Sunday, November 25, 2018

Maybe Someday : Daybreak Games, EQ2, EverQuest

Earlier this year, Wilhelm at The Ancient Gaming Noob, following on from a report on MassivelyOP, examined a Reddit post by someone who claimed to be an employee of Daybreak Games. The supposed ex-DBGer laid out a series of fairly specific predictions for several Daybreak titles, including both EverQuests. 

The provenance of the leaked information was heavily disputed at the time. The substance of the original post was quickly deleted, although it can still be read in full in a comment further down the thread, which itself is now archived and unavailable for further discussion.

Since the post went up some of the events predicted have come to pass. Both H1Z1 and Planetside2 received new maps. Just Survive closed down. While that's quite a convincing tally, the two new maps were both announced fairly soon after the leak and the death of Just Survive was widely seen as inevitable.

Still, it gives pause for thought. The predictions for EverQuest and EverQuest2 were something of a mixed blessing. The suggestion that 2018 would see the final expansions for both is particularly depressing in the light of the very high quality of Chaos Descending, which I have been playing the heck out of since it launched earlier this month and thoroughly enjoying.

On the other hand, the imagined plans for next year, EQ's 20th Anniversary, which include "a series of nostalgic raids that tie into complex quests [that] grant alternate characters powerful scaling weapons" for both games suggests not only an intent to continue supporting and servicing the two existing EverQuest titles but also a framework by which to do so.

Add to that the prospect of "Everquest 3... back in development... rebuilt from the ground up" and aiming "to compete with Pantheon: Rise of the Fallen" and the future for the franchise looks fairly rosy. Or at least a lot rosier than it could have been, given the roller-coaster ride of the last few years.

If Chaos Descending does turn out to be the last expansion EQ2 gets, at least it will be going out on a high. Well, I think it will... I'm loving it, anyway.

As a regular but somewhat casual player, I find it surprisingly hard to judge where the game is at most the of the time because much of the activity at end game is hidden in instances. Even the Public Quests, which used to bring hordes of players together in lower-level open zones, have of late been siphoned off to specific areas accessed from endgame hubs.

It's not much easier to tell how busy the game is by looking at those hubs themselves. People pass through but they tend not to hang around. Neither is there much to indicate activity at the traditional gathering places in cities; the banks, brokers and crafting stations. Those stopped mattering to most players long ago.

For most of its fourteen years, EQ2 has had a guild culture centered on extremely well-appointed Guild Halls, offering every imaginable convenience and acting as the meeting place and social center of the game for many players. Over time the options available to individuals have grown to rival those of guilds, so even players in smaller guilds or those too independent of spirit to join a guild at all can easily furnish their own instanced housing with every facility required.

Consequently there are no obvious gathering places in EQ2 where a curious observer can take a rough census of the population. EQ has Guild Halls and instanced housing but it also has the Plane of Knowledge, the Guild Lobby and The Bazaar, three non-combat zones which offer essential facilities available nowhere else in the game. You can do a headcount in those three and get a rough sense of the health of the server you're on and of the game in general.

Chaos Descending brings a small part of the Plane of Knowledge to EQ2 for the first time. Myrist, The Great Library is all that's left of PoK. It's a beautiful place and a great nostalgia trip but it makes no attempt to replicate the original's essential importance as the beating heart of the game. These last two weeks I've seen many players flitting about the halls and stacks but no-one stops to hang out and just be there the way we did al those years ago.

No, these days about the only way to judge the health of the game is by the number of iterations each new zone spins up to deal with demand and by the ratings on the Daybreak Server Status page. I'm somewhat handicapped by being fast asleep all through U.S. Primetime, so I never see the figures at their peak, but late on Saturday night on a holiday weekend yesterday there were multiple instances of every zone I ran and all the regular Live servers were at Medium or High.

These days, many MMORPG players seem almost obsessed with population figures and what they say about the supposed health of the games they play. With the genre no longer of great interest to the wider gaming public and sunsets seeming more common than launches, it's not surprising people are wary of any sign their particular favorites might be struggling.

I wonder, though, whether, we're looking at all this in quite the right light. As committed devotees of the MMORPG format, is continual growth really what we seek? And are MMORPGs really the sharks of gaming? Do they have to keep moving or die?

Take expansions. I love expansions. I love huge content drops that fundamentally alter the boundaries and baselines of the game. I'm more than happy to take a reset once a year. Heck, I cut my teeth on SOE's cycle of a genuine full expansion every six months - twelve months often seems like a long time to wait.

But is it really the best thing for the long-term health of the game itself? Expansion do have the huge benefit of attracting coverage in the gaming press for games that go ignored the rest of the time and they do create marketing opportunities to bring back ex-players. They also allow for the milking of the wallets of the people already in and playing.

Commercially, expansions make a lot of sense but to put out the puff pieces and bring in the pre-orders they have to include significant upgrades either to power or convenience: more levels, better gear, bigger numbers, faster access. Expansion that just offer "more of the same" don't get headlines and they give current players an easy out to skip a year until something more substantial comes along.

The result is creep; two flavors of it: feature and power. The former is what leads to players no longer needing to interact with each other in public spaces, as facilities that were once held in common are parcelled up and handed out as perks to individuals or guilds. The latter is why huge tracts of the world become player wastelands as the entire population crams itself into the handful of newest zones.

Over time, this in turn leads to all the increasingly half-baked solutions we've seen introduced to aging games: mentoring, mercenaries, stat-crunches, catch-up gear, welfare epics, instant Max-Level boosts and all the rest. In order to convince new players that other people really do play this game and to get returning ex-veterans into the real action with their erstwhile friends before they give up in disgust and unsubscribe, means have to be created to allow latecomers to join the critical mass of regulars at the top as fast as humanly possible.

None of which was the original vision for EverQuest or, probably, EverQuest 2. The first was certainly intended to be some kind of Virtual World, where players could live out a vicarious fantasy life in a realm of magic and mayhem. The younger game built on those foundations, offering not just an exterior landscape to explore but interior life of substance: an actual home for your surrogate to call their own, free to expand and decorate and enjoy in peace and tranquility, alone or with friends. Both of those are visions of sustainability as much as of growth.

Were Chaos Descending to prove, as predicted, to be EQ2's final expansion I'd be disappointed. I'd miss next year's. A lot. Moreover, it would be very hard, if not impossible, to see the end of expansions as anything other than the beginning of the end for the game as a commercially viable product. At some point, surely, attrition caused by lack of new content would lead to a drift down to population numbers that would no longer generate an income stream adequate to justify the maintenance costs.

But that point could be a long way off, even then. With a thoughtful approach and a well-implemented plan, the older EverQuest titles could transition gracefully into a lengthy, secure and settled retirement. If the Reddit leaks turn out to be accurate then it does seem that Daybreak at least have preparations for such an outcome well in hand.

We'll find out soon enough. The EverQuest 20th Anniversary is in March 2019. If there are announcements in the New Year telling us about nostalgic raids, complex quests and scaling weapons then we can call it a done deal. If that does happen - roll on EQ3!

Otherwise I guess it will be business as usual for another year. Everyone meet back here next  November for another ten levels.

Either way, on we go.


  1. I am a bit worried that all of the negatives in that prediction post will come to pass, but that few of the positives will show up. Since that post came out, Daybreak has laid off staff, seen H1Z1 fall far enough that its esports league has folded, and then get into bed with whatever NantWorks is with a deal that nobody really knows the details of. It isn't clear to me what role Daybreak even has with H1Z1 anymore. And don't get me started on conspiracy theories about LOTRO and SSG.

    Despite getting legit, direct insider intel that another Norrath game is on the way, I'm wondering if we'll get to this time next year and Daybreak will just be EQ, EQII, and DCUO.

    Of course, we're getting towards the end of the year, so it is also time for me to start thinking about predictions for 2019.

    1. Well, they have been hiring. And they didn't have huge lay-offs. And the teams on the main games they still have seem to be pared down without any sign that people have left... It does point to secret teams working on unnanounced projects, although I have a feeling that might just mean Planetside3.

      On the other hand, as an EQ/EQ2/DCUO player, I can't help but wonder if a DBG focused on nothing but Norrath and DCUO would be such a bad thing...


Wider Two Column Modification courtesy of The Blogger Guide