Mobhunter: The Chipped Tooth of the Dragon

February of 2005, Sony Online Entertainment released the best of the eight existing Everquest expansions, Dragons of Norrath. This expansion combined elements from the previous four expansions and
added a few new elements to create an expansion far greater than a simple collection of new zones. Features like the guild hall, corpse summoner, mission system, and loot vendor, show Everquest growing into a mature and expanding game far different than we've seen in the last five years.

Not everything in this expansion shines so brightly, however. Like everything in life, this expansion has room for improvement. In this article I discuss the details of five larger problems with Dragons of Norrath and offer areas for improvement.

Dragons? What Dragons?

They're on the cover. We all heard about Tirranum's roam of the wastes of Lavastorm for a couple of days. A few of us even snapped a few pictures of him with our strange gnomish picture-capture devices.

So where are they now? Well, if you're lucky enough to be in a Time Tier 5 level guild, you have a chance to cut down Tirranum deep in his lair. Any less power and you may have a chance to see the great lava dragon for a few seconds before he turns you into a pile of ash and a column of smoke. And Tirranum is the weakest of these new dragons.

Dragons should be raid-level mobs. Only a stupid pompous fanboi would ask for newbie-friendly dragons that six well-armed level 24 hunters could best. Yet it would be nice to at least SEE one of these mystical beasts from time to time. Let it lurk deep in a cave we might wander into during our travels. Let them come out from the depths of their lair for a quick snack of barbarian and a chai halfling latte.

As it stands, only a few very powerful hunters will see the Dragons in Dragons of Norrath.

Everquest: Goblins of Norrath?

What do we get instead of great red wyrms roaming the lava-crusted wastelands? Goblins. Lots and lots of goblins. Yes, they are the most well animated goblins I can recall seeing outside of a Peter Jackson film. Their slick skin reflects in the setting sun of Sol. They listen to the approaching footsteps of adventurers. They gnash their little razorsharp teeth in anticipation. And even if you are a 70th level adventurer with 10,000 hitpoints and a sword from the God of War, they can still open a can of old fashioned goblin whuparse.

What do they feed these things? How can a goblin with fingernails shorter than my short-hair cat hit me for 1200 points of damage? How can a group of adventurers that challenge the darkest demons of Torment get torn apart by scampering little hairless gnomes?

Now granted, the EQ team came up with the best spider model I can recall seeing and if it had a forty foot leg-span I am sure I would run in horror, but as is, the spiders are about the same size as the ones I killed outside of Felwithe at level 1. Even the drakes, as wonderful as they look, remind me of the drakes I killed within the first five levels of my hunts.

A level 50 expansion should have level 50 beasts. This doesn't mean taking a sewer rat and giving it a 1400 flurry. This means digging out the old D&D monster manual and finding the baddest beasts that a pizza-eating DM ever threw against his obnoxious friends. Hydras, Werewolf Lords, Beholders, Mind Flayers, Ogre Mages, Umbur Hulks, Wraths, Liches, Demon Knights; those are beasts that remind you that you're level 50.

For seventy levels I hunted in Norrath's great lands. I have traveled to countless worlds and fought the strongest avatars of the unholy Gods of the lower planes. I wear armor and carry magical items that could fund kingdoms if sold. I killed my first dragon when I was level 46; twenty four levels ago. Last night, I was killed by an 80 pound goblin wearing a loincloth.

Please, no more rats, no more bats, no more spiders.

Mission Balance

Missions are the best feature of Dragons of Norrath. Missions offer real storylines, real plots, real goals, excellent rewards, and all within a reasonable time-frame. They tie together the instanced dungeons and reward system of Lost Dungeons of Norrath, the expeditions of Gates of Discord, and the task system of Omens of War.

Missions are a feature that lets EQ outshine the competition. Everquest 2 doesn't have them. Warcraft doesn't have them. Only Everquest offers you group-quests that reward all members of a party equally in an instanced and uncompeted lair.

Offering such a wide variety in missions makes mission balance a difficult achievement. Though each mission can offer a different reward than the others, some, like the Gimblax mission, might become so easy to defeat that everyone who ever gets five people together will want to do that mission and ONLY that mission.

Changing the missions around one-by-one creates frustration in players and having only a single reward type for the missions leads to min-maxing: Players will only do the easiest and most consistently rewarding mission to eventually acquire the best gear.

Offering rewards for those who choose variety rather than continued hunts in the same mission could get people to spread out and try more. The current mission progression tracks help this to an extent but most of the progression is based on faction, tasks, and a few required single missions to progress.

No Tiered Equipment Progression

One of the reasons SOE didn't embrace the loot system of Lost Dungeons after its release was due to the ease at which people acquired the top gear. Even though hard adventures rewarded more points, powerful groups could squeeze three normal adventures into the same time as a hard. The easiest content, when hunted enough times, allowed a player to reap the greatest rewards of the system.

Dragons isn't much different. The crystals rewarded on the easiest missions allow players to buy the best gear available on the adventure merchants. This limits the power of the gear available on mission vendors. Though the loot is far superior to Lost Dungeons and helps close the gap between the equipment available to single-group hunters and that of raiders, it still is limited by this design problem.

A tiered loot system helps solve this problem. Certain new sets of higher-powered loot could become available after achieving certain goals that prove the power of the player is appropriate for the reward. Perhaps achieving each of the Lavaspinner, Stillmoon Temple, and Ascent missions opens up a new tier of loot. Once someone completes all of the Thundercrest Isle and Nest missions, they open up a third tier of possible loot. This system ensures that a player did not just complete the easiest adventures but instead met the required trial to receive more powerful equipment.

No Love for the Little Guy

Dragons of Norrath has a lot of exciting new content as long as you're above level 50. Since the release of Lost Dungeons of Norrath two years ago players below level 45 received very little new content. Yes, the task system in Omens of War offered quite a lot of new content but limitations prevented this system from radically changing the game as much as it could have.

Mission systems are a perfect way to increase the use of old-world zones. Lower level tasks, quests, and missions can lead a brand new player through the basics of the game and show them much of what they need to know in order to grow. Instead, brand new players get to see five year old stories and struggle through the same problems SOE fixed for players above 50.

New missions, mission vendors, and group tasks in old-world dungeons could breathe new life to the old and often underused zones we all so fondly remember.

Dragons of Norrath shows us how far Everquest has come. Long past are the days of frustration and drab colorless hunts. Dragons opens up a new system for dynamic and involving storylines for groups of six players or raids between 18 and 54 players. Dragons capitalizes on the best features of past expansions and shows us a path to new and greater adventures. Though the above examples show the short-comings of this new expansion, I have high hopes that we will see these problems fixed in future releases.

Loral Ciriclight
10 March 2005