Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Ghost Town of Norrath pt 2

Posted by Rampant Coyote on November 19, 2013

So, as I promised in yesterday’s post, here are some thoughts on the changes that have been made to EverQuest over the years to keep it (at least minimally) viable while numerous competitors have come – and in  competition has grown, and in some cases become nothing but a memory.

The trend, as things progress in pretty much every traditional MUD-style MMORPG I’ve played, is for things to pretty much top out and focus on high-end content. In EverQuest, this has been taken to a pretty amazing extreme over fourteen years. What used to takes weeks – months, even – of regular play can now be done in hours. Solo. Seriously. While the game doesn’t start you out at 50th or 60th level, it is now designed to get you there as quickly and as painlessly as possible.

Press Button to Go to Level 50

First of all, leveling is tremendously accelerated. I’m not sure what it is, but it feels like leveling is around 10x faster than it once was. The death penalty (Experience Point loss) has not been similarly magnified, so it’s not nearly as painful. Also, the need for a “corpse run” has been virtually eliminated. When you respawn, you have all of your equipment with you. In my mid-30s level-wise, the death penalty was something like 2 kills’ worth of experience, so it’s far more efficient to just “suck it up” and keep playing than to re-acquire your corpse (which can be done through NPC summoners now) and have a cleric resurrect it. At least until very high level (which I can’t talk about, as I’m not there yet).

Of course, a big part of leveling throughout the game was the acquisition of level-appropriate gear.  This, too, has been accelerated. Plain ol’ trash mobs at the low-to-mid levels will drop equipment that simply blows away almost everything that we used to scour the virtual world for in the old days. This makes sense. If you are going to be going from level 30 to level 40 in the course of an afternoon, you can’t spend too much time hunting down those perfect level 35 armor pieces. The more powerful gear also means that you are able to take on higher-level enemies much more effectively (which means more, faster XP).

Questing for equipment is still an option, but it’s more to fill in “holes” in your gear. But if questing really is more your style (and it does slow the game progress down a bit if you do pursue the quest lines), mob spawns have been accelerated, too. I’ve seen “boss” mobs (mobile enemies) respawn before their corpse has disappeared.

Mana and health regeneration has been accelerated when you are not in combat. This means neither you nor your mercenary (more on that in a moment) nor your pet are the target of a hostile mob. After the last hostile has been dispatched, there’s a few second delay (noted by a timer) after which you will gain a boost in health and mana regeneration while you are sitting. So one of those other frustrating, boring delays that acted as speed bumps to leveling has been removed.

Also, you can pretty much go from level 1 to at least the mid 30’s all within the same two zones – Crescent Reach and the neighboring Blightfire Moors. If you do feel the need to travel the very rich variety of zones available in the game, just inside the second of the two zones, easily reachable, is the portal to the Plane of Knowledge, which is a nexus point for a couple dozen zones throughout the world. There’s a nice in-game tool to show you a more-or-less optimal path to any zone you want to go to, and about half the world is probably no more than 15 minutes from the Plane of Knowledge. The “Find” tool also helps you find NPCs and zone connections, which make getting around or finding that hidden quest NPC a lot easier.

In short, everything that was designed in the old days to deliberately slow down your progression from level 1 to the higher levels has been streamlined to an amazing degree. No more waiting, not really any more camping, no more standing in line, no more corpse runs, no more (noticeable) “hell levels” of extra long duration, no more long journeys between zones, rapid leveling, and constant progress.

This actually is pretty satisfying. That’s the addictive nature of RPGs – regular, noticeable advancement as a mechanic.

No Group Necessary

EQWyrmFightThe other emphasis of EverQuest and most of the early MMORPGs was the standard D&D style concept of class interdependency. Or, more specifically, the need to group up with other people of complimentary classes. This is another problem in a world of diminished population. Finding people to group with at low to mid levels – especially outside the two “starting zones” – is challenging. There just aren’t that many people around of your level – and with people playing at different schedules, someone who might be at your level today probably won’t be tomorrow.

To adjust for this, you now have access to mercenaries of various kinds, who can act as your “partner” in your party. You can choose from different races and roles of mercenaries – tanks, healers, melee damage dealers, etc. They level up with you, cost an increasing (but relatively small) amount of money every 15 minutes or so in upkeep, can be deactivated at will, and you can keep a stable of them and choose whichever one is most appropriate for your particular situation. Kinda like Pokemon, I guess.  In addition, certain equipment is usable my mercenaries – allowing you to provide them with custom upgrades. Plus, the higher-level alternate advancement paths do allow you to advance your mercenaries’ abilities.  They also heal up as fast as any other monster and NPC, rather than as a player, which is nice. For outdoor “hunting,” a mercenary is really all you need. A mercenary and a pet? You’ve got a potent little team. If you do group up with other players, you can combine your mercenary efforts.

The aforementioned accelerated health and mana regen rates also reduce the need for other group members. Once upon a time, you needed some kind of healing (and often, an enchanter for mana regen) to achieve any amount of efficiency in an XP group (a group that is primarily hunting for experience points to gain levels, as opposed to hunting specific mobs for quests or loot).  Now “downtime” has been reduced, which makes those roles less critical.

