Updated Fri, Jan 02, 2009 by Ethec
by Jeff "Ethec" Woleslagle
For 2 solid days in late September, representatives from high level raiding guilds, avid forum posters, and fansite reps met with Sony Online Entertainment (SOE) in San Diego to discuss their EverQuest 2 likes, dislikes, dreams, and nightmares . When I say SOE, I mean just about everybody that has anything to do with the game gave up a chunk of their weekend to meet with us. Here's a few that you'll recognize from the official forums: Scott Hartsman & Bruce Ferguson (Producers); Steve "Moorgard" Danuser, Steve "Saavedra" Kramer, & Jesse "Svartmene" Knapp (Designers), Jared "Lockeye" Sweatt (Spell / Combat Lead), Ryan "Blackguard" Shwayder (Commuity Relations Manager)... the list goes on and on. Entertainment provided by SOE (the San Diego zoo, a night at Dav & Buster's, a BBQ at SOE headquarters, a relaxing dinner at a local upscale restaurant) served as a springboard for a lot of poignant chatter about EQ2 and MMO gaming in general.
The roundtables (and countless informal cloisters that sprang up) were very cordial sessions, full of one-liners, cracks and belly laughter, and I can't stress enough the sincerity of the EQ2 dev team. Whether you agree with their decisions or not, please know that these guys (and girls) care deeply- professionally and personally- about the game.
Also check out the companion articles First Impressions from San Diego and the Combat Changes Roundtable. We've also got a Summit discussion thread going if you'd like to comment (registration req'd).
Enough tomfoolery! The roundtable events kicked off with a discussion of raids and the high-level game...
When asked point blank whether old-world raid mobs are behaving as intended, EQ2 producer Scott Hartsman simply said "No" with a smile. The smile, because it was well known to all the raiders in the room that key raid targets like Darathor (the dragon part of the "Deception" phase of the guild level 25+ prismatic quest) were pretty much impossible after Live Update #13. "Each raid mob is its own little snowflake," quipped Hartsman, citing the difficulty of tuning each individual high-level raid-only monsters. We were given assurances that the EQ2 team was heavily committed to testing and fixing high-level raid mobs.
One key concern of the guild raids was to keep things interesting and progression-oriented, not just instanced, linear raid-only zones. "In a perfect world, [linear zones] wouldn't be a part of the game. We put them there because there was a demand for them. In a perfect world, there would be do things more like 'Spirts of the Lost,' 'Silent City,' and 'Brutal Acts of War'," Hartsman stated, citing intricate, problem-solving oriented raids in the "Splitpaw Saga" adventure pack and the "Desert of Flames" expansion. "Producing these zones is very, very time intensive."
Another painful (as opposed to constructively challenging) aspect of raiding is fighting your way through thousands of similar mobs to get to zones like Solusek's Eye. According to Hartsman: "We talked at one point about lessening the aggravation to get to these zones, and in the overall world we're going to start changing the monster population...re-populating the overall world to make it a little more interesting."
Drave of guild Ascendance on the Neriak server brought up the question of Alternate Advancement, or AAs. Scott Hartsman: "At some point... well, here's the challenge with AAs: its very hard to make challenging content for a level 60 person who has a lot of AAs as opposed to a level 60 person who has no AAs. I don't know if you'll ever see what you're used to in EQ. We definitely want to get something like that in, but the challenge really is: which level 60 do we design the high level content for." Hartsman went on to state that the EQ2 team never wants players to choose things that cannot be re-done. "Anything that has limited achievement paths- meaning if there's potentially 50 things you can get, but any given character can only have 30 of them at one time- any time we do anything like that, we'll be putting in undo paths. It may cost you money, it may cost you time, it may cost you something, but that option will be there... We've talked about making a simple progressive money cost." Hartsman also agreed with Gaige, member of guild "Fires of Heaven" on Permafrost, that AAs should not be used to fix classes, a common complaint among EQLive players. "I think we've shown that we're not shy about going back and messing with classes," Hartsman stated, provoking laughter around the room. "We didn't do a lot of core class changes late [in Everquest], the reason being you're much more likely to break entirely unrelated things. In EQ2, we have much more flexibility."
