Monday, September 24, 2007

EQ2 - Casual Friendly? Part 1

I want to take a little time to address an offshoot topic that I saw bandied about on the official EQ2 forums following the recent status item changes. Someone had posited that this nerf was a sign of things to come, and that EQ2 would gradually cease to be a casual-friendly game.

As I sit down to write, I don't feel remotely convinced of this. Yes, I think the Status Item nerf was an unfair hit to casual-but-venerable guilds, but it isn't going to kill MY guild, and I don't think it'll kill others.

But hey, maybe amidst my stream-of-consciousness rambling, it'll turn out that EQ2 is, in fact, becoming less casual-friendly. Let's find out!

Usually, when I start a topic along these lines, I like to look into history first. Today will, of course, be no different.

From beta into launch, EQ2 was - I thought - a terrific game, but not what I'd call casual-friendly. The developers promised that anyone who desired COULD level from 1 to 50 by soloing. I'm pretty sure this promise was kept, but anyone taking this path probably would have been bored out of their minds. Some overland content was soloable, but maybe only half of it at best. Heroic and solo encounters lived together in perfect harmony (their harmony, not ours), making it difficult to find stable/safe hunting grounds. Dungeons, meanwhile, were basically 100% heroic.

Thing is, much as I love the casual play, I didn't see this as a bad thing. EQ2 at launch didn't force grouping, per se, but it was pretty much required if you wanted to see or do anything cool. Of course, at launch everybody was the same level and finding groups was extremely easy with the first couple tiers absolutely packed with people. A few years into a game like this, and the world's population inverts - most people are now in the high end zones, with little activity (especially for pickup groups) in the first few tiers.

Forced grouping can be frustrating at times, but it has a wonderful side effect of making you meet new people! My guild at launch was mostly people I already knew, but with differing playtime schedules and (eventually) a widening level range, I still looked for strangers to fill slots in groups from time to time. It's always a gamble with a pickup group, but in my experience these aren't Vegas-style odds! Sometimes you do lose, but I also made some new, lasting friendships in those early days of EQ2 that never would have come to be had EQ2 not made grouping a way of life.

Fast-forwarding 3 years, a whole lot has changed, and mostly for the better. As I said earlier, the zones with heavy population are the higher level areas, which can leave a true-newbie feeling left out in the cold if he needs to find a group but can't.

Nowadays, overland zones are primarily soloable content with lengthy, interesting quest lines full of varied content. This is extremely valuable, because soloing from 1-50/60/70/80 has evolved from a slow, boring grindfest into something actually quite fun. I've done certain favorite quest lines 5 or 6 times with different characters and still enjoy them because of the variety of tasks the quests require!

Going back to statements from early design interviews that didn't come true at launch, most dungeons in the world now have a modest amount of non-heroic content in their entrance areas. This allows players to be able to hang out in a zone and wait for a group opportunity without having to be totally idle the whole time.

Heck, in a move I can only assume was an adaptive measure to the population centers, some low level dungeons (Vermin's Snye) are now primarily populated by non-heroic content; exceptions usually being of the Named variety. It's entirely possible that as the level cap raises, this trend will spread out to more low and mid-level dungeons.

In the past, long, heroic quests were needed not only to gain access to some dungeon or instanced content (Nektropos Castle, Cauldron Hollow, Tower of the Drafling), but even to overland areas for Tiers 4 and 5. If you were unable or unwilling to find a group to do the access quests with, you could have very possibly run out of content long before maxing out your level! Nowadays, most of those former access quests are for lovers of lore, overland zones are wide open, and instances that remain locked (Cove of Decay) are the exception to the rule.

I will admit that, as a quest fanatic, a lot of my time is spent soloing because I'm none-too-keen on gathering groups just to help me win some little token quest. I'm also a guild leader who frequently groups with others in need, but when accomplishing my personal goals, I tend to be alone. Because of that, there's still quite a bit of content I've never seen. For example, I've yet to set foot in most of Fallen Dynasty, Nektropos Castle V3, and I haven't gone further than a couple rooms into Unrest. Much as I would like to see and experience these areas, however, I don't make that list with regret. Quite the contrary, I think it's fantastic that after all this time, I still have areas of Norrath left to discover!

From where I'm sitting, the only problems arise for the solo casual gamer when they take an attitude that they've been cheated out of content. Not that this happens all the time, mind you, but there's always a small "entitlement" crowd that wants access to the best stuff (content, loot, toys) without having to leave their comfort zone.

Much as I've grown to appreciate soloing in EQ2, I'm afraid I'm a bit of a hardliner on this. In EQ2, soloing is possible, fun, and a large amount of content is devoted to it. If that's not enough, then I will simply point out that Oblivion is a beautiful game - both in graphics and content - and I give it my highest recommendation for a strictly single-player fantasy RPG experience.

It seems to me that as a solo/casual player, there's a TON to do. I know from personal experience that, with combat exp turned on, there's TOO much content for one or even two characters to make a dent in. Frankly, if you really take the time to explore the non-heroic areas of Norrath, and focus on more than just the next bubble of exp, the amount of time you can spend is likely on par with a huge single-player game like Oblivion, but then you get to add social and multi-player aspects on top of that. And finally, in this stage of MMO development, can anyone really see SOE turning away from the inclusion of a plethora of casual content in future expansions? They're trying to bring in MORE of the crowd, not less!

At this point in my writing, I feel like I am, perhaps, focusing a little too much on the word "solo." A casual player in a casual-friendly game should not definitively be a soloer. On the other hand, when grouping isn't forced and exp can be gained quickly and efficiently without a group, that winds up being the method of choice for a huge portion of the population. The solo levelling-up may just be the stepping stone to bigger groups in tougher areas, but the number of people in Dungeon X compared to the number of people in Adjacent Overland Y is usually quite tiny. Most folks are running around in solo content - not *always* by themselves - but using that content for quick exp, quests, achievements, etc.

Still, the hypothesis that inspired me to start this column arose from a discussion about guilds, so what about casual guilds? Are casual guilds destined to become an endangered species? Are we already an endangered species and just don't know it yet? Tune in next time as I dig through what guilds can and can't do in part two of this article!