Mobhunter: Further Prophecies and the Everquest Expansion Release Cycle

First, a look at the news:

The beta for the new expansion began last week, with beta requests succeeding sporatically as players hit the site. Those invited into the beta are sworn to secrecy, not only on what wonders they see but even their attendance within the beta itself. Silence itself becomes a clue.

SOE posted some new information to the Prophecy of Ro website including two videos. One video shows the rebuild of Freeport including all new Freeport militia barracks, a new dock, and the new temple of Marr. The second video shows off some of the new zones in Prophecy. The zones definitely look other-worldly. SOE also announced a rebuild of both Freeport and the Desert of Ro released to everyone, whether you purchase Prophecy or not.

Contrary to the premature complaints on the forums, Prophecy of Ro will include both high-end and mid-level content. The newly revamped Desert of Ro and Freeport zones will offer some new content for lower and mid-level folks while higher-end raiders will find new challenges as well.

Raging Fury was the first to defeat Mistmoore and later, SOE's Kytherea posted an interview with the guild. In response to raid-tuning criticism, Prathun, the designer of the Demiplane of Blood and many of the high-end raids since Gates, talked about the tuning of the Demiplane:

"The Demi-Plane of Blood was completed, start to finish, without any retuning. That's nine end-game raids in three tiers that didn't need developer spying, gradually reducing the toughness, or removing hard features. Guilds that beat Redfang, Zi-Thuuli, Hatchet, Sisters, Devlin, Tris, Roley, the Performer, and Mayong killed version 1.0. Every time."

The guild Assent released a video of their journey through the Depths of Darkhollow including a couple of clips of Mayong Mistmoore, the official end-boss of Depths. Mayong's death resulted in a new bit of lore leading to the Prophecy of Ro.

Chris Lena, producer of Everquest, recently gave an interview on EQPlayers. Along with his Neil-Gaiman-like picture, Chris gave an excellent Kurt-Vonniguty answer to the question "How did you choose [Raghnell's] name?"

"I didn't – it was fated since before the dawn of humankind. So it is written and so it shall be."

Everquest Titanium, the $20 Everquest package including the base game, all ten expansions, and a 30 day subscription, has been released. This is the easiest it's ever been to get into EQ.

Now on to our hot topic of the day: The Everquest Expansion Release Cycle.

Ever since the release of Planes of Power, a massive expansion with nearly a year-long development cycle, SOE released expansions every six months. Only once, after the release of Gates of Discord, was an expansion delayed, and then it was only for a month. Every other expansion; Ykesha, LDON, Omens, Dragons, Depths, and now Prophecy; has come out or will come out every six months.

Every time a new expansion is released the boards light up with angry posts. Most of these are from the "fix bugs" category (don't worry, I don't plan to gloss over this one so easily) but some dig into other thoughts and ideas.

Here are a few reasons people get upset about the six-month development cycle: bugs from the previous expansion, class balance issues, haven't finished a lot of the content in previous expansion yet, one's raiding guild hasn't defeated the last boss yet, $30 every six months on top of $15 a month is a lot of money, the next expansion will come out buggy, one just got to a certain power level and doesn't want to have to get to a next one. All of these are valid issues and all deserve a deeper look.

I have often dismissed the "fix bugs" reason mostly because those bringing it up don't follow through with a list of the bugs they want fixed. Often the bugs turn out to be class balance problems - not real bugs, but there ARE real bugs that need to be addressed. The best thing we can do is articulate this list and bring it up when we can instead of using a more generic call for bug fixing.

Whether or not these bugs would be fixed with a different release cycle is unknown. We can assume, from the outside, that by delaying an expansion SOE could fix bugs instead of building new content, but given the unknown economic model, we can't say whether or not they'd have to cut back on the number of people on the developers team to make up for the lack of expansion money coming in. Those bugs might last just as long whether there is a new expansion every six months or every year. That doesn't mean bugs shouldn't be fixed, though. It means we need to do our best to bring them to the attention of the developers and watch their progress ourselves.

Content progression is another big argument against the six-month development cycle. A lot of raiders aren't able to finish the raid content in a new expansion before the next expansion comes out. There is a careful balance between too much and too little raid content, it seems, and while some powerful guilds will have farmed the top encounters for months - others struggle to get past raid encounters from expansions long past.

The situation doesn't improve for single-group hunters. There's often a lot of content unused by single-group hunters. Some go immediately to newer and more rewarding content in newer expansions while some stay in the older hunting areas where they know exactly what to expect. Many players who rely on pickup groups for progression have to move where the bulk of the players go - whether it is to new expansions or staying in old ones.

Can there be too much content? Can't groups simply pick the areas they want to go, picking through the vast quantities of possibilities in search of the most fun and rewarding ones? A lot of these problems require a different train of thought. Everquest isn't a game with an ending (one of the reasons I hate the term "end-game"). Very very few ever hit every single major encounter in the game. Accepting that many of us will never exhaust an expansion would help us more enjoy the content we do face. At that point it becomes a question of whether or not we get our money's worth from each expansion.

Is $30 every six months for a new expansion worth it? It's up to each of us to decide. No one forces us to buy a new expansion, though the drive of the other players makes the desire for new expansions different from single-player game expansions. Ultimately, however, we vote with our dollar. If the features and content aren't enough to interest us, we shouldn't buy it. Most of the time, however, the features and content are enough to get us interested. Compared to the $50 to $60 for single-player games, $30 for an expansion in which we may spend hundreds of hours is not a bad deal. It's always important to remember that our true power in this game is our wallets. If it's not what we want or we don't want it yet because we haven't finished the last one, we shouldn't buy it.

World of Warcraft changed the face of massive online games in many ways. One element that may have led to its success is the sheer amount of polish. It plays well and it plays clean. There are bugs but they're hard to find and while other games may have one struggling to move around an interface, Warcraft builds a seamless world around you. Blizzard is also spending up to two years of development time on their first new expansion. Likely it will be as polished as the initial game. Already they have people betatesting it, over six months from the release. There is something to be said for taking that sort of time to clean up a product.

Is six months too short? That's a hard question to answer. We cannot say for sure that we would receive better products or better support if the cycle increased. We simply do not know the full economics of SOE's business to say for sure how things will come out. Before the days of Planes of Power they had much longer development cycles but bugs still existed. They aren't worse today than they were back then. Content still had to be tuned and retuned.

Personally, I always look forward to the newer expansions. I love seeing this world grow. I like having vast amounts of content from which to pick and choose. I like growing in power and seeing new places. I always fondly remember my first days in a new expansion. There are no expansions where I feel like I didn't get my $30 worth. Sure, I get vexed when I think about Dragons and realize that most of my time there was in Creator missions. Sure, I'm mad at the sheer amount of difficult or locked content in Gates. I still spent many many hours, hours where I was highly entertained, in those expansions.

This topic has many facets and many of them, the business ones, are unknown to us. As players we can do our best to tell SOE what we want, what we want fixed, show them what we are willing to pay for, and show them what we are not. It isn't our responsibility to tell them how to run their business. It is our job to tell them and show them what we desire.

Loral Ciriclight
16 January 2006