Thursday, December 10, 2020

Living In The Shadow

What with everyone talking about either Shadowlands ("3.7m first day sales") or Cyberpunk 2077 (more than a million concurrent players on Steam within the first two hours) and just a week to go before release, I thought I might pop into the beta forums for Reign of Shadows, the upcoming expansion for EverQuest II (21,000 paying customers - kind of puts things into perspective, doesn't it?) to see how things are shaping up.

Still, it's not how many players you have. It's how happy they are, right? Those twenty thousand people could be playing something else, after all. It's not like there isn't plenty of choice. They must rather be be playing EQII or why would they even be there?

To post on the beta forums, or even read them, you have to have pre-purchased the expansion. It's a self-selecting group of committed fans behind a velvet paywall. No fence-sitters or disgruntled exes sniping from the sidelines allowed. It's got to be the love-in of all love-ins, doesn't it?

Yeah, well, you'd think so but you'd be wrong. I'm not going to link to or even quote from the beta forums because I'm guessing that would be some kind of infringement of something I'd be deemed to have agreed to somewhere along the line, but let's just say it's not all kittens and candies over there right now.

To be fair, when is it ever? I've been reading the official forums for EverQuest and EQII for more than twenty years and I can't think of a single moment where the general vibe was peace and plenty for either of them. 

As I've mentioned before, there was a moment (it lasted several months) when things got so bad that Sony Online Entertainment had to close down their own forums because the vitriol was so corrosive it was actively damaging sales. Prospective new players would visit the forums to see what existing players thought about what was, at the time, the western world's most successful mmorpg only to come away thinking they'd been given a glimpse into some kind of online hell. 

If that was what what the forums were like, who in their right mind would want to see the actual game? Not for nothing was the alternative forum that replaced the official one when it disappeared named EQ Flames.


Compared to those days, I guess today's complaining seems mild. There's a resigned, downtrodden tone to much of it. A "what else can you expect?" grudging acceptance of the miserable lot of an EQII player going into the third decade of the twenty-first century. 

I specify EQII because a) I don't often visit the EverQuest forums and b) on the rare occasions I do, the tone there seems considerably more sanguine. We now know that EQ has three times as many players as EQII and I wouldn't be at all surprised to find they were three times as happy with that choice. 

EQ is a game that, by and large, knows what it is and what its players want. EQII really isn't. It's several radically different, largely unrelated games precariously bolted together. 

It has what used to be - arguably still is - the best housing/building/decorating in the genre, along with what was once the most complete and rounded crafting and gathering game in mmorpgs. If, instead of trying to skip a generation of technological development by waving a magic wand with the ill-fated and even more ill-considered EQNext/Landmark debacle, SOE had doubled down on what they already had and spun it up into a standalone product... well, best not to think about that.

EQII also has sixteen years of leveling and general PvE content. It has to be one of the most alt-friendly and replayable mmorpgs out there, with literally dozens of classes and almost as many races,many with their own starting areas and leveling paths. There are thousands of quests, many of them epic in scale, distributed across a vast swathe of open world zones, open dungeons and instances tuned to suit everyone from casual soloists to hardcore premades. It also has a fairly extensive raid game and it used to have PvP. 

And that's where the nub of the problem lies. As time has passed, despite the immense range, diversity and potential of the content (I haven't even mentioned the incredible range of collectibles) the active population has condensed down to a residue of individuals and collectives, all dedicated to having things their own way. Which would be fine, if the resources existed to service them all adequately, but of course they don't.

EG7 didn't see fit to include any details on the size of the teams working on each game in the portfolio they're about to purchase from Daybreak but it seems reasonable to assume that, as one of the least-populated and least profitable, EQII will also get the least resources. However many people it is, and it won't be many, they have to get an expansion out every year, as well as putting together enough content between full releases to keep as many of those twenty-one thousand players logging in as possible.

It's a ridiculous proposition. The main complaint (out of more than I care to count) about last year's expansion was that it was unfinished. Same as the year before. And the year before that. Despite what outside commentators might say about the price-gouging of a $250 edition, I rarely hear players complaining about the cost. They seem happy enough  to spend the money - providing they get what they pay for, which, for most, seems to be more of the same, ready to play and polished straight out of the box. 

Consequently, each year the focus of complaints revolves around raid content that doesn't work and systems that are broken, with particular contempt being reserved for new systems that no-one asked for and which don't even work anyway. Last year, raiding was adjudged to be non-functional until several months after launch and the storefront special, the new Overseer system, was widely ridiculed as thin, meaningless and a waste of time.

There was also almost universal condemnation of the shadow gathering system that came with our return to the moon and tradeskills in general were broadly considered to have been reduced to an irrelevant and irritating sideshow. If even that. 

It's fair to say people weren't happy. Of course, I was. It must be wilful perversity. I thought Blood of Luclin was the most enjoyable expansion I'd played for many years. Not the biggest or the most impressive. Just the most fun. 

I liked the shadow crafting. I found it an entertaining and absorbing mini-game. I loved the Overseer system enough to keep at it for almost the entire year. I've barely missed a day doing my full set of missions since before last Christmas. As for tradeskills, I found them so useful I doubled my team of max-level crafters from two to four for the first time in a decade and a half.

