Tuesday, November 28, 2023

Another Day or Waiting For Zimara

I had it in my head the new EverQuest II expansion, Ballads of Zimara, was set to launch today, most likely right after an extended Tuesday downtime, but I was wrong. It's not coming until tomorrow. After I'd worked that out, I thought I might at least have a flick through the beta forums; take the temperature of the water, so to speak.

One of the weird "perks" of pre-ordering an EQII expansion these days is immediate access to the beta server. There's a whole clique of regular testers, some of whom I know by name from their regular forum posts going back many years but also from my time on the regular, pemanent Test server. Even though that was more than a decade and a half ago now, I still see a handful of names I reocgnize from back in the day.

I can understand why those folks migrate to the beta server to check out each expansion as it arrives. Some of them are close to being unpaid employees of Darkpaw; volunteers if you will. They play not so much for their own entertainment as for the way of life. The game is something more than a game for them.

At least, that's how I imagine it must be. I think of that level of commitment as being something akin to the old Guide program, where players deeply immersed in the social structure of the game derive as much pleasure from sustaining and enhancing it as they do from playing it, while also perhaps indulging in a fantasy of being on the inside, looking out; one of the crew.

Not everyone in beta is there for such noble or harmless purposes. A lot of players are looking for knowledge that will give them an edge when the expansion goes live or at least that's what I've been told. I don't move in the kinds of circles where World Firsts and taking your guild to the top of the raid charts are the focus of dinner party conversation but I'm given to believe such circles exist.

I don't even know if EQII has a raid ladder any more. I think it did once but I'm not sure there would be enough bleeding edge guilds left to create a meaningful ranking any more. Still, I'm sure there's at least some element of competition, even if it's between friends.

A darker side to that competetive spirit used to be the unfortunate tendency of a few players to withold information on bugs they found in beta so they could exploit them in the Live game. I can't say I've heard of that happening in a good while. Again, I suspect the social structure at the top of the game is now so condensed it would be hard to get away with something like that before peer pressure put a stop to it. 

Or maybe I'm being naive. From what I read recently, gamewide exploits still happen in the original EverQuest. Then again, EQ has a lot more servers and almost certainly a lot more players so maybe there's room there for more bad apples, too.

Even with all of those various motivators, it's not always been easy to attract enough players to give the content a thorough shake before release. It's all very well giving away access with the pre-orders but for many, probably most, players the prospect of stumbling through challenging, undocumented and unfinished content on throwaway characters just a matter of weeks or even days before embarking on the exact same content, albeit minus the glitches, with their regular characters, doesn't seem like such a great bargain.

Even when curiosity gets the better of them, most players are probably content to wander a round a bit, kick the tyres a few times and call it quits. Getting them to grind through the entire quest line let alone all the optional side-quests and ancillary content is a very big ask.

That's why, if you're willing to put in the time these days, you get some solid rewards for your Live characters. If you go as far as to complete the full Adventure Signature Line, for example, you get a Fabled mount that's comparable to the one that comes with the Collector's Edition. There are similar rewards for completing the other major aspects of the expansion but you'd have to be pretty committed to the cause to get them all. It would effectively mean completing all the content in the expansion before the expansion even arrives.

Since I generally don't manage to do that in the full year the expansion remains current, it's not all that likely I'd do it in a six or eight week beta, especially when you consider that during that time much of the content wouldn't even be available or, if it was, wouldn't be working properly. There was a time, long ago, when I was almost that keen but even then I got fed up of spoiling my own fun pretty damn quickly and it's been a very long time indeed since I last beta'd an expansion I was going to play on release.

What I do often do, though, is use my pre-order access rights to browse the beta forums. It's a reasonably reliable way to find out if the expansion is likely to be buggy and half-baked when it gets here as well as whether it looks like it's going to be well received, grudgingly accepted or hunted down and set on fire by a torch-waving mob.

From half an hour or so spent flicking through various threads this afternoon, I'd say the signs are promising. I didn't see any provocative headlines along the lines of "This XPack stinks!" or even more nuanced complaints about ridiculous difficulty (Complementary threads headed "Too hard" and "Too easy" inevitably sitting next to each other in the list.) or an overwhelming number of bugs or unfair bait&switch design, all of which would be fairly standard for any MMORPG beta forum, at least in my fairly extensive experience.

