Friday, May 15, 2020

Instance Karma

I spent a good portion of yesterday going through all the armor and weapons and jewellery I've been stashing in the shared bank in EverQuest II, comparing it with what various characters were wearing and allocating pieces to those who could best use them. I also spent quite a while crafting transmutation stones and transmuting them to make some of the very sought-after red adornments for which I've been fortunate enough to obtain limited-use recipes.

Because the speed of leveling in the Blood of Luclin era has become so fast I've ended up with six max-level characters. EQII operates a two-year cycle for level cap increases and in previous expansions going back many years, I've tended to have just one capped adventure character at this stage, six months after new levels were added.

I've also increased my capped crafters from the usual two to four. That happened in the run-up to BoL, when the fifteenth anniversary celebrations created an exceptional opportunity to level tradeskills at a highly accelerated pace.

With the somewhat controversial addition of Shadowed crafting and Overseer missions, both of which have led to my acquisition of far more Adept and Expert spells and combat arts than I've been able to afford for many years, not to mention a more than ten-fold increase in my bank balance due to selling spell scrolls on the Broker, I find myself in a hugely better place than ever before when it comes to gearing up. In fifteen years I don't believe I've ever had a better-equipped main character, let alone such a capable and increasingly well-prepared back-up team.

The whole process has been and remains both enjoyable and satisfying. Thinking about it this morning, I realized just what a balancing act it must be for the developers because my enjoyment rests squarely on a paradox.

Solo outdoor weeklies no longer give gear I need but I can still use the currency to buy recipe books for adornments.

The reason I find all of the above so satisfying is the way each incremental improvement makes my characters more powerful and effective in combat. Being able to kill mobs more easily and clear instances faster means I'm much more willing to take the daily and weekly missions and engage in the kind of repetitious behavior I've previously avoided.

That willingness, eagerness even, only persists for as long as I feel I'm getting something out of the experience. In other words, the better the developers feed my sense of achievement by making me feel more powerful, the less there is for me to achieve to sustain that sensation.

I tend to talk a lot about playing for fun and it's true I do spend a great deal of time doing things that aren't in any obvious way productive or meaningful in terms of the kind of character progression that can be measured by a DPS meter, but I do also like to see my numbers go up. The interest I have in running the same instances over and over is unlikely to continue once I cease to receive rewards that further my character's progression.

At the moment I'm still in the sweet spot. My Berserker is doing very well but there are quite a few upgrade paths yet available for him. While I work on those, he gets plenty of drops that the other five can use. It's immediately apparent what a smart move the creation of the "Heirloom" tag was, all those years ago.

By far my best weapon to date.
It came from an Overseer mission.
EQII's extensive Heirloom system means most drops can be passed to other characters on the same account, something that instantly extends the potential life of any dungeon still capable of providing upgrades to any of the characters able to receive them. Also, as the only maxed transmuter and adorner on the team, the Berserker gets to make the all-important adornments for everyone (just as well, since his chosen professionof Weaponsmith is totally useless these days) and instances drop the transmutation stones for those, too.

Those instances are still profitable but they're also fun for me right now because they're easy and getting easier every run. Someone claimed in General Chat the other day to be able to complete any Blood of Luclin solo instance in around six minutes. I'm a long way off that but I can imagine twenty-minute runs being a realistic prospect sometime soon. When I was levelling up they took a couple of hours.

Already, though, that sweet spot is starting to sour. Most regular drops are no use for any of my team, now. Common drops from bosses in solo instances mainly come in at 155 Resolve with the better ones going to 160. I'm already transmuting all of those.

A major incentive to run instances remains. Any boss chest might contain a red adornment. The loot rights to group with someone to come into their instance and loot one of these non-tradeable gems run well into the millions and bidding for them in open auction is often fierce. Even with my hugely-improved finances, I'd go bankrupt buying just a couple of the better ones.

I can make several red adorns now but the mats it takes are themselves worth hundreds of thousands of platinum so I'd obviously rather get them as drops if I can. There are more that I don't have recipes for yet and all of them have a limit of two "charges" before the spell unscribes itself. With six characters to gear up that's either a lot of luck with drops or a lot of money spent.

The balancing act the developers have to perform with each expansion, and indeed with the major updates inbetween, is to allow players to feel their characters growing ever more powerful,  something that always translates into faster and easier fights, while somehow imbuing those increasingly trivialized battles some degree of meaning and value. It's why so many MMORPGs use a tier system for instances and dungeons, effectively allowing for several gear resets within the same expansion era.

Before instanced dungeons we used to talk about"keying" or "flagging". Difficulty was gated not by a gear rating but the possession of an item or character flag, usually obtained through lengthy questing and a great deal of combat although occasionally by pure, blind chance. The general idea was that if you could survive the content that gave you the flag you'd be just about ready for what came next.

