A month has passed since the release of Depths of Darkhollow. Darkhollow included one of the largest changes we have seen to this game, the "Play as a Monster" feature. We previously hypothesized about how playing as a monster would change Everquest a few months back but now that we have seen it in action for over a month, it is time to analyze what this new feature means for the present and future of Everquest.
Initially, spirit shrouds looked to be the more interesting aspect of the "Play as a Monster" feature in Depths of Darkhollow. Players can switch to any level in increments of five and of any of a few set class archetypes or "templates". Not only could we shroud down and hunt with lower level friends but perhaps we could switch archetypes to fill in missing classes in a group.
On the surface, Monster Missions appeared to be a side effect of spirit shrouds. It turned out to be the other way around. Spirit shrouds, due to balancing issues with current classes and power at the higher levels gave too little power to replace players in a group and offered far too little reward to make them worth while even when shrouding down. They are fun to use and have a progression path for future upgrades but their limiting power and limiting rewarded experience was disappointing.
Monster missions, however, turned out to be the best feature of Depths of Darkhollow. If you find shrouding down with lower level friends too limiting, you and those lower level friends can go on a monster mission instead. Your class doesn't matter, your level doesn't matter, all you need is six people that have Depths of Darkhollow. The reward turned out to be far nicer (in some cases too nice) than equal time spent in a spirit shroud and often the mission itself was more exciting.
Monster missions rewards scale based on your level. No matter what level you are, you receive a set amount of experience (up to a single AA point at level 70) and an item appropriate to your level. For high-end level 70s, these items will probably be underpowered but for typical single-group-equipped players, these items offer a chance at a nice upgrade.
This is one way Monster Missions can change Everquest. There are twenty such monster missions in Depths of Darkhollow each dropping a common and a rare item. These items can work as a base set of gear for players of any level, giving people a gauge for how well equipped they are expected to be at their level. Future monster missions could continue to reinforce this baseline set of gear by filling out all appropriate slots.
The experience rewards, aside from a few anomalies, offer a good amount of progression for the time invested. While some missions will go quickly and some will take time, an AA of experience at 70 is not a bad reward. Considering the time and difficulty of grouping, finding an adventure, and getting started is reduced with monster missions, the time per AA is often quite good.
It is important to recognize that the experience gained should not be as good or better than the experience one gains from a normal hunt or people will prefer monster missions to all other forms of hunting. Monster missions are a great improvement to Everquest but they should not take over for traditional experience hunting.
Monster missions have many advantages to the designers as well as to the players. Designers can build entire worlds into these tiny capsules of content. They can give vast power to players and face them off against powerful foes. Consider the Nagafen mission where the Nagafen player receives 16,000 hitpoints, an AE fear and an AE blast. The cleric in this mission gets a true complete heal greater than the one clerics receive in the normal game. There are a few level 70 monster missions such as the Werewolf, Drachnid, and Shiliskin missions in Undershore that let players experience the power typically only available to the most powerful players.
The monster selection also gives designers an entire new variable of content. Unlike spirit shrouds, which are limited by the global models available across all zones, monster missions can let players be anything. Giants, mushrooms, orcs, wisps, dragons, pirates, and goblins are just the beginning. The self contained monster missions free designers to use everything in their imagination.
Risk vs. reward can also be carefully balanced. Extremely challenging monster missions might reward better experience, unique abilities, or high powered equipment while easier or shorter monster missions might give lower rewards. The power of the character doesn't matter. Hard missions will never become trivial unless players find ways to make it easier. Well tuned difficult encounters should remain difficult and require players to be skilled and resourceful to win.
Not only are the designers free to change environments, player monsters, and NPC monsters but they can change the gameplay as well. Instead of combating onslaughts of rats, bats, and spiders, why not have wisps dash and hide in a crazy zombie-infested game of hide-and-seek? Why fight mobs one at a time when hoards of eighteen NPC adventurers can burst in on a player who just fell in the skin of a dragon? Remember when the froglok trains used to eat you for lunch? What if you were the frogloks?
Why stop with single one-shot monster missions? How about monster raids where eighteen players of any level can gather, turn into gnolls, and raid Freeport? How about more progressive monster missions that reward players with new unique items, unique AAs, or unique spells? How about using monster missions to take single-group players to zones that were typically raid zones? How many players have seen all of North TOV, Sleeper's Tomb, or Veeshan's Peaks? Old content yet unseen can become new content.
The key to the success of Monster Missions is the continued release of new missions. As long as SOE continues to add new, fun, exciting, and rewarding monster missions, the players will continue to play them.
Monster missions are not everything, however. The core of the game has been and should continue to be based around individual character progression. Monster missions can do a lot to add new ways to play Everquest but progression is the core motivation mechanic of the game and that should always continue. However, monster missions can add a new option for us each night we log in. Our options for ways to play have grown.
Monster missions offer limitless possibilities. Like instanced zones, high-end raids, evolving tradeskills, and the mission system, I hope to see monster missions become a continued form of content for years to come.
28 October 2005