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EverQuest Next: The Power of Different Starting Zones

Posted Thu, Oct 03, 2013 by Dalmarus


EverQuest Next information continues to come in, but there’s one piece of information I want more than most others and that’s this – are there going to be multiple starting areas for new characters? This may seem like a no-brainer for the team that created EverQuest, but keep in mind that EverQuest II launched with just two starting points. They’re also not the only ones to have made this mistake. 

Some may state it’s not a mistake at all, but I have to disagree. While I’m sure there are players out there that make one character and never make another, that number is extremely low in comparison to those that create multiple alts during their time with Game X. If they only create one alt character, having a limited number of starting zones isn’t really a big deal. For those players that create multiple characters, this can be a game’s death sentence. 

There are a number of games that have tried to go with only one or two starting areas, and for each of them, I think this was a predestined nail in their proverbial coffins. This doesn’t mean that some haven’t succeeded, but I would argue that it made their climb to profitability much harder than it needed to be. 

The first offender I always think of is Age of Conan. No matter what class or faction you chose to play, you started out in exactly the same area. You were also forced to play through the same areas for the first 20 levels of your character’s existence. This was partially broken up by having different story quests for each class, but it made little difference in the end.

 

Dungeons & Dragons Online may have done an even worse job in this regard. Every class and race started in exactly the same place and went through the same content throughout a significant portion of the game. To make matters worse, there were multiple progression blocks that forced players to go through dungeons with groups that couldn’t always be found. In order to be a high enough level for those group dungeons, players were also routinely forced to complete adventures they’d already gone through multiple times. Things have since improved, but at the time, it was a horrible way to launch. 

EverQuest II initially made a similar mistake as Age of Conan and Dungeons & Dragons Online, but compounded the issue by making you play through 20 levels before you were able to choose your final class. Even then, you still needed to play through another 5-10 levels to really get a feel for it. On the plus side, EverQuest II at least had two different starting areas (after you got off Newbie Island, anyway) so it wasn’t completely the same. 

RIFT went in a similar direction by having two different starting areas that were dependent on which faction you chose to play though it did make an effort to mitigate the pain of alt characters. For starters, the experience of playing on the Defiant side was much different than that of their Guardian counterparts. Each faction started in completely different parts of the world, had completely different quests/goals, and it would be quite some time into a character’s career before you’d start seeing the same zones. On top of this, there was so much content on both sides that after the initial 20 levels, it was pretty easy to find new areas to hunt in so your leveling experience wasn’t completely identical. 

I feel for development teams when it comes to the need for multiple starting areas though. As Vanguard showed shortly after its launch, if you have a ton of races and each of them have their very own starting zone, you desperately need player populations to stay high in order for them to avoid becoming ghost towns. Another thing you need that the Sigil (and later SOE) teams failed to do was give players any reason to come back to those starting areas. Even if you have a few large cities on a continent to act as player hubs, those areas are going to eventually stagnate if they’re extreme distances from where new players start.

 

So which game originally had the best example of meaningful starting areas? Personally,  I think EverQuest did. While I’m certainly not a fan of everyone starting in Crescent Reach now, no other game has gotten the combination of new zones and racial cities quite right since EverQuest launched. 

To be fair to developers of today, the market was a very, very different place back then. Even so, there are a few lessons that can still be learned and applied to the MMOs of today. Starting cities actually mattered as it took a long time before players were high enough in level to really start travelling far distances. Also, due to not all merchants having the same spells and abilities for sale, there were reasons to come back as a specific spell may not have been sold anywhere else in the world. Finally, right from the beginning, the quests that were offered by your class’s guild master made you feel connected to the city you started in. The citizens of the city needed you and you were rewarded for your dedication to it. 