Those shields were a nuisance once. Now they're a joke.
This still happens in EQII, albeit without the actual keys or flags. There's an informal  ranking system, whereby players talk about "Tier 1" or "Tier 2" dungeons. These used to be more of a judgment issue but nowadays certain instances come withhigher Resolve requirements than others so it's pretty much a formalized process, the kind of gear or DPS check seen in many games.

Or at least I think that's how it works. I have only the sketchiest understanding, enough to know that even at my current, fairly powerful, solo state I don't meet the entry qualifications for the lowest tier. I can at least see them from where I'm standing, though, which in itself is a new experience for me.

Once, EQII only had one kind of instance but over the years the variety boomed: "Solo", "Advanced Solo" "Duo", "Challenge Duo", "Heroic", "Event Heroic", "Challenge", "Raid"... I remember doing "Advanced Solo" instances some years back, mostly as a duo with Mrs Bhagpuss, but that must be getting on for a decade ago. I think I tried a Duo instance with my Mercenary once and didn't get past the first room.

I don't know how many of those kinds of instance exist in the current era. Most of them are probably artifacts of the past. Blood of Luclin instances seem to come in either Solo or Heroic flavors. It didn't used to matter because I never came close to reaching the gear ceiling for solo play. Now  I might, at least on the Berserker.

I suspect that the ceiling for solo progression will equal the ceiling for my own interest in self-improvement. I have no plans to try and find groups willing to babysit a tentative move into Heroic content. The question I'm asking myself is this: if it did turn out there was a viable, solo upgrade path available, extending beyond the one I'm on, would I want to follow it?

A shot from when I first did this instance while levelling. I had to clear everything for fear of adds. These days it's the more the merrier.
If, for example, there were Advanced Solo dungeons and Challenge Solo Dungeons, would I want to keep pushing onwards?  I'm absolutely positive that the less resistance the mobs are able to offer, the more I like it. Would I want to step from the top of one ladder onto the bottom rung of the next, only to find myself struggling once more to survive, fighting the same mobs only tougher?

I've rarely, if ever, been in a position where I need to ask myself questions like this, which go to the heart of the whole concept of "progression", and I don't have any ready answers. It's quite refreshing to be thinking about something that I'd usually dismiss as  having nothing to do with me.

It's a dangerous path. This is how those endless progression games work, isn't it? Where you fight your way up a never-ending tower or down a never-ending dungeon, with everything getting stronger and you always just behind the curve. I'd hate to find myself sucked into something like that just because it's fun.

In practice I'm sure that what will happen is that something will come along to distract me. A holiday event, another game, some whim that pops into my head. Character progression of this kind above all takes commitment. I have enough of that to take me only so far. I think.

I'm not sure, though. After all, I haven't been here before.


  1. I was going to write a comment, but in the end I wrote a blog post with a link to this post. I'd like you to know and I am not sure if blogger automatically pings you in such cases.

    1. Congrats on your first post! Added your blog to the roll.

  2. What you seem to be alluding to is the tricky balance zone between boredom and frustration, aka flow.

    The thing is, that state of flow is different for different players, so I'd posit that games of endless progression where the player can self-adjust their difficulty level are actually the best chance of attaining that.

    I might prefer something that feels smooth, where I can cut down hordes of enemies with a single blow, and keep going up to slightly more difficult enemies but still managing to cut them down.

    Yet another player might find that effortlessly boring and want to be able to beat their head against a mob and die repeatedly before finally managing to defeat it and progress to the next challenge at a slow but steady forced-skill-improvement pace. If that happens too often to me, the game is getting flung aside for other more immediately entertaining ones.

    1. Getting the flow right is incrdibly important but I have an existential problem with the concept of player-adjusted difficulty. While I'm in favor of it in principle, in practice, if it's offered overtly, by means of actual difficulty settings, it draws too much attention to the irreality of what I'm doing. In a perfect iteration of player-controlled difficulty, where you could set the challenge to match your abilities perfectly, it would effectively be the same as having no challenge at all.

      This actually refers back to the post about who "owns" the game. At some level I want to know that I'm not completely in charge of my progress. There has to be some grit to produce the pearl. I think what I like is some mild to moderate pushback during the levelling process, where I can feel my virtual muscles working, followed by a long coast downhill in the post-levelling gearing-up, during which I can enjoy the pleasures afforded by the slight effort it's taken to get there.

      There's another post to be written relating all of this to the genre's adoption of zones or mobs that match to your character's level or vice versa but I'm not sure I want to be the one to write it.


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