Saturday, March 26, 2022

On difficulty, accessibility and Elden Ring

Bahgpuss has a great post up that does a really good job of articulating the of issues that have been floating around the blogosphere about game difficulty since Elden Ring came out.  Having been both both sides of the debate, both a kid that was a hardcore gamer and an adult that gives truly difficult games a wide berth, I had a really immediate response to it.  The core issue that really resonated with me is whether developers should feel obligated to put in difficulty settings that make their games clearable by anyone that is physically able to play them.  

I have been playing video games since the Atari era, so my thoughts on whether a game is obligated to include different difficulty settings for users of different skill levels is pretty simple: absolutely not. The original conception of video games was that they were kind of like any game: some of them were hard enough that not everyone could do very well in them.  I used to play insanely difficult games when I was younger. For example, I actually beat the game that is right at the top of this list.

I had to dump a solid month of my spare time into it to get good enough to do that, and I had the reflexes of a cat on amphetamines back then.  I absolutely could not do that these days.  I have neither the reflexes needed nor the spare time necessary to commit an entire game to muscle memory. However, the fact that it was so brutally difficult, and that getting really good at it was the only way to see the whole game was kind of the entire point of the experience.  Every time I was finally able to see a new level, it was elating.  Hell, sometimes getting to see a new six inches of a level I was working on was elating.  Absolutely, developers should be able to sell those kinds of experiences if they want to. The world would be a smaller less rich place without them.

A common counter argument is "Well if you want it more difficult, just crank up the difficulty. Why do you care what other people do?"  Once difficulty settings became the norm, I sometimes did just that.  For example I beat the N64 Goldeneye on "007" difficulty, and it felt like an accomplishment.  The absolute zen focus needed to do and the adrenaline rush when I finally did was similar to beating Super Ghouls and Ghosts.  But it wasn't exactly the same.  Knowing that literally the only way to see the next level was to buck up and get good enough to do it gave Super Ghouls and Ghosts a psychological layer that just wasn't there when I was playing through GoldenEye on "Holy crap, you must have a hell of a lot of spare time" difficulty. The closest thing I can compare it to is the difference between the view from a mountain where you can choose to either hike up or ride in gondola, and hiking out to a spot that you simply can't see without serious physical exertion.  

I don't think I have ever hiked a mountain when I could ride ride a gondola up.  However, I have taken 40 flights of stairs to the top of a tall building when I could have taken the elevator.  It was very much the Goldeneye "007" experience.  It was fun, it was elating to finish, the view at the end was nice, and I'm glad I did it.  But it was not the same as slogging my way down into a cave that most people will never see, or hiking out to some obscure waterfall most people don't know about.  The latter just feels more special.  I really think some developers are trying to let us have a tiny bit of that special "most people will never be here and see this" feeling in our living rooms.  That is not to say that that is a financially sane strategy for most developers in the modern market.  However, I really feel like that is what the Dark Souls games are trying to tap into.

Another aspect of the debate is whether developers need to be clear about what they are selling, and my answer to that is absolutely yes.  In fact, if a studio is creating a game for the tiny niche audience of "teenagers and 20-somethings with absurd amounts of spare time" they need to go out of their way to be crystal clear about it.  In 1990 it was expected that roughly 30% of games were hard enough that most people would never beat them.  That is very much not the norm now, and selling people a product they probably can't use without warning them is incredibly irresponsible.

There is also the issue of accessibility for people with physical disabilities.  I think developers should do their best within the constraints of their budget to support peripherals that allow people with various types of physical disabilities to play.  Some of the peripherals designed for people with neurological disorders that affect manual dexterity might also allow feeble old people like me to play some games as a side effect, so I'll admit this is a gray area.  However, I don't think of being older than 29 or fully employed as physical disabilities, and claiming that developers are morally obligated to cater to those demographics pretty absurd in my mind.  Admittedly,  since those are by and large the people with money to spend, it's generally pretty stupid not to. Nonetheless that is a different issue.

In the end I feel that the one clear moral obligation that developers have in this area is to be upfront about what they are trying to sell us.  Don't steal my money by tricking me into thinking I might be able to fully experience your game when I clearly will not be able to.  If a developer is dead honest about what they are selling, and someone that clearly cannot get full use out of it decides to buy it anyway, that is on the buyer.  If I bought a Formula 1 car, no one would get mad at the manufacturer when I couldn't get it out of my driveway.  They would think I was an idiot, and rightfully so. 

