My first MMORPG was EverQuest, and when EverQuest II was released in 2004, I immediately jumped on board. While my initial impressions were mixed, the game grew on me over time. I ended up playing EQ II sporadically for multiple years before I moved on to other games.
Enter Darkpaw Games' newest expansion, Visions of Vetrovia. My return to the game after a more than six-year hiatus was rough. I logged in first with my level 95 character. Once more comfortable with the systems, I created a new character, leveled to 10th, and then boosted my baby Channeler to level 120.
It was overwhelming sorting out over 300 points of AA (Alternate Advancement), determining which abilities/spells were useful, setting up my familiar, and leveling my mercenary. I also ran into a wall almost immediately after arriving in the first VoV zone, dying to every encounter until I realized that I had forgotten to equip two charms. Amazing what a difference two items can make at the upper end of this game.
Once settled in, it felt good being back in the world of Norrath. My wife and I reopened our old guildhall and have started working our way through VoV. The graphics still hold up to a point. While there are elements that could use an update, overall though I am having a lot of fun. But I will save the specific details for the full review.
I had the chance to ask the developers at Darkpaw Games questions about incentives for players looking to return, the ease of new players starting out, the game, and the new expansion. Below are the answers from the Creative Director, Kyle “Kander” Vallee.
MMORPG: Can you provide players new and old with a quick overview of EQ II’s new expansion Visions of Vetrovia and what they can expect?
Kyle “Kander” Vallee, Creative Director: Visions of Vetrovia was a story that we have been wanting to tell for quite some time. We felt like we had left some characters, like Mayong Mistmoore, dangling for quite a while. We are giving you a whole lot more background and even history about some long term characters, as well as introducing some new antagonists, within the witches of the Dreadfell Coven. This will also be an opportunity to travel into an entire new realm, the Akashic Neverthere. You can expect to see more of this magical realm in the future.
MMORPG: As someone who played EQ II at release and several of the expansions, is there content in the new expansion that I can immediately jump into, or is it more focused on endgame characters?
Kander: Absolutely. In fact, we have made efforts to make sure people can jump straight into new content for the last 5 or 6 years. Every expansion provides a level boost for at least one character and then we make sure there is gear, right at the start of each expansion that can be used to go right into overland and solo content. We have a lot of extra content for players who want to experience the storyline and the excitement of new expacs. Not only do we have signature line quests and side quests, but there is a whole secondary content path once you complete those. These will lead you into solo dungeons and all sorts of other cool content.
MMORPG: What, in your opinion, is the best reason(s) for someone interested in returning to EQ II to make the leap and start playing again?
Kander: Besides the stories, and the incredible art that we raise the bar on each update, we also made some pretty large efforts to remove some of the complexity this year. We have removed some of the features we felt were tedious and required too many things to pay attention to. So we have removed infusing and reforging, two areas that really created more hurdles than help.
MMORPG: New players can feel overwhelmed when first looking at EQ II. What would you tell them if they are thinking about trying the game for the first time?
Kander: Again, this is an excellent example of why we removed things like infusing and reforging. Less things to pay attention to, where you can spend more time playing and adventuring. Having to concentrate on stats and improving the gear was also a roadblock for some players and a large part of why we removed some of the complexity regarding itemization. I would also like to make clear that due to the extensive amount of content that awaits a new player, they don't need to rush to level cap. They are encouraged to find the pace that works for them and lets them get comfortable with their class, abilities, and other mechanics of the game.
MMORPG: Exploring the EQ II website, I see that players can advance as free to play up to level 100 with some account and skill limitations. As new expansions are released, are there thoughts on relaxing the level cap and/or limitations further in the future?
Kander: There are no plans to do so at this time. That having been said, we would hope that once free-to-play players had progressed through the first 100 levels of the game, they would be enthralled enough with the game that they would decide that it was worth purchasing the current expansion, which gives you all previous expansions content and level cap increases.
MMORPG: In Visions of Vetrovia players will be able to advance from level 120 to 125 in Adventure and Tradeskill classes. Do you find that developing for 5 levels of advancement is easier compared to say the typical 10? Was the decision made due to pace or/and power creep?
Kander: We did not treat it any differently really, we have been wanting to lower tiers to 5 levels for some time and finally had the time and ability to do so. It provides a cleaner and better leveling experience with the encounter conning system, where a 10-level increase would put early content into a green or grey con once you have gained the 10 levels. We did want to slow our ascent a bit and felt this was a good time to do it. To be clear, the 5 levels is now a complete tier and gives the same amount of content and abilities as the previous 10 level tiers.
MMORPG: Are there any new mechanics for this expansion? If so, can you go into some detail about it/them?
Kander: We do have a new mechanic: Blueprints for tradeskilling, which is a tool to speed up the crafting process once you have mastered certain skills and aspects of the process. But I feel like the biggest thing, again for this expansion was the effort to remove some of the complexity that has been developed over the years. The removal of Infusing and Reforging was really a very loud request from the player base, and we agreed that these features were really more roadblocks to having fun and progression. We also made over 100 effects for this expansion, after we asked players what abilities or item effects they would really like to see return, and instead of just placing them on items, they are now adornments that can be earned and added to special lots, this also removes some of the roadblocks of itemization and makes it easier and more fun to get upgrades. If you love an effect, just take off the current item and add it to the new one!
MMORPG: EQ II was released in 2004. Any unexpected technical challenges in developing this expansion as technology/tools have continued to advance?
Kander: While not limited to this expansion alone, some challenges we've faced over the past few expansion cycles have involved server performance, mainly with raids and zones handling lots of players, and server stability. With each expansion, we continue to add new features to the game, which leads to more data associated with characters. This results in our character stat and combat systems becoming more and more complicated due to all the various ways stats and abilities can now be modified (gear, familiars, mounts, item sets, achievements, etc.). Over time this causes reduced performance and everything taking longer to process. Finding solutions to performance issues is an ongoing process, and we spent a lot of time in the past few years reworking our scripts, updating the way zones are handled by our hardware, and updating the hardware itself. As for server stability, the addition of new features with each expansion also leads to more data that needs to be processed by the database (saving, fetching, etc.). This has occasionally caused us to overwork our servers leading to stability issues. We spent a lot of time investigating and optimizing data flows to make sure only necessary updates are being performed to address these issues.
MMORPG: Why did the team decide to go with a jungle-themed expansion this time around?
Kander: Actually, only one of the many zones is actually jungle-themed. With VoV, we have 4 new overland zones and each one is quite unique and different from a lot of themes we have done in the past. The jungle theme was more of a shroud to hide where you are actually going and what you will actually encounter, more of a ruse of sorts to hide the true antagonists. Karuupa Jungle was our flagship zone for the expansion, it is the largest of the overland zones and we really pulled out all the stops, it is frequently the zone described as being amazing looking in feedback from our players. But there is far more to see.
MMORPG: What was your favorite area/part to work on in this expansion as a developer?
Kander: My favorite area to work on this time around, were the Mahngavi Wastes and Forlorn Gist zones. Forlorn is a small town that was once a bustling little place that is now the center of the expansion. The island of Vetrovia and the progression is a nautilus shape of sorts, and at the center is Vacrul Castle, which is based in Forlorn. Mahngavi Wastes and Forlorn are more Ravenloft or Castlevania in theme and these are the areas that have been cursed by the Dreadfell Coven. There are plenty of vampires, werewolves and stitched monsters to see. Forlorn feels really like a cursed town, where the residents are all still here in a sort of way, but most of them are either zombies or wandering spirits, doomed to repeat their daily woes. Mahngavi Wastes is an ancient burial area of storts that actually has crypts and graveyard areas that are spread out over time. There are some very ancient areas that are crumbling and some new ones that tell more of the current story. Making the crypts places that you will actually get to explore in Mahngavi was a lot of fun.
MMORPG: What is the development team’s favorite part or feature of this new expansion?
Kander: Our favorite part, especially in Vetrovia and pretty much always in new expansions, is the story we are telling. We were super excited to get new centaur models, and use them as the ambassadors of sorts to Vetrovia. It gave us an opportunity to really introduce the Kinnahma and their town of Kamapor in a very vibrant and colorful way! We always enjoy adding the richness and depth of other cultures to the game and making it feel like it belongs in the world of EverQuest II. This expansion was kind of a passion project for us and there are many aspects of storytelling we really wanted to explore this time around. Vetrovia is very diverse in the storytelling aspects and there are lots of surprises waiting. In many cases, around that very dark and foreboding corner.