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Reporting In From 'MMOG' Land

by Mark Crump on May 30, 2004 @ 1:42 a.m. PDT

The discontent had been muted, but the underground (non-official) message boards of the EverQuest community were full of long-winded posts that all screamed the same thing: “You released Gates of Discord in February and a new graphics engine in May. Both don’t work. Late May, you announced a new expansion, Omens of War, due to come out at the end of July. Dammit Sony, fix the broken crap FIRST!”

The pot finally boiled over on May 26th when Woody Hearn, the popular cartoonist behind /gu comics – a comic strip that pokes fun at the MMOG industry in general but frequently has its sights set on EQ. This particular cartoon depicted John Smedley, President of Sony Online Entertainment reaching into Woody’s pockets. His forum post was even more blunt; it was a manifesto urging his readers to boycott the Omens of War expansion. The 20 pages of responses largely told Woody that while he had their support, it wasn’t needed...since they hadn’t planned on buying it anyway.

Woody’s message struck home. Fifteen hours later, Woody received a call from Smedley himself to talk about his issues with the game. He also informed Woody the release of Omens would be delayed by six weeks so the team could focus on existing bugs, and to invite Woody to a special “Guild Summit” at SOE where issues with the game could be hammered out.

Frankly I’d like to call “malarkey” (well, actually another unprintable word, but you get the meaning). Early indications OoW isn’t even close to being ready come from Alan Crosby, SOE’s Internet Relations Manager, who was seen trolling class message boards recently, fishing for extras people would like to see in the expansion. While it’s a swell gesture, the meaning most people took away with them was SOE still doesn’t have a clue about large design decisions in the expansion. Omens of War was going to be delayed anyway, so why not push aside the obvious fact that it was going to be rushed to market too soon and instead offer an olive branch to the community by delaying it so it could “resolve existing issues.”

Six weeks MIGHT be enough time to nail down some large bugs like the collision detection woes the new graphics engine introduced, but it’s not enough time to fix larger issues, especially with many people upset over the last expansion’s time sinks and inherent difficulties. And it certainly didn’t help that Alan mentioned Omens of War was geared towards “Gates of Discord capable” guilds – all two of them, in my opinion.

The upcoming Guild Summit in San Diego has me stymied. They are inviting representatives from the top 50 EQ guilds to have high-level discussions about the state of the game. A lot of uber-guilds have walked away from the game, and this summit is an attempt by SOE to get to the heart of the matter and stem the flow. But what the community is reading from this is proof positive that SOE does indeed cater the game towards the power elite guilds, or people whose lives revolve around EverQuest. It’s general opinion that catering to this crowd is what has made the game not fun for them anymore. I have to agree with them on both parts.

I’ve been playing EverQuest off and on for the last 4 years. Lately, it’s been more off than on – I just can’t swing the gigantic amount of time the game demands. Granted, MMOGs are inherent time-sucks, but EQ is the unpleasant grand-daddy of them all.

A couple of years ago, all that stopped me from hitting the “high end game” was my level – I just needed to be level 46 (out of 50) to get into the Planes. Then Ruins of Kunark came out, which increased the level cap to 60, but once I got into my 50’s I was still able to go on most high-end raids. There were a few dungeons that were keyed, but getting the keys to get into them was little more than an afternoon’s work.

Scars of Velious, the next expansion, was geared towards the 35+ crowd and was still good times. There were only one or two keyed dungeons, but most of the content revolved around gaining enough faction with either the Dwarves or the Giants – acquired, naturally, by slaughtering the opposing faction wholesale – but again, it wasn’t all that hard to do, and the time requirements were modest.

Then came Shadows of Luclin. This expansion again had a couple of keyed zones, but getting the keys was much, much more time intensive. This expansion also introduced the Alternative Advancement Ability where instead of leveling, apply your xp to this pool, which would let you run faster, have higher hit points, etc. as well as class specific abilities.

Planes of Power, released in 2002, was the beginning of the end. This expansion raised the level cap to 65, was geared towards player levels 60 and above, and was almost entirely flagged, or keyed, zones. You’d get access to four base zones, then have to do time consuming quests or trials to gain access to the next zone, which featured even more massively time consuming quests to get access to the next tier of zones. There are five tiers in all, with the last tier being the Plane of Time. At that point, if you got into Plane of Time you had, for all intents and purposes, beaten the game. How time consuming, you might ask? The expansion came out almost two years ago, and the number of Time capable guilds is still relatively small.

Planes of Power was SOE’s way of saying they were catering the game to those people that placed “flagging” advancement in EverQuest ahead of normal, every day “character” advancement. They should have changed the name of the game to “EverRaid” instead, since it requires large forces to complete the seemingly endless chain of flags. Casual players like myself were screwed. Small guilds that were more about having fun deflated as members were forced to go to larger guilds to advance, or players simply quit the game. Prior to PoP, small guilds always faced issues balancing the needs of the overachiever against the needs of a casual player, but this expansion proved too much for most of them.

The next expansion, Lost Dungeons of Norrath, was a tossed bone to the casual player. Here, you could go on an adventure that lasted an hour or two and gain points that could eventually be spent on getting fairly decent gear – gear usually seen by players who had nothing better do on a weekend other than sit in one zone hoping a nice sword dropped. I felt it was the best expansion SOE had ever released, not so much for the content, but that it gave the casual players a viable means of advancement.

It didn’t do the high-end guilds any favors, though. Most of them were still stuck getting into Plane of Time by the PoT capable guilds blocking their progress. The Gates of Discord expansion was an attempt to solve that bottleneck by giving the PoT capable guilds something else to do. When we did the review, it looked like it met this design goal, but now that people have had a chance to toss their virtual bodies against it, it’s starting to look like SOE made it too time consuming and challenging. Recently, the expansion was retuned to ease some of the frustrations. The time sinks here are rumored to make the ones in PoP seem like an afternoon's work, with raids that last 10 hours or more, with a high chance of failure.

Which brings us to the high-end guilds saying, “screw Sony” and walking away, forcing SOE to have a guild summit. I’d lay even odds that for every one uber-player saying, “screw Sony” and walking away, there are about 10 average players, going “wish I even HAD the problems of those people, I’m never even going to see that content, screw you Sony” and walking away.

So, what’s the solution? Firstly, SOE has to stop catering the game to the uber-player. Almost every other MMOG out there has accomplishments that can be broken down into hour or two play sessions – sure, it might take you 20 hours to get the final result, but you aren’t forced to get that 20 hours in one play session. At the same time, they need to make the content work when released; players are getting sick and tired of beta testing every expansion after it's been released.

Secondly, Sony has to reduce the time sinks by having ways large groups of players can get access to keyed zones without needing to have very long camps to get pieces for each and every player that needs them; there should be a way that when one person gets the piece, all group members get the piece.

Thirdly, and most importantly, SOE has to make the content fun. Vex Thal, the Luclin keyed zone, requires ten shards to get only part of the key. Each of these is a long, boring as hell camp, with the pieces being very rare. An informal survey of guild members getting the keys reveals that most of them didn’t have much fun getting the pieces, but the reward of getting into the zone was worth the effort. In other words, they spent 40+ hours playing a game – a leisure activity, mind you – and not having fun. It’s like the carrot and stick routine, but with the stick beating you as you chase after the carrot.

Instead of getting the top 50 guilds into a room to discuss the needs of the few, SOE needs to focus their attentions on the mid-range of players, who, while they may be level 65 and have 200+ AA points, aren’t having any fun getting the goals accomplished.

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