12 January, 2012
For my day job, I installed EverQuest 2 to test out the new player dungeon maker system to see if Storybricks could, uh, "borrow" any inspiration from the system for our own editor. Along the way, i got sucked back into the game a bit. I'm not quite fully immersed back into the game, but after playing so much I feel like I should justify that effort by trying to draw some sort of game design analysis from it. So, read on for some of my thoughts.
What I've been doing in Norrath
As I posted before, I was pretty into EQ2 for a while. This time around, I wasn't that into the game, but it's slowly sunk its claws into me. What's funny is that it's not the new content that's sucked me in, it's the old content.
My old character was a level 68 Kerra Necromancer. Back when I last played him, level 70 was the cap and I was in a raiding type guild with some friends. I had even done some group quests to get flagged for some raids. But, right as I was approaching max level things fell apart. My friends had hit a lull and some of us went over to LotRO for a bit. The EQ2 guild floundered and eventually went dormant. As I logged on recently, other guild members had not logged in for over a year.
Anyway, my first order of business was to learn more about the Dungeon Maker system. I played a dungeon using the pre-made NPC the game supplies for you. Completing a dungeon gives you a currency (Dungeon Marks) and experience points on your actual character. Well, I had logged on during a double xp event, and had a ton of rested experience. This meant that in short order my character leapt from 68 to 70. I spent some time digging through the options and powers of my character to try to remember what was going on all those years ago, and how the system had changed.
I figured if I wanted to do new content, I'd need to do things like clear space in my inventory and in my quest log. So, I figured I'd do some of those old quests.
The first thing I found funny was the dates on quests. EQ2 will record the date you acquired a quest. All the quests in my log had been acquired in 2006. Sitting there, waiting for me to continue them sometime. The world had not really moved on since that person asked me to go investigate a lost party in that dungeon.
The second thing I found funny was the effort I had poured into the character. I had a lot of powerful (master level) spell upgrades, as I had spent money to acquire them in anticipation of raiding. Now I'm going to be replacing some of these spells in short order. The new maximum level is 90, so I've got a lot of upgrades to go. All that effort was ultimately not important, although I probably feel a bit extra powerful now.
Zen and the art of cleaning out a quest log
After I remembered the basics of how my character worked, I figured I'd go slum in a low-level zone and try to clear out some quests ranked in the 20s or 30s. Maybe I don't remember clearly, maybe it's easier since I had a high level character and the boredom to go back, or maybe it had been changed; I noticed some of the drops seemed a LOT more common than before.
One neat feature that EQ2 has is that monsters that are too low level for you won't attack you. In fact, a lot will even play a "cowering" type animation if you draw near. This makes it easier to go attack specific enemies that you need to kill to complete quests. So, it was easy for me to go in and do some surgical strikes to kill enemies I needed. I got a bit more xp, too, as I cleared out some of those quests. I found it kinda relaxing to just go clear out quests. Soon I had a few dozen slots open, and even picked up some new quests in the zones closer to my level.
Blah, blah, blah... what about the Dungeon Maker?
So, what did I think about the Dungeon Maker? Well, I wasn't blown away. But, I do keep in mind the fact that this is a very late addition to the game. I'm sure it took a lot of effort and creativity to make this work. But, to be honest, there are a lot of flaws.
The first problem is that you use the set monsters to run the dungeons. There is an interesting element where you can "collect" new fighters (in addition to collecting new monster types to place in your dungeon) while fighting monsters. These new monsters seem a lot more powerful, though, and able to handle a lot more abuse than the standard characters can. At least, that's my perception and one that's been shared by others. However, using a pre-generated character always feels less meaningful than using your own character.
The second problem is that the options are really limited for the types of dungeons you can make. you can buy/earn a lot of different layouts, monsters, and items to place in your dungeons, but ultimately your dungeon is all about a character or group of characters going through and slaughtering enemies. You can't set quests, interactive NPCs, or anything else; the monsters are literally only there to be xp and loot piñatas. It's be nice to have some options to do something more than just having enemies beat on each other. Some ways to have simple quests, or have a way to interact with some of the NPCs would add a whole other level for making dungeons. And a whole other level of debugging and code headaches, I'm sure.
Finally, the big problem with this kind of setup is that people are quick to exploit or grief. Dungeons are set up either as easy ways to grind currency (many of the popular dungeons I saw has titles like "easy 30 mark grind!"), or on the other hand are vicious death traps intended to frustrate players. While some people like Stargrace over at MMOQuests.com might enjoy challenge and unpredictability, not everyone shares this positive attitude.
