone's taste. The new Overseer system, likewise, has come in for a significant degree of criticism. There are a couple of (conspiracy) theories floating around, purporting to explain what's going on.

One is the usual "They don't care and even if they did they don't know what they're doing" mantra that's dogged the game since beta in 2004. It may well even be true, at least in part. I don't believe the EQII team doesn't care but in the company's straightened circumstances it's easy enough to imagine that people may have found themselves taking on development and design roles with which they have yet to come to grips or for which they aren't ideally suited.

More intriguing, particularly in the light of both the recent re-alignment within Daybreak and Executive Producer Holly Longdale's assertion that "since 2015, since I came on board, breaking all the rules both games have grown. So where we had a trend of the audience trickling off, we’ve now grown and we’ve grown revenue at the same time", is the idea that Darkpaw Games is re-envisioning EverQuest II to meet the demands of a new and different audience. As one comment on the thread puts it "...they're working toward a different game design and they expect to lose customers because of it. They're just trying to extract as much money from folks they know are bound to leave along the way."

Were that to be true, it  would make some sense of another comment I read (and now can't find) which reflects on something I've noticed for myself. Conversations about the current expansion taking place in open chat within the game itself seem to be considerably more positive than those on the forums. Apparently the kind of people likely to chat ad hoc in General are having a better time of things than those who prefer a more formal approach to discussion. Change, as always, benefits some and disadvantages others.

All of this is a lengthy pre-amble giving context for something that might appear to be entirely unrelated: flavor text. Flavor text is an aspect of game design that's not just under the radar, more like under the floorboards.

Why, we might very well ask, does flavor text even exist? It fulfills no gameplay function whatsoever. It's not like the informational or instructive text that appears on a click or a mouseover to explain the use of an item or define its statistical value. Flavor text exists purely to be read and enjoyed for what it is. In a gamespace where many players don't even read quest dialog, what can that be worth?

To me, quite a lot. It's a meaningful factor in the elevated levels of satisfaction I'm experiencing in the current expansion, compared to the relative dissatisfaction felt by others.

As I've mentioned in previous posts, as a direct result of ongoing changes in game design I find myself engaging with a whole raft of daily tasks, all aimed at "progressing" my characters. Two of those, the Overseer missions and the "Familiars Wild" quest, can result in the acquisition of agents or familiars.

Each of these comes in the form of an icon, a tiny portrait of the individual in question. When examined, these pictures tell a story.

It's a peculiar irony of the genre that the less important the text is to the function of the game, the more likely it is to be well-written. I've seen exquisite thumbnail descriptions on items whose only reason for existence is to be sold to vendors for cash. Frequently the miniature illustrations are delightful, too. Even crafting mats get a line of context.

When it comes to Agents and Familiars, I'm finding the act of discovering each of these new "characters" is a reward in itself. A reward sufficient to justify the time and effort involved.

The loot tables attached to Overseer missions do indeed have some very real shortcomings: some of the items are all but useless and many of those that look appealing on a first glance prove to be inferior to equivalents rewarded by the regular quests. The Agents and the Missions themselves, dropping infrequently but repetitively as they do, are also of limited practical value.

And yet it's the appearance of a new Agent or Mission that elicits the most immediate response from me. Any frustration that might be building as a result of receiving repeated "rewards" I can't use and don't need is, for the time being at least, alleviated by the anticipation of receiving another Agent or Quest for my collection, each complete with another tiny tale.

As for the Familiars Wild quest, there I could be quite cross, were it not for two things: firstly the quest itself is a lot of fun and secondly the familiars are highly amusing. The reason I might be cross with this quest is that, as I suspected, most of my characters are bugged and can't get it at all.

After a judicious exploration of the way it's (not) working for me I have concluded that every character who did the quest on the day it first appeared in game, back in February 2018, is considered still to be doing it now. They all get the "come back tomorrow" message that appears if you've done the quest since the last daily reset. Characters I've made more recently are able to get the quest as normal.

I petitioned this, not hoping for much. I got an excellent, prompt, accurate and polite reply from Darkpaw's Customer Service team, telling me, as I knew would be the case, that there was nothing they could do. malfunctioning quests are obviously a problem outside of the scope of customer service. I was just hoping they might know of a workaround.

