The latest new thing in the continuing saga of SOE’s embrace of f2p vis a vis EverQuest II is that level 85 characters are now on sale in the store. You can either make a new character straight at level 85 or promote an existing character… and you can try for free for one level before shelling out cash. Everyone can do this once for free until October 15, and otherwise they cost 3500 Station Cash — $35 at the usual rate. After dithering for a few days I decided to promote my level 12 Conjuror, who had up to that point been nearly 100% focused on crafting (he’s a level 35 Carpenter.)
So POOF, I have a level 85 character. My main, the character I have spent the better part of the last three years leveling the hard way, is still level 79. Many people are having a negative reaction to this addition to the game. I think it sets a terrible precedent and sends an unfortunate message, but I also see the reasons why it was done.
The trouble is not that buying a level 85 character devalues the accomplishment of having leveled yourself. That effort had been made irrelevant years ago, when it became possible to powerlevel a character to 80 in a matter of hours thanks to the broken mentoring mechanic. Even if you were doing it the hard way, however, as I was, successive waves of gameplay and mechanical changes had made the game far, far easier than it has been, in just about every way. When Age of Discovery brought mercenaries in pretty much every vestige of challenge had been removed from the game. I’m guessing that the internal narrative was about making EQ2 more accessible, but the development that resulted from it just made the game easier.
So the pre-85 content and the accomplishment of having played through it was already devalued. I’m not sure that buying a pre-leveled character outright really makes any additional difference. With challenge scrubbed out of the game all that was left was the sheer grind… and if you were leveling sans fromage then there was quite a lot of grind to do.
Which brings up the fundamental problem that the insta-85 is an attempt to address. EverQuest II is now almost 9 years old. It has aged very poorly in some respects, particularly in terms of graphics and art design. What it has done very well, however, is to have depth of content; if the gameplay is perhaps too easy, it is at least very, very rich, to the point that exploring it can be worthwhile even without being challenging. Were this not the case we would probably not have gotten to the point where the insta-85 was needed; very few other games could have survived the preceding efforts to remove anything like difficulty from the game. It’s a fine line between “accessible” and “trivial”, but I would say — and I think it is impossible to argue against — that the EQ2 development effort over the game’s long life has landed squarely on the latter.
The reason for it is a problem inherent to the EQ model; almost strictly vertical progression combined with a long and difficult leveling curve puts a huge barrier in from of new players, and the old players leave steadily and inevitably. EQ2 managed a big rush of new blood with the move to f2p; some of those players surely stayed but that boost was a one-time deal. This is an attempt to generate another one. Judging from the blogger buzz, a lot of folks who haven’t given EQ2 a look for years are checking in again, but bloggers are what you might charitably call a bad sample.
Interestingly, the original EverQuest has stayed vital in part by periodically offering a fresh start on a new server. That EQ2 has not done this is perhaps not mysterious; those new EQ servers always target nostalgia for early-era EQ, and the subsequent changes to EQ over the years are such that a minor effort can be made and a reasonable simulacrum of early EQ can be brought live on a clean shard. In EQ2′s case the changes made since launch are far greater and more fundamental; a retro server wouldn’t be credible unless way too much effort was put into it.
So we have instead the insta-85, designed to redress the same issue. It is a risky move, one that few other MMORPGs could withstand. I did give myself an out by advancing one of my crafting characters to level 85; all I really did was facilitate his crafting in some respects, by making it much easier to do harvesting and tradeskill quests in zone that vastly outleveled his old adventuring level. The flying mount helps too. And indeed, that’s how I have played him since then. I haven’t done any of the level 85 content at this point.
I’m not lifting any of my other characters to level 85. I’ll keep them where they are; I would rather abandon them entirely than promote any more. My Warlock will get to 85 on his own. Endemic or not to the EQ lineage of MMORPGs, I find this new development vaguely poisonous.