In addition, there are very easy, very repeatable quests at low level in the starting city (but not level-restricted to low level), which provide as a reward a supply of potions that can provide regeneration, increased mana regeneration, and other benefits that used to be a lot more expensive and rare outside of grouping with a character with those kinds of spells. There are items that can be purchased from vendors in the Plane of Knowledge with similar regeneration effects. Certain utility spells – like faster movement speed, recovering corpses (mentioned yesterday), or binding you to a city are emulated by easily obtainable magic items or non-player characters. In particular, I was surprised to find that a magic item that can provide a temporary movement speed boost was available as a reward during the tutorial. With the Plane of Knowledge and Nexus portals all over Norrath now (something that was already present before I left the game), begging druids or wizards for taxi service is no longer necessary.

Another thing that makes the game easier to play solo or with a small group of virtually any class is that it seems like the aggro radius of most monsters has been reduced. As was always the case in EverQuest, fighting more than one enemy at a time gets hairy, and that’s really where having a group becomes critical. This hasn’t changed. But a reduced aggro radius means this is less likely to happen. It’s still a problem in dungeons, especially with a runner, but it’s easier to manage and prevent.

Now, I haven’t gotten to the high-end content yet, and I imagine things change there. Maybe they don’t require the gigantic raid groups they once did, but I would imagine much of the cooler parts of the game still require players to work together. And dungeons, while easier, remain a challenge for soloing. But with a small group of players – two or three players – who can work together, those shouldn’t be much of a problem.

Rushing to Stasis

It’s been said many times that there is a fundamental difference in this style of MMORPG  from the “core” game and the “elder” game, and that this is one of the core problems of the style. The game you play at the beginning is not the same game you are playing at the end.  For me, one problem is that I tend to prefer the game at the beginning.  There’s a lot of fun to be found in the elder game, too, but for me it was often filled with tedium. Maybe that’s not the case in many of the MMORPGs that I have skipped over the years, and I’m missing out.

But it’s interesting to me that the modern EverQuest effectively rushes you to the elder game, where things are in relative stasis. Or at least I assume they are – having not played enough of the new game to get there yet, and basing my opinion more on past experience.

I think for EverQuest it was probably necessary, without changing the fundamental nature of the game. You need to get the players up to the point where they are all able to play together. But it’s ironic that in so doing, they’ve created an even greater gulf between the early game and the elder game (which may now be more along the lines of “core.”). In addition, it effectively bypasses huge swaths of the game – including what was in the earlier years considered “high-level content.” There’s not much point in going to those zones anymore for any reason.

The relative stasis at high level doesn’t feel very RPG-like to me. There’s not much progression. Everyone’s at roughly the same power level. There’s not much point in going out and exploring the world, because there’s nothing to do in the easily accessible areas that’s of much value to you. There are “dailies” – renewable quests you can undertake for regular, slow advancement and stuff, and of course the big high-end raid-like activities, but it’s not the stage of the game that interests me.

If anybody has more experience with this than me in EverQuest or other MMORPGs, feel free to chime in.

Later (tomorrow?), I want to talk more about the design implications here, and how things might be fixed. Maybe they already have been – there are several orders of magnitude more MMORPGs I haven’t played than ones that I have.

Filed Under: Design, Retro - Comments: 3 Comments to Read

  • Corwin said,

    You need to return to DDO and give that a spin as well. You might be impressed with what has been happening there in the last few years.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    I didn’t play nearly so much of D&D Online, so I might not have as good a handle on it. I don’t remember all my frustrations with that one, but I remember it being almost TOO finely balanced, and if you didn’t “keep up” with the expected progression curve, you’d very quickly fall further and further behind. It bugged me. I’ve had some friends play it since, though (and they didn’t have the same issues I had), and told me they enjoyed it.

  • Brian 'Psychochild' Green said,

    In very early MUDs, the leveling game was the focus. You would work up a character with the goal of reaching max level. In many games, there was usually something to do at that point. For example, in the first game I played I was given programming abilities and told to make a zone (!!!). Other games had “remort” systems. Worst case, you just had a kick-ass high level character that you could help other people with. In PvP games a high level character was a tremendous asset.

    Early graphical MMORPGs kept this focus on the level game. But, EQ1 decided to add in some super-tough monsters, and players decided to band together into “raids” to fight them. So, the new focus of getting to the highest levels was to take on these challenging fights with other people. In this light, the leveling game was a training/probationary period, where you had to learn your class and prove you had the dedication necessary to take on the hardest challenges. The focus of the high end “elder game” was actually more social: finding the right people, getting them geared up as a team, then working together to tackle the hardest challenges. It was almost more like tabletop RPGs than single-player CRPGs.

    With WoW, the focus shifted back to the leveling game for the most part. Some people still did raids, but the smooth level process also encouraged people to roll all sorts of alternate characters as an alternative.

    Speaking of DDO, that’s my MMO of choice these days. There’s a lot less focus on the high end game (especially as they’ve raised the level cap quite a few times over the past few years), and you can focus on alts (as I have), or you can “reincarnate” (the old MUD remort systems) your character and start over with a bit more power. I kinda like the variety of options, myself.