The discussion moved towards improving faction... the faction system, that is. Prior to "Desert of Flames" - faction meant getting booted out of the opposing city or not being able to complete a set of centaur quests- the effect on gameplay was minimal. Many EQ2 gamers welcome the kind of faction we see in Maj'Dul- a fight impacts the game world, influencing interaction and mobs' kill-on-sight determination, yet a fight you can choose to avoid completely. Don't align yourself to any one of the four NPC "court" factions, and you're (relatively) free to move about the city unchastened. Being a loner in Maj'Dul means you'll miss out on the 50+ spells and item benefits a favored court can provide, however.
The gamers in the roundtable were anxious to see more in the way of variable faction and a more personalized world. Discussion centered around revising city betrayal and making each city more hostile to citizens of the opposing city; that is, kill-on-sight rather than just booting wayward players out of the city. Doubtless all players are leery of such changes; however, given this team's track record with design of zones like Maj'Dul, the effect should be minimal unless you choose to participate in... City vs. City (?) play. Worries about irrecoverable shards were allayed by the suggestion that a door-clickable shard could be instituted, similar to what you'd find outside an instanced zone like "Trial of Harclave" or "Icy Digs." High level raiders were excited about the new opportunities city raids could provide; low-to-mid level reps probably felt like completing Heritage Quests that involved opposing cities could become very costly. Still, efforts toward a more immersive environment are generally welcome, and the reaction towards further factionalizing the two cities was very far from negative.
There's been confusion ever since the "faction window" was instituted about what mobs raise and lower which faction. It comes down to lack of information about which factions are linked to which mobs, and with the general repopulation efforts about to commence, we should see improvements on this front. Finally, while we're on the subject of cities, expansion lead Kyle "Glendril" Hill stated that the cities' citadels would be open to players "very soon."
"In EQ2, the analogy to taking 72 people [into a 24-person raid, a la EQLive would be to take 24 people a few levels higher... The system is hard-capped at 24, it's not like it's an easy thing to change." This from Scott Hartsman, in response to Kwoung (the player crowned "king of the test server" by Ryan "Blackguard" Schwayder) and his concerns about high-level raiding as a casual player. This comment appears here mostly because I like to type "zerg." :)
Class-specific appearance was another topic of discussion, in response to Gaige's concern that everyone eventually looks the same within a given archetype. As we moved past the subject of dyeing (Hartsman: "EQ style free-for-all dyeing will not be joining EQ2," - sorry hot-pink platemail fans! - but model lead Chad Haley and tradeskill lead Ben hinted that the developers are friendly with the idea of giving players some more natural dye choices for their player-crafted weapons armor), another EQLive staple reared its time-consumptive head: epics. No opposition to the idea of making epics part of the game was to be had among the gamers or developers, and giving them a class-specific look might just kill two birds with one stone.
Equipment at large may get a more personalized bent. "We're getting into the original goals of EQ2 as compared to what our goals are now. One of the goals waaaaaay back in the day that most of us inherited was people who are of similar roles should be in a perfectly matched suit of armor because it looks more cinematic, realistic, blah blah blah... in reality, its not as much fun as 'oh, I recognize that guy, he's my barb friend, because he's got the blue chest and bearskin arms and, you know, red gloves.' Your going to see more of... an item, I don't care if it's very light, not everyone in the game is going to be able to wear it."
Spell lead Jared "Lockeye" Sweatt and Scott Hartsman led us through a lengthy dialogue about the recent combat changes. Click here to view the TTH article covering the Combat Changes roundtable discussion.
EQ2's marketing team, the originators of the popular (if misunderstood) Desert of Flames monkey giveaway, headed up the first portion of the third roundtable (the topic: the newbie game and open discussion). One player asked about perhaps opening up the Station Store for plush monkey sales, and lo and behold, on the following Tuesday the monkeys were back in stock!
Marketers do a lot of behind the scenes work for the distribution of these games. One interesting story told earlier in the day involved the entire team dropping everything and flying to China to grease the passage of EQ2 Collector's Edition tins through communist customs; apparently, due to an overseas mixup, there was concern that SOE was transporting contraband or explosives in the tins.
The newbie island revamp (to me) was an extension of the marketing agenda. Hartsman's statement that a gamer decides in the first 10 minutes whether or not he/she will stick with a game for the long haul is probably true. The community presented a boatload (pardon the pun) of suggested improvements for the Isle of Refuge: removing the worthless foresting / mining / sit & stand icons from the hotbar; find a dynamic way to teach players about the quest journal, Heroic Opportunities, faction, equipment & spell upgrades; and, perhaps most compellingly, remove the refugee stigma and make newcomers an escaped convict (Freeport) or a returning hero or pilgrim (Qeynos). I'd like to see newbies get tossed into a low-level chat channel by default, perhaps one that guild leaders and officers can opt into for the sake of offering introductory advice. In any case, this is definitely something on SOE's agenda.