I will probably never see Elden Ring .  And that's perfectly ok with me, because I know it isn't for me.  That's also the exact reason I won't be buying the game.  They aimed their game directly at a market segment I'm just not part of any more.  Regardless, I'm not mad at FromSoftware for doing it.  Far from it, I'm excited to see a new RPG subgenre thriving, and I can actually understand why some people would feel that the game was diminished of there was a "story mode" that would let you skate through it. There are more games "for me" than I could possibly play through if all I did between now and my deathbed was sleep, eat, groom and play games. I think that's plenty.  

Saturday, March 12, 2022

They don't make expansions like they used to

Per my last post, I have been playing through some of the original EQ II expansions lately.  I remember when they came out they weren't considered particularly large expansions.  However, by modern standards they are quite meaty.  For example, I played through Kingdom of the Sky last month, and I am now in the middle of the Rise of Kunark, the second and fourth expansions for EQ II.  Rise of Kunark consisted of five new zones, a new 1-20 starting area and four new high level adventuring zones.  It was released a few months after Burning Crusade for WoW, which included two new starting zones and seven new high level adventuring zones.  So at first glance, it seems pretty meager for the era.

The Kylong Plains, one of four high level adventuring zones that came with the Rise of Kunark Expansion for EQ II in 2007.  The map is actually a lot bigger than it looks, each of the four main areas is about the same size as a normal MMO zone. For the last month I have been playing through some of the early EQ II expansions, and it's remarkable how much more content they have than some expansions I have been playing in more modern MMOs.  

Now of course this ignores the fact that by this time EQ II had released three previous expansions, to the 0 that WoW had put out.  The zones themselves are also absolutely enormous.  Playing through Kunark took me roughly three weeks weeks of evenings, and by the time I hit 80 and move on to the next expansion there are also still going to be huge areas I haven't yet set foot in.  However, Kunark vs Burning Crusade is really a debate for 2007.  What has really struck me as I have been playing through these expansions from over a decade ago is how much developers have degraded the meaning of the term "expansion" over the years.  

Back in 2007, if a content drop wasn't at least a good solid few weeks of entertainment for most players, you didn't call it an expansion.  For example, in EQ II SOE used the term "adventure packs" to distinguish smaller hunks of content from mainline expansions. They likely did this because (a) they didn't want to confuse their customers and (b) because they would have gotten crucified in the court of public opinion if they had tried to call something like The Fallen Dynasty an expansion. It only contained one new adventuring zone, two new group instances, one solo quest series, one tradeskill quest series, and 20 quest series of trials in the group instances.  Clearly that's not an expansion!

The Fens of Nasthar. This was actually the first zone from Kunark I got going in, and because I didn't know what I was doing I managed to royally jack up my faction here.  I am kill on sight to every NPC in roughly half this map (though the ones in the corners absolutely love me).  Games were a lot less likely to hold your hand in 2007, but at least they didn't skimp on content.  This map  does not remotely convey what a big zone this is.  Just flying from one corner to another on an NPC mount is a "go make a snack or something" moment. 

How much things have changed.  Legacy of the Sith is the ultimate case in point. The latest "expansion" for SWTOR came out last month, and reactions to it were not good.  A lot of the negativity has focused on things that are pretty subjective, like whether the new UI is any good or not or whether changes to classes and gearing have improved the game or made it worse.  However one repeated criticism that I think is a lot less debatable is that Legacy of the Sith doesn't have enough content to be called an expansion, clocking in at about two hours for most players.  It really has me scratching my head and wondering whether this is the smallest update that any MMO publisher has ever had the temerity to call an "expansion." It probably is, but in the modern MMO era it certainly has some competition.

So what even is a proper expansion? First off, if new content doesn't have have any actual new areas where players engage in whatever the normal gameplay loop is, I don't personally think of it as an expansion. New mechanics can help distinguish an expansion from a normal content drop, but if there is nowhere new to go the world hasn't really been expanded. The first MMO that I can think of that tried to get away with calling something that was clearly not one an expansion was Dark Age of Camelot.  The second "expansion" for the game, called Foundations, added nothing but housing and consignment merchants.  I don't consider that an expansion at all because it doesn't really add to the world, it's just a bunch of new mechanics.  Of course even at the time Mythic released Foundation they charged nothing for it, and always referred to it as a "free expansion" to distinguish it from paid expansions like Trials of Atlantis and Catacombs that did actually have a lot of new areas to adventure in.  So if that's not a good comparison, what are some bottom of the barrel examples of actual past expansions?

