Caster's Realm: What Will Playing as a Monster Mean for EQ?

The 'Play as a Monster' feature of the recently announced Depths of Darkhollow expansion for Everquest may be one of the most revolutionary changes in massive online gaming. Sometimes, however, it is hard for us to comprehend all of the possible changes this feature may create. How exactly does this feature work? What problems will this feature solve? What will this feature mean to the future of Everquest? Let us pontificate.

'Play as a Monster' is actually two major features: Spirit Shrouds and Monster Missions. It is easier to look at this whole topic broken up into these two topics.

Spirit Shrouds let players shift their character to a small set of monsters. These monsters are persistent. If you zone, you will still be the monster. If you camp and come back, you will still be that monster. You can pick a level range for this monster from your level and below. Each monster also has a class archetype such as healer, damage dealer, tank, or utility (these are just examples, the ones in-game may not be the same).

So what does this mean? How will these be used? I can see two clear ways right now but there are probably others. For one, players can now switch to a monster and hunt with their lower level friends. Say you have a friend who just began playing. He wants to go in that scary Crushbone Citadel he heard about. You can switch your level 65 Ranger down to a level 20 Wolf. The two of you go to Crushbone and you tear the throats out of vile orcs, spraying their black blood into the nighttime air.

Sprit Shrouding lets you and your friends can hunt together regardless of your level difference. Spirit Shrouding lets you go to old zones that no longer hold challenging content at level 65 but may offer challenging content at level 25.

There are a few things we don't yet know about this system. How does death work? If I die as a monster, will I wake up naked in a cage like that guy in American Werewolf in London? How do I receive experience rewards? Will experience points earned at level 30 be worthwhile at level 65? Will the reward be worth it enough for me to bother when I could just go powerlevel my friend instead?

Spirit Shrouding has another use as well, one perhaps even more useful than hunting with lower level friends. With Spirit Shrouding, you can switch to a different class archetype of your same level. Here's an example:

You and your friends want to hunt together. You're all around level 60. You have two clerics, two rangers, a paladin, and a wizard. You have good healing, tank and damage support but you don't have any crowd control classes. One of the clerics or one of the rangers can switch over and become a monster with crowd control abilities. If your group lacks a tank, one of your members can switch to a tank monster and off you go.

This means you and your friends can hunt together regardless of your class breakout. If you are missing a key class, one of the people you have can switch. This will also help pickup groups and raids. No longer are we strictly defined by our class. We can now spirit shroud into whatever archetype is needed for any group or raid. If a raid needs more healers, they can switch to more healers. If they need more damage dealers, they can switch to damage dealers.

These changes help alleviate the requirements of levels and classes in order to get groups together. If done well, this change can greatly lower the time it takes to find a group and have fun. There are many unknowns in this feature as well. We know that monster class archetypes will be much more limited and focused than traditional player classes. Healers will ONLY heal. Tanks will ONLY tank. You won't find the same variety in a werewolf that you'd find in a true ranger.

We don't know how experience will be rewarded with spirit shrouded characters. We don't know how item rewards will work. If a monster class is only partially as good as a pure player class, what limits will there be on places you can hunt? Will you have to go back to easier content? Will these class archetypes be matched to raid-geared or group-geared players? If they are matched to higher-end raid-geared characters won't they be more powerful than group-geared players? If they are matched to group geared players won't they be so much worse than raiders that raiders won't ever switch?

A lot of the answers to these questions ares still under development so we might have to wait until beta to see for sure.

We now look at the second aspect of 'Play as a Monster': Monster Missions.

Monster missions take a group of characters and places them into the bodies of monsters for a specific mission. You will only be this monster's body for this mission and only within one zone. Because specific missions can allow for any monster, the missions can turn players into any monsters at all.

We already hear rumors about missions where a group of six players can turn into Nagafen and his Fire Giants and defend themselves against a raid of NPCs. There are really unlimited possibilities with monster missions so we will have to see which ones they pick to release with Depths.

We do not yet know if players of any level can group with players of any other level but the basic idea is to let any group of six players group together and begin a mission regardless of their level. You won't have to be level 50 to start the 'Play as Nagafen' mission.

So you and your friends are all level 40ish but you dream of being six rats, bats, and spiders on an incredible journey through the bowels of the Sewers of Qeynos (this is my example, not SOE's). You and your level 40ish friends gather to a mission NPC who gives you the mission. When you enter the mission instance, you will all shift into rats, bats, and spiders within the mission. You might all switch to level 25 orcs or level 65 Muramites. The creatures you switch into will be specific to the mission and the mission's goals. The level will be for whatever level that mission was intended.

Again we receive nearly as many questions as we have information. How will rewards work with these missions? Will there be mission progression and how will that work? How will experience be rewarded
back to our main characters? Can characters of any level range join to do a mission? If so, how will they be rewarded? Most importantly, how many of these missions will we see?

As much as the concept behind spirit shrouding changes how we group, the monster missions open up endless possibilities for missions. Think of every bit of Norrath's history you want to see re-created.

Imagine being vampires tearing through Felwithe. Imagine being dragons eating raids of NPCs. Imagine being Overlord Mata Muram sending in your five best warriors to defeat Dranik. Imagine being Emperor Atrebe Sather fighting Trakanon over the Field of Bone. Imagine being the Shissar invading the Plane of Fear against their renounced god, Cazic Thule. I could go on and on.

As excellent as these changes are, they are not without worry. This is the first time we are separated from our player character while we play EQ. Will we lose our sense of identity? Will our class, level, and gear now be less important with our abilities to transfer into other things? What if I enjoy being a werewolf more than being a cleric? I don't suppose it is much different than playing an alt but we won't really know how we feel until we try it out.

Let us break up this whole topic into a set of evil powerpoint bullets:

What will Playing as a Monster mean for EQ?
- It will allow players to play through their eyes of a monster of Everquest legend.
- It will become possible for players to hunt together regardless of level.
- It will become possible for classes to switch to monster archetypes to help balance groups.
- It will become possible for players to go on Monster Missions regardless of their level.
- Allowing players to lower their level makes older world content profitable and challenging again.

What do we not yet know about Playing as a Monster?
- How will experience rewards be handled when lowering one's level?
- How will experience rewards be handled when switching to a monster of the same level as your character?
- How powerful will these monsters be within each level range?
- Will these beasts be upgradable at all? If so, how?
- Will players of widely mixed levels be able to do Monster Missions?
- How many Monster Missions will we see and what rewards will they offer?

It was my intent with this article to shine some light on this exciting feature but we won't truly know how this will change EQ until we see Depths of Darkhollow released. It is a huge change. It is an exciting change. Hundreds of thousands of eyes will watch to see if SOE can pull this off. If it works, the six year old EQ may be the most revolutionary massive multiplayer online role playing game on the market. Let us wait and see.

Loral Ciriclight
24 June 2005