We've had a slow couple of weeks on the EQ front. No doubt concern arises from the perceived drop in numbers and while we certainly cannot say what the future holds, it would be premature to follow in the same well-walked tread of picket sign wearing doomsday sayers.
A few factors all crashed together this year, more than any year previous that I can remember. Instead of a holiday season with one or two new games coming out, nearly six must-have hit games came out at once. In a discussion about EQ2 and its effect on some high end guilds, I heard guild leaders say that as much as they like the cross-game chat between EQ1 and EQ2, what they really need is cross-game chat to Half Life 2. Now that may not be the case for everyone, but that is my point. There isn't an easy conclusion to make about any of this.
I am an officer in a small guild built around helping the adventurers of Norrath. During our regular weekly events Healers United travels around Norrath to popular hunting spots to offer our healing, buffing, resurrection, advise and gameplay help to those who need it. Usually we had four to six people on during off hours and somewhere between fifteen and twenty during the core hours of 7pm to 1am EST. Since Thanksgiving, our numbers dropped closer to four to eight during prime time and one or two regular people on the off-hours.
Am I worried about this? Yes. What is my reaction to this worry? Recruit newer members. The game shifted for a lot of people in this time. Some guilds wait to see what happens after the holidays and that's a smart move. If a lot of folks really are playing Half Life 2, Halo 2, or Grand Theft Auto San Andreas, those games won't last forever and back to the doors of Anguish they will return. Some are no doubt playing EQ2 and Worlds of Warcraft but those games won't be for everyone either. Both are different enough from Everquest to turn away some long-time players of EQ.
I watch the larger guilds crash together and merge into new giant forms like huge floating balls of mercury. I see others simply fall under the weight of their own lofty goals, lack of interest, and stubbornness to open their doors to new members or alliances. The smarter leaders consider alliances with other individuals and organizations until they get a better feel for what sorts of numbers they require. Once they see a solid trend, for example always having about 32 people online instead of around 54, they should begin to recruit new members.
None of us know what the true statistics are. We only see what we see and we best react to what we know for fact. It won't surprise me if we see a return to EQ in January and it certainly won't surprise me to see a larger surge of returning players when SOE announces and releases the next expansion. At that point the new single-player games will be over, the shine of newer MMOGs will wear off, and people will fall where they have the most fun.
Over the last two weeks I balanced my time between both EQ and EQ2 and I noticed an interesting thing. I like EQ2 a lot and I have fun hunting with little Pavlen the foppy roguish swashbuckler as he spies for Qeynos and slays vile stinking gnolls but when I return as the Venerable Loral Ciriclight, 68th cleric of Tunare, I have no less fun than I did before. I still enjoy a heart-racing hunt in the Muramite Proving Grounds. I still enjoy talking and meeting with my friends. I still marvel at the look of Omens with its shiny skinned Dragorns and hideous glowing eyed Discordlings. I still have a lot of fun playing Everquest.
SOE needs to focus on a few things to keep Everquest strong. We need to see the world continue to change and shift. We need to see new features for both new and existing players. We need to continue to see new content meant to challenge and excite us and we need features to help us get together with friends and defeat these challenges. I don't see them slowing down at accomplishing this at all.
So what sorts of improvements are we likely to see soon? On December 15th a new patch will include a lot of new features that will help EQ continue to grow and evolve. Stormhammer, the server for the cultural elite, will receive two revamped zones, Mistmoore and Paw. The Everquest website includes descriptive lore about both Mistmoore and Splitpaw. What Splitpaw really needs is a nearby Wayfarer camp or Knowledge stone. Expect these zones to move to the proletariat servers in one to two months.
Both /autofire and /melody will move to the live servers. These two long awaited features, mainly for rangers and bards, help players play those two classes with a bit more ease matching the other classes. Positive changes to the way a player plays the game matter a lot more than any statistical change you might receive.
We should expect the task changes I heard about at the fan faire to move to the live servers in January. Expect thousands more tasks with new task-types including things like fishing and foraging. The more I look at the task system, the more I see the potential for an EQ2-like quest journal. If SOE added some class-specific tasks, group tasks, and some item rewards to the task interface they already have, they would have a really strong new system for both new and older players alike.
Perhaps the biggest change we will see comes with the new backflag solution. Ever since Planes of Power, backflagging has slowed down a lot of big guilds. Guilds would fight their way past Rallos Zek, through some of the elemental planes, and, for a variety of reasons, lose enough players that they needed to reflag new members in order to continue. This process, when you include Planes of Power and Gates of Discord flagging, might take up more time than actually hunting new content. SOE hopes to fix this with a new backflag solution.
Nearly every flagged zone allows 15% of a raid to be unflagged upon entering it. A small handful (perhaps two to six per zone-wide raid) of back-flag quest items drop per zone-wide raid. These items lead unflagged attendees of these raids through a single-group quest to receive a flag for that zone only. Now that raider is fully flagged for that zone. The 85/15 rule will be applied to Time and to Gates of Discord flagged zones.
This solution will help guilds and high-end raiding alliances with their backflag woes. As long as they have enough flagged people to get into and raid higher-tiered zones, they can help flag new members without sending most of their flagged members back to raid older content over and over.
This solution will not help single-group hunters who desire these flags, but my favorite statement at the fan faire sums up the solution to this very well: The best way to fix the flagging problem is not to have progressive flagged content ever again. In other words, expansions from Omens and on will hopefully only have a single flagged zone at the end of the expansion similar to Veeshan's Peaks, Sleeper's Tomb, Vex Thal, and Anguish.
Two new storyline entries whispered across the winds recently. These stories begin to build better connections from the old world to the wars in the strange lands of Kuua and Taelosia. I often complain that we have little understanding or in-game motivation to travel to these distant lands when threats such as the Rujarkian orcs, Mistmoore vampires, the horrors of Miragul the Lich, and the poisoned rivers of Guk pose much greater risks to our lands. These stories, along with a few in-game changes (perhaps Muramites in Greater Faydark, Toxx Woods, the Commonlands or Qeynos Hills) would do a lot towards tightening up the loose storyline that ties Norrath to Taelosia and Kuua.
Strange shapes loom on the horizon. While the doomsday heralds that plague New Tanaan's streets continue their cries to the gods of chaos about the end of days, I see a time for a new golden age. I see a time of great wars and great victories. I see lost friends returning home and new friends joining the ranks of the adventurers of Norrath. Most importantly, I still have fun every time I log in and I plan to do so for a long time to come.
6 December 2004