Kunzar Jungle.  This is definitely the smallest zone that came with Kunark, and it still has at least five quest hubs that I have found so far.  I haven't looked it up, but I think the first hub I did had around 20 or 25 quests.  There were five main NPCs giving them out, each of which had between three and five quests.   By the time I finish out the first two hubs, I will have hit 80 and be ready to move on to the next expansion, Sentinels of Fate.

Standing Stone Games certainly has to make the list.  Recently they have taken to charging for content drops that they would have given away for free with a sub in prior years.  They refer to these as "mini-expansions" rather than full expansions, but when you can pay up to $100 for collectors editions that seems like an inconsequential semantic difference to me.  A paid expansion is a paid expansion, and it needs to have a good bit of content.  The two content releases I am referring to are War of the Three Peaks in Lord of the Rings Online and Saltmarsh in DDO.  Regardless of what you call them and being the start of my list, they were actually both decent sized updates.  War of the Three Peaks has been compared to Evindim, which is a zone that can easily last you a solid week of evenings.    Saltmarsh consisted of  one wilderness area and ten quests.  That doesn't sound like a lot.  However, a quest in DDO is set in an entirely separate instance so in reality it's something like 11 new play areas.  One quest in DDO can take anywhere from five minutes to an hour.  Altogether I would guess that both "mini-expansions" contain roughly 10 or 15 hours of content if you really see everything.  Small, but not egregiously bad.  They only look bad in comparison to what has historically been done in both games.

Another example that comes to mind is the final content released in Secret World Legends.  In a move that many of us are still bitter about, when the original Secret World didn't do as well financially as Funcom hoped, they spent a year revamping the game so that they could re-release it as Secret World Legends.  SWL was designed to be easier to get into compared to TSW, and was released as a free-to-play game.  To help get players to move to SWL, Funcom released a new South African adventuring area. It is the smallest adventuring zone in the game by a wide margin, probably taking about six hours to play through at most.  In consisted of essentially two areas, a prison camp and a mansion.  What was there was good, but it was way too short and ended up being the last major piece of content ever released for the game.  Not a great expansion, but it was also added to the game completely free, whether you subbed or not.  It was also billed as the first content drop for a planned full expansion if SWL did well, which unfortunately never materialized.  

The Jarsath Wastes.  Save to grab this screenshot I will not have set foot in this zone before I move on to the next EQ II expansion.  I would imagine you could take at least three characters through the 70-80 content in EQ II and do very few of the same quests. Both Rise of Kunark and Shadow Odyssey cover this level range, and I have not been to any of the zones from the latter.  Not to mention content packs in this level range I have payed no attention to, each of which SSG or Bioware would refer to as "an expansion" in the modern era.

Another notable modern entry into the "should this really be called an expansion?" subgenre was the previous SWTOR expansion, Onslaught.  There was a lot of grumbling at the time about how short it was.  Despite this, it was still a good 3-6 hours per faction, and well worth playing through twice to see both sides of the story.  It also launched with two new sets of daily areas that were pretty entertaining, so on the whole I was ok with it being called an expansion.  Six hours for an initial play through plus new dailies for gear was not bad, and certainly larger than a normal update for the game.  However, clearly we can also see a the bar for "expansion" getting ever lower. 

Which of brings us back SWTOR's latest expansion, Legacy of the Sith.  For me personally this release has finally crossed a line that I think is pretty absurd.  Calling one zone that takes two hours to see an expansion is unprecedented as far as I know.  If they had called it a "10th Anniversary Update" or "The Legacy of the Sith Adventure Pack" I suspect they would be getting a lot less flack.  But they didn't, and they are not being called out purely on semantics. Bioware called LotS an expansion, they paid some inordinate amount money for a trailer for it, and chose to hype the hell out of it for months leading up to the release.  That really comes across as conscious effort at deception.   I know a lot of players subbed before it even came out in anticipation of it, and I feel bad for them if that is really the only thing they subbed up to see.

In addition to the new high level zones, Kunark had this new 1-20 levelling area, a new race (Sarnak) and a new capitol city.  I recall there being a bit of back and forth between EQ II and WoW players, because Burning Crusade launched around the same time.  It had two new races, two new starting areas, and seven new high level zones.  I think the days when we will be arguing about which of two competing MMO expansions with weeks of content is really bigger are well behind us.

In my mind the absolute extreme lower limit for something to reasonably be called an expansion is at least a few evenings of new content for an average player.  If almost anyone can get home from work and play through a content update in a single sitting, it is absolutely not an "expansion."  Calling a content drop that small an expansion is like calling a pair of socks a new wardrobe, or a large refrigerator box a house.  At that point you are so far outside of the accepted meaning of the term you are using that you are obviously intentionally deceiving potential buyers.   The entire debacle with LotS has really shaken my faith in Bioware.* 

So how did we get to the point that a major developer of a highly visible game feels justified hyping up two hours of content for several straight months as an "Anniversary Expansion."  We got here the same way we almost always start in a good place and end up somewhere that nobody likes.  Someone pushes commonly accepted polite boundaries a little, gets away with it, and then the next person pushes them a little more.  Since there is no clear line in the sand that upsets everyone, eventually we end up in a place that almost everyone agrees is terrible.  But at that point it's too late to go back.**  

Overall Rise of Kunark added an entire new continent to EQ II (Kunark  in the lower right hand corner).  On argument I have seen floated for the disparity between modern expansions and expansions of this era is that new content was easier to make back then.  While I am sure that costs have gone up, I am extremely skeptical that's the primary explanation.  As an example, Rise of Kunark has a ton of new art assets and new geography, all of which were built by hand.  It also has an absurd  number of snippets of voice acting, and two versions of it.  One that is gibberish (before you can understand NPCs), and the other is all in English (for after you have deciphered the language of a given NPC race).  I can't find hard numbers for RoK, but EQ II launched with 130 hours of spoken dialogue (that's 5.4 straight days) recorded by 266 voice actors.  RoK is not something that a small team could have whipped up in a few months, it represents a substantial investment of resources in any era. It's also not as if EQ II has ever made insane amounts of money.  I firmly believe that MMO studios simply aren't folding as much of their income back into new content development as they used to in the 2000s.  

Over the years a lot of developers wanted to have all the hype and free press that comes with calling a new piece of content an expansion, without having to actually make an expansion.  But this whole thing isn't just their fault.  We the players have let MMO developers get away with calling smaller and smaller content updates expansions, so it was inevitable that they would keep pushing the trend.  In a way I can't be mad at SSG and Bioware for doing what almost anyone would be tempted to do in their shoes. The reason that this trend bothers me is not that I think the English language should never change.  Nor am I really upset over the semantic distinction between "expansion" and "content pack."  I am upset over the the implication that a lot of developers seem to think their players are na├»ve children that will believe anything they are told, all facts to the contrary.  "It's an Expansion, no really!"  

In 2007 SOE was afraid to call a mere week or two of content, Fallen Dynasty, an expansion.  In 2022 EA/ Bioware released a mid-sized content patch, called it an expansion***, and the thing that players got most upset about overall was the UI changes that came with it. Now that Bioware has seemingly gotten away with calling one evening of new content an expansion, I imagine other developers will feel free to do the same. We have now firmly reached the point where you can't believe anything a developer tells you about a content release until after it's out.  Now that's not exactly a new trend.  If I'm honest,  we've been here for a few years already.  For me Legacy of the Sith just happens to be a particularly absurd case-in-point from a developer I used to have a lot of affection for. 

*Not that they have the most amazing track record.  

**Edward J Watts has argued convincingly that this was how the Roman Republic fell.  However, I do not mean to imply that the inspiration for this whiny post is in any way comparable ;-)

***I think it's worth noting that Bioware claims that they will be steadily expanding their "expansion" over the course of the year.  Some commentators have even given them a bit of a pass on LoTS being so tiny based on that claim.  I'm no phone psychic, but I am skeptical.  If Bioware really was sitting on an ambitious planned release schedule for the rest of 2022, they would be pretty daft to have told us absolutely nothing about it after the backlash that LoTS got.  

Saturday, March 5, 2022

EQ II in 2022

Roughly a month ago I got going on EQ II again to research my last post in the series series on Erudite lore.  My highest character was only level 60, having just finished out Desert of Flames* the last time I was seriously playing.  My goal for this run is to play through the past mainline expansions of EQ II in the order that they were released.  To get a better feel for what they were like to play through back in the 2000s, instead of using a level boost (and I have at least several available)  I have been levelling my character the old fashioned way, one quest hub at a time.  

This is the main character I have been playing for the last month.  He is a level 75 tailor, 76 necromancer as I type this. He actually has a ton of much fancier mounts, but I have taken to this lizard mount that I got from one of the early quests in the Kingdom of the Sky expansions zones.

One thing that's always a challenge about picking up a mid-level character in a MMO you haven't looked at in years, is figuring out what all the abilities do.  Oddly, in this instance having forgotten some of the really basic controls turned out to be a boon. The first week I was playing I couldn't figure out how to activate more than one hotbar.  Instead I just made do with the one bar that was up by default.  That bar turned out to have a solid three-spell single-target attack rotation on it that was really easy to figure out.  Even when I figured out how to get my other hotbars up, abilities on the other four I had set up the last time I played turned out to be for less common situations like wanting to travel while invisible, or needing a strong AoE rotation. 

This is the crew he normally hangs out with. From left to right: (1) a nightshade pet that does absolutely absurd damage. I cast spells mainly to aim him at targets via assist. (2) another non combat pet that follows us around and keeps the whole party buffed, and perhaps debuffs mobs as well (I'm not 100% sure what he does). (3) A mercenary.  He costs me four gold an hour to keep running, which is nothing in the modern game.  He can tank entire groups of mobs and hits pretty hard, but probably doesn't even do half the damage of the nightshade.  

Another  initial difficulty I faced was that as I levelled I was  earning new abilities. That doesn't sound like a problem unless you know a bit about the game.  EQ II has an interesting character development system where every ability in the game can be upgraded.  When you gain a level all the new spells you can cast are granted to you at the lowest possible power level, Apprentice (LV1).  From there they can be upgraded to better and better versions, all the way through Ancient (LV7).  However, in practice Expert  (LV4) or Master (LV5) is more than strong enough for nearly any purpose. Regardless, I needed a strategy to upgrade all of the new abilities I was learning at Apprentice level.

This is the zone I have been adventuring in lately. Every one of the biomes you see there is functionally as large as a typical MMO zone, and this "zone" functions more like a region.  It's one of five zones that came with the third annual expansion for EQ II.  It's remarkable how much meatier expansions were back in 2007.  However, that's a whole post . . .

There are a number of different ways you can upgrade your abilities.  One method is to study them over time, using an upgrade menu built in to your spellbook.  You select a spell, and after a certain amount of real-time (outside of the game) passes it will get trained to the next level up.  In some ways it's like the way all skills work in EVE.  This method works really well at low levels, when an upgrade can take only a few hours.   However by level 60, this method starts to takes an inordinate amount of time.  I was getting a up to three new abilities every time I levelled, and taking one spell from Apprentice (LV1) to Journeman (LV2) takes about four or five days of real time training.  To upgrade even a single spell from even to Expert  (LV4) would take the better part of a month. That would obviously not be a viable strategy for dozens of spells. 

Flying through part of the snow area on a "taxi-cab"  NPC mount that makes navigating the zone faster.  DAoC did these first, but EQ II and WoW were really the games that popularized them.  They have since become nearly universal.

You can also pay Daybreak points to upgrade abilities instantly, but that soon becomes pretty expensive. To "instant upgrade" one spell to Expert would be about $10 at current conversion rates.  Books that can upgrade your spells to Adept (LV3) do drop randomly, but with so many classes and abilities the odds of you finding one yourself for any given spell are abysmally low.  Due to inflation I also didn't have anywhere near the platinum I would have needed to buy one on the auction house.  This left me in a bit of a bind.  Fortunately, my second highest level character was a level 40 sage, the crafting class that makes spell upgrades.  You can very easily get all your spells to Journeyman (LV2) with one, which is nothing to sneeze at when you need to upgrade 2-4 spells every other evening you play.  With the right recipes and ingredients, you can even get them up to Expert (LV4). 

Here is my support crafter, making scrolls at a scholar's table.  He is up to 77 sage, and provides spell upgrades for my main. Levelling a sage from 40 to the mid 70s actually turned out the be the most efficient way to get my Necromancer's spells a slight boost.  Most of the time I play this character, a crafting table in Neriak is where you will find him.

Crazily enough, the quickest way to upgrade all my spells turned out to be to gain 20 levels on my sage.  A nice side effect of this was that I got to see what it is like to play a pure crafter, as my sage class (now level 75) quickly outstripped my adventuring class (Warlock level 40).   I had never seen the game from the perspective of a pure crafter.  It's not quite as well done as in FFXIV, where you can essentially turn mob aggro off when you are playing a crafter.  However there are quite a few crafting quest chains, and levelling as a crafter alone is eminently doable.  Because of all this, I am seeing both the adventuring side and the crafting side of each past expansion as I go.  On the crafting side, I see things both from the perspective of a tailor (level 75 so far) that is also quite strong in a fight (level 75 Necromancer) and from the perspective of a crafter that has to run for his life if he gets any aggro at all.

