Mobhunter: Interview with Prathun on Everquest Raids

On my first guild summit nearly two years ago I met a designer and bent his ear as I bent so many with my gushing praise for LDON and my desires for an LDON 2. The kind man nodded and smiled enthusiastically, mentioning their own feelings with the release of LDON and their own desires for a system like that in the future (what became today's mission system). Little did I know I was speaking to the legendary Prathun, Johnathan Caraker, the main raid designer for Everquest since the days of Gates of Discord.

Prathun is the most experienced raid designer in the Massive Online Gaming industry. His Everquest resume includes most of the Epic 1.5 and 2.0 raids, all of the single group and raid trials of the Muramite Proving Grounds, all of the dragon raids in Dragons of Norrath, the design of Dreadspire, and all of the raid encounters in the current peak of high-end raiding, the Demiplane of Blood.

Today we give you a Mobhunter exclusive interview with Prathun on the past, present, and future of raid content in Everquest.

Loral: What sort of decisions go into the design of a raid encounter?

Prathun: It might be easier to ask, "What decisions don't go into the design of raid encounters?" We have choices to make about the lore behind the task, its complexity, the intended difficulty, loot rewards, involvement with the expansion progression, and intended time investment.

While risk and reward decisions are obviously crucial to the creation of a well-balanced raid, lore is an often underestimated aspect of the design. A well-developed character with history and roots in the story of EverQuest is more interesting to pit players against than an entity no one has heard of.

Loral: How have you seen raids and raid design change over the years?

Prathun: I've seen raid design come a long way since original EverQuest. Looking back at the early years of the game, encounters were typically a single mob with a few spell abilities attached. As our scripting language has matured, it's opened up the opportunity to mold some truly unique and interesting events. Raid mobs can change their attributes over the course of the fight, react to the strategies of the players, and even exhibit artificial intelligence that feels almost human.

The Proving Ground Trial of Corruption is a good example of the latter. It pits the raid against NPCs that mimic the behavior of player characters: the warriors can call out for assists, clerics heal those in need, wizards who root players then back away to nuke them, and monks with the ability to feign and mend themselves when brought to low health.

Loral: How have raiders changed in their attitudes and feedback towards raids? How do raiders today compare to the raiders of five years ago?

Prathun: Experience has taught raiders how to deal with the basics of positioning, healing, and adds, so it wouldn't be possible for me to get away with the same kinds of raids that existed five years ago. A big NPC that hits hard and has a few damage AEs isn't going to present any interesting challenge to current raiding organizations. They've all "been there, done that" and could complete that kind of raid blindfolded.

As for the attitudes and feedback part of the question - they haven't changed a bit. :)

Loral: There has been a recent trend since Omens to require more from each individual member of a raid. This has spawned both positive and negative feedback. How do you see this new style of raid design evolving in the future?

Prathun: Oddly enough, I would classify a fun raid versus a poorly designed one by that criteria: does everyone on the raid have something to do? Do all participants have a meaningful role in the event, a reason for being there, and an opportunity to affect the outcome? I want to make sure that everyone at a raid is playing the game, not semi-afk waiting for the chance to bid on loot, so you can expect to see more raids that require attention from all attendees in the future.

The traditional means of accomplishing this goal is to present challenges that play to all classes' strengths. I try to give offtanks something to offtank, crowd controllers mobs to mesmerize or charm, curing classes debuff spells to cure, and so on. The other means of accomplishing the goal is to present generic tasks that are critical to the success of the raid but can be completed by any class. Examples would be having to kite a cursebearer in Inktu`Ta, responding to a gaze from Mata Muram, or being in charge of the moon relic when facing Vule.

Loral: How do you decide what power level to design raids for in a new expansion? When is it appropriate for Anguish or Demiplane of Blood content as opposed to Elemental or Time level content?

Prathun: While there's always been some overlap between expansions, we try to raise the bar and introduce new challenges every expansion, especially when the players gain a significant increase in power via levels, AAs, spells, or gear. The power level decisions touch on raid design, itemization, and expansion progression, so they're hashed out by several key people early in the design process. The intended difficulty of a raid is set in stone long before I ever sit down and start brainstorming the mechanics behind it.

Loral: Raid balancing and retuning seems common these days. Can you explain the problems with tuning raid content before and after the release of an expansion? Why do we always see such radical shifts in raid balance after release?

Prathun: We've discovered that it is near impossible to emulate the circumstances of a Live server environment on Beta. Guilds perform differently when real loot is on the line, have better turnouts on Live than Beta, and they'll conjure up unconventional strategies that aren't attempted when a developer is watching over their shoulder. Beta testing has been invaluable for testing the concept of a raid and ferreting out functionality bugs, but it hasn't been 100% effective in hitting the difficulty bullseye.

I am fairly content with how the Demi-Plane of Blood has turned out. While it has seen tuning changes and will certainly see more in the future, they won't be the dreaded 'radical shifts'.

Loral: How do you determine the number of players a raid should require? How does this effect the design and testing of a raid?

Prathun: Generally speaking, the higher the difficulty level of the encounter, the more players it will require, the more complex the design, and the harder it will be to test. Our established player count for end-game raids is 48-54, eight to nine groups.

A large part of the difficulty of these end-game fights is in maintaining a roster of well-geared and reliable players that are available to tackle the encounters on a regular basis. This doesn't translate well to single-group content. There's no fair way to approximate the coordination of organizing a Demi-Plane raid and apply that same challenge and reward to six people. As for testing, a small event can often be tested by a hodgepodge of assorted players on the Beta server, but a full guild is needed to put an end-game raid to the test. Anything less is a waste of time.

Loral: You mention tying high-end raids to the roots of Everquest history but few of the high-end raid targets are known by anyone other than those who activly raid against them. How do you plan to bring more of the lore of high-end encounters to the rest of the players? For example, in Depths, most any players can see the transformation of Emperor Draygun to a lich in the excellent monster mission "Fall of Illsalin". Do you plan to continue this sort of trend?

Prathun: Absolutely. I'm a big fan of introducing the antagonists early and often, and there are many ways to accomplish this. Tirranun stormed through Lavastorm and screamed at the mortals for daring to trespass in his domain when Dragons of Norrath launched. The major players in Velious were described in stories that were featured in the game's instruction manual. Gorenaire and The Cragbeast Queen were figured prominently in areas where anyone could see them.

The raid encounters in the Demi-Plane of Blood are described by the inhabitants of Dreadspire - you can hear the Wailing Sisters crying near the guest rooms, and the watch often catches a glimpse of Zi-Thuuli off in the distance. The best way to bring the lore to the players is by letting them experience it firsthand, as in the Fall of Illsalin monster mission you mentioned. To Oshran's credit, that mission arc was an amazing bit of storytelling.

Loral: What sorts of things can we expect to see in the future of Everquest's raid content?

Prathun: Without revealing too much, I'd like to point out that there's going to be some familiar faces from EverQuest history making an appearance in the near future!

Loral: Thank you very much for taking the time to speak with us.

Prathun: Thank you for the opportunity!

Loral Ciriclight
5 December 2005