There was also one more reason the starting cities in EverQuest were so important and enriching to the creation of alternate characters. It all goes back to my discussion about kill-on-sight factions. Making your way into a city that was considered enemy territory was not easy. For example, finding a high elf in the Third Gate of Neriak was virtually unheard of. Finding any race other than an Iksar in the heart of Cabilis is something I never saw in all my years of playing. Unless, of course, that character was under the guise of an illusion spell, but the lack of such flavor spells in the games of today is a discussion for another time. 

What do you think? Should developers take the time to create different starting areas or is there another way to keep people from having to play through the same content each time they create a new character? Let me know in the comments below or feel free to hit me up on Twitter!
 

I keep telling my friend that we need more starting cities for all the same reasons you point out here. And his argument always seems to come back to "But it takes so much more effort to create zones these days" and goes on about how much the game would suffer because of them dumping "all that time" into the creation of all these starting zones. I of course disagree, I don't think it is all that much harder than it was in the EQ days to create a starting zone. Sure there might be more in it, but there are also much better tools for building it and a lot more experience people doing it.

"are there going to be multiple starting areas for new characters?"

This has kinda been answered already in one of the SOE interviews. In EQN the newbie characters will all start in a city close to the active rallying call. Their reasoning for this is to get new players in the action as fast as possible. When the next rallying call happens, then the "starter" city might change to a new one. I prefer the old EQ style myself and have never quite found another game to match it in this regard.

I give props to GW2 for their starting areas. But even they seem to be missing something when compared to original EQ. I don't know. Maybe it is the first person view that sucks me in. lol.

EQN Devs are getting it right by giving your starting location a dynamic to it - so that it never quite feels the same as the last time you made a new character.

My only concern with having a "rotating" starting location based on the active Rally call is that it may cause a migrant population that just moves to one specific area of the server and hangs around there - creating an unrealistic population balance around the world in general.

I hope they've talked about issues like this and will have at least two or three "rotating" rally-calls for people to choose from as a starting place. That would hopefully spread the global population out around the world a bit, while still sticking to their game-model.

That brings me full circle back to the original argument of the main topic above. Multiple starting locations are an absolute necessity in my opinion. No matter what style, model, world a game is set in - it should have multiple locations to start in.

The reason I say this is not for replayability. It's for continuity. If you're going to have 6-8 starting races to choose from, it only makes sense if these races are somewhat segregated by natural alignment and perceived environments.

Every race should have it's own "active" rally call that rotates around their own homeland and particular interests. That would just "feel" right.

Too long; don't read -- 1 starting area is enough, given EQN's dynamic world, focus on horizontal progression and the central role of factions/life of consequences.

Too long; read anyway --

I feel as though multiple starting areas CAN add a lot of gameplay value, but aren't GUARANTEED to. Conversely, not having multiple starting areas ISN'T guaranteed to detract from such.

Besides it obviously being nice to have a choice of where to start your character, the biggest advantage to multiple starting areas is being given the freedom to experience different lowbie areas, and different (linear) paths towards mid- and endgame. This as opposed to the quips people have described above -- in particular being forced to run through the same content time and again, every time you start a new alt.

The simplest solution to this -- "don't make alts" -- completely neglects replay value, and for many different reasons, this is hardly a solution at all. One can call into question if a single starting area really is a problem, however, when we take a moment to reconsider EQN's projected "life of consequences", world dynamics and the focus on horizontal progression, rather than vertical.

At the root of the problems people have with only having a single (or a scarce few) starting areas to pick from, lies having to kill the same 20 annoying goblins to hand in the same annoying quest on your 12 different alts. Every Single Time you want to get said alts to the next area past the rats. There will eventually be a mid- and end-game in which diversified content will allow greater choice in where you're taking your toon for its next bunch of levels, and what gear set you're trying to get, but the way towards that precious Choice can be repetitive and linear.

This is bad, because people want Choice from the get go. People like Choice (or so they believe -- the psychological paradox of choice notwithstanding for a moment). Having to grind to get Choice is tantamount to poor game design...

But EQN is designing things differently, if we have to take the devs' word for it.

