What does the Serpent's Spine, Everquest's twelfth expansion, need to be successful? What will define that success? Prophecy of Ro looked quite strong when we reviewed it during beta and shortly after its release. Only a couple of months in did we determine how deep the problems lay. Today we will look at the criteria for a successful expansion and match these criteria against what we know of the Serpent's Spine right now.
There are many ways to define success for an expansion but I will stick to the actual features of an expansion that I find useful or fun. I will not define success based on commercial monetary gain for SOE, but by my own standards.
In short summary, a successful expansion should include the following criteria: progressive rewards, huntable zones, challenging raids, and pickup-group-friendly content. While not all of these are important to everyone and many other criteria are omitted, these criteria can directly affect the perceved success of an expansion.
We already know that the Serpent's Spine will include five new level ranges and a host of new alternate advancement abilities. This alone will make it a more useful expansion than the last. New levels and new AAs give everyone a reason to hunt for experience. Experience hunting encourages to grouping and grouping leads to the true strength of Everquest in the first place: getting players together to have fun.
Some players complain about the perceived forced requirement to level and earn AAs. Without a level increase and more AAs, the game becomes stagnant. Players at the max level with large amounts of AAs don't bother to hunt in groups, and hence many players have more difficulty grouping.
The power gain from new levels and AAs also helps previous expansions. Players who aren't geared in top-end gear have the opportunity to earn enough power to defeat previously undefeated content. I get nervous, however, when content is released in current expansions with the intent that players will earn enough power later to come back. I pay $30 for content I might be able to use in two years? What sort of evil reverse lay-away program is that?
Progressive gear paths are also very important. Ensuring that all players at all power levels have reasonable paths available to improve gear should be a top priority for the itemization of Serpent's Spine.
Good Huntable Zones.
Previous expansions have had limited success with static hunting zones. Dragons of Norrath, Depths of Darkhollow, and Prophecy of Ro all saw very limited numbers of players willing to hunt in the static content of those expansions. Instead players either focused on instances or on previously released but more rewarding zones like Riftseekers.
In order to break out of this downward trend, SOE will need to ensure that new static zones offer enough useful, huntable, exciting, and rewarding content to bring people out of the holes of instances from previous expansions and into the open. High experience rewards, fun but not frustrating encounters, beautiful but well performing zones, and the chance for good equipment upgrades will all be required.
Raid targets are particularly tricky. To non-raiders it appeared Prophecy of Ro included a lot of raid content. To high-end raiders, much of this content was considered either too rewarding, not rewarding enough, tedious, or impossible. Finding the perfect balance of raid content so that it is challenging, rewarding, and offers a good path of progress is quite difficult. Only time will tell if the raid progress in Serpent's Spine meets the need.
This is quite a debatable statement but, to me, the success of an expansion is directly proportional to the amount of pickup groups one finds within its zones. Players need to be able to get into the game, find a group, and make some progress all within a reasonable period of time. While some players are able to sacrifice a great deal of time to face the most extreme challenges of a game, others only desire a chance to find a quick bit of fun.
Pickup-group-friendly content is extremely difficult to get right. Lost Dungeons of Norrath had it. Omens of War had it. Dragons of Norrath had it but only for a very limited set of content: Creator and Gimblax missions. Depths of Darkhollow had it as long as raid-geared players were willing to bring a few non-raid-geared players along. Some players rely completely on ones ability to get groups from within their own guild but this still hampers players with only limited time.
Again, only time will tell if Serpent's Spine will offer suitable content to help pickup-groups form and succeed. The level and AA increase should help but beyond that is any one's guess.
Will Serpent's Spine succeed? It is impossible to answer the question with only the data we have available. Much of the frustration over the previous expansion was due to a limited set of usable content. The scope of the Serpent's Spine looks quite a bit larger but only with excellent tuning can it meet all of the needs players expect.
27 August 2006