I do not think it is any coincidence that within months both EverQuest and EverQuest II have released expansion packs with some very similar traits.
Both of Echoes of Faydwer and The Serpent’s Spine:
Introduced a New Race
Both games have quite a few choices for races already, so a new race is not going to tip the balance in either game. In EQ2 the fae are pretty damn cool. They look good, they are fun to play, and they have a good story behind them.
The Drakkin are a little less exciting to me. They look like humans, though they have better character models than the current humans, so you would never mistake the two. I have not played my own Drakkin far enough to discern if the dragon traits are worth the effort, so that is an open issue, but they do get a decent background story for fans of game lore.
Introduced a New Home Town
By itself in EQ, this is almost a yawn. Every race has a home town already. That alone is not going to impress anybody.
In EQ2 though, a new home town is huge. Up until now everybody has had to start in the slums of boring Qeynos or overwrought Freeport, both of which are sheer hell for the zoning adverse. Now at last there is a third option, provided you are a fae or an elf.
Had New Content From Level 1 to the Level Cap
This is an outstanding update for both games. Both expansions claim you can play all the way to maximum level in new content. This is essentially giving the subscribers a whole new game. This gives your current players a reason to start new characters (if they have any character slots left!) while also drawing in new players with the lure of an opportunity to meet people in an area where a lot of people are starting fresh.
Broke with the old tutorial system
In EQ you were never locked into the tutorial, but if you were new to the game it was a good idea to run through it at least to level 4. It still is even after the expansion. You pick up a better weapon and a couple more items, learn the basics of the game, and get in the first couple levels pretty easily. After that, Crescent Reach is your oyster.
To be free from the EQ2 Isle of Refuge at last, that is something! They don’t call their demo “The Trial of the Isle” for nothing. If you have alt-istis like I do, the isle is something to get past, something to endure, and something to be optimized by the third pass. (At one time our guild bank had piles of items for the two collection quests on the isle just to help people along.) It is not something I look forward to.
Instead you start off in Greater Faydark. It is a beautiful zone with a series of progressive quests to get you going. It is much more inviting than the Isle of Refuge.
But even if you are not starting a character that is allowed in Greater Faydark, Sony has at least changed the initial city quests for Qeynos and Freeport. The awful running around to get your Inn room squared away before you could become a citizen is gone. There is 30 minutes of your life back. You can start on better things.
Heralded Changes Making Solo Play More Viable
This is big for both games in my opinion, but I have an erratic schedule, so I cannot count on getting a group when I have time to play.
SOE has certainly been tuning EQ2 this way for over a year. But now they have a whole new range of quests that give experience that is somewhat more commensurate with the effort to do them. Along with that they have yet another tweak to make solo mob hunting a worthwhile exp venture. The quests deliver a bit less than I would expect after 11 months of playing WoW, but they are woth it. Plus, when you do quests that are blue or higher in level, you get alternate advancement experience. (Not all quests are eligible, your mileage may vary
I am a little disappointed with the quest experience in EQ however. SOE went through the trouble of making sure there were quests to do throughout 75 levels and then got very stingy with the rewards. I know they could not make them completely out of whack with the rest of the world, but when I have to kill 12 mobs and the quest reward is less exp than I got for killing a single mob, there is something wrong.
Showed Better Zone Management
This is perhaps the biggest change of all. In the new content introduced in both expansions it is perfectly viable to go through your first 20 levels and never once have to zone. Both expansions put your home town and an adventure area in the same zone. Having played characters though both Freeport and Qeynos in both EQ and EQ2, I can tell you that this is huge. In both games, but especially in EQ2, zoning back and forth for quests, supplies, the bank, a broker, and all the other things that are never with you in your current zone can become very frustrating.
But in Greater Faydark in EQ2 and Crescent Reach in EQ, everything you need is in one zone.
In Greater Faydark I have only had to zone for one quest instance and to get into my Inn room. I have even been very lucky getting the right instance of Greater Faydark. There have been three instances of the zone running on Crushbone server when I ever I have been on, yet I always seem to land in the one that my friends are in as well. And, as a nod to the multiple instance problem, there is even an instance changing portal right by the inn keeper in Kelethin, so you can change which instance you are in without having to run off, zone into another area, then zone back.
In Crescent Reach I have only gone between there and the tutorial three time. One of those times was because I could not find the spell vendor for my Shadow Knight (since located) and the other time was because I died and had not set my bind point in Crescent Reach.
This is not quite a seamless world, but it does take some of the sting out of your first 20 levels. I am not sure why Sony did not think about this before. After all, I would say that this is the biggest change of all, yet it was no change at all. In EQ Kelethin was in the middle of an adventure zone. Why did we have to wait so long for that to seem like a good idea again?
What does it mean when these two expansion have taken such a similar path?
Part of me is very happy with this set of circumstances. That part sees SOE preserving their considerable investment in these two games by making them more accessible to new players as well as giving retired players a reason to come back. While not a fanboy, I do have a soft spot for Norrath. EverQuest was that “first kiss” MMO for me and I have many memories, both good and not so good, of Norrath.
In the case of EQ2, I think the box on the shelf with all of the expansions wrapped up into one package for $39.99 (and ringing up as low as $28.99 some places) gives the game a fighting chance to really expand the EQ2 user base. That 2 DVD box on the shelves for two full month before the Burning Crusade is about the biggest opportunity that SOE can hope for. I wish Sony were a bit looser with subscriber numbers so we could see if Echoes of Faydwer is really a big win or not.
As a corollary to that, I do not think that The Serpent’s Spine will do much to expand the EQ user base until it too is available as the headline item in a box set that rolls up EQ and all of the expansions. As a digital download it is only going to attract current users. That will certainly sell copies, but it won’t expand the player base.
The problem is, another part of me sees these changes as the “WoW-ification” of the MMO industry. In my sleep I hear echoes of the Austin Game Conference where a vocal group kept repeating “just copy WoW” as the path success. I will scream the first time I hear an upcoming game referred to as a “WoW-beater!” Sony even has a track record there. Just last year they were crowing loudly about one of their MP3 players as an “iPod-beater,” forgetting the rule that once you define yourself in the terms of your competition, you are half way to failure.
Not that there aren’t lessons to be learned from WoW, but the lesson is not “clone it and they will come.” The lesson is quality and well thought out, well tested features, no matter how deep or broad they are. Rob Pardo’s “concentrated coolness” isn’t a limiting factor, it is a statement that you should consciously make decisions on features, balancing depth with breadth.
To paraphrase a line from Robert Littell, the difference between a professional and an amateur is that a profession believes anything worth doing is worth doing well while an amateur believes anything worth doing is worth doing, even if done badly. Rob Pardo is taking the view of a professional. If you cannot do it well, do not do it.
Not that Sony can turn either EQ or EQ2 into a WoW clone. (Wouldn’t EQ redone with all its lore and content as a WoW clone be fun though?) But the future of SOE games are in question and, as I pointed out, Sony is not a company that comes from behind very well. Certainly Vanguard has been influenced some, though we’ll never know how much. But what comes after that? How has WoW influenced the two unannounced titles on which SOE is working? I just hope SOE has learned the right lesson from WoW.