Mobhunter: A Preview of the Serpent's Spine

On Friday, 4 August 2006, Travis McGeathy, lead designer for Everquest, took me on a tour of the Serpent's Spine, the twelfth Everquest expansion. We traveled across the new lands stretching from the back doors of High Keep to the dark reaches of Ashengate. Today I discuss what I saw and heard during these travels.

The Serpent's Spine takes a large departure from the expansions we've seen recently. While Dragons of Norrath, Depths of Darkhollow, and Prophecy of Ro all focused on or included a great amount of instanced content for both single-groups and raiders, Serpent's Spine returns to the older days of Everquest with a large expansion focused on static zones.

And large it is. This expansion includes thirteen huge zones; six outdoor zones, six dungeon zones, and a new city zone. The zone levels range from level 1 all the way to very-high-end level 75 zones. Each level range has two possible hunting zones with a few more at level 65 and above.

The biggest feature of this new expansion is the new race, the Drakkin. These dragon-blooded humanoids have more depth and possibility than the normal races. When one picks a Drakkin character, they don't just pick sex and class but also which type of dragon they are descended from. Redblooded Drakkin have resistances to fire, black have resistances to poison, and so on.

The Drakkin models, being mainly humanoid, are a possible leap forward for new player models, a feature requested for a long while. Adding a new player model to a new expansion gave the SOE developers some of the resources required to build a base model for many of the older races. While this new model won't directly lead to new models for older PCs anytime soon, it is a good step forward. At the time of this writing, the Drakkin models were not yet released in the Beta of Serpent's Spine.

The Drakkin and the starting city of Crescent Reach gives players an opportunity to start Everquest from a new beginning. Rather than hunt and level through content designed years ago, lower-level players can see the sorts of things that higher-level players have experienced with recent expansions. For example, quests at low levels include a lot of scripting and features only found on high-end events.

The zones in Serpent's Spine are vast. They include a wide range of environments from deserts to glaciers to scorched volcanic rock. Large Sebilis-style dungeons are included at every level range. Many mini-dungeons, not instanced and not separated from the main zones exist as well.

I spent a few minutes with Rashere in the Stone Hive, a beautiful outdoor dungeon zone (sort of an oxymoron) that offers hunting for level 30 to 50. He and I discussed how players currently leveling up gravitate towards the content that offers the highest reward for the least effort. Such zones, I argued, might continue to be the popular choice even when alternatives exist. The Stone Hive, and the other zones in Serpent's Spine, will have higher experience rewards and better equipment drops than other zones of an equal level. This, mixed with the more interesting content and the beautiful artwork, should help to drive new players to these new zones. The intent of this mainly static content expansion is to get people together in common hunting areas instead of splitting them up into smaller six-person mini-zones.

Along with a focus on static hunting zones, the design team of the Serpent's Spine also focused on quests. There are hundreds of quests for all level ranges included in the Serpent's Spine, almost all of which use the quest window introduced with Omens of War and refined in Dragons of Norrath. These quests help to focus adventurers as they hunt across the vast landscapes included in the Serpent's Spine.

I will let the screenshots speak to the graphic quality of the expansion. While some lands appear at first to be simple rolling hills and grasslands, one quickly discovers pockets of beauty and terror mixed within. In particular, the framerate of the Serpent's Spine is better than Prophecy of ro. Only one area had any significant video lag, the inner city of Crescent Reach itself, but without the new models in it's hard to say how this will respond in the final game.

The story of the Serpent's Spine follows the Rallosian war, the invasion of the Plane of Earth by the giants and ogres of Rallos Zek. This eventually led to the curse of the Rathe. Throughout the expansion, one sees the results of this war.

The Serpent's Spine includes over a dozen new high-end raids and many multi-group events. Instanced versions of Frostcrypt and Ashengate house many of these raids on top of the static raids found throughout the expansion.

The Serpent's Spine also adds a few two-group events. These mini-raids may be a good vehicle for larger pickup events than those found with simple pickup groups. It is a good attempt to find ways for pickup raiding to be a viable option instead of focusing exclusively on high-end guild raids.

In another nice addition, low-level players will have exposure to some of the more powerful beasts of Norrath earlier on. Six dragons, not yet introduced into beta, will reside in Cresent Reach, letting new players see the power and might mostly holed off for only the highest end raiders. This is a good departure from previous expansions that hid the best models designed for Everquest behind raids that less than one percent of the player population could see.

The Serpent's Spine is a Y shaped expansion with a single geographical path up to the level 40ish zones and then a split. One side of the split leads through the new giant city and eventually to the ultra-high-end dungeon of Frostcrypt. The other split leads into the volcanic wastelands and eventually to the new Sebilis style ultra-high-end dungeon of Ashengate.

Like it or not, and Tunare knows it drives the development team crazy, loot is the primary driving force behind new content. At level 75 the Serpent's Spine will include new armor sets available both to single-group non-raiders and to high-end hunters and raiders who can brave the two ultra-high-end dungeons. With no loot yet populated in the beta, it is unknown if the development team found that difficult balance of risk versus reward.

Ashengate and Frostcrypt are worthy of their own discussion. These two static dungeons will pose a threat to even the mightest of adventurers. Huge and powerful beasts will cut, slash, and blast through those armored in the mightest equipment found in Norrath.

This is where we face one of my large concerns with Serpent's Spine. As it stands now, these two zones will offer single-group hunting for high-end raiders only. While anyone can enter these zones if they are able to reach them, the door guards hit hard enough to send anyone equipped in anything lower than Anguish scurrying back to Crescent Reach.

I love the idea of single-group ultra-high-end challenge zones. I love the idea of zones that will crush all but the mightiest. What bothers me is that the only path to these zones leads non-raiders into raiding. If you don't belong to the right guild, you can't hunt in a single group in these zones. An equipment progression path should exist that allows a level 75 single group player with enough AAs to hunt in Ashengate and Frostcyrpt.

High-level, high-AA, high-end single-group equipped players will hit a gap that forces them to either join a raiding guild or accept the fact that only those within raiding guilds will see the depths of Ashengate or Frostcrypt. The counter argument is that some day even single-group equipped players will be able to hunt here. History hasn't shown this to be true.

By the time a single-group equipped player can hunt in a raid-level zone, that zone and everything in it is obsolete.

SOE should rebuild one of these two zones into a high-end single-group-level zone that offers enough rewards to gear non-raiders up for the other ultra-high-end zone. A level 75 player with 300 or more AAs equipped in armor with around 200 hitpoints and mana should be able to hunt and hold their own in one of these two zones. As it stands now, both are designed to be equally inaccessible for most high-level players regardless of the time or effort they put in.

All of that said, there are four to six good level 70 to level 75 hunting zones that are accessible to non-raiders, so this power gap isn't likely to lead to a lack of huntable and profitable content.

The Serpent's Spine goes back to the days of vast expansions filled with wide-open spaces and hoards of beasts roaming the surface of Norrath. With a focus on static content, a large array of quests, and an entirely re-mapped out level 1 to level 75 progression path, this expansion should work well as a complement to recent expansions that included mostly instanced content. I can see how new Everquest players can hunt within the vast landscapes of the Serpent's Spine and then dive into the Depths of Darkhollow for single-group instances. Again, as it has many times in the past, the world of Norrath moves on.

Loral Ciriclight
7 August 2006