Still groggy from a late-night level 50 Lost Dungeon hunt and a later-night scramble to pack up my books, notebooks, and fancy fountain pens, I woke up Thursday morning and began my trek west to the steel towers of SOE and all the worlds held within.
I had the advantage at this summit of knowing or at least recognizing most of the other EQ community representatives from previous summits and fan faires and rode the bus to the hotel with Samanna of the Spirit Realm.
Thursday night we met with Rashere, Brenlo, Kytherea, and Ashlanne for dinner. Most of our discussions revolved around Gemdiver's pre-Summit State of the Game article where he accidentally dubbed the term "Age of Rashere". We had a lot of fun with that. We discussed monster missions, mission progression in Depths, Everquest's past, and the future.
We learned at the dinner that the Depths of Darkhollow expansion was the number two best selling PC game during the week of its release behind the latest Sims expansion. The dev team was very excited and proud of this news.
Friday was mainly a day of recreation. We visited San Diego's excellent yet hilly zoo. Friday evening we met with the SOE developers for dinner and challenges of Dance Dance Revolution and Street Fighter 2 (I still owe Prathun a rematch after our 1 to 1 ending scores but at least I pwn3d Zajeer). My ideas of tying Dance Dance Revolution to the Overlord Mata Muram encounter continues to fall on deaf ears (Overlord Mata Muram says "You! Cleric 01246, DANCE!").
Saturday morning after breakfast we headed to SOE for our day of official discussions. It was here I began to blanket the lands with my twenty two printed copies of "Loral's Evil Agenda". Knowing some would no doubt be destroyed in horrible ways, I made sure to bring many extra copies. Little did I know that lord Brenlo would go so far as to literally eat one on the bus ride to SOE.
Our first meeting brought up the topic of EQ's marketing. With the recent release of Escape to Norrath, SOE began a new way to market EQ. There were a lot of suggestions and feedback on the release and availability of Depths of Darkhollow. Whatever people thought about the clockwork boar, a lot of people in the room bought the box just for that rather than download it.
While Escape to Norrath offers an excellent window into EQ, the 300 meg download can be heavy. Some of us suggested that SOE offer this on CDs like AOL does, no doubt a costly proposal, or as a bundle with PC-Gamer.
Our second session was titled "Everquest, level 1 to Uber" and focused on player progression from the lowest levels of the game to the highest. I mentioned improving the 20 to 50 game on my Evil Agenda and suggested that SOE consider more progressive missions and quests for these levels to show mid-level players the benefits we see in expansions like Dragons and Depths. Armor and class weapon quests do a lot to drive players to fun content but currently most players buy weapons in the bazaar.
I also brought up reevaluating the costs of LDON items, especially below level 65. Zajeer explained his intention to look at these points and make sure that players are no longer leveling faster than they can buy items in LDON.
Rashere began a discussion about SOE's interest in reducing downtime, especially with combat endurance. Right now EQ doesn't have an in-combat and out-of-combat state system to ensure that players are no longer locked in combat. Such a system would let players regenerate hitpoints, mana, and endurance faster than when they are in combat. Use of a monster's agro list can help but it isn't the ideal solution.
We discussed one topic in which I have been interested for some time, the identification of player power at level 70. Frodlin, the warrior corrispondant and an excellent debate partner of mine, joked about an Everquest 2 style "Level 70 double up arrow", an idea I liked a lot. With alternate abilities and gear now far more powerful than ever before, an in-game identifier of player power would help SOE properly tune encounters.
Gemdiver had my third favorite quote of the weekend when he asked "Since there are two other wizards here, I will stay away from wizard problems, but what is the state of class re-envisioning things like druid stances and rogue vs. wizard dps." Even when he's trying he can't let go of wizard issues. The answer was that about 70% of the outlined re-envisioning took place so far with good results and other things, like the druid stances, take a bit more time to program in.
Our third meeting discussed Depths of Darkhollow. Craig Knapp mentioned Gemdiver's recent "State of the Game" paraphrasing "Depths of Darkhollow could be the greatest EQ expansion if the loot didn't suck." Gemdiver's actual quote wasn't quite this strong: "If Zajeer and SOE upgrade the DoDH mission drops to a Qvic level of gear, they will have pulled off the greatest expansion this great game has ever seen."
Depths loot quickly became a hot topic. Zajeer, the item designer, explained that loot was based on drops from previous zones of comparable difficulty including Noble's Causeway, Muramite Proving Grounds, and Riftseekers. Loot on Monster Missions was much harder to gauge since monster mission difficulty is independent from character power.
Zajeer and the other designers have seen the complaints about the loot quality in Depths. Zajeer himself plans to spend the next couple of weeks looking at the difficulty of missions and the loot dropping within to make sure the risk vs. the reward is appropriate.
I suggested a few things on this topic including a set of class or archetype armor built for level 70 single-group hunters or perhaps more evolving items so that while the first item drop may not be excellent, it could grow into something quite nice. On the topic of class armors, Zajeer was apprehensive saying that he received a lot of negative feedback on previous class armor sets (I believe he was talking about high-end raiding armor feedback, not group armor). On the topic of evolving items, he gave me my second favorite quote of the trip: "That's not too bad of an idea."
