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Exploring The Shadow Odyssey with EQII Senior Producer Bruce Ferguson

Michael Zenke

SOE just announced the newest expansion to their EverQuest II title, and we've got plenty of answers for your burning questions. We had the chance to sit down with the game's Senior Producer, Bruce Ferguson, to talk about what makes this such an important product for Sony Online. Join us as we talk through some of the fantastic new content coming to the game.

Some of it is "old content", revamped and updated areas from the original vision of Norrath the company created back in 1999. Befallen and Guk are fan favorites, and are making a comeback with a vengeance. Some of it is distinctly new, like the shard system that will allow players to customize their loot for the first time ever. And some of it is a mix of both! Read on for full details on this interesting new product.
Well met, fellow Norrathian! Make sure to check out all of our coverage of the next EverQuest II expansion, The Shadow Odyssey as well as Seeds of Destruction, the next expansion to EverQuest!

Bruce Ferguson: We're really excited on the work we've been doing on this expansion – it's got some really interesting lore and has a lot of really interesting things for people to do. We've gone with a large overland zone of Innothule, which has areas of swamp in it. It's not just a swamp, though, it's a really lovely zone. It's going to act as the hub to a whole bunch of dungeons of various types and various difficulties for people to adventure through.

That's great – we're very much interested in what you folks have been working on. It sounds like Innothule is going to be another zone in the same style as the last expansion, where there are 'mini-zones' inside of the larger zone that require no loading. Is that a fair assessment?

Bruce: Yeah, I think that's a fair assessment. We want to provide a play area for people to really be able to explore, somewhere that they don't feel they have to take on all at the same time. There will be little areas that feed off of the zone to explore and return from. There will be little areas to do the usual player activities: places to repair gear, craft items, that kind of stuff. It's both an adventure zone and a hub for all activity in the expansion.

The first thing that comes to mind when hearing about these dungeons is the Lost Dungeons of Norrath expansion from the original EverQuest. For fans of that expansion, will they be seeing similarities here?

Bruce: There was some discussion about that but we didn't really feel like we were doing a copy of the Lost Dungeons of Norrath. There are some aspects that are similar, but it feels very different in the newer game than it did in EverQuest. There are lots of dungeons in it, but the experience is very different.

There is no increase in the level cap with the new expansion: are these new dungeons aimed primarily at end-game players, or is there a mix for players of all levels?

Bruce: The dungeons are primarily for characters level 70 and above. There will be some content that will be a little lower; it will scale appropriately. Most of it is aimed at the end-level players, though. It's not all aimed that direction, but a large portion is. One of the things we're trying to do is take into account a lot of the feedback we've gotten from players. A lot of people are interested in a mix between solo and raid content. With this expansion we tried to do an even balance between solo, small group, and large group/raiding content. We're really trying to aim the content at where the majority of our players are – towards the end of the game.

These dungeons will sound very familiar to EQ players – Mistmoore, Ruins of Guk. Can you talk a bit about which dungeons you're particularly happy to see being added to the game?

Bruce: One of the things we wanted to do, that worked very well in Ruins of Kunark, was build on our players' familiarity with EverQuest. We wanted to bring back some areas and content that they'll already understand. There are some iconic aspects of the game we wanted to evoke when we did these things, we didn't want to just make up some off the wall content and call it "Mistmoore". We wanted to pick elements that would resonate with our players. Guk and Befallen, for example, are names with meaning for the majority of our players.

We felt this was a good opportunity to build on those names for our players. Not only is it important for us to have players enjoy the new expansion content, but also to have players with this familiarity go "hey, this is kind of cool, it's almost like coming home." We wanted to give players aspects that they'd recognize, with new elements as well. "What can we do that's new but still evoke the old familiar places and stories?" It's a mix of nostalgia and new elements.

These dungeons definitely seem to be the 'thing to do' in this expansion. What systems are in place to ensure players can get the most out of them, replay them and have a good time?

Bruce: A lot of the content is scaled, there are lots of parts of the dungeons that are set up for different kinds of encounters – either solo or small group, and raids as well. We want to give a wide variety of experiences to people so that there are a lot of different things for them to enjoy. It's not just all about the raid, for example.

Raiders tend to be vocal in their support of raids, but we didn't want to focus solely on that. People like to play in other styles as well. So we took each of these dungeons and we broke them out into different areas. The "Cavern of the Afflicted" and the "Halls of the Forsaken" are both part of Befallen, Castle Valmar. We want to take areas that people will be familiar with and put in different versions of them depending on how large the group is, or how old the group is.

A lot of that is accomplished by using smaller areas, within the larger dungeons. These areas will have specific uses ... and when I say smaller I don't mean small, some of them are quite large. We want to do scaled content, mostly between levels 50 and 80 ... we think we're putting a little bit in the game for every single person to play.

We want to provide a play experience that will satisfy everyone. Nobody has fun when a raid wipes, right? But there has to be a chance for that to happen, because that's exciting to be close but not go over the line. But by the same token, if you take on content in a small group or solo and always fail, that's not fun. We have to mix the challenges we put in front of you, offer the chance to succeed as well as fail. And, of course, get all the nifty little items and the drops that make the dungeons places to go in the first place.

You're raising the achievement cap instead of the actual level cap, and adding in some new achievement lines for players. Can you talk about some of those new AAs?

Bruce: It's not completely done. We're still in the development phase. I'm loathe to give you data that might be incorrect. A lot of it is turning out very well, but we're doing a lot of testing in-house – our team is actually doing regular playtests on some of the ideas we're moving forward with. It's just a little early to talk about any specifics on that.

The difficulty, of course, is that with 24 classes there are a lot of things to tackle. Fleshing that out in a way that's both balanced and fun for everyone is something of a challenge. We're taking it on, but some of our initial ideas didn't pan out. We're happy we'll be getting players in the game to look at our work soon, so we can get feedback on what we've been doing.

It sounds like the Shard system for equipment upgrades is also getting a lot of work. Can you explain what you've been doing there?

Bruce: We're really excited about the Shard system, because it will give players the opportunity to get the rewards they want. They'll be able to reward themselves. They can get the stuff that they want rather than "well, this mob drops this item one out of a million times and I have to go raid it or kill it or camp it a million times before I can get the item I want." We're really excited about the ability for players to pick up points, shards, by completing objectives in the expansion. They can spend those points at a merchant and get the item they want rather than something random that they might not really need.

We're going to use the same system to reward players who want to take part in what is basically a daily quest system. Players will get the shards both through these dailies and through adventuring in the dungeons.

We're sure you don't want to spoil anything when it comes to the new Heritage quests, but they're certainly popular with the players. Can you just touch on what we might see in these new quests?

Bruce: We do have five new Heritage quests that we're working on right now. I think one of them is in QA and the others are just about to QA. There's not a lot that I can talk about those, because we really want them to be a flash, a surprise, when we reopen the servers. In the next few weeks we'll be able to talk a little bit more about them, but I don't want to give too much away.

You mentioned going into Beta - that starts on September 2nd. How can players who are interested in participating get into the Beta?

Bruce: We're going to have a sign-up page on the website; this year we're going to do it with current subscribers only. You're going to need a current subscription to play in the Beta. We're going to do it a lot like EverQuest does; we'll open up the gates to certain number of players to maintain the population and get the appropriate amount of feedback for the game. I think we're going to have a lot longer period for the expansion than we did last time around.

We're excited to hear from the players, and the whole team is really jazzed about it. Last year, of course, some of the content didn't make it to the Beta servers until right before we shipped. There wasn't as much time and ability to deal with the feedback as we would have liked. This year we have the time and we're going to work on the polish and the feedback from the Beta.

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