The Tattered Notebook: EQII's level-agnostic dungeon maker

The Tattered Notebook A look at the Level Agnostic Dungeon Maker
This past week, EverQuest II fans heard even more details about the upcoming summer update. The big news, of course, is the Qeynos revamp, but another nice addition will be the ability to play as ourselves in player-made dungeons. The announcement by EQII Producer Holly "Windstalker" Longdale discussed the new level-agnostic system, and players were treated to a surprise as it hit the test server a few days ago.

In this week's Tattered Notebook, we'll look at how the new system works and how it could even affect other areas of the game.

How it works

When you are about to enter a player-made dungeon on the test server, you'll see two options: play as yourself and play as an avatar. Traditionally, you could play only as an avatar, and you could select from the myriad classes that were available, each with a unique mob look. And with the traditional set up, each class had at its disposal a limited choice of skills, which tended to correspond with each archetype. So a scout had a handful of high-DPS abilities, while a healer had, well, heals.

With the new level-agnostic system, a player can enter a player-made dungeon as her character, and even more importantly, players of various levels can group together and see their abilities adjust accordingly. A level 40 healer can group with a level-capped player, and his heals will adjust to add an appropriate amount of health to his groupmate and do an appropriate amount of damage as well.

I ran a few dungeons solo in the 30s on a few toons to see how things have been adjusted at the lower levels, and while there weren't many dungeons published on the test server, those I tested made it clear that the mobs hit pretty hard. Granted, I'm running them solo, and I'm going in with OK gear but probably less-than-average AAs, so it might be easier for someone who's level-locked to grind AAs. But in open zones, even-con mobs were hitting for less and hitting less often than even-con mobs in the dungeon maker, although it's still early in the fine-tuning process. I was solo, so I didn't get a chance to try it out with groupmates of other levels, but I hope to play around with the system more as SOE tweaks it.

I think the one takeaway for me is that there needs to be some incentive to play as myself instead of an avatar, and right now, it seems like there isn't for lower levels because the avatar survives better and frankly is easier to play with its simplified hotbar. I tried running dungeons as myself and as an avatar of a comparable class, and in each case, the avatar tended to survive a bit better. If I'm going to run them solo as myself, I want to feel as if I could handle it better than if I were playing as one of the preset avatars because it's more complicated to play myself than it is an avatar. I have to say, I don't envy the devs trying to accomplish this because they have to balance out levels, gear, AAs, and the alter-ego avatars that have been used up to this point, so it's a juggling act of epic proportions.

The Tattered Notebook A look at the Level Agnostic Dungeon Maker
The potential

There are a few really neat ripple effects with this game change. The first is that it could give a new use to the dungeon finder or looking-for-group tool because players who want to group up will want a quick and easy way to do that, and they'll no longer be held back by level range.

The other is that it can trickle down into other gameplay areas, and the first to be hinted at is PvP. Normally, battlegrounds are set up in tiers, but if agnostic levels are put into effect, players can queue up for a battleground regardless of level, meaning that there's a larger pool of players overall, and you'd have to assume that there will be a newfound emphasis on skill over gear or levels, which is a good barometer when it comes to PvP.

Lost

When I heard about the idea of agnostic levels, I had to scratch my head. If it doesn't matter what level I am, then why bother grinding levels? And furthermore, why should I have to? I guess in the case of the dungeon maker, it shouldn't matter, once those numbers are fine-tuned a bit. But it brings up an article I once read about how MMOs are like the TV show LOST. The author explains:
I love CRPGs (so much so that I've avoided World of Warcraft like the plague -- if I wanted an all-consuming addiction, I'd pick up some heroin from a Seattle street corner, thanks). I love them despite my frequent realizations, while playing, that in-game progress is largely chimeric. When you're a level 1 squire, it may take you two minutes to kill a rat; when you are a level 9 knight, you can kill a rat with a single stroke -- but you don't fight rats, you fight ogres, and the time it takes you to kill them is... two minutes. Your environment levels up as you do, such that you are pretty much playing the same game all the time, albeit with cool new equipment and a more impressive sounding rank. The excitement you feel upon leveling fades almost immediately as you start accumulating experience to reach the next stage.
I love this quote because it's so true. As we level up in MMOs, the stuff we "want" to fight levels up, and we're on a nice, cruise-control path to the level cap as a result. When we're level 49 and battling a three-headed hydra, it takes us the same approximate time as it did when we were level 2 and fighting a rat. The implementation of agnostic levels is a tacit admission of that fact, and while it's still in its infancy, it's a pretty huge change. It acknowledges that fact and mathematically attempts to calculate things out regardless of player level. So a level 31 who tosses a heal on a level 92 will add an appropriate amount of health, not a fixed amount based on level. And a level 31 will damage a mob on par with the level 85 that's in group if both are playing their roles to maximum efficiency.

In one sense, I love the concept because it means high levels and low levels can do stuff together. In another, it scares me because it means there's a lot more pressure on us to produce based on skill. Either way, I'm eager to see how the system will work when it's fine-tuned and goes live -- it could change the way we view other areas of gameplay and the leveling system in general.

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 karen@massively.com.

This article was originally published on Massively.