Sunday, May 3, 2020

Because I Said So!

It was never my plan to turn every Kander's Candor into an excuse for a post but it does consistently flag up points of discussion. The podcast is certainly well-named. Occasionally you can almost hear the "should I have said that?" catch in Kander's voice. Since it's not going out live it's probably safe to assume everything's been stamped for public consumption but there is that occasional delicious frisson of listening in to something you probably shouldn't be hearing.

Episode Six is available now and once again it's a very interesting listen. Particularly if you've ever wondered what the weather's like in southern California.

One thing that's been mentioned three times now is the way that, in the past, the developers who do the actual design and coding work were instructed, sometimes at very short notice, to add features to the game that they otherwise would not have been interested in doing. It comes up again in this episode in relation to "set bonuses", the extra stats or effects a character gains from wearing more pieces of a particular armor set.

These bonuses, which Kander describes as "horrible and terrible" and blames for all kinds of balance issues, were apparently added to EverQuest II in a hurry because "things happened elsewhere", by which he means similar things were implemented in other MMORPGs and the EQII team were ordered to replicate them. In previous episodes he says the same happened with both pvp battlegrounds and the automated dungeon finder. The clear implication is that this was done at the behest of upper management for purely commercial reasons with little or no regard to how it might affect the health of the game.

All of these features were added in the Sony Online Entertainment era, before control of the game moved to Daybreak. Listening to what Kander says, and especially the way he expresses himself as he remembers a sequence of events from many years ago, a picture begins to take shape of a top-down command structure under SOE, in which arbitrary diktats had to be carried out to exacting timescales by less-than enthusiastic workers, who then had to try to order and maintain other, more crucial systems around the unwanted intrusions.

A strong impression also appears of a current team that, while very under-resourced and overworked, has taken back some measure of control. It's very apparent that some of the features that have either been removed completely or allowed to gather virtual dust under Daybreak have been those that were imposed from the top to begin with and for which the people doing the actual work have little affection.

As a long-time player I was always aware of what seemed to be the whim-based nature of many of the half-baked ideas we had to put up with but until I started listening to these podcasts I had no idea how many aspects of the game were being shoe-horned in on the instructions of people with an agenda very different to "what's best for the game".

Again, as a player, I have felt for several years that I can feel a difference. Lots of things still happen that don't work out well but the reasons why someone would want to try to move in those directions aren't hard to fathom. As has become all too clear from listening to Kander describe the circumstances under which expansions, game updates and other content get made in the Daybreak/Darkpaw era, it seems unnecessary to look much further for an explanation why something hasn't gelled than "not enough time, not enough people".

At one point Kander is asked whether the EverQuest and EQII teams work together and if some of the systems that works so well in one game could be adapted for the other. Given the recent introduction of very different versions of the Overseer feature in both games, it's a timely question, although the systems the questioner would like to see moved across are much older ones such as EQ's best-in-genre loot interface.

In answering, Kander tellingly refers to the original EverQuest as the "jewel in the crown" and makes a point of saying that the team go out of their way to protect the integrity of the older game. He suggests that there are things they'd try in EQII that they would never do in EverQuest, the implication clearly being that they know where their bread is buttered. Judging by the rising populations, evident in both games but especially in the older, it's an approach that seems to be paying off.

Even with the company's fortunes tentatively on the up, it's painfully clear that there's little fat to spare. Towards the end of the podcast there's a brief discussion of questing. It comes as something of a surprise to learn that a single developer, Kaitheel, writes and implements almost all the new quests we see. No wonder they're so tonally consistent.

It also takes him about three quarters of his time doing that, which is why the team seem so excited about the Overseer feature. Considerably more excited than the players, I'd have to say. I think I'm probably in quite a small minority in seeing the Overseer system as one of the most engaging, rewarding and addictive that's been added in many years.

I like it primarily because of the rewards. Wilhelm describes EQII's Overseer as "more of a magic prize machine rather than a game" and I agree. I just think the prizes are really, really good.

The developers, though, if Kander is any indication, seem to view Overseer as a genuine alternative to questing, with lore and narrative and characters and story. I don't think a lot of players are going to buy that. Overseer missions bear about the same relationship to quests as the blurb on the back cover of a fantasy blockbuster does to the six-hundred pages inside.

It's something that the podcasts make much more obvious than conversations on the forums. The way developers see a game is quite different from the way players see it. In the past, things may have been added out of hubris and greed; now they're being added out of necessity. Neither is necessarily going to make players happy.

In the previous podcast there was a question about crafting in Blood of Luclin, widely believed by players who craft to be the worst implementation in many years. While Dreamweaver and Kander gave a very clear and honest acknowledgment and explanation ("not enough time, not enough people") it was impossible not to notice that neither of them seemed to understand why crafters were so disatisfied with what they had been given.

The main reason is simple. Tre's a particular problem where the step from the top rung of the solo content ladder to the bottom rung of heroic is too big for many players to manage. In the past the leg-up they need has been provided by Mastercrafted gear. In BoL, the best gear players can make is worse than the rewards from the Signature solo line.

That seems fairly easy to understand but it was evident that the point was being missed. Or, since Kander was adamant that a smooth transition from solo to heroic content already exists in the standard progression of the game, maybe it's the players who are missing something. Either way, the two sides are still talking past each other.

Things have definitely been looking up on the communication front, though. There has been a noticeable change in atmosphere since Daybreak spun the two Norrathian titles off to Darkpaw. The podcast is helping to clear the air and let's hope the player council, whatever it ends up being called, leads to a meeting of the minds between players and developers.

If relations continue to improve, since the Darkpaw split co-incided so closely with the departure of Holly Longdale, it's going to be difficult to unravel exactly what the catalyst for change was. I did notice Kander mentioning that upper management were being supportive of an initiative to get more input on the questing workload, though.

I'll end on that optimistic note.


  1. I have not listened to any of the podcasts yet, I probably should. The main reason is that I really don't like the guy. He has been so condescending in the past. Coming from a background of customer service he has had a few comments that should be unacceptable and he should not be the face of this team to the public.

    On the other hand, this podcast sounds like a step in the right direction. Open communication which is what everyone has been asking for.

    I have said this before but this game for me has gone downhill the last few years. It's a fun solo game but grouping and now tradeskills are no longer fun or worth it. This is from a few reasons that you mentioned in your post. I do not believe that they are missing those points but the devs just think they know better. And to me, that is the crux of the problem for years. Ignoring feedback because they know better and the game has suffered because of it.

    1. Apologies for the late reply. I guess it very much depends on what you want to get out of the game (games, really, looking at the whole franchise). For me, the whole direction of the franchise began to change for the good once John Smedley took his hands off it. I don't think it's in any way a co-incidence that the number of people playing both games has increased since his dead hand was removed from the tiller - the games are both much improved from what I would say was the nadir of the franchise in the couple of years before Sony sold it.

      Some of that relates to changes being made that make the games more soloable, which is my strong preference, and that has definitely angered some veterans, but (as far as we can tell, always that caveat with companies that aren't required to release data via earning calls etc.) if more people are playing then those changes are working.

      They're definitely working for me, anyway. Blood of Luclin is my favorite expansion since Altar of Malice six years ago.


Wider Two Column Modification courtesy of The Blogger Guide