Thursday, November 30, 2023

You're Never Too Old To Have Someone Else Dress You

To my considerable surprise, last night I was able to spend a good hour and a half with EverQuest II's twentieth expansion, Ballads of Zimara. It was a delightful experience. 

I'm assuming the servers came up on time because they were running smoothly when I logged in twenty minutes after the deadline. I saw one admin message in chat about something that hadn't been working having been fixed but other than that I didn't see or hear about any problems at all.

Expansions offer a key opportunity for MMORPG developers to lure dormant players back to the game, so it's imperative that the initial experience is clean, clear and welcoming. Granted, by the time a returnee gets to see the expansion content, they'll already not only have made the decision to come back but have backed it with their wallet. Still, it only takes a bad first session to undo all of that goodwill and send them, muttering and grumbling, back to former-player limbo again.

In the past, some EQII expansions have been, shall we say, less user-friendly in the opening stages than they might have been, even for current players. There have been issues with the over-tuned difficulty of opening zones and quests, confusion over access requirements, lengthy pre-req quests to grind through and a general lack of helpful information on where to go and how to get started.

In this 20th expansion, Darkpaw seem finally to have taken much of that to heart. I would say that my experience last night was probably the best-directed, least confusing introduction to an expansion I can remember for many years.

The expansion takes place in the Overrealm, the skybound setting of EQII's second expansion, Kingdom of Sky, perhaps not he most obviously accessible location for anyone who hasn't played for a while. In the past, just getting to the zone where the action begins has been a problem but this time it couldn't have been much more straightforward.

As soon as I logged in I got a pop-up telling me I had mail. I checked my Mail window and found two letters, one from the Sky Watcher Sodality, updating me on the situation following the pre-expansion events in Norrath and directing me to an NPC named Orren in Barren Sky, the other from a Hooluk called Baoko, asking me to meet him at the Ulteran Spires on Whisperwind Isle.

Short of actually doing the travelling for me, that couldn't have been more straightforward. As an All Access Member (And it's probably a reasonable assumption for Darkpaw to make that almost all purchasers of a new expansion will also be Members.) all I had to do was open my map and click on it. 

When the zone loaded I found myself standing next to both the named NPCs from my letters. After a couple of short conversations in which the pair of them set both the Adventuring and Tradeskill Signature questlines running, they directed me to the standard form of public transportation in the Overrealm - a white, fluffy cloud. Naturally, flying mounts don't work in the new content. They never do. We're all used to that by now.

Clicking on the cloud opened a map in which my next destination was very clearly marked. I flew there and landed beside a large owl with a book hanging over his head, indicating my quest hand-in. This turned out to be Quartermaster Arkymedus, who proceeded to run me through the initiation process for the new expansion in extreme detail.

This is where Darkpaw really upped their game. In recent expansions there has always been free gear to bump new, returning or just badly-equipped players up to a minimum acceptable level so they don't die on the first pull in the new zones. The gear is always in a container, called something like "Tishan's Box", on the ground next to the first questgiver but there hasn't always been anything to point the player to it and it's been very easy to miss.

In the past, even when you have found Tishan's Box, it hasn't always been clear what to do with it. It contains a huge number of items - full sets of armor for all classes, adornments, buffs, mounts, you name it, it's in there. This cornucopia of free stuff is great but it's also extremely confusing, even for a regular. Sometimes I've ended up with the wrong stuff or missed things I should have taken and other times I've needed to swap adornmnents in and out to get the right fit.

It's been a pain at times. It was exciting the first time it happened but after a few years of doing it it's become something I just want to get out of the way fast so I can get on with the story. Heaven only knows how offputting it must be for people who haven't played for a few years.

In the new expansion, everything is much more streamlined - and it comes with a manual! Well, a tutorial, anyway. Quartermaster Arkymedus literally talks you through the entire process. He starts off by handing you the full set of armor and weapons for your class so you don't even have to look in Tishan's Box for them, although eveything is in there if you want to rummage around for yourself.

He tells you to put it all on but I didn't take him at his word. I was wearing a mix of the latest Panda gear and some better pieces I'd gotten from the last update and a recent event. I was expecting some of those would be better than the Tishan's gear but although it was very close on a few of them, the new "Shattered" gear was always at least a little better.