I tried my hand at making a dungeon. Using the limited tools available, I made a quest about some gnolls raiding an orc compound. Players start out fighting gnolls facing inward (away from the players), but eventually run into orcs expecting an invasion. As far as I can tell, however, nobody has cared to play my dungeon besides me. :( I even changed the title to try to allure others with its soloability and easy exit option.
Playing a role
I've also been thinking more about my character in the game. As I said, my main is a Necromancer: controller of the undead and disease. In EQ2, you have to be "evil" to be a Necromancer. Back when I played, that meant you had to be in Freeport. For those who never played EQ2, Freeport is a dire place full of dirt and oppression. The Overlord rules with an iron hand and any dissent is crushed. On the other end of the spectrum you have Qeynos, which as a friend quipped, "You expect to look up and see a crayon-drawn smiley face on the sun over Qeynos." These aren't interesting portraits of good vs. evil, these are caricatures of good and evil based on cheezy fantasy tropes. If I hadn't been required to be "evil" to play a necromancer, I would probably not have chosen to live in Freeport. Even now there are other options for evil characters to live in other cities, but laziness keeps me where I am.
What's annoying is when the game doesn't recognize the role that you play. For example, one quest I was doing had the NPC warn me that there are a lot of undead to deal with, and asked me if I was afraid of undead. I'm a necromancer, shapeshifted into Lich form, riding a nightmare steed, with a summoned skeletal sorcerer following me; think I'm afraid of undead?
Another quest had me working with an NPC who got "promoted" to be one of the guards called "Wraithguards" in Freeport. Unfortunately, his conversion was... imperfect. The quest had me find a way to fix him (by removing his memories of humanity, to make him perfectly converted) or destroy him (using an ancient magic found by a cult). In the end I could choose to kill him or save him. As a necromancer, I chose to save him as, to paraphrase The Princess Bride, "I would sooner destroy a stained glass window" than destroy an undead marvel like that. But, what was the result? Nothing that I could tell. There was no new wraithguard wandering through town. The only thing I got was told off by the head of the Wraithguards to never speak to him again; my dialog option was "Because I know how to destroy you now?" (A followup quest does seem to have the wraithguard want to take you out of the picture.) What's even funnier is a later conversation with an NPC has that NPC revealing that the wraithguard might be... undead! "Oh," my character responds, "the people would never tolerate that!" Again, as I sit astride my nightmare steed in lich form, with an undead associate floating by my side. Surely, nobody would tolerate the undead in Freeport!
Yet another quest had me talking to a guard. He gets belligerent and attacks me, so I quickly dispatch him; but oh noes! This is a grave crime I must hide! Hello, this is Freeport! Murder happens on a regular basis here. A later quest had me breaking someone out of a prison. No problem, of course, I had an invisibility spell! No such luck, the guards noticed me easily through the spell. So, here's my necromancer having to slink around and avoid fights when my first option is usually to throw bolts of disease and corruption at my enemies. Suddenly murder was taboo in the capital of evil. (As a developer, I do feel sorry for the quest writer. I can just imagine how proud he or she felt being able to put a stealth mechanic into the game by hacking other game systems. Doesn't stop the quest from being super annoying, though, and completely aggravating when it won't let me use my class powers properly.)
The problem here is that if I want to play a role, the game won't allow me to do so. Maybe I'm a curious student of the dark arts, shunned by polite society and having to take refuge in a city that questions the morality of experimenting with the forces of death less. Maybe I relish my role as manipulator of the forces of death. Ultimately, however, I'm forced to solve quests the way the designer intended and am limited in options and dialog with few meaningful choices besides doing a quest (and getting a reward) or not doing it (and thus not getting that reward). Being a paper RPGer, I know the importance of role-playing. Sadly, EQ2 (and really, most MMOs) don't allow you to create a meaningful role.
At the risk of me writing checks that the Storybricks team has to make good on, this is one of the more exciting aspects of Storybricks for me. The ability to not only give the player more options on how to tackle a story, but to also allow the person to define their own role and adjust the world to fit, is a tremendously cool concept.
A pleasant way to pass the time
As I said, for all these complaints I still willingly spent a fair amount of time playing EQ2. So, it's not all bad.
What do you think? Is there hope for player-made dungeons in a game like EQ2? Can a game do more to support real role-playing?