Going to Extremes: Graphics in EverQuest 2
by Jeff "Ethec" Woleslagle
First, I would be remiss not to recommend the EQ2 Display Settings guide as a nearly infallible resource as you tune your display settings. Many of the problems below can be solved by following ShamaKavella's insightful step-by-step guide.
A Beautiful Game
I recall a conversation with Boomjack about the game's visual splendor last. "I've got a pretty good rig, and the graphics are turned up. This really is a beautiful game." And any of our screenshots can attest it was, and is, exactly that. Some newcomers were a little perturbed, however, with the infamous slider of different graphical "equalizer-style" pre-sets (ranging from extreme performance to balance to extreme quality- basically whether you want EQ2 to eat up 80% to 100% of your "recommended" system resources or somewhere in between). Those who just bought or made fresh new Alienware-or-the-like machines for Everquest 2 (and there were more than a few) wanted to jack that slider all the way up to "Extreme Quality," a pre-set explicitly designed for hardware still in prototype development. Therefore, choosing the top 2 quality settings prompts a "are you nuts?" dialog box. Note that you can choose the screamer settings in an average rig with slight fear of a crash if you want to see everything the artists intended, however your Frames Per Second (FPS) is better measured in Frames Per Minute, and that you can calculate without a third-party program, and with just one hand.
Its worth noting here that EQ2 gives you more control over individual graphics assets than any other game in the industry. The question becomes whether the baseline, the most minimal settings, are perhaps set a little higher than some computers within the "Minimum System Requirements" can handle, especially during hardware-intensive events like raids. We'll address that issue shortly.
A Life and Death Decision
While EQ2 graphics can look brilliant, crisp and (dare I say) photo-realistic, this isn't usually a desirable condition. Things being such that if you want to want to kill challenging mobs, you'll need a least a framerate of around 10 per second (you can check your FPS by using a program like Fraps). That means that the modest, workaday player will have to choose "Extreme Performance" when doing any serious adventuring. In raids, it's even worse.
When 24 players are all using spells (and, of course, in the late-50s the Devs try and give the visi-holics all the bells and whistles on their über-spells), things can get a little laggy. A Warlock or two casts an Area of Effect spell, the healer casts a group heal, and next thing you know everyone freezes. Seconds tick by as the mobs continue to do damage, and by the time everyone's back in the action the healers are too far behind to catch up. The inevitable result, barring a miracle proc or some skilled goalline thinking, is a wipe.
A similar situation occurs in the 30s-40s raids like Nektulos Castle and Deathfist Citadel. Many a group I've seen wither before Lord Everling in Nek due to link deaths of key personnel, and when the "alarm" sounds in Deathfist Citadel and the courtyard comes alive with scrambling orcs, FPS goes to crap. If, in the DFC instance, you don't know to clear out these runners, often made non-aggressive by virtue of being gray-con or "trivial" mobs, you're probably going to lose some players to lag. Given the already-tense relations of a raid-group (especially one with an antagonist or that doesn't raid together often), lag leads to a lot of ill-will and misunderstandings. Lag can be, as Neddie so eloquently describes it in his MMOG Terms article, is
"an all purpose excuse for the failure to perform a mission critical activity," and it's sometimes hard to discern when a player is truly lagged out or just looking for an excuse.
Room for Improvement
I heard a gamer remark, at the recent Community Summit, that "EQLive graphics are awesome, it's getting really tough to tell the original from EQ2." Yet take a look how the 6-year-old EverQuest recommended system requirements stack up against EQ2:
Granted, EQLive req's have risen over the years, but fact is they're still roughly half of EQ2s, and can be scaled to much lower baseline requirements for raiding, etc.. I know, I know, I know these are totally different games, and EQ2 will totally beat EQLive in a beauty contest. But "bang for the buck" is somewhat of a concern with EQ2, as is system performance at critical junctures.
And Improvement Is Coming
The challenge, of course, was never meant to stem from server-side lag and performance bottlenecks, and the EQ2 Dev Team is currently in the process of revamping many of the most problematic zones. In many ways character models are the biggest drains on performance; these object are easily the toughest objects to draw, and when you throw spell effects and movement animations into the mix, system demand ramps up quickly the more models you have in a given zone. Luckily, help is on the way.
I highlighted Character Model Lead Chad Haley in our Community Summit coverage as leading the effort to rout out performance destroyers like a 17,000 polygon targetting reticule, fashionable orcs that can be dressed in just like player models (instead of being one-piece models with armor integrated into the model- a move that increases perfomance by something like 150% per orc), some extremely detailed spiders, and so on. Lotus definitely has a heart to improve performance; in his last role he built Maj'Dul from the ground up as one continuous, smooth-running zone instead of 4 seperate areas.
Outside of the artists' efforts, the ball is in your court. For the sake of your group- and raidmates, eliminate connection lag by getting the best internet connection you can afford and don't try and run all your various chat, P2P, weatherInsect, whatever while you're grouped. On the hardware side, you should be able to run the game pleasurably using SOE's recommendations. In game, again, use the EQ2 Display Settings guide; it's good stuff.
Here's to a lag-free adventure!
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