EverQuest Next: The Power of Different Starting Zones
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!