On Death and Killing

There are many big changes in the works for Everquest 2 coming down the pike. Today, we’re going to talk about just one of them, changes to debt and combat locking.

Yes, that’s right, combat locking, one of the hallmark design decisions of EQ2, is being altered. Gallenite posted a lengthy article about it in the official EQ2 forums a couple of days ago.

In short, the debt changes were announced as:

* There is now a 50% cap for both adventure and tradeskill experience debt. You can no longer accrue more than 50% of your level in experience debt.
* If you have more than 50% experience debt when you log on after this change, any experience debt greater than 50% will be removed.
* You will no longer share experience debt for the deaths of other members of your group. Only the person who dies will gain experience debt.

The end of shared debt is a shame, really. I really enjoy teamwork, and this feature enhanced it. In the current game, it is typically the tanks job to stay put while the other group members run. Usually, we have to teach other group members to run when the tank says to run, in order to save us all some debt.

This will be no more. Gallenite didn’t directly address this in his post, but I believe the thinking is that shared debt is scaring folks away from grouping. It’s bad enough to have pickup members that don’t match your play style and lack focus, and the debt just compounds things.

However, the few players that I have talked to believe that it isn’t debt that keeps them from pickup groups, but the likelyhood that they will group with players that aren’t very good at playing, or are incompatible in terms of play style and manners.

On the other hand, the group game has suffered enormously over the summer. It is very difficult to find a pickup group these days, though perhaps August vacations and summer doldrums might have something to do with that as well.

The other change, which is also intended to have a social effect is the change to combat locking:

Encounter locking restrictions have been relaxed for non-raid encounters. Non-raid encounters have been changed as follows:

* There are no longer lock icons on you or your enemies.
* The first group or person to attack a creature will receive any reward it grants upon death, including loot and experience.
* Other players can assist in your fight by damaging your enemies or healing you.
* You will receive a reduced XP reward if your group contributes less than 50% of the damage needed to kill something.
* You can change group options and add/remove people from groups while fighting (note that fighting raid encounters still prevents this).
* Damage credit is correctly tracked if you add people helping you to the group before something dies.
* Any faction increase or decrease the creature grants will be applied to everyone the creature hates when it dies.
* In an upcoming update: If a group prefers to play by the old rules, they may make their targetted encounter exclusively locked (thus preventing help unless asked for).

I’ve discussed this issue before. In general, I like the fact that mentoring and combat locking means no powerleveling. But it comes at a fairly high price, in two areas.

First, it breaks verisimilitude. It is very obviously a game mechanic, with no in-game explanation, and it doesn’t mesh with most peoples idea of what should happen.

Second, it prevents a set of non-group positive player interactions. The “driveby buff” was a staple of EQ1, and kinda fun. It made for a much richer player-to-player interaction space. You could group, driveby buff, drop a nuke, or heal someone in a fight. You could also kill steal, train, heal the mob someone was fighting or otherwise grief them.

So, it appears that the combat team feels that this was not, in the end, a good tradeoff. They are thinking long term, as I’ve always said, and feel that stronger communities on the servers and better replay value is in their interest. And they contend that the form of powerleveling now permitted by the game adds to replay value. I’m less convinced by the better replay value argument, but I’ll repeat it here so you can make up your own mind.

The feeling is that many players wouldn’t mind having a second high-level toon (or a third or a fourth for the really hard-core.) But the prospect of having to level them up from scratch is too daunting. It is also very difficult to get groups at levels 1-20, and for armor quests as well.

So by allowing some powerleveling, more people will be encouraged to play the game longer. The big question is whether those people playing the game longer will make things better or worse for everyone else.

And of course, the new rules now invite a host of abuses. Kill stealing is possible, but the initial tagger still gets the loot, quest credit and some exp, so in fact, the kind of KSing allowed is potentially a positive thing for for the people being “stolen” from, since the mobs may be dying much faster.

Other abuses involve feign death training, where the monk tags a mob, drags it to others, then feigns, and goes afk and gets a can of his favorite soda. The other group gets aggro, kills the mob, and the monk in question gets the loot and some portion of the exp. Not that this really seems likely to go faster, but it’s annoying to those doing the fighting, nonetheless.

The possiblities for abuse don’t stop there, either. Farming for plat becomes a strong possibility as well, since the lower level toon can “green” the mob that the high-level warlock can one shot.

So, how does one handle abuses in a MMORPG? Via game mechanics or via “police action”? Given the mechanics to prevent abuses are going away, I’m hoping that SOE will be agressive about following up reports of abuse and griefing.

The ability to add or remove group members during a fight is probably on balance a good thing. Who hasn’t had a linkdead group member come back in the middle of a fight, to bad consequences?

I have a technical concern, though. One of the best ideas in EQ2 is the notion that stuff works differently depending on whether you are engaged in combat or not. Your run speed is different, regen ability is different, and some spells don’t work in combat. This allows a huge reduction in down time while allowing for combats that are still challenging, while reasonably brief and intense.

Being a software developer, I see the potential for the concepts of combat locking and combat mode to have become intertwined in the code. So turning off combat locking may have some unintended consequences for combat mode, and some just plain bugs. I hope they get this worked out.

Several big ideas in Everquest 2 have now been relegated to the dustbin. Guild status decay is gone now, as is tradeskill interdependence, access quests to higher zones, and now combat locking. That, and the combat system is being revamped. There were stories of the original EQ1 design team parting ways with SOE and writing its own game – Guild Wars. In my experience, these breaks are caused at least as much by personality conflicts as anything, but I wonder if any of these design decisions, which are now changed, were behind the breakup as well.

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