EverQuest2 Revisited Part 2: Travels in Faydwer

This week I’m continuing with my journey back into the new Norrath of EverQuest 2. I’ve switched gears from my travels and experiences with the legacy content of Qeynos and am now evaluating at the Faydwer newbie experience.

Released in 2006, Echoes of Faydwer was the first EverQuest 2 expansion to introduce a more polished and competitive newbie experience to the player. This was promoted brilliantly with the addition of a new and exciting playable race with wings called the Fay.

As in part 1 of this series of articles examining the newbie experience of EQ2, I will be wearing two hats: the first will try to simulate what a new player might experience and encounter, the second from the perspective of a game designer. There are no sacred cows here. Enter at your own risk…

Enter the Fay

After you create your character and enter the world, you get the red carpet treatment of a pleasing voice over and moving overhead camera that introduces you to the magical home of the new race called the Fay. It’s refreshing to see that SOE has actually learned presentation and polish lessons from Blizzard’s successful WoW. When the pseudo cinematic ends you find yourself in the Fay starting zone called The Hatchery.

The quests here seem to flow logically and are fairly easy to complete from the main outpost which serves as a quest hub. You are not bombarded with excessive NPCs that want to give you tutorials and quests as is the case in the older newbie zones.

The zone itself is completely isolated with the exception of one pathway that leads to the outside world — this is as it should be and represents state of the art professional newbie zone design as seen in popular MMOs.  Also worth mention is that there are no distracting mariner’s bells with a plethora of destinations that could potentially confuse, befuddle and strand a new player unlike those found in the massive metropolises and suburbs of Freeport and Qeynos.

The artwork is outstanding with high fantasy overtones throughout. One interesting surprise is that we actually see a small child and she’s got an entertaining quest to share with you. Oddly enough, children seem to be absent in most MMOs these days except for WoW of course which has used them to great effect in creating the appearance of a living, breathing world.

So far, so good…

Kelethin: Maze in the Trees

The problems begin once the player enters Greater Faydark and is forced to encounter the capital city of Kelethin via the quests. It is at this point, my character who was around level 7-8 at the time hit a major roadblock and became lost in the city. Kelethin has to be one of the most oblique and impossible cities every devised in a MMO — even the original back in EverQuest was confusing.

EQ2 Kelethin

Instead of creating a easy to use and functional city that is the standard these days in MMOs, the designers were intent on replicating the original design of Kelethin which itself is a homage to the city of Lothlorien in Tolkien’s classic Lord of the Rings.

Trying to find and get to any location in Kelethin was very frustrating and time consuming. Even using the EQ2 waypoint feature was fraught with problems as the banker NPC is not listed there as a banker — only by her full name which is rather pointless as a new player would never know she’s a banker. NPC’s that appear on the city map appear close as the crow flies but  in reality can take many minutes as the player must navigate the complex pathways that link each tree branch.

Adding to the problem is that the icons that represent the various locations in cities blend in far too much. With all due respect to the fine artists at SOE, this is supposed to be a functional map not an impressionist painting.

I also found Kelethin to be a bit dark and dreary. I would have expected it to be cheerier, brighter with more whimsy and certainly full of shimmering lights much like Peter Jackson’s vision of Lothlorien in the Lord of the Rings films.

Someone needs to tell the folks that design cities at SOE that bigger is not always better. Cities in a MMO should be designed primarily with practicality and convenience in mind.

As an alternative to a complete revamp of Kelethin I would propose the following:

  • More light sources both natural (wisps, faerie dust, sparkles, etc.) and manufactured (lamp posts, candles and lights) would be most welcome
  • Create more inns, banks, brokers and crafting stations in close and convenient proximity to each other that can act as hubs for players
  • Create specific areas for races indigenous to this area such as dwarves, high elves, wood elves and even half elves
  • Give players who are in the city a speed buff “Haste of the Fay” so players can get from point A to point B faster

Kelethin Re-imagined

City design in virtual worlds probably deserves an in-depth study and examination. Cities fill many important needs in an MMO. However, first and foremost they should provide:

  • utility for players
  • be a place for social gatherings
  • context for the storyline and indigenous races
  • fodder for quests and events

I created my own vision of Kelethin that is more compact and stresses function over form. Cities designed around a hub with spokes that extend outward are the best examples of player cites in today’s MMOs; Ironforge and the Exodar in WoW are classic examples of this.

EQ2 Kelethin Wolfshead version

I have placed the bank, the broker and the mender — the most important city mechanics and NPCs that a player can use — all in the center of the Kelethin. My design ensures that no matter where the player is in Kelethin, the player will always be in close proximity to it’s center. This center also acts as a visual cue that any player can see from any point in the city and acts as a beacon which would prevent them from being lost and frustrated.

Less important city features have been placed on the periphery of the hub such as player housing.

At a glance, my design of Kelethin which is still in a conceptual stage seems symmetrical; this symmetry could easily be disguised by trees and other in-game artwork assets.

The Kelethin Roadblock

Just as I was starting to enjoy the pacing of Faydwer newbie experience, Kelethin presented me with a major roadblock. Instead of having fun slaying orcs and other assorted creatures, I was presented with a major distraction of trying to learn how to navigate this obtuse maze-like city in the trees. The previous momentum and fast pacing I had experienced had come to halt as I spent quite a few minutes trying to get from one part of this city to another. To make matters worse finding the tiny Fay NPCs was no easy task.

There are also far too many quests in Kelethin for the new player to digest. Blizzard calls this problem the “Christmas Tree” effect. This has the effect unintended consequence of diluting the focus of the player as he is perplexed as to which one he should complete first.

Below Kelethin

The area underneath the city is a lush, fantastical towering forest. It is very beautiful to behold and some of SOE’s finest work to date. The roads themselves could have been a bit more noticeable with more guard houses and patrolling guards to give the player a sense of the presence of the elves. I would have liked to have seen more lampposts and lights illuminating the roads; this would help balance out the nature aspect of the forest with easy to see contrasting humanoid structures, statues and visual cues for the player as they travel around. More evidence of Elven culture would have been nice.

There was far too much traveling to complete quests. Often it was very hard to figure out where to go as many of the quests were vague about directions. If you are going to have a quest centric MMO then at least ensure that players have enough information to complete the quests without resorting to finding solutions on the web.

You have to wonder why SOE has included a browser feature in EQ2. While a seemingly helpful and innocuous feature it is a tell tale sign that this MMO is probably too complex and would be almost impossible to play without the vast trove of information available via the Internet. More on this in a future article.

Another problem is that once you’ve completed a quest, the red quest book would only appear on the map once you are in close proximity to the quest NPC. Why confuse and befuddle a player like this by purposely not having this show up on the map until you are practically at the quest giver?

EQ2 quest icon

There is a also public horse system that allows players to travel to various points in Greater Faydark but you must visit *all* of the horse stables to have the privilege of being able to use them. Frankly this makes no sense whatsoever and as it could have had the potential to make travel a bit more convenient for players if horse travel is made available from the outset.

Another thing I would like to mention that at night it is very hard to see NPCs — especially those blue orcs that seem to blend in to their surroundings. Even when you target an NPC in EQ2 it’s still hard to see them. At least when you target something in WoW the color of the object or NPC brightens up. Again a lack of visual cues and feedback rewards for a player is a bit puzzling.

One bizarre thing I noticed is that there was a distinct scarcity of resource nodes compared to other newbie zones; the worst offender being a conspicuous lack of felled trees which is strange considering the forest nature of Greater Faydark.

Some general suggestions as far as adding cosmetic and visual cues:

  • All roads and pathways should have elven lampposts to light the way for players
  • More evidence of Elven culture should punctuate the areas below Kelethin providing more “civilized” points of interest to balance out the predominance of nature
  • Roads leading to hostile areas could have tiki torches and totems posted to give the player the visual cue that danger lies ahead
  • More patrolling guards on the roadways and more guards to populate NPC camps and outposts

Lack of Dramatic Impact in the Story Arc

As to the story of Kelethin and it’s immediate circumstances I never got the impression that the orcs were a real threat at all. It really didn’t feel like there was a threat to the established way of life here. The orcs seemed more like a pest control problem rather then a serious and believable threat to the oblivious Fay and their way of life.

I’m not sure at this point how integral a back story is to EQ2 as a whole so evaluating the degree of an actual storyline may be premature.

There were no zone emotes (remember Fippy Darkpaw from EQ?)  that suggested that the orcs were planning an assault from their base of operations in Crushbone or that they were invading Kelethin; there were also no zone emotes from the resident Fay or the Elves either. For me this was a lost opportunity to further “sell” the idea that there is conflict in this world and that you the player are the “hero” that can address that conflict in some way.

Recommendations to help enhance story, culture and drama:

  • More areas where the player can see the conflict between the fay/elves and the orcs in plain view
  • Place guards at the bottom of each Kelethin lift and have them killing marauding orcs and aggressive beasts
  • It would be nice to see some dwarven camps scattered throughout Greater Faydark as well

Thoughts About the EQ2 Quest System

Like WoW, EQ2 is a quest-centric MMO where you end up doing the bidding of quest giver NPCs. This is pretty much standard fare for most MMOs these days. The newbie experience in Echoes of Faydwer is smoother and more accessible then in the older newbie areas.

EQ2 quest icon

A few points that need to be addressed regarding quests:

  • Quest hubs need to be closer to the quest targets
  • More bread-crumbing quests that help guide the player from one part of a zone to another part
  • More basic quests that help teach the players about how to:
    • use a mailbox
    • use a broker
    • use and locate teleportation devices like boats and magic carpets
    • use the research assistant
  • There are far too many quests and there should be a limit on quests to prevent a player from being disoriented and overwhelmed
  • The Quest journal needs to be made more attractive and functional
    • I found the quest box a little too plain as it is black with white text
    • Having scalable quest text for people who have vision problems and disabilities would also be a big help
    • Less quest dialog

The Curse of Complexity

What concerns me more then anything about my experiences in EQ2 so far is the steep learning curve which creates a barrier to entry for new subscribers and those new to MMOs. This MMO is layered with so many complex features that I’m afraid that it may be too daunting for a new player or someone who’s only experience with the genre may be WoW.

While the list of features in EQ2 is ambitious and impressive, the lack of polish makes it feel like too little butter spread over toast. In a general sense, it seems the quantity of features was more important then the quality of features.

Another concern is that many of the game mechanics lack any kind of introduction for the player. For example, the player never really is told about what research assistants are and what they can do for them. There is no quest that directs the player to seek one out at level 20 when they become usable.

Having lots of good mechanics is one thing; introducing them gently to players is even more important lest they get overwhelmed. SOE would do well to study and incorporate Blizzard’s motto easy to learn, hard to master into EQ2. This design philosophy is no longer optional — it’s mandatory for success in the video game industry.

The Shining Light of Norrath: the Player Community

One thing in my incognito EQ2 travels that deserves special mention is the kindness of the EQ2 community. I am continually amazed at how genuinely helpful people are — just avoid the general 1-9 chat channel if you need to and use your ignore feature with extreme prejudice. However, if one is polite and asks respectful questions you will almost always get a series of tells from concerned players who are eager to help out a newbie such as myself.

There is something about this MMO that seems to attract wonderful players. And after all players are truly what an MMO is really all about. The high caliber of this community seems to be EQ2’s saving grace. At least it’s enough for me at this point to brave whatever inconveniences and speed bumps that lie ahead in wait.

Concluding Thoughts

Compared to what I’ve experienced with other characters adventuring in Qeynos and Antonica, the newbie experience of new characters starting in Kelethin is an improvement notwithstanding the problems I had navigating the city. Although there was nothing in the Faydwer experience that really stood out or broke new ground for MMOs, in general it is a pleasant surprise for EQ2 nonetheless.

This past month has been a very interesting and challenging experience for me in Norrath. I would be lying if I said if it’s been easy. Many times I was on the cusp of quitting in as I was frustrated during my struggle trying to grasp game mechanics such as crafting and the user interface. One thing that stood out like a sore thumb was that EQ2 lacked a “detect optimum setting” feature which left my high end machine with some ugly graphics and admittedly left me with a bad first impression.

After my publishing my first article on EQ2, I have debated whether it’s even worth continuing examining this MMO from the perspective what a new player might feel, think and encounter. Given the history of SOE and the age of EQ2, I’ve also considered whether it’s even feasible to make improvements as the consensus seems to be that they are content to maintain this MMO primarily for their existing subscribers. The reality is that the horse is already well out of the barn and SOE is preaching to the converted. Regardless, I remain hopeful and will continue to share my reflections on EQ2 with regard to design issues that affect new players.

From what I have experienced so far, and to reiterate what I said in my initial article: this is unique MMO with unrealized potential to attract new subscribers weary of games like WoW. EQ2 has a mystique and charm that continues to fascinate me.


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