Everquest is big. Of all of the existing MMOGs, Everquest may have the largest amount of territory. In the last five years, the amount of land we have to explore nearly doubled. Much of this land grows vacant and unexplored. Once popular hunting grounds such as the Dreadlands and Lower Guk now may go days without seeing the tracks of a single adventurer.
Many people comment that the lack of attendance shows a problem. When their once favorite and popular hunting zones go unexplored, it reveals to them some form of decay or collapse. First, however, we must ask ourselves a question:
Are unpopulated zones a problem?
I would argue no. Unpopulated zones take nothing away from existing players. While many new players may never see these unused lands, these unexplored lands give space to a once crowded world.
Today's Everquest is much different from the Everquest of five years ago. Not only do we have hundreds of newer zones, many of which offering better hunting, easier access, and greater rewards than the lands of our youth, but new technologies such as Lost Dungeon adventures, Gates and Omens expeditions, and the Plane of Knowledge stones give us nearly unlimited hunting zones. Soon, with the guild halls of Dragons, one might travel from their home territory all the way down into a deep dungeon and back and never see another outside soul.
The amount of hunting grounds we have are nearly unlimited. There is no lack of experience and reward giving monsters for us to face and battle. While popular hot spots may end up crowded from their promise of high rewards, a capitalizing group can always find a useful place to hunt.
What of the older lands? What of the zones, once bustling with activity, that now lie empty? Some argue that newer players lack the strength of the older players who hunted in nearly every old zone. They might be right, but we must accept that the sheer amount of zones makes it impossible to hunt in every single one of them. Others argue that these zones steal resources from SOE's servers. From my very limited understanding of SOE's server infrastructure, the amount of processor use and bandwidth scales to the number of players in a zone, not the zone itself. Empty zones use very little resources compared to heavily used zones.
Some players grow frustrated with the sloth-like hunters who choose never to explore outside of a very few places. A new player may get from level 1 to 65 and see fewer than a dozen zones out of the possible hundreds.
What some players don't realize is that all of that landmass, all of those zones and beasts, are what they really paid for. Leveling up alone won't show people the wonders of those lands. They won't know what it was like to defeat Broon. They won't have spent time crawling up the Aviak village. They won't remember how satisfying it is to slay Dvinn or Dragoon Zytl. They won't make the scary midnight run through Kithicor woods. That is the true growth in Everquest. Exploration and hunting in all of those lands is far more rewarding for many people than finding a safe spot to fight the same beast until one wakes up and is level 65.
What can one do? While some prefer safe and consistent hunting in well-understood zones, others seek adventure and excitement beyond the typical experience camp. Build your own group from those who seek to explore rather than simply progress through levels. Find out what you can about these unexplored areas and find people who share your wanderlust. Many people, once they try it, enjoy hunting and crawling rather than sitting and camping.
There are a few tricks to having this much content, however, and SOE needs to capitalize on this vast amount of landmass in order to play to its one great strength over other current massive online games.
One problem is that some content offers little reward for its greater risk. Consider the dungeon of Dalnirs off of Warslick Woods. Even with the nearby Cabilis and Overthere knowledge stones, the dungeon is quite out of the way and offers much risk for its limited reward. I can only speculate at the number of people who explore the depths of Dalnirs this day, but I imagine it was low.
What can SOE provide to make this a more rewarding place to hunt for the risk? One solution is to make it a hotzone. Hotzones significantly increase the amount of experience one gains from hunting in these selected zones. Hotzones help consolidate players to a smaller set of zones so it is easier to find members with which to hunt. Hotzones also bring players to previously underexplored zones.
But hotzones are a quick fix for a deeper problem. Other solutions yet implemented could include a dungeon taskmaster. This taskmaster could give an entire group a quest to solve within each dungeon of Norrath. This ties together the adventure-system of LDON with the older world dungeons that remain mostly unpopulated. The extra experience and possible item rewards help reward players for hunting and exploring rather than camping and experience grinding.
Another solution takes a less radical approach. Updating and adding quests and rewards to each of these dungeons or unexplored zones offer new alternatives to the experience grind and bazaar shopping spree. Equipment from older times often pales when compared to current-day bazaar items. Only by continually updating the items acquired in quests and dropped within older dungeons can these older dungeons return to their former glory.
While many consider underused zones to be a major problem and a large sign of the decline of Everquest, underused zones instead show a solution to the problems of the past. No longer do players run out of content. No longer do packs of players strip-mine the Dreadlands or Lower Guk, stealing kills from one another and begging for scraps of experience from an overpopulated zone. Today, players have a nearly unlimited amount of places to hunt and beasts to slay.
Rather than seeing it as a problem, SOE should look towards older zones as an opportunity to offer exciting new adventures in the form of quests or tasks in previously underused zones. The goal should be to offer quests, adventures, and tasks so exciting that players care more about the adventure than they do about the numbers. While it is a lofty goal indeed, a few smaller steps can take us towards it.
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28 January 2005