Imagine the frontier town of Qeynos. You just got off a ship from Kunark, and you're hearing rumors that goblins are harassing a dwarven mining operation -- the city's primary source of iron in these new, untamed environs -- just off to the South. The Traditional Adventurer will go "Nooo! Save the dwarves! Save Qeynos and its iron! Kill AAALL the goblins!". The opportunists among you may think "Weeeell, the dwarves aren't doing too good, and I could use some iron myself... Lets side with the goblins on this one." and brand themselves outlaws from the get-go. In EQN, you CAN actually pursue such a line of thought, and act upon it (again, if we believe the devs). This ties in to their "Life of Consequences" concept.

People that don't feel particularly strongly about goblins and dwarves, however, may simply continue exploring Qeynos and happen upon the next rumor -- the elven rangers hunting game in the forest to the North are struggling to compete with the ogre lumberjacks, whose loud operations scare off all the wild life. The ogres want you to help hacking trees down, pissing off the elves. The elves want you to sabotage their sawmill, pissing off the ogres. You could also help them gather what little wild life remains, only improving your relationship with the elves, without stepping on anyone else's toes. A political mind may do neither and work towards getting the elves and the ogres to coexist, and work in their own separate parts of the forest. An uninterested mind may ignore both and keep looking.

They may soon discover the plains, to the West, where the kerran are hunting down small pockets of kobolds and other dragonspawn. 2 months later, the mines are stripped of iron (who knew the vein was that small?), the ogres have deforested a large section of forest (new meadow!) and are finished gathering whatever amount of wood the town needed for construction (palisade, anyone?), and the kobolds are nowhere to be found anymore (no more hunting in the West). I could go on and keep making examples of low-level content, but the core of the point I'm trying to convey is that even with a single starting area, there needn't be linear progression to the next tier of content.

That said, the amount of effort required to get to a next tier of content, and indeed even the persistent existence of that content, will be very diluted because of two things: a focus on horizontal progression, rather than vertical, and the StoryBlock and Rally Call-driven world dynamics we're hearing so much about.

Many games, and particularly MMOs, will railroad your characters from their starting area, down a linear, vertical level progression, through a main story (possible with some side quests here and there), on towards the endgame content, and finally some semblance of the Choice we so dearly cherish. EQN has no main story. It's a sandbox. It also has no levels, at least not in the traditional sense. It will have a unique multi-classing system, where you can achieve different tiers of competence in all classes you have access to, so besides low-, mid- and endgame content being subject to constant, worldwide, server-specific dynamics, you may perhaps have incentive to revisit some of that lowbie content when you unlock a new class. Also, the lowbie content you ran when your character first started may no longer exist, or have changed radically, in the time it took you to unlock that new class (or the time in between then and making your new alt).

To conclude, I think that from a lore-wise perspective it makes sense to start everyone off at Qeynos --- at least for the period directly following release. We stand at the start of the Age of Heroes, ready to reclaim the continent our ancestors evacuated 500 years ago. Until we, the first wave of beta players, go out and MAKE a new town or location sizable enough to be considered a "starting area", there is nowhere else to logically continue the background of the game we're given.

It will be years before the first generation born on the reclaimed continent is of age to go adventuring, so I reckon that for a while yet, starting areas will have to be those where new ships land from Kunark.

Even if we would never get to a point where we get new starting areas, though, I feel as though -- IF DONE RIGHT -- the one, single starting area of Qeynos CAN be versatile and dynamic enough to never have to bore anyone.

Great article Dal. Having returned to *that classic EQ server...*, I've realised how much EQ (classic) got right. I have a number of low level characters, most whom I have started in different areas and leveled through different content. It's exciting, fear inducing (as it's a different place, with different risks), rewarding and engaging. That said, I don't mind leveling my characters in the same place because a lot of the content involves actively grouping and cooperation, so even when the content is the same the dynamic is different. Having multiple areas to adventure in for a given range, not necessarily just starting areas, are in my opinion an absolute necessary requirement.

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