The impressive thing was that the person who replied had very plainly both read and understood my petition, something that has not always been the case in other MMORPGs where I've had similar interactions. I've always found DBG's (and previously SOE's) customer service to be exemplary. I'm glad to report that level of professionalism is still being maintained.

With the quest bugged on most of the characters I play regularly, it would be reasonable to expect that I'd stop doing it. The outcome has been somewhat different. I'm now doing Familiars Wild every day on those new characters that are able to get the quest normally.

There's a good chance I won't play those characters all that much, although you never know. It doesn't really matter because I'm not doing the quest to make them more powerful - I'm doing it because I look forward to seeing what new familiar I get each time. Partly that's the fun of collecting and working towards completing a set (and yes, I have been considering buying Tem Tem) but mostly it's for the fun of reading the flavor text.

To add a further layer of nuance to the meaning of "reward" (as well as hanging another question mark over my sanity), I don't even need to do the quest to read the descriptions on the creatures. Every familiar in the game is shown in the Familiar window and the full text for each is visible on mouseover. Except I find it more fun to receive them randomly as "rewards", the reward in this case being a few lines of text that bring a wry smile, often as not.

I very much doubt this is the thinking that represents the new kind of customer Darkpaw is supposedly hoping to attract, should that conspiracy theory have weight. It is hard to deny that the game is changing but why, let alone to whom those changes are intended to appeal is extremely hard to parse. Personally I always tend to suspect a combination of incompetence and unforseen outcomes in these situations, rather than any clever plan.

Whether the churning engines of change will plow the game into the ground or prepare it for the seeds of a bright, new future remains to be seen. For now, I'm enjoying losing myself in the undergrowth that springs up in the furrows.

So long as someone's being paid to write biographical entries for notional non-player characters there can't be too much wrong with the state of the game. Or, at least, that's the tale I'm choosing to tell myself.


  1. "It's a peculiar irony of the genre that the less important the text is to the function of the game, the more likely it is to be well-written."

    I have also found this to be true. Much of the quest text in WAR bordered on incompetent, yet the Book of Knowledge was extremely well written. On my current run through of SWTOR I on a new server, I have gotten into the habit of reading each new codex entry as I unlock it. They are really well written, and it's increased my enjoyment of the game immensely.

    I suspect it's because they tend to be labors of love. You have to have quests, and you have to have some sort of dialogue introducing them. However, codex entries and item descriptions are completely superfluous to a game mechanically. No-one will phone them in because no team would ever be in a position to need to do so.

    1. It does seem that way. You'd think it would be the interns who'd get the job of writing the flavor text no-one's going to read but it often seems more as though th lowest person on the totem pole gets to write the filler quests. And indeed I have read interviews where people have claimed that's exactly what does happen.

  2. They sure like the word "beastie". The ones you posted do seem amusing, though the inclusion of a first person narrator in an item description is weird to me.

    1. Yes, I wonder who it is that's talking. Maybe there's some lore behind it. I should probably look into that...

  3. Did they redo the traits/trait icons for agents? I went in over the weekend and noticed that at least one of mine that I could have sworn had two traits now only has one, while some others have traits that didn't before and which are awkward etchings on a black background that do not describe to me what they are alleged to be.

    Otherwise I log in daily to do the overseer thing. I had done it across a couple of character, but have been focused on just one for a while now and they have quite the list of agents.

    1. They changed all the trait icons from ones that looked different and were easy to identify to ones that all look the same and need to be moused over to find out what they are. That has a complaint thread of its own on the forums and for once it seems entirely justified. If there was any logical explanation the devs are so far keeping to themselves.

      I wasn't aware that the actual traits assigned to individual agents had changed. I only have three agents with traits so far and none of those changed. I wouldn't be surprised, though. I also have a feeling the cooldowns on some of the agents/quests changed but I'm not certain. I could swear some of my agents are taking twice as long to be ready for their next mission but others are the same as they always were.

      Don't you love undocumented changes?

    2. I bought the collector's edition of BoL, which got me three special agents. Two of those came with two traits initially... King what's his name had the crown and coins icons... but now they all have just one. I'd complain, but I can't quite figure out what this feature was supposed to accomplish so can't yet figure out where they are trying to get it with the changes. I should go look at the forums for this. That won't help, but maybe I can complain more articulately.


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