Tradeskilling & Items
It was clear that tradeskills are a part of EQ2 currently in major transition. Beghn talked briefly about upcoming changes to items, rehashing many of the class-specific changes set to occur as well as visual effects: things like better matching the look to the level and allowing tinting on weapons and armor. Someone asked about eliminating interim combines (perhaps going to a finish-only scheme for crafting), and it was clear that we'd struck upon a system still in its conceptual stages. Scott Hartsman expressed that SOE is interested in "de-emphasizing, if not totally de-emphasizing" the rote aspects of crafting, going so far as to ask the audience "is there a fun gameplay value in grinding tradeskills? And if not, would it be cool if, once you make one decent item you go up a level?" The adventurers rejoiced, the tradeskillers looked baffled.
Quality of crafted items was also addressed. A gamer raised the question of pristine items, and how anything less than pristine simply doesn't sell. The consensus of the group was to perhaps make a pristine item stats-wise (pass or fail) but make a fairly transparent attribute like experience gained, sellback value to the NPC merchant, or expense to repair depend on its quality.
From here, a variety of questions were answered machine-gun fashion. Someone asked about stackable potions; the core item system can't handle a stack of multi-charge potions at this point. The possibility of increasing the amount of "fluff" clothing that tailors can produce, perhaps taking the patterns from existing around-town character models, was addressed: unfortunately, many of the town models are single-layer models; despite what their parents taught them, their clothes are an inseperable part of who they really are!
What better way to wrap up our coverage of the 2005 EQ2 Community Summit than to talk about a couple of the nifty things ready to hit the game within a month or so. First, SOGA models (SOGA is an amalgam of SOE and Gamania, the Japanese firm heading up EQ2's Asia localization efforts) have often been described as more cartoony or anime-ish; these are fair descriptors, though to me the models more clearly delineate differences between the more humanoid races. The nice thing is that you'll be able to choose which models you want for which races, including the NPCs you come across and your very own avatar. You'll have two different character appearance sets that you can toggle between. While the SOGA models utilize the same polygon count as the originals (meaning there's no performance benefit from switching), all the races look great in their present state and, heck, its another way to spice up the everyday grind. Look for the SOGA option with EQ2's first anniversary in November.
Touching off a round of display improvments, the next update will also feature a change in the layout of several UI windows and bars. Note that if you use a custom UI mod, you'll probably have to update it several times. With regards to performance improvements, new character model lead Chad Haley is on the case. He and the EQ2 team discovered a targetting bracket that costed players' computers over 17,000 polygons (!) that's been pared down to a tiny fraction of that. Spiders that were likewise resource drains were again reduced in polys to something more like reasonable, and the rujarkian orcs might begin a takeover of all currently held orcish lands- they utilize something like half the polygons that the current old ones do (rujarkians are "one piece" models, while the old world orcs were a character model and clothing / armor on top). Haley, who as a zone designer was heavily involved in the design of the Qeynos zones, the Splitpaw Saga areas (especially the beloved raid instances like Brutal Acts of War), and Maj'Dul (which was originally supposed to be 4 zones- he got it down to one that runs pretty smoothly IMO), definitely has the expertise to produce what players want without compromising quality.
And finally, students of the Test Server upgrade notes know that gambling is going to make its first appearance in EQ2, well, first if you don't count attacking a named mob as a serious gamble these days! The Gigglegibber Goblin Gamblin' Game, where players utilize a slot machine-type interface to (hopefully) match six numbers to six preset numbers (and winning a variable amount of coin based on how well many numbers match- match 6 and the jackpot is yours!), may hit the game this week. The game features a cool "falling coins" animation when you win- which others around you can see. One pull (or "ticket") costs 1 silver. If we get the GGGGG tomorrow as planned... well, what happens in Qeynos Harbor, stays in Qeynos Harbor!
My sincere thanks to everyone at SOE for their hospitality and attentive ear this past weekend. Developers learn time and time again that the best games come by listening to players, and SOE is far ahead of the curve in this and many other respects. I look forward to seeing what was discussed hit the Update Notes soon.
Want to discuss the issues addressed at the Summit? Join our forum discussion here!
Other guys' coverage of the EQ2 Community Summit: