The Rise of Kunark expansion has a mixed reaction among the EQ2 faithful. The expansion raised the level cap to 80, and has a reputation of being a solo quest grindfest. As an exclusively solo player who struggled to find enough leveling content in the 60's, an abundance of solo content sounded like exactly what I'd been waiting for. Instead, I've found that I would rather be working on alts because, frankly, the veterans are right - the quests do feel grindy. What went wrong?
It isn't the basics
In this picture, Lyriana is staring down some yeti-equivalents. She has a quest to kill 20 yetis, two quests to loot crystals that the yetis pick up because they're shiny, and one "writ" bounty quest to kill specifically the brown yetis for reputation and guild status (exp).
Elsewhere in the zone, there's a corner of the swamp with a quest to kill 8 carnivorous plants, a quest to collect 5 dragonflies corpses, 5 worm corpses, and 10 mushrooms, a quest to kill 10 dragon-lizards, and bounty quests for a dozen each of all of the above (plus some random crocodiles sunning themselves in the lake). You go in, you kill and loot everything that moves (plus a few extra if you have the correct bounty quests in your journal, so your guild can get the exp for it), return to town to turn in quests, and move on to the next adjacent area. You could put these quests in WoW or LOTRO and no one would think they were out of place.
In short, the problem with Kunark is not the quests themselves. Having been through 60+ levels of solo questing in EQ2 before I hit any problems, I know that the base game is not the problem. The travel system is fine. There are local rep grinds, but I'm doing pretty well in crafted gear (which is super cheap because the "rare" ore used to make it shares a node with a rare loam that half the classes in the game need for their expert-quality spells, driving supply of the ore through the roof) so I don't really mind that I'm not going to max out any of them.
So what, fundamentally, changed to shift the EQ2 solo experience from fun to grindy?
A quest-rep reward side by side with the crafted gear I've already got.
Tougher Mobs, More Quests
EQ2 features comparatively longer combat than WoW - where my WoW mage kills level-appropriate mobs in under 10 seconds, my EQ2 Dirge typically takes at least double that time now that she's decked out in that top end crafted gear. In fact, the time per mob jumps when you hit Kunark because the solo content was tuned for players who had good gear from when the level cap was still at 60. (They actually toned down the mobs in the first part of the expansion to ease the transition, which previously hit like a truck.)
My guess is that this longer combat does not play well with the increased quest density found in modern solo MMORPG's with faster-paced combat like LOTRO and WoW. The dirty little secret of the WoW-style quest is that you're actually grinding away at random mobs. The quest system hides that fact by carefully making sure that you finish and leave each location just before you start getting tired of it - the quest reward exp compensates you for your travel time as you change grinding spots every 10-20 kills.
With WoW's 10-second mob kills, you can stack half a dozen quests that collectively require 40+ kills in the same small area and still have players in and out inside of 15 minutes. Double or triple that time to account for EQ2's longer combat and suddenly players are looking at 30-45 minutes to finish killing a dozen of everything that moves in that one corner of the swamp.
Implications of combat time on quest design
I spent a chunk of last week creating a new EQ2 Wizard and questing him through the Commonlands, one of the oldest zones in the game for the 10-20 crowd. Much like old world content in Azeroth, it was entirely common for quests to send you running halfway across the zone to kill maybe 8-10 enemies in an area that has no other related quests before running all the way back.
In a game like WoW or LOTRO, I would hate that type of quest, because I'd be done with the killing in two minutes flat and therefore would be spending the vast majority of my time running to and from the questgiver. In EQ2, I'm fine with those quests, because the longer combat means that I'm still changing scenery often enough, but I'm spending roughly the same proportion of my time on combat versus travel as I would in WoW.
This, in turn, may be part of where the Kunark model causes problems for EQ2 vets. SOE appears to have balanced the exp curve with the assumption that players would be doing most of the quests to level. The problem is that suddenly you've got this 30 minute window in which you got some exp for spending the whole time killing mobs and then you got a ton of exp at the very end for basically the two minutes you spent going back and forth to the questgiver.
It's easy enough to skip one quest bonus if you'd really rather stay and grind in whatever random location. Once you're doubling or tripling up on quest bonuses in every single camp of mobs in the zone, attempting to level without doing the quests becomes painfully slow. If you're not careful, that can turn what SOUNDS like a player-friendly convenient pack of 2-3 overlapping quests into a lengthy grindfest. Moreover, you have to plan on doing most or all of the quests, which removes the occasionally illusionary feeling that you're doing what you want to instead of working down a narrow "on rails" checklist.
(Incidentally, I wonder if Warhammer's solo PVE has the same problem, since that game also features longer time per kill.)
The implication, ironically, may be that the part of WoW that EQ2 should be copying is The Barrens, not Northrend. Where WoW needs tightly constrained travel times to avoid overwhelming the short time spent in combat, EQ2 can afford to spread out more into a larger world. The game doesn't necessarily need more overall content per level than WoW offers, but it might benefit from a bit more geographic separation, with fewer overlapping quests that devolve into extended grinding sessions. It will be interesting to see whether the coming expansion to Odus - which doesn't sound like the largest of expansion continents - will allow the game the space it may need.
In the mean time, you'll find me in the Commonlands, working on my Lol-Kerra-Mage.