I look forward to Zajeer's rebalance of Depths loot over the next couple of weeks.
The topics of progression for shrouds and evolving items both came up. Rytan stated that shroud progression was slower than he had intended. Evolving item progression is about where Zajeer intended it but it is important to note that evolving items only progress when mobs are killed solo or in a group. Quests, task experience, mission rewarded experience, and raids do not give experience to evolving items.
The last official discussion of the day was an open discussion. Craig Knapp began the discussion by asking about Everquest's current death system. Currently EQ handles death much different than competing MMOs and while many of the designers feel that death continues to erode into a meaningless disadvantage in EQ, the topic is still hotly debated internally.
There are many ways death can be handled. Everyone agreed that death still requires some penalty but it is likewise clear that those facing the stiffest death penalties are those in the middle of the game, not at the end. High-end hunters have the easiest time finding resurrections, regaining experience, and recovering equipment. Those in the middle often do not have anyone who can help them and if they find a cleric able to res at their level, they recover significantly less experience than those with 96% resurrections available.
Cheating and Macroquest came up during this discussion as well. Grumbuk, the assistant lead programmer on Everquest, has worked hard to defeat many of the cheats and exploits found in EQ. He described his philosophy on cheating, saying that EQ has no desire to lose business based on false detection of a non-cheating player and that the strongest countermeasures for cheats and exploits are when the cheater knows what SOE does but still cannot defeat it. It is clear that the EQ programmers pay a lot of attention to cheats and exploits and are developing both systems and techniques for dealing with this problem.
A lot of the information gleaned from this summit came from the spaces in-between the official events. Here are some interesting bits:
This weekend was the first time I had heard discussion about the Demi-Plane of Blood, the final raid zone in Depths of Darkhollow. Prathun told me a little of the types of challenges faced in this new raid zone and they sound like an excellent departure from standard statistical-based raids and more like some of the things we saw in MPG trials and with Mata Muram himself.
I heard about a few monster missions I haven't yet experienced or heard of including a recreation of the release of the Green Mist in Overthere.
The EQ mouse pointer will soon be based on the windows mouse. This means you can simply mouse out of an EQ window instead of the strange "SHIFT ALT R" mouse release. This may also speed up mouse precision quite a bit in game since the mouse and the framerate of the display will be independent.
Now we come to the most interesting bit of information I heard at the Summit. SOE will release a new audio queue system added to test soon and to live soon after. This audio system lets players assign audio clips to chat window events. For example, if I receive a tell, I can get a little chime. However, this system is far more flexible than simple tell chimes. Players can base audio samples to any string of text displayed in any chat window. For example, if one receives a tell from his or her guild leader, he or she will hear a different chime. If a particular item comes up in the auction channel that one has been waiting for he or she can hear a cash register. If a cleric's turn comes up in the CH rotation, the cleric can hear a bell ring.
The sound system will be completely skinnable with new sounds and allows you to assign these sounds to any string of text that comes up in any of your chat boxes. Add a big boom to critical blasts or hear a warning bell when a Conviction fades.
The ten million dollar "Loral's Evil Agenda - Submit To It" campaign worked quite well. I saw copies of the evil agenda floating all over the place. At one surrealistic moment, someone folded one into a paper airplane, threw it across a resteraunt, and nearly put out the eye of an unsuspecting Moorgard, the first and most excellent Mobhunter writer, a couple of tables away. What a strange chain of events that would have been.
For each Evil Agenda burned in the hotel fire pits, I saw another read by developers during some infrequent downtime.
This was a difficult time for a Summit. The Everquest developers currently spend their time fixing issues that come up in Depths of Darkhollow. The expansion is too new to say for sure what SOE needs to fix, although we certainly had suggestions. It is too early to say whether monster missions will remain popular although I suspect they will as long as SOE releases new ones. It is far too early for SOE to say anything about any future expansion.
However, this summit stood as a perfect point for developers and summit attendees to step back and look at the whole game. Discussions on the death penalty, mid-level content, LDON point costs, and reducing downtime are all important to the health of this game. The benefit, however, comes not when we talk but when we begin to see SOE implement changes based on this feedback. Sometimes these changes take a while, but we have seen some of the best changes to Everquest within the last year and I see no sign of that slowing down.
I have met the SOE developers a few times in the past at fan faires and community summits. It never ceases to amaze me how hard they work and how enthusiastic they are about their game. These are not 9 to 5 employees. They work all the time. They put in ten to twelve hour days every day of the week. They know their product very well. Some of them are no doubt stubborn but they believe in what they do. They rarely cave under the pressure of biased criticism and if you want to convince them, you have to bring both data and show them how a change helps the entire game. These developers love their game.
It was especially a pleasure to meet the other community reps again and I will leave you with a variety of other summit reports and pictures:
EQ Vault: Report 1
EQ Vault: Report 2
EQ Vault: Report 3
EQ Vault: Final report
Pic. (left to right) Gemdiver of Caster's Realm, me, and Rashere the lead designer watching Merloc and Glorianna play Dance Dance.
Nolrog's Tons o' Pics.
Nolrog's Pics in a Flickr Set
I will link more reports as I receive them. Please send a comment if you find one I haven't linked yet.
I thank SOE for the opportunity and the excellent event.
3 October 2005