Mercenaries are so... mercenary
When mercenaries were presented at Fan Faire, the idea was that they're supposed to be a helping hand that comes with a price tag. For players who are trying to set up a group, mercenaries can fill empty slots and play needed classes to help get things going. For those who are trying to level up and are having a hard time finding players of their level range to join them, mercenaries fill that need. For a long time now, players have expressed frustration at how hard it is to group, and if anything, it's harder at the lower levels than it is at the level cap. With the addition of a new class as well as the Freeport revamp, mercenaries will make it easier to level up and play through all of the content that EQII has to offer. That includes all of the great lower-level dungeons and instances that players have neglected, because it's been much easier to level up through the solo timelines than it is to search out groups.
Population vs. Initiative vs Bad Players
Players on the forums are interpreting mercenaries a bit differently though. Many see it as a tacit admission that EQII's population is dwindling, to the point that there aren't enough players available to join groups anymore.
Still others doubt the veracity of the claim that mercenaries are better than nothing, and that a real player will be the better choice. That's a hard sell to anyone who's had a rough pick up group. A mercenary won't ninja AFK to make popcorn and grab a beer in the middle of a tough fight. It won't rag on you, your skills, or your way of doing things in group. You don't have to wait for it to get to the location, or finish "just one more" transaction, or wrap up a rush order. And probably most important, you don't have to be social with your merc -- in fact, you don't have to talk to it at all. That right there is probably reason enough for many to want a mercenary over a real player!
It's hard to accept the idea of mercenaries, because it runs counter to the "multiplayer" part of MMO. We're not playing single-player games with little AI armies, we're here to do cool stuff with other people. Having said that, when you consider the current state of play in EQII, I'm not so sure that mercenaries will drastically change the way people play the game, because we already have mercenaries in game in the form of bots. Botting is pretty common now in EQII, and I've seen players with three, four, or even five other toons carefully lined up behind them, all sporting matching outfits and similar names, running right past me to zone into an instance. In theory, that player has chosen to actually purchase accounts and spend time leveling them up rather than group with other players, but no one protests that because it's a culturally accepted practice in EQII. Even if these players opt to use mercenaries, they'd only be swapping out a botted toon, not a real player, so it doesn't change things much.
There are other players who just do not like full-group instances, and they choose instead to play solo or with a friend. Giving them the ability to summon a mercenary doesn't affect the LFG pool because they were never a part of it to begin with.
The only real question regarding mercenaries is whether their AI is better than player smarts. Will mercenaries be hardwired to occasionally miss a cure, or mis-time a heal, or attack the wrong mob? Will they forget to move out of an AE when they're brought along on raids? Will they heal up a boss mob if they die? On another note, will they be able to get into a zone without having completed the prerequisites for access? These are the factors that could make a mercenary more tempting than a PUG player, and if mercs are better, that could very well affect opportunities to group in EQII
All in all, the name "mercenaries" conjures up images of fighters of mixed loyalty, who value your coin more than you and your objectives. They're capable in battle, but don't be surprised if they bail on you when a better offer comes along. And don't expect them to walk through fire for you -- they need to live to see another day, and another paycheck. From what we've learned so far from Fan Faire and from the forums, that's probably pretty close to what we'll get with in-game mercenaries. They won't work for free, and some of the world lore mercs will cost a pretty penny and only stick around for a short time. They'll do OK in battle, but you can't gear them up to make them more survivable. And in some cases, they will run from battle. In short, it sounds like mercenaries will have drawbacks that will reduce the temptation to choose them over a real player.
Lastly, there's one additional feature that may make this all moot -- the dungeon finder. One of the complaints we discussed earlier is the belief that there aren't enough available players to group with in game. But you don't need many LFGs to fill a group, you just need the means to find each other and put it together, and the current combination of /OOC and the LFG window aren't that effective. The upcoming dungeon finder could be a much better tool than the current LFG tool in matching up players and piecing together groups. If so, there's a good chance that down the road, players will forget all about the mercenary threat.
One quick note -- the "Rebuilding the Dragon Spires" event was put on hold earlier last week, because players were progressing the event too quickly. It's due to go live again this weekend, but while it's supposed to last a bit longer this time around, it probably won't be around long. So if you want to take part in the killing and the live events, you'll definitely want to log in this weekend!
From the snow-capped mountains of New Halas to the mysterious waters of the Vasty Deep, Karen Bryan explores the lands of Norrath to share her tales of adventure. Armed with just a scimitar, a quill, and a dented iron stein, she reports on all the latest news from EverQuest II in her weekly column, The Tattered Notebook. You can send feedback or elven spirits to email@example.com.