For the past few years, SOE used hotzones as a way to bring players together and help newer players experience older zones and encounters. This technique increased the experience reward of each hotzone to help entice players into traveling to these underused zones. However, SOE had sometimes gone as long as a year before hotzones had been updated.
In the last Everquest patch, SOE refreshed the concept of hotzones by adding new creatures and new loot to these hotzones as well. Last week I had the opportunity to talk to the designer of these new hotzone techniques, Nodyin, and the following article is based on these discussions.
Traditional hotzones were limited in a few different ways. First, since experience is a global reward, the only way to make a hotzone more enticing than an existing zone is to make the experience higher than the other. For example, in order to make a hotzone more popular than Paludal Caverns, a zone known to have a high experience reward per hour, the designers must increase the experience in an equal difficulty zone higher than Paludal. Sometimes, given that these zones offer a higher reward than the designers prefer, the designers are apprehensive about increasing the reward too much.
Other factors also affect the use of hotzones. If the zone is significantly more difficult to reach - Tower of Frozen Shadows at level 30 for example - players will still avoid it.
The new techniques included in the latest batch of hotzones entice players not only with experience, but loot. Loot, being unique items unavailable in other zones, can help bring players to new hotzones even if the experience reward per hour isn't as high.
Nodyin included two techniques for rewarding new items: global drops and named drops.
Named drops are the same drops we typcially expect. Every so often a unique NPC shows up. When killed, this NPC drops a new fancy item.
Global drops are items that can drop off of any mob in a zone or region. They are far more rare and higher in power than typical named drops. This type of drop will keep players interested in slaying the normal "trash" mobs of a zone on the chance that one of these mobs drops a global rare.
A new technique called "Call for Help" adds another twist. Regular mobs have a chance to "call for help" when their health gets low. A new named NPC will assist the original NPC against the party, forcing the party to handle two critters instead of just one. This named assisting NPC drops loot as often as typical named NPCs.
This mechanic, like the strange NPC behavior in Arcstone, adds a new flavor to typical fights players are used to seeing. Any mechanic that forces players to adapt to a changing battlefield helps keep players interested - as long as the mechanic is not simply frustrating.
Since experience is a global commodity, loot is the main driving force that takes players from one zone to another - especially at the high levels. The new itemization of older zones can help push players to these new zones instead of simply finding the most profitable experience reward available.
However, since level matters more than any other factor up until about level 65, players are still likely to "grind levels" more than worry about equipment until they reach the higher levels where gear is required for progression.
Right now, these techniques only affect zones from level 60 and below. Since recent expansions have all offered a lot of content at level 60 and above, there seems little need to revitalize zones for this level range. Hopefully, SOE should continue to use these interesting techniques in future.
1 July 2006