Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Innovations of the Splitpaw

As promised, I avoided the patch day downtime in WoW last night and, instead, wrapped up the solo portions of EQ2's Splitpaw Saga "adventure pack". There are some interesting things going on in there, both good and bad.

Charging for Content Patches
In my rant about Warhammer's "Live Expansion" hype, I commented that I didn't know whom exactly it is that makes a habit of charging for content patches. Apparantly the answer was SOE, which released three paid "adventure packs" for EQ2 during 2005 and 2006. These packs are about the size of free updates from a variety of games, including EQ2's own recent, FREE LU51 patch.

All in all, SOE managed to release FIVE boxed expansions and the three patch-sized adventure packs in a four year period. These frequent paid content updates made EQ2 far and away the most costly of the current generation MMORPG's for a player who bought it at launch, paid the monthly fee, and purchased all the content add-ons as they rolled out.

SOE has since formally abandoned the practice, which we can only assume means the adventure pack fees weren't worth SOE's while. They charge an extra fee for access to EQ2's version of the Armory, in addition to various forms of RMT, so they certainly aren't squeamish about collecting extra money when they think they can get away with it.

I suppose we should all be grateful that the concept was not more successful (perhaps in part because these paid adventure packs were coming out opposite free updates of similar size from Blizzard, back before they fell in love with the model of releasing two mega patches per year), or everyone would be charging for their regular content updates.

Scaling Content, Puzzles, and Solo Challenge
Nowadays, the old adventure packs come standard with the all-in-one boxes, so everyone has access to them. The thing about the Splitpaw saga that has really impressed me, though, is scaling content.

The Splitpaw quests are instanced, and the mobs are set at the player's level (up to level 50, the game's level cap at the time). In addition, many of the quests either offer a parallel group version (populated with heroic mobs, EQ2's version of elites), or offer a single cave with a short path where groups can blaze through tough heroic mobs, and a more round-about path with solo mobs. The scaling isn't perfect; apparently it's easier to do the content as you level, because you'll have more spells and abilities to work with, but it was pretty nice to walk in a number of levels later than I was "supposed" to and still have a challenge.

Some of the splitpaw zones actually include jumping puzzles, where players can move boxes or boards to jump over obstacles. Lyriana cheats a bit on these, using her racial gliding ability (Fae weren't in the game at the time), but they're definitely a change of pace. I'm told that one of the raid encounters actually has the group split up into two parties and run an obstacle gauntlet before reaching the boss.

Finally, the instances do probably the best job I've ever seen of replicating the group dungeon crawl experience solo. This does include the bad (tons and tons of trash mob pulls) alongside the good (wading into a crowd of mobs and having a chance at emerging victorious, as long as you're careful not to pull any adds or make other mistakes). I have no idea how long some of these challenges would have taken to complete on a character that lacks stealth - it seemed like you could be clearing some of those halls forever, with the prospect of death (forcing you to restart the instance, or possibly even wait for a lockout timer before restarting the instance) a single bad pull away.

Still, I had a lot of fun with the content, especially a mission that called for me to blow up supply boxes, which can be done entirely from stealth. I walked out with of the splitpaw den with a nice pile of experience, a giant glowing boar head trophy to mount on the wall in my house, an item that allows me to teleport back to the den from anywhere in the world (a more relevant reward at the time because the area includes some raid encounters) and a spell that summons a little mushroom dude as a non-combat pet, the first permanent non-combat pet I've seen in the game thus far.

Lessons of the Splitpaw
Overall, players won't miss the onerous fee structure, but there are some ideas in this content that I wish we could see more of. One of the instanced quests granted me a massive regeneration buff that allowed me to compensate for not having a dedicated healer around when the time came to pull group mobs that I would not have been able to survive solo. I wish that more games could find a way to offer scaling, for level, number of players, and presence of tanks/healers. Perhaps some content wouldn't be able to be as challenging, but it's a great way to solve the problem of having some content for everyone with limited dev time.


Xtian said...

I really like the huge regen buff idea. It's something that I've been toying recently with as well in my PnP gaming. The group I GMed for didn't have a "healer," but I wanted to have some long and tough battles anyways. So I finagled a way for everyone to have some constant regeneration.

As a designer, you can scale that regeneration to such a level that it will keep a character alive for a while if they're doing "easy content," but if they get stupid and start taking lots of unnecessary attacks, the regen won't be able to outpace the incoming damage.

Now that you mention it, the same mechanic is easily transferable to MMOs. It's a pity that there aren't more games playing around with that.

Blackluck said...

Back when Splitpaw was first released, Harclaves -- the instance with the buff that allows you to solo all those heroic mobs -- was abused because of the experience gained from completing the repeatable quest (leveling being much, much slower than it is now.) To this day anti-soloers use Harclave as an example of how scaling 'ruins the game and won't ever be repeated.' Which is really too bad as I think it's a perfect way to address the wide range of play styles you find in a mass market MMO.

We (I primarily duo with my SO) spent a lot of time in Splitpaw. It was a good place to go every few levels; since so many zones contained heroic content and required grouping, going to Splitpaw gave us enough experience until we could 'blue out' the aforementioned heroic content (we could do blue heroic content albeit slowly. Neither of us likes to pug, though we do partake of that now and again). It's funny now but killing the Splitpaw Champion took me several tries to do successfully with my Berserker. Now most of my alts tend to skip that content .... :/

(In the interest of full disclosure, I'm in the same EQ2 guild as Lyriana.)