Monday, December 1, 2014

More Is Less : EQ2

When I came back to EQ2 on a semi-regular basis last month I had to decide which character would take first crack at the new expansion. The choice was between my Berserker, already sitting comfortably at the then-max level of 95 and my Beastlord, just a few bubbles behind in the middle of 94.

The Berserker offered a couple of rather convincing arguments as to why he should get the call. For one thing he had two maxed craft skills: Weaponsmithing and Adorning. The Beastlord barely knows what a crafting table looks like. More importantly, the Berserker as a class is just more fun to play.

In fact it's pretty much easy-mode when it comes to soloing. Spec and gear a Berserker appropriately and you get something not dissimilar to The Tasmanian Devil if he had Wolverine's regen mutation. Basic strategy consists of running into the middle of a bunch of mobs and spinning in a circle until everything's dead. And that's without even popping the merc.
"You do have all the proper scrollwork for this merchandize? Correct?"

The Beastlord, on the other hand, is comparatively fiddly and significantly more fragile. There's a whole lot of building and finishing going on, plus a roster of pets that all do different things, and a bunch of stances and who knows what-all else going on. You have to think when you play a Beastlord. It's fun when you're in the mood but if you're planning to play mostly at the end of the evening, in short bursts, that's a mood that might not always be easy to summon.

So, Berserker it was: which brought up a problem. Due to a series of complicated and less than foresightful decisions, the Berserker isn't on my All Access account and neither is my All Access account in my name, which means I can't transfer him. Since Age of Malice opened for AA Accounts a couple of weeks before it opened for F2P that meant I'd either have to sub or wait.

I subbed. You'd imagine that would be an unalloyed improvement. I'm not so sure it is.

G`Thal's not quite the stickler for details that Agamennus is. That used to be a thing.
There was a very good reason that the Berserker was on a F2P account to begin with. He was born on the day the prototype F2P server, Freeport, allowed the creation of permanent characters. Some stage of the beta - I forget the exact details. I could have used my regular AA account back then but I chose not to because I specifically wanted to play under the restrictions F2P demanded.

At that time I was quite jaded with EQ2. The idea of a less-forgiving, less-accommodating version was appealing. I paid for the one-time $5.00 Silver upgrade, which removed just about all of the really irritating restrictions, leaving what I felt were tantamount to improvements. I had, for example, far less bag space, although it was still far more than many MMOs offer as a maximum. That meant I couldn't just hoard everything until I ended up with a huge mess that would take me days to clean up. Then there were the restrictions on what gear could be equipped, which meant that the gear I crafted or got from quests or drops seemed much more valuable and desirable. A number of the supposed clouds had linings that positively gleamed.

Comes with over 5m status!
On balance I felt that EQ2, played under the "Silver" regime, was probably the best iteration of the game I'd experienced. Lots of the "barriers" that I was regularly being exhorted to subscribe to remove I came to see as benefits. Not being able to change the slider for AA experience led directly to my Berserker becoming, by some margin, the most filled-out, complete character I have ever played since launch and having to think about every item he equipped led to him having better gear than my characters usually enjoy.

I even really liked buying "Unlockers" from the Station Cash store to modify armor, weapons or spells above my Silver status into ones he could use. I found that to be a much more involving, meaningful and enjoyable "choice" in gameplay terms than most of the choices I've been offered in MMOs. It was always tangibly satisfying to use an unlocker on a Fabled drop and see it turn into something useable. Those unlockers cost 50 cents each, half that when the SC came from a sale as it often did. It always felt like money well spent.

You also had to buy classes and races separately (in bundles of three), something I really appreciated. Doing that was just plain fun in the way buying a donut is - pointless, self-indulgent fun. The range and variety of restrictions and the means by which they could be individually or collectively overcome opened up  whole avenues of creative play for me and I consider the first couple of years after Freeport arrived to be the highlight of my tenure in EQ2, at least in terms of actual gameplay.

The 66-slotter.
More inventory in a single bag than you get in some entire games
Over time, sadly, most of the restrictions got whittled down. The inventory slots were opened up, everyone could wear Legendary and Fabled gear and use Master spells and abilities. Eventually the whole Silver tier was done away with leaving just Free to Play or Subscribed as the options. The differences now are primarily that F2P players get fewer character slots, can't use broadcast chat channels or the (outgoing) mailing system and have to pay per item to sell on the Broker, while Subscribers get a play-money stipend, a discount at the store and lots of bonuses to xp and various in-game currencies. Oh, and the AA slider is still locked on F2P although there's no mention of that in the FAQ.

So, for the first time, my Berserker can send things in the mail and sell anything on the broker, which would be all fine and dandy if it wasn't for another, coincidental, change that happened right around the same time I paid his dues. Along with the expansion came a couple of the usual "quality of life" improvements, from which everyone benefits, whether or not they bought the box. In this case it's access to both the Broker and the Mail from anywhere in the world - providing you're an All Access member.

We have that in GW2 of course and I never think twice about it. It's just how Tyria operates. Norrath however, doesn't. In Norrath instant access to mail and brokerage services from anywhere is just WRONG. I remember when we didn't even have mailboxes for Brell's sake! I remember when getting a mailbox that would work from the inside of your inn room was a big deal! I remember when the proximate location of the nearest Broker was a material factor in deciding where to live!

Giving me free access to these facilities from the UI does not enhance my gameplay. It diminishes it. Fortunately I have walked this road long enough now to recognize these potholes before I fall into them. I may be paying for these "enhanced" services but I darn well don't have to use them and I'm not going to. Well, not when it doesn't suit me.

UI functions represented as physical objects in the gameworld.
That's the way to do it.
If I have mail I still go to the mailbox to collect it. It's nice that I can send mail now as well - that's a perk I do appreciate. I still go to the supercilious, sarcastic broker in East Freeport for most of my marketplace needs. Now I can sell there as well as buy I visit him even more often. Judging by the number of oversized mounts that still get in the way I'm not the only one using his services although since, for the while at least, we have no option but to go to the Bank when we want to get something out of store, it's probably the Banker opposite that most have come to see. No doubt remote banking services are already next thing up on some dev's "play the game for you" list.

The line between texture and inconvenience can be hard to define. Someone at ANet decided that buying and selling on the Trading Post remotely was fine but you'd have to go to an NPC to pick up your items or money. That was probably motivated at least in part by the desire to sell consumable pop-up NPCs in the cash shop but also by an awareness that you need to give players reasons to congregate at facilities in cities if the game is going to look like there are actually people playing it.

Too much convenience and the whole experience risks feeling empty and unconvincing; too little risks provoking players into looking around for somewhere less irritating to spend their time and their money. At the moment, across the genre as a whole, I tend to feel the pendulum has swung just a little too far in favor of convenience but there are plenty of signs that it's beginning to fall back. In the meantime I'll just try and exercise a little personal restraint.


  1. Berserker all the way for ease of play. At least for solo content. And get a healing merc out and a couple levels ahead and muliplayer content is viable too. I think I have a berserker on every server I have played on, and if/when I go back to play, the main decision will be which berserker to pick up with.

    (I am also pretty well sold on the visible bags on your back.)

    1. I do like a backpack you can see. On the other hand, where am I hiding the other five?


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