The new expansion also uses different Adornments, which the Tishan's gear has and the old gear doesn't, so my advice to anyone coming back to the game with this expansion is to take Arkymedus at his word. Open the pack he gives you and put it all on. It's going to be better than anything you're wearing unless you're in Heroic Dungeon gear or better from the last expansion cycle.

The tutorial doesn't stop at gear, though. Arkymedus goes on to explain the importance of Mounts and Familiars as well as where to find them in your spellbooks and how to equip them. For anyone who hasn't played for a while, this is crucial information. A huge amount of a player's effectiveness now derives from the stats of their companions as well as their own. If you don't have an up-to-date Mount, Familiar and Mercenary at minimum you're going to struggle.

Arkymedus doesn't just tell you about Mounts and Familiars, he gives you new ones. I was suspicious about whether they'd be better than mine because mine were pretty new and I'd levelled them up, but it when I looked it turned out so had Arkymedus. The ones he gave me were fully levelled and a significant upgrade.

The Quartermaster also had a new Mercenary for me, standing right next to him or rather hovering, since he's a gremlin of some kind. I ought to know the exact species but I'm afraid the name escapes me. He's got wings, anyway, and he's an Inquisitor, by far my preferred class for a Healer Merc. 

Again, I was skeptical whether Valek, as a Treasured quality mercenary, would be better than my fully-levelled Celestial merc from a few expansions back, so I checked. 

I'm still not entirely sure. I don't think I'm going to know until we get into some tight situations together.

Valek is fully levelled but he doesn't come with any gear. I spent quite a while swapping my old merc's gear onto him and checking the differences in the stats but in the end I still couldn't be sure. Valek has a lot fewer hit points but a lot more mana. Which of those is going to be preferable is circumstancial.

I did remember that you can put regular gear on mercs instead of their own, specific armor so I gave Valek my Panda cast-offs, which seemed to do more for his stats than the aging Merc gear from three or four expansions ago Zel was wearing. That probably has something to do with Zel's less-than-stellar performance recently, now I come to think of it. 

I suspect that my old, Celestial merc in new gear from the latest expansion might be better than Valek but that's an experiment to come. For now, if a returning player just takes the merc they're offered, I think they'll do fine - and save themselves all the fiddle-faddling I went in for!

Finally, Arkymedus explains how the Mercenary and Familiar buffs work. Those are very significant but also incredibly easy to miss. He doesn't just tell you they're in your spell book, either. He even tells you which tab they're on. 

All in all it's a very thorough run-through to get a new or returning player fully prepared for the content they're about to attempt. I'd add something about Mercenary gear to the tutorial but other than that I don't think they missed much. 

It's certainly a huge improvement on the "You're all grown-ups. Just work it out for yourselves" approach we've had up to now. I do have to wonder if it's the work - or at least the influence - of Naimi Denmother, the newish tradeskill dev. I know it's primarily adventuring gear but the whole approach does seem to have her thorough, thoughtful, not to say maternal stamp. 

What with all of my fact-checking and stat-swapping, it took me about forty-five minutes to get past that mini-tutorial. I think it'll be more like five or ten minutes on subsequent characters. It's a small price to pay for the effectiveness of the lesson because once I  got to the killing grounds I really felt the benefit.

In most recent expansions, even though I've not had too much trouble with the opening stages, there has been a significant and noticeable ramp up in difficulty even on the entry-level mobs, compared to the one or two shot kills I'd been used to at the end of the previous expansion. I was expecting much the same this time so I was wary when I pulled my first mob, especially since it was a supposedly more powerful one-up arrow and higher level than me. 

It died in a couple of hits. They all did. It was glorious. I ran around doing my quests just like I was still in the previous expansion, which in my opinion is exactly how it should be. Plenty of time for things to get more challenging when we get to the instances; random wildlife at the start of the opening zone does not need to hit like a boss mob from the last expansion, which at times has been the case.

Whether the very reasonable difficulty is a design choice or whether it's what comes of finally getting clear instructions on what to wear and what buffs to use, I'm not exactly sure. I guess I could test it on another character and I might just do that another time.

For now, though, I'm enjoying being able to explore the new content with the freedom and confidence that being properly prepred brings. Long may it continue.

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