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Progression Servers (part 1 of 2)

By Laura Genender on April 10, 2007 | Interviews | Comments

Progression Servers (part 1 of 2)
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EverQuest today consists of over 375 zones scattered over 13 expansions worth of area - multiple continents, a moon, alternate planes of existence, dreamscapes, and more. With eight years of evolution and change, the game is vastly different from the three-continent world which opened its doors to thousands of adventurers in 1999. Hunt spots where players once waited in line are deserted; raid targets that were once highly contested are soloed by bored clerics; and gear that was once coveted is now handed down to alts and sold to vendors.

As zones are introduced to EverQuest, they have to offer players new opportunities: new landscapes, encounters, and gear upgrades. This leads to each expansion inflating the standards of gear and experience. Those original +9 Intelligence/Wisdom Golden Efreeti Boots that were once a badge of honor can't hold a card to even mid-level Planes of Power (5th expansion) gear. And EverQuest's original 50 level cap has raised over the years as well, topping out now at level 75. Old-world zones that are made for level 50s - both in gear opportunities and experience - can't normally attract the modern player.

This leaves the old-world zones deserted - or it would, if not for Sony Online Entertainment's clever tactics in attracting players to old zones. This can mean simply revamping dungeons like Splitpaw, or it can be as complex as the Hotzone system, in which different expansion's areas are designated every 6 months to give double experience and unique item drops. Some of the later expansions, such as Lost Dungeons of Norrath or Dragons of Norrath, send players to old zones for quests or instanced dungeons. And then there's the EverQuest anniversary event, which takes place once a year from March 16th to April 16th. During this event, 'old school' named creatures who dropped well known items from the first four expansions can appear as Fabled versions of themselves and drop Fabled versions of their loot, comparable to more modern items. Those Golden Efreeti Boots, in their Fabled form, offer wearers 50 extra hit points, 80 extra mana points as well as the original Wisdom/Intelligence.

Most recently, though, the EverQuest progression server has created quite a splash - and brought a good number of old EQ players back to the community. The concept of the progression server is that players would start from scratch - in old world EverQuest, with the original three continents of Antonica, Faydwer, and Odus to explore. To progress the server through the expansions, players and guilds would have to complete the high end content of that era - ie: to unlock Kunark, the second expansion, players had to kill Lord Nagafen, Lady Vox, Phinigel Autropos, Cazic Thule and Lord Innoruuk. To move out of Kunark and into Velious, the third expansion, players had to take down 6 raid targets and complete 14 epic quests; one for each of the released classes. Each task, once completed, opens progression for the whole server.

The progression server has attracted current EverQuest players as well as past players and new ones. For current players, it allows a fresh start - a new perspective on the world. While EQ offers biannual expansions, and large ones at that, the progression server has, in about 9 months, traveled through 8 expansions worth of content. Players control the pace for the first time, and it is an honor to be the first to complete one of the goals on the timeline). Past players are able to return and relive their memories of a favorite old zone, or of the game before its growth and change. New players are able to start on equal footing, and experience the history behind the game.

The progression concept has been vastly successful; when it first opened, Sony had to split it into two servers to handle the influx of population and demand. This past month those two servers were recombined into a single server, the Combine, to help players conquer the more difficult content that they are currently stuck on.

Despite the server's success, I can't see another game adopting the progression model - yet. EverQuest has 13 major expansions under its belt. While some of the older games, such as Lineage: The Blood Pledge, have up to 15 or more, these expansions are often smaller: the addition of a city and the surrounding area, versus EverQuest's new continent, a Moon, or dozens of planes of alternate realities. Now, that's just new game areas, not utilities such as UI updates, additional levels, alternate advancement, raid interfaces, guild lobbies, etc. Any other game's progression server would, at this point in time, end in a couple of months.

Some players in EverQuest who are particularly passionate about the old world have asked about a vintage server, which never opens up the later expansions. In the online gaming industry, though, stagnation is equal to death. While players would enjoy the server for a few months, and a few die-hard fans may be happy with locked content indefinitely, eventually the population would dwindle to nothing.

Since the merger, the Combine progression server holds a healthy population, with up to 40 players in some of the more popular hunting zones during peak hours. Around eight large raid guilds compete for raid targets, and a dozen smaller family guilds exist for more casual players. The flaw of the progression server model is that it encourages a very linear ranking of guilds: those who want to be at the head of progression join the top guild, furthering the gap between the leading guild and the followers. Almost all of the progression targets are hit first by the same group of people.

Still, this does not prevent other guilds from enjoying progression at their own pace. Some guilds have made a point to hit every target on the progression list, while others enjoy the luxury of picking and choosing their targets. Each new expansion that releases allows smaller guilds to tackle targets with less people. Phinigel Autropos, originally struck down by 38 of the Combine's toughest, can now be casually killed by a single Necromancer or Mage.

Similarly, some guilds have found advantages in the form of newer content left in the progression server by accident. For example, a raid guild sees the Furious Jailor encounter as a staple of their raiding diet. The Furious Jailor task was introduced during the 10th expansion and can be single-grouped by modern-day 75th level adventurers. This quest, on the progression server, offers rewards of 10th expansion gear to a world still existing in the 8th expansion - and while it takes a full raid force of c. 30 to 50 people to perform the task on the progression server, the rewards are well worth the effort. The progression server provides users an experience never before offered in an MMORPG. The unlockable content allows us, the players, to dictate the pace of the game for the fist time. It creates new forms of competition and new forms of server-wide progression, as well as guild and individual goals. When the progression server catches up to the normal servers, Sony has dropped some hints of another, similar server.

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