I don't know if this means the expansion is unusually crowd-pleasing and polished or whether Darkpaw have been more than averagely scrupulous in clearing out the negative comments. The threads that I did read, though, seemed pretty sanguine and rational.

They were also quite informative. I learned, for example, that contrary to the trend of the last few years, we will not this time be completing our five new levels in a session or two. Apparently the days of getting half a level on every quest turn-in are over, at least for now.

Instead, the threads I read were discussing whether it's a good thing that even completing the whole Adventure Signature Questline will only take you some way into Level 129 (The new cap is 130.) or whether it's fair that XP potions and boosts don't work on any of the XP rewarded by that same Sig Line.

It seems the plan this time around is for people to level a lot more slowly than has been the case for the last half dozen or so expansions. From what I read, it's not as slow as the dark days of Velious and before but it's certainly going to take a while. 

I'll reserve judgment on how good, bad or indifferent that feels until I find out how much fun the actual content is. Based on my own experiences in other expansions and other games, I can see arguments both ways. I guess if you're enjoying the levelling process, you're not going to object to it carrying on for longer, whereas if you just want to get it over with, having it pegged back to the rate you thought was gone for ever is going to grate.

I also discovered there are some changes to the way the quest journal works. This new feature had actually received the full News Item treatment on the official website but this was the first I'd heard of it. You'll be able to add your own notes to the journal, a change that's structurally significant enough to break all existing custom UIs so I'm rather glad I don't use any.

Perhaps most usefully of all, I came across a set of links to full guides to all the quests in the expansion - Adventure and Tradeskill Signatures and all the Side Quests, even the Dropped Quests. Normally I'd be confident those would be on the wiki from day one but as I've mentioned in other posts, of late that's not always been happening, so it's good to have a back-up plan. (I'd link to them but they're downloadables from a Discord server.)

If I'm reading the room right, Ballads of Zimara is shaping up to be a "good" expansion, although once again, experience teaches me that what beta testers think of anything often clashes violently with the opinions of regular players. By definition, testers are more tolerant of bugs, glitches and broken content and they also have a provably higher level of interest in the success of the game. If they didn't they surely would find better things to do with their time.

Anyway, in a day or so we'll know for sure how the expansion has turned out. Or in a week. Let's say a week. We all know there will be some major bugs no-one's managed to spot and the whole thing will be a minefield at least until the first major patch.

I can't wait!


  1. It's strange to think that in any moderately popular MMO some people are willing to volunteer time in quantities most of us would expect to get pair for. There are always those for which "The game is something more than a game" as you put it so well (excellent prose in that post all around btw).

    The idea of raiders so invested they would play the beta just to get a leg up at launch also seems at odds with the community I have experienced in EQ II. Overall it comes across as pretty laid back. However, I can't imagine Darkpaw would create new raids every year just out of habit, so hardcore raiders it must be a sizable contingent.

    Also, why is that leprechaun throwing a perfectly good book away with such dramatic flair? [I do get that he's a wizard doing magic stuff, but it's an odd illustration]

    1. You'd be forgiven for assuming that picture, which is from the official website, was something I'd cooked up at NightCafe. It's very odd and nothing remotely like the rest of the promotional art.

      Raiding has always been something of a big deal in EQII but I think it's a pretty rarified group that's interested these days. I think the core playerbase is probably centered around the dungeon scene although it's very hard to judge from the outside.

      On the substantive topic of volunteering and unpaid testing, I think many players, myself included, used to find it romantic and exciting, back when the whole process of making games seemed mysterious and hidden. Getting into a beta gave real cachet in certain quarters. In the era of Kickstarters and Early Access and buy-in alphas, though, it risks being at best routine and quite possibly exploitative. At least Darkpaw try to make it worthwhile for the testers in in-game terms, even if no actual money changes hands. That's more than anyone used to get back in the day!

  2. Every time you post about EQII, I want to play. I just can't devote MMO-sized chunks of time to gaming anymore....


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