Over the years, EverQuest II has seen some unusual changes in its gameplay, bringing drama, excitement, and on ocassion bewilderment. Whether it was the major class overhaul in 2005, the removal of corpse runs, or even the recent addition of Station Cash, SOE has proven it isn't afraid to push the envelope. Another one of those "big changes" coming down the pipe is a concept currently in an early design phase that will allow players to enhance their combat abilities and spells through research.
As of now, the best ability enhancements are only available through extremely rare drops that are usually sold for small fortunes to those wealthy enough to buy them. However, the EQ2 team proposes to change all this in a future Game Update by granting players a way to receive any level enhancement they wish if enough time is invested. Ten Ton Hammer wanted to learn more about this intriguing proposal so we talked with Lead Content Designer Noel Ilucide Walling and Lead Mechanics Designer Jennifer Kirstie Gerull who shared some of the ideas they were floating around.
The most popular question about big updates is always when and both Walling and Gerull were quick to assure us that this change wouldn't be going in with Game Update 51 with the Lavastorm revamp. The project we're working on now, Kirstie stated, is what we're calling Research Assistants. They will be a mechanism in game that will allow you to have an NPC perform research upgrades to your existing spells while you are either online or offline. The current plan they have is to grant a single research at a time on one character per account so the advantages are bestowed at a regulated pace.
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So after five years, why did the designers decide to make a change like this? Walling provided a detailed explanation of their primary goal. One of the things we've noticed is it's hard to make sure everyone you are playing with is geared appropriately. It's also difficult to keep up with alternate characters everyone creates so we wanted to provide an additional way for people who aren't as active to keep up. To me this sounded a little like a vehicle to level the playing field and simplify what is arguably one of the more complex combat systems around. He immediately dismissed the notion and assured me there were no intentions of adjusting combat in such a way.
As I asked for specifics about the process Jennifer pointed out that SOE is trying something new in letting players know about update plans much earlier in the process to procure more player feedback before final implementation. Many of the details are still on the drawing board subject to the discussions and suggestions they receive from the community. The plan they have solidified sounds pretty simple. What we know we want to do is allow a way for players to upgrade a spell for one character per account by some mechanism in the game. We have the backend worked out, but we really want player input on the interface portion. This is a very different stance from the earlier days of We always appreciate feedback, but we have to do what is best for the game.
The feedback has already paid off in highlighting a detail they've previously not considered. The ongoing cost of this research is currently undetermined and still heavily in discussion. Fortunately Walling has no issue sharing his opinion on the matter, I'd like to see it be a one time, up front thing but not a heavy cost. Currently we are only looking at making this available to level 20+ so that it's a more advanced feature.
What type of effect will the addition of essentially free master upgrades have? Economically speaking, these items are rare enough that the end game versions sell frequently for a king's ransom. Pulling the rug out from under this lucrative market could remove a large money sink. I suspect it'll drive the cost of the rarer Master I's down, Ilucide answers, but we're looking at ways of adding in additional revenue streams. I'd rather us look at loot as a way to fill the high end sales market. Providing some statistics regarding master drops, he pointed out that they have come a long way since the 2004 launch, but this mechanic will give people a feeling of advancement.
They didn't seem worried about the economics but handing players systems that can increase their abilities by 10%-20% surely must have an impact on combat? Walling disagreed stating he thinks it will actually make it easier for them to balance things by having a more standardized baseline. While I personally think we're going to have actually see this idea in practice to truly grasp the concept, but if nothing else those high end instances will see more use.
As touchy as the subject is, I couldn't avoid the mention of Station Cash in relation to Research Assistants. I think we're going to keep it away from the Station Wallet, Kirstie stated. There are absolutely no plans to make it a Station Wallet item. Walling quickly followed up stating their intention is to make this mechanic available to everyone in the game. It sounds like it's not on the table for discussion yet, which should make many old school gamers very happy for now.
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The city is dangerous
Without Station Cash in the way, I asked the pair about the hurdles they expected to have to jump on the way to implementing Research Assistants. Kirstie had one in mind, One thing that came up immediately was the time line. How long would each spell take to research and what kind of curve would we have? When you compare a level 20 to a level 80 what should the difference be? Looking for just the right amount of progression sounds like an on going challenge that will require frequent adjustments.
As the interview wound down, I asked if them if there was anything they would say to the community if they had the opportunity. Kirstie's response was there would be no Station Cash involved in the mechanic followed by an assurance that research spells are not tradeable and would go straight into spellbooks. Walling discussed the difficulty of the last expansion content and how players improving their abilities will put more people together in a violent, loot hungry harmony (I might have embellished). His message was one of bridging the gaps between the hardcore and the more casual.
The last question I snuck in was What is next? Believe it or not they have an idea in mind to expand this system beyond its current form. Remember those skills you don't ever use like Fishing? Have you ever wanted to harvest furs in the highest zones but refuse to go skill up in a level 10 area? The possibilities sounded deliciously endless and with that in mind I thanked them for their time.
As you can see, their proposal shows SOE's continued diligence to try the extraordinary and while some drama has already surfaced, there are many people making valid suggestions all over the official forums. How much player feedback will be used and how quickly we will see this on the Live servers remains to be seen. All we do know is there is a good chance we'll have our own research toadie to give use master spells in the near future.
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