I also thoroughly enjoyed exploring all the new zones and instances. I completed both the adventure and tradeskill signature questlines twice each and got half way or more through both of them on several other characters. As for leveling, I had six 120s by Easter.

All of this while, according to the forums, the world was burning down around me. I guess with the real world doing much the same thing I didn't notice. Or maybe I just want different things from the game, because if I'm objective about it, many of the complaints I read are largely justified. Every time we get a new expansion a lot of systems don't work straight out of the box. There are bugs - any game has those - but a lot of the problems are fundamental design errors or just plain disagreements between developers and players on what is and isn't fun.


And some of the developers can be abrasive. There's a tendency to dig in and defend choices that plainly aren't working. It sometimes takes longer than it should before a compromise is reached. On the beta forums right now there are a number of what look like very valid concerns that don't appear to have anything resembling a meaningful response.

With just a week to go before RoS goes live it's a racing certainty no major design choices will be reversed and no unfinished systems will come to completion. Since we'll then be right into the holiday season and presuming the team have been hard at it for weeks if not months, the chances of anything more than a few crucial bug fixes happening before well into the New Year seem slim.

One theme that comes up repeatedly on the beta forums right now is that people have run out of patience. After the last couple of years there was a feeling things would be better this time. I won't say promises were made but there was a change of leadership and a change of tone. Having seen what's coming, let's just say some beta testers aren't anticipating an improved experience this time around.

There are problems with mercenary healing that threaten to make solo play difficult if not impossible, not least because of a debuff in some zones that applies perpetual health drain while adding insult to injury by sucking your life to the accompaniment of an infuriating sound sample (which, as anyone who spent their evenings in the original Paludal Caverns would have to admit, is at least authentic to the original experience).  

The big concern centers on the new AA system. It's a full revamp of a major game feature that will apply to everyone regardless of whether they buy the expansion or not. Or at least I think it will. I'm still not sure. I could log into the beta and test it for myself but I'm not sure I want to find out.

What I read is that it's broken but I'm not clear whether that's because it doesn't function or because people don't like what they're getting. If it's the former, that's a technical issue that will resolve over time. We can probably all live with that.

The latter would be worse. Even if you discount the drama and hyperbole, the ceaseless claims that people are leaving the game because gearing up for raiding and heroic instances just isn't fun any more can't be discounted. Sure, most of it is bluster but not all. Some of those people really are going to unsubscribe and so are others who aren't going to make a big deal about it.

With a working population of just over twenty thousand players, how many more people can the developers afford to piss off? What's the minimum viable number to keep the doors open?  Can EQII continue to cruise under the radar, buoyed up on the relative success of other All Access games like EverQuest, DCUO and even Planetside II, all of which have far more active players? 

It's uncomfortably ironic for me. Based on previous years, there's every chance I'll find myself captivated and satisfied by this year's expansion, even as all around me are breaking their keyboards in frustration. About the only thing I don't like the look of are the changes to the way guilds level which, from what I've seen on the beta forums, are extremely similar to those that sank small guilds in Guild Wars 2. But then, what do I really use my one-person guild for? Nothing. Will it make any difference to me, whatever they do? Almost certainly not.

We'll find out for sure in a week or so but it's more than likely the release of Reign of Shadows will see a slew of cheerful, maybe even excitable, posts here as I praise the things I like and  poke fun at those I don't. Even if I end up having a great time, though, wouldn't it be better if I was the dissatisfied exception, while most people were praising the expansion as a return to form?

There's not much future in being one of a handful of people happily playing deck quoits even as the rest of the passengers fight to get into the lifeboats. But equally, who wants to be stuck on a cruise docking at ports you don't want to visit, surrounded by people having a great time doing things you don't want to do?

It would be wonderful if everyone could get exactly what they want but even when Sony's money funded a much bigger team that never really happened.  And EQII players' capacity for dissatisfaction has never been proportional to money spent on trying to please them, anyway. 

This will be the last expansion produced under current ownership, though. Next year new hands will be on the purse strings. Let's hope there are still enough "satisfied" customers around to make another expansion in 2021 look like a decent return on investment. If not, then we'll all really have something to complain about.




  1. It's such a strange industry to watch even as a casual observer. I am astounded by how much content Everquest 2 gets compared to the long droughts and almost non-existent crafting systems in World of Warcraft, yet we are were we are, populations-wise. I of course am utterly ignorant of most of the raiding, or bleeding edge bugs that plague a new expansion launch, but I'm still thankful for what we do get in EQ2 every year. I'd rather live through bug-fixing than have a content drought of nigh-on 18 months and then have bugs at launch anyway...

    1. I almost included a paragraph along the same lines. I've thought about it a lot over the years and I'm definitely on the "bash it out and fix it up later" end of the scale rather than the "it'll be ready when it's ready" one. It's rare that anything's so badly broken or so unfinished that I can't get some fun out of it and I'd definitely rather have some fun now than no fun for a long time before - maybe - more fun eventually.


Wider Two Column Modification courtesy of The Blogger Guide