EQ II has a really great gathering system, where any character can gather everything, you can harvest the same node up to three times, and can get up to 13 items per harvest (for a range of 6 to 29 per node).  This all keeps the price of crafting materials down in the in game economy, and means that one high level character can very easily keep every crafter on your account in supplies. The wood I am gather here will be used by my sage to make spell scrolls for this character.

Once I got my sea legs back, how was the actual game?  In 2022 terms, EQ II is showing its age in a lot of areas.  However, it is also remarkable how many things it does better than almost any other MMO on the market. For example, character advancement.  In most modern MMOs there are a lot of empty levels, where advancing yields absolutely nothing except for an increment of one for the number next to your name.  Levels where neither your gear or ability loadout changes at all feel especially anti-climatic.  In EQ II, every time you level you will gain at least one new ability, even if it's only an upgrade of one you already have.  It also grants you the base level of all your new spells without having to hit a trainer, so if you are out in the middle of nowhere and gain a level it still feels immediately rewarding.  Finally, the myriad paths for upgrading abilities from the base power level gives the whole experience some real meat to dig into.  I have really enjoyed levelling my support crafter, and checking the auction house for bargains on the tomes that let me produce expert level spells for my main.

Very often, the best way to navigate the absurdly large zones is to turn invisible and sneak past all the mobs.  I don't know if every character can do this, but all of the cloth casters get an invisibility spell. The spell also affects my nightshade, and the other pet does not generate aggro.  My mercenary had to be dismissed before I could cross the river into hostile territory, since I have no way to make him stealthy.

The housing and crafting systems are also well above average. Crafting is not remotely hard, but it does have just enough interaction to it that you feel like you are really making something.   The items that you can make are also quite useful.  I already talked about needing to level up a support sage for my necromancer.  The necromancer is also a tailor.  Roughly every ten levels new sets of crafted gear  become available.  They are not quite as good as the gear that you will get questing.  But you can replace an entire set all at once.  For example at level 60 I immediately replaced all of my armor with crafted gear that was a huge upgrade.  By level 69 I had replaced all of it with gear from quests.  But a that gear was only a few points stronger than what I had crafted, and I couldn't even wear a lot of it until the high 60s.  It makes you happy to be able to craft, while still leaving a little bit of room for improvement so that you will also be happy with many quest rewards.  EQ II often splits the difference between competing design goals with unusual skill.

Even on my pure crafter, I need to leave the crafting hall occasionally to pick up crafting quests.  The gnome that no longer has a feather started a long chain that netted me three or four crafting levels, but involved a lot of flying around on gnomish airships.  EQ II was the first MMO I know of to offer full series of quests for crafters parallel to the ones for adventurers, and it's still fairly uncommon.   

The housing system is likewise really easy to understand, while still giving you tons of flexibility.  Unlike many modern MMOs, it doesn't force you to use hook points, you place place items anywhere you like.  It also largely lacks arbitrary limits on what you can place.  For example, in my apartment in ESO I found that by the time I had filled roughly half the space it looked like I had, my one bedroom apartment was "full" and I could place no more items.  Almost certainly the system in ESO is designed to get you to buy a bigger house in the item shop.  The housing system in EQ II will let you do pretty much anything you want right from the start.  The cheapest house you can buy has space for 200 objects, and a lot of items you can place are considered decorations and don't count towards that limit. 

My Sage on the mount he uses when he needs to actually leave Neriak. I think it came as a bonus with some expansion, or maybe a collector's edition, back in the day.

So many of the systems in EQ II are simply really solid.  You can tell that EQ II was designed by people that have played a lot of other MMOs, and know what works well and why.  I honestly can't think of anything else I have played recently that doesn't fall completely on it's face with respect to at least one core PvE system: combat, crafting, housing, character advancement.  For example, among all of the big five at least one of these things is true: (1) combat is way too easy or actively annoying to me, (2) crafting is completely pointless, (3) either there is no housing or the housing is way too restrictive, (4) gaining a level often does not change your character in any meaningful way.  I am not sure I would say EQ II exactly knocks any of this stuff out of the park.  But all of them work really well, and skillfully split the difference between conflicting design goals.  

This ghost wolf thing was hanging out on one of the adventuring zones I played through last week.  I have no idea what his purpose is, no quests directed me to interact with him.  As with nