EverQuest II recently introduced a new feature with the release of GU103 back on May 10th called the Proving Grounds. That place is no joke. I can assure you that it is pretty aptly named; this little instance is all about showing you and your group what you are made of.
When this feature was first announced, I was pretty excited. Who doesn’t like new content, especially something with replayability? It sounded fun. Initially I had thought (hoped?) that the new Proving Grounds content would be a feature enjoyable by the majority of the population. What I learned — quite quickly — was that my hopes and reality were two very different things. And I learned that the hard way. Hard as in double-digit-death-counter hard. Instead of sinking my teeth into this content, it sunk its teeth into me! Now that’s not necessarily a problem. I enjoy a challenge, and I do so look forward to conquering this one and exacting some revenge. However, I just wish my first experiences with the Proving Grounds didn’t come with more disappointment and frustration than fun because I do think it’s a good idea filled with promise.
For those who haven’t experienced the Proving Grounds, the basic premise is that two teams race through a PvE challenge to see who finishes first, both between each other and compared to other groups. Rewards gained in the challenge are used to buy snazzy special goodies. The challenge includes four bosses with a series of enemies to defeat in between each one. At least that’s what the first two were; wording both in the announcement and in-game suggests that there may be other types sometime in the future. (Fingers crossed!) The first round was called Battle for Felwithe, set in (you guessed it) Felwithe. The second, called Battle upon the High Seas, was aboard two ships filled with pirates. That sounds pretty fun, doesn’t it? I certainly thought so.
On top of that, the Proving Grounds — referred to in chat as PG — utilized the pretty defunct battlegrounds. Created initially for PvP, that area is where all servers could come together and participate in content together, making finding groups (theoretically) easier. Unfortunately, the area hadn’t seen much use in quite a long time, so repurposing it was a plus. I love it when unused or obsolete features become useful again.
All around I thought, and still think, that the idea is pretty nifty. I hope to see it debugged and fleshed out more! There’s promise there for interesting replayable content, especially if new game types are added in addition to new zones. Sadly, implementation of this feature has been less than ideal. That, coupled with a lack of clear communication, has caused more than a fair share of frustration instead of fun for players.
For me, probably the biggest disappointment was jumping in excitedly and then finding out that the Proving Grounds weren’t as open to the general population as I’d hoped. It’s very much an endgame experience aimed at the small, select group of players that are highly-geared raiders. The disappointment wasn’t as much that the content was geared for that group (I’m happy for them to get content as much as any group); the trouble was that this wasn’t made clear in the beginning. Heck, it wasn’t even totally clear that the content would be only for max-level players. This disappointment could have been easily avoided with clearer communication.
Daybreak appeared to be marketing this content to new folks, but it really isn’t. Remember how the announcement said that all players who logged in during the specific two week period would get a level 100 boost, as well as appropriate gear, in order to enjoy the new content? Well, that was misleading. Daybreak delivered on the boost, but the rest of that sentence is erroneous. You see, this is not content that a group of new 100s can waltz into and truly participate in. You can zone in, but you can’t do much or get far. And I don’t just mean boosted 100s either. My level 100 just recently reached that milestone, finishing her last three levels thanks to the triple-XP weekend. Because I’ve played her from beginning, I am well acquainted with the skills and how to play the class, and my gear isn’t trash (although it is a couple of expansions behind). Our group consisted of a couple of fairly older level 100’s, my new 100, and a boosted 100. But oh boy were we spanked in the PG! It turns out that you needed Ascension levels (a post 100 grind), raid gear, and a specific make-up of classes to really be successful.
That last comment is another big disappointment to me — that the content demands a rigid group structure. I hate that! There’s little room for variety when it comes to PG; people want only specific classes else they can’t complete the instance in a reasonable length of time, if at all. What’s the point of having 26 different classes to play if only a few are viable in content? I watched as many folks got repeatedly overlooked for groups because they weren’t one of the highly sought-after classes. Even if you queued up solo to be added to a group, people would bail if the group didn’t meet a predefined expectation. You can’t totally blame folks when they don’t want to spend an hour running an unsuccessful instance and have nothing to show for it, but it makes participating that much harder for many players.
A good chunk of frustration that steals from the fun of the Proving Grounds is related to the number of bugs and the lack of balance. For bugs, I am not referring to the triple-up heroic ones that pop out if you trip on roots in Battle for Felwithe. I’m talking about something being so wonky that for the first week most healer classes were severely gimped inside and unable to heal well. I’m talking about adding an in-game announcement that folks should premake their groups to ensure they had a fighter and a healer because the group-making function wasn’t doing so (doubly important because enemies could feature abilities that meant instant death if there was no fighter in the group). I’m talking about… well, there’s too much to list. Let’s just say folks are plenty frustrated by the bugs. To make matters worse, every time a fix went in, more stuff was broken/changed. Skills that were considered necessary for completion were stripped from players or nerfed heavily. Too bad much of this wasn’t ironed out before it went live. You could really see the effect of these fixes by the reduction in people looking for groups in the Proving Grounds lobby.
Speaking of skills, our group was totally unprepared for skills to be changed so much upon entering the Proving Grounds. There was no indication alerting us to these changes, which seriously impacted our ability to play. I suppose it makes sense since this was previously the PvP battlegrounds, and PvP balancing is different. It’s just a surprise when you thought you knew your skills and they don’t behave as expected. Remember way back when gear used to have a button to tell you the separate PvP stats? You might have forgotten (like me) that skills still have that feature! It might be worth reviewing those. But even as I start to come to know about the changes to skills in there, Daybreak changes stuff up again. I really don’t mind learning a fight and earning my victories, but that’s kind of hard to do when everything keeps changing. Although I have to admit I’d really go for a change making more classes viable in there!
The Proving Grounds truly lives up to its name. It shows who is a min-maxxer and who isn’t. It also shines a light on how exclusive folks can get when it comes to content. Sadly, there are plenty of people with the “no time for n00bs” mentality when it comes to this content; if you don’t already know what you are doing and have the l33t skills (and the right class) to pull the competition off quickly, many people don’t want you. And if they happened to join your group, they just exit and leave your group short-handed and often unable to continue. It’s hard to learn and practice if no one gives you the chance to go in!
Thankfully, all is not lost. There are still pretty awesome people who will sacrifice time to run you through for the experience… if you can be lucky enough to find and group with them. An old friend joined us newer 100s and we met an outstanding gent from Antonia Bayle who stuck it out with us long after our sixth guy ditched. He gave pointers, sharing his knowledge of the run, and was all around cool. That run, even with all the deaths, was fun.
Despite all the negatives, I think The Proving Grounds can be fun. There’s definitely promise for fun. I can’t exactly judge the whole thing because I personally haven’t completed a full instance yet –not for lack of trying! I have no need to be the fastest on the leaderboards for it to be considered fun. (Note: Felwithe had a top score of just over three minutes, and High Seas is just under three. I’m not ashamed to say we were in there for more than 10 times that and our partial group only made it to the second boss.) Better communication would help so folks don’t experience a unnecessary letdown. Also, maybe there could be ways to let others more fully participate. If you want to keep it at max-level instead of opening it up to other level brackets, what about having different difficulty levels to the Proving Grounds? Moving up difficulty levels would be satisfying and rewarding like getting better and faster are. That wouldn’t cheat the hard-core folks out of their experience, it would just open the content up to more instead of driving people away.