"Look! Ocean Spray!" Exclaimed Scott Hartsmann, Sr. Producer of SoE's EverQuest II. I watched the ocean rise and swell in the Timorous Deep, the Sarnak starting area, smash once again into the outlying rock, spraying water droplets across the screen and turned a skeptical eye on his shiny pate. "Yeah? And what did that do to your frame rate?" He laughed, "Absolutely nothing! We're just running on regular Dell XPS machines." He did allow that they made sure that the machines had 2 gig of RAM. Scott looked for and showed me the frame rate. "Look. We've got 52 FPS at this resolution." He waved a hand at the wide-screen, then took the last bite into his lunch and excused himself. I hopped onto his stool and opened up options. True enough. Max graphics and lighting resolution, at 1680 x 1060, with 80% rendering distance. No graphics lag.
"Oh look! She's checking on me!" Of course I am. "That's been our greatest hurdle to overcome," Scott allows, "The initial impressions," he started late with the EverQuest II project, only getting on board about a year before launch, and he was in Engineering. "By then many decisions were made and EverQuest II already had the reputation of being a dog to drive, and launch didn't make it any better." They have since been diligently working in the background to optimize the graphical requirements of the game, polishing all the details that made the game look slip-shod.
The change to releasing an expansion once a year also shows their commitment to releasing a polished product. Scott shared that their subscriber base is growing over time with sustained periods of growth, especially during new expansion launches. Scott was showing off the Rise of Kunark expansion due to release in November 2007. It features a new starting race and 1-20 zones where several races can start in and the level cap rose to 80 among the other additional content being introduced.
EverQuest II has changed tremendously since it was launched. What is its philosophy and direction? "Approachable and Re-playable" was the prompt response. "We want EverQuest II to be easy to get into. Easy to learn, and you have so much fun the first time that you want to play it again." EverQuest II is moving away from the punishing game play of old. The legacy from the original EverQuest. The Heritage Quests that you were so happy to have completed; you refused to do them with your alt? They've been changing as time goes by. "If it feels like work, it shouldn't be in the game," Scott declared. "We're fixing more and more in the background."
What about the critics who opined that EQII tried to please too many different types of gamers and like the fable of old ended up pleasing no one? "We started that way," Scott admitted, "and we didn't deliver. Our energies are now focused on Adventure as the primary focus."
EverQuest II does look good these days, I must admit. Each time I've looked at the game, the graphics and my frame rate had improved although I was using the same machine. When the Fae came out, I took a screenshot that I'm still using on my PC desktop. Scott chuckled, "I'll send you one from Kunark."
The Sarnak model of old EQ has been improved for EQII with customization available for skin, horns and tail. "The females will be quite distinct from the males," Scott assured me as we laughed over the Iksar character issues of old EQ. They looked pretty good, but I was informed that they were only 25% complete at the time, with animations and customizations (horns, scales, etc) still being worked on.
Scott let me run around the Timorous Deep and slay a few Haoaeran Poachers - the parrot-like Aviaks of the area which were poaching the Sarnak's crabs. Feathers flew as I struck them down. The environmental effects are tremendous. Apart from the ocean spray, you could interact with the wildlife. I ran towards a flock of seagulls who took off, squawking their protests before circling around and landing again to carry on their business as I left. The architecture is reminiscent of ancient China with pagodas and Chinese lanterns hanging from posts. The colors were intense and highly saturated. Almost a bit too intense with the texture and color mix, but well optimized with good FPS.
"Show me more," I demanded, and Scott obliged, taking me through a quick run of the new zones they had ready for show and some that weren't quite ready, populated only with "pink bubblegum men" - place holders for NPCs. It's good to see developers passionate about their games and not just handing out the marketing spiel. Scott drops the most fascinating tidbits of information, some which I cannot share, but I never doubt his sincerity. "Storylines are incredibly important and Kunark is very much story driven," said Scott. "Do you remember Vhalen? Tony Garcia?" He asked. "He's heading up the lore with two design supervisors. We call them our built-in continuity department."
"Chardok has gotten a bit bigger," said Scott. A bit... it was huge. With levels upon levels, new mobs - we kept following the Sokokor around. They were Scott's favorite mobs in the expansion. "They are flying flappy frogmen!" Yes, every game needs to have their Vampire Bat-Frog-Lizards.
Sebilis was there. It's the new Iksar homeland, with a lovely level of detail and muted thematic colors of green blue and brown, and pink bubble gum men (placeholders, remember?). In Old Sebilis, the golems had all grown up as had the shroom farm. "The Myconids still need work," said Scott as we ran through them.
"Aaaand... here's Veeshan's Peak!" We visited each wing to see who was home. There were plenty of wanderers to play with. "The drakes finally fly," was his comment as I admired them. Xygoz was taking a snooze when we walked by his lair, and Silverwing was home. The old world dragons of EQ are now the elder dragons in EQII. More powerful and they've aged well.
I asked Scott how gear and raids were balanced. Is top gear still earned in contested raids? "Raids are gated only on how strong you are," he responded firmly. "Contested raids are content for the top 1% of 1%. The type of raids - instance or contested - are balanced with the players. We have enough content to keep all players entertained." By that, he meant that your gear would be commensurate with your play. The gear you earn will be adequate for the level of dungeon you play in. Even the PvP servers have their own set of rewards.
"Our biggest challenge to date is clearing up misconceptions," said Scott, telling me that the skeptics fall in two different camps: Those that played EQ and those that didn't. To those that played EQ and didn't enjoy EQII - especially in the early days, he says "It has changed. The improvements have been tremendous." To those that did not play EQ, but tried EQ2 and thought "That's too hardcore for me," he says "Give it another shot."