The Tattered Notebook Behind Enemy Lines

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"My boy, we're pilgrims in an unholy land," said Professor Henry Jones to his son Indiana as the duo warily watched a parade of goose-stepping Nazi soldiers (and throngs of their fervent admirers) in the 1989 film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. I spent many a summer day watching the classic action flick as a kid, and the line inadvertently sprang to mind as I logged into SOE's free-to-play EverQuest II server this past week.



Now, I know what some of the politically correct types are thinking at this point: did he really just compare F2P to the Nazi party?



The answer is no, not directly, but I do feel an increasing sense of isolation as seemingly everyone around me drinks the Kool-Aid, and it conjures that empty/hopeless feeling of being stuck behind enemy lines.



Turn the page for more.



So what was I, unabashed F2P skeptic, doing logging into EverQuest II Extended's oh-so-cleverly-named Freeport server? To be brutally honest, I do get paid to write about EQII, and for some time now I've felt the nagging responsibility to include the new model in my coverage of the game. It's taken a few weeks to bite the bullet, but I finally managed to spend a bit of time in the new community and take the game for an initial test drive. My goal this week is to provide some first impressions while remaining as objective as possible (a tall order given that it's an opinion column and a touchy subject, but hey, we all need our challenges).



The Good



Obviously the underlying reason SOE chose to go the F2P route is player population, and on this front it seems like the company has succeeded. The starter zones are brimming with players, as is the commonly used Level_1-9 global chat channel. Using a schedule similar to the one employed by my Community Detective columns, I logged into EQ2X at various times of day and on various days of the week in order to get an idea of the server population via chat channels and PUGs.



I don't have numbers for you, as there's really no way to officially collect them if the publisher doesn't oblige, but I can report that the Freeport server seems much more populated than the Live servers (yes, even Antonia Bayle, when packed full of players, pales in comparison). The caveat here is that I haven't advanced beyond level 20, and my travels have thus far been confined to the Greater Faydark, the Commonlands, Darklight Wood, and a brief glimpse of Nek Forest. All of these areas generally featured more players than you see in their Live counterparts.



All that said, I have to admit that the number of players is not quite what I was expecting. Perhaps the great horde of new blood has already moved past the newb areas, but despite the increases when compared to Live, I was expecting a thronging, seething mass of humanity much like the crowd in The Last Crusade (at least in terms of numbers). I was also mildly surprised that there is only one F2P server. With all the mentions that EQ2X has been getting in the gaming press and on blogging sites, you would think the interest would be enough to fill several servers.



Aside from population upticks, the other positives largely deal with how similar the game looks and feels compared to the traditional client. It is the same game aside from the race/class/item restrictions, which means that it's almost impossible to tell the difference at the early levels. Upgrade advertisements were much scarcer than I'd imagined; in fact, I don't recall seeing one in game at all as it seemed they were entirely confined to the loading screens.



The Bad



If names are any indication, the commonly held belief that F2P communities can feature the dregs of gamer society isn't far off. In my travels, I ran across Zombietwat, Boinxyermom, and several others that probably wouldn't pass Massively's editorial good-taste filter. While I'm all for letting people do their own things, I get the feeling that folks on the Live servers care more about the EverQuest brand and the world of EQII, whereas most of the people I ran with on EQ2X seemed to be passing through.



I made it a point to speak with as many people as possible (usually via private tells and only occasionally in group chat, as groups are rare due to the solo-friendliness of the game). What I found was that the vast majority of players were transients, i.e., EQ2X is nothing more than their latest time-waster, and they'll likely move on to the next new thing instead of putting down roots. That's really my biggest complaint with EQ2X, and F2P in general. F2P allows (and maybe even encourages) players to sample a huge number of games, and it dilutes the virtual world nature of MMORPGs by turning them into disposable diversions that no one can be bothered to invest himself in (and when I say invest, I mean time, not money).



Yes, yes, more choice, change is good, yes we can and blah blah blah, but in the move towards extreme accessibility, worlds will be lost, and shallow, inconsistent communities that are shells of their former selves are rising in their place. That seems to be OK with everyone though, so I suppose it is what it is. Ironically, I suspect the people most inclined to stick with EQ2X (and spend the most money on it) are the veterans from the original game who ported over in order to garner some progression firsts. Maybe there will be enough of them to make a good approximation of the Antonia Bayle and Lucan D'Lere communities at some point. Right now though, the Freeport server feels more like an impersonal airport terminal than a richly developed online world.



The Ugly



As for the truly horrific aspects of EQ2X, they're mostly confined to the painfully confusing services matrix, as well as a few technical issues. I could spend another few pages ranting on about how unintuitive SOE's presentation of the different access tiers really is, but one look at its cluttered chart is, as they say, worth a thousand words. SOE needs to simplify it, particularly if the goal is to attract the masses who aren't really known for their patience or willingness to sit and figure things out when it comes to online gaming.



As for glitches, my initial login attempt was met with a foreboding black screen. As much as I would've liked to point to that as a herald of doom and/or impending disaster, killing the EQ2X process and restarting it seemed to burp the baby. It hasn't happened since, and I suppose that can be filed under the heading of beta, at least until SOE removes the big red beta letters from the game's launcher and loading screen logos. I also experienced a few random disconnects, followed by pop-up boxes stating that the login servers were too busy. The titan launcher was particularly bad for this, but again, SOE is at least partially excused until it removes the testing descriptor.



The future?



EQII is apparently good enough for dabblers, but not worthy of a larger commitment. That's the feeling I got from my initial experience with EQ2X. Players seem more than willing to use it as a diversion or to keep up with a real-life friend or relative who actually enjoys and is committed to Norrath. I question whether the F2P experience will ever fit with those of us who prefer virtual worlds over casual games, however.



While The Tattered Notebook will continue to occasionally examine aspects of EQ2X and F2P out of professional responsibility, I can't honestly say it's a part of the job that I'll enjoy, or willingly seek out "off the clock." I wish Sony well with its experiment, but I also hope the company continues to provide virtual worlds as well as mainstream gaming.



Jef Reahard may be an eternal EverQuest II newb, but he writes a weekly column about the game anyway, through the eyes of a Ratonga Wizard (or any one of 3,720 other alts). If it has to do with the huge and ever-expanding world of EQII, it's been jotted down in The Tattered Notebook. Send Ratonga fan mail to jef@massively.com.



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