Caster's Realm: The Encounters of Everquest

We spend a lot of time talking about class balance, equipment issues, the bloodwar between ubers and casuals, spell and item number crunching, and a thousand other topics that seem really important. When you step back and look at Everquest, especially in the light of newer massive online games such as World of Warcraft, EQ2, and Guild Wars, we begin to see something else. Class balance isn't the reason some players moved on to other games. Nor was it how much damage their blaster does at level 68.

When it comes right down to it, Everquest is a game built around having fun with your friends. These friends might be people you knew when you were five or people you just met an hour ago. The fun part might be anything from hunting down a spider in Greater Faydark to cutting down Overlord Mata Muram with fifty of the mightiest heroes who ever walked Norrath.

It is ironic that we spend so little time looking at the encounters we face and so much time worrying about the hitpoints on our boots.

So today we look at the encounters themselves. What's fun? What's not? What can we hope to see in the future?

In the old days of Norrath, encounters were most often static camping near a zone line with a puller dragging in a mob at a time. The goal of such a hunt was often experience with perhaps a chance at a nice drop. When I think back to my earliest days in EQ, I remember hunting at the Aviak village seated about fifty yards from the ramp while our puller brought birds back to our camp.

I remember hunting at the Frontier Mountains zone line of Lake of Ill Omen pulling sabertooth tigers, sarnaks, iksars, and the occasional skeleton. I remember hunting at the giant fort of Frontier Mountains pulling giant after giant. The North Wall in Dreadlands, the giant fort in Burning Woods, the left or right corners of Karnor's, the various fungi camps in Fungus Grove, and the outer or inner cave groups in Plane of Valor; I have spent most of my time in Everquest at one experience camp or another. Some call call this experience farming.

Even today, with the wide range of raid encounters and the missions and adventures of Lost Dungeons and Dragons of Norrath, this experience camp is probably the most common sort of hunt. This is how players progress through their levels and earn AAs.

Many of our best memories can be found at one camp like this or another. These camps can last hours with nothing but conversation to pass the time from mob to mob. I met many of my best in-game friends at such camps. From an encounter standpoint, however, there is little excitement in such events. There is no real goal other than earning experience or perhaps seeing a rare loot drop.

Dungeon crawls were the original intent of the dungeons of Norrath. A group of six hardened adventurers would crawl from the dark entrance of a dungeon to its furthest depths. This rarely happened, however. Most often new camps would be established with colorful names such as ass/sup (my personal favorite) or blind/task or disco 1 or disco 2. A group would fight its way to a safe point and continue the experience grind from there. A good puller might keep two or three rare spawns cleared until the party emerged draped in riches or returned dead on their shields. It wasn't until Lost Dungeons of Norrath that the dungeon crawl could be enforced in-game.

Lost Dungeons gave us a purpose for the first time in our dungeon hunting. Instead of simply hunting for experience or loot, we hunted with a purpose in mind. The goal might be to slay an ancient vampire lord or rescue a poor fallen halfling. Most often, however, as they did with the dungeon camp spots, groups gravitated to the highest reward for the least work: collections and murder spree adventures. These two were the least interesting adventures from a story standpoint. There is no exciting climax when you kill the fifty third skeleton of Deepest Guk nor when you finally find that twenty fifth vampire tooth. Many considered LDON to be the punch-card blue collar job for the adventurer. Put in your time, earn your points, buy your gear.

Dragons of Norrath refined the direction of Lost Dungeons and began to wrap real storylines around our dungeon explorations. Now the plots aren't so simple anymore. You must pick a flower from a garden and find the pot before it decays. You must hunt down the elusive Kirin who's dirty paw prints mark every surface. You must slay the guardians of the Lair Mistress and then slay the ancient beast herself. Now we have purpose. Now we see true variety in our hunts. It's not all about killing the beasts now, your sword may be no good if you can't discover the pattern of the Kirin.

Again players gravitate towards the easiest encounters. I wish I had a silver piece for each slaying of the lord-of-the-loincloth, Gimblax. People like fun and challenging encounters but fun and challenge are not nearly as tangible as forty radiant crystals and two AAs worth of experience.

While challenging and fun encounters are what keep players playing, players always seek the most tangible rewards for the least effort.

I am skipping over a whole slew of encounter types including the Justice and MPG trials, the various challenges and trials of Gates of Discord, and the biggest ones of all, the raids. There are hundreds of different encounter types in Everquest and they are all important. Everquest is a vast game with wide variety. SOE must continue to refine every one of the encounter types, from camp-and-grind experience hunts to the largest raids against the largest foes. All of them are important and have a place.

So let us end with a few general pontifications, a few thoughts, and a few recommendations. Consider these Loral's Rules for Encounters:

- Players always gravitate to the highest reward for the lowest risk. SOE should place these highest rewards in the form of experience gain and loot, on the challenges to which it wishes players to gravitate. Use experience and equipment rewards as the bait to take adventurers into the strongest areas of Everquest. Use these rewards to take players to the encounters that are the most fun.

- The more steps in a mission that take players away from the traditional hunt, the less likely they are to succeed. While rotting flowers and pot-hunting add a nice change to a hunt, players may avoid it to aim towards the surest victory.

- Of the various mission types in Dragons of Norrath, the type I find the most entertaining are the minion / subboss / boss adventures. In these adventures, players hunt down a number of minions, a set of four or so sub-boss creatures, and a final boss creature. This story arc builds suspense over the hunt and builds to exciting climax. Use this model often.

- Encounters should vary in duration from 45 to 90. Shorter 15 to 30 minute trials with lockout timers might help players with limited time and still offer significant rewards.

- Any encounter intended for more than two hours should be clearly marked as a long encounter. Such encounters should be used with great care, if at all. Even if players wish to play more than 90 minutes, they can do an adventure more than once.

Everquest is a vast game with thousands of different activities. In recent days we have seen powerful tools and new directions for single-group hunting. All play styles and all encounter varieties are important but neither the players nor SOE should ever forget what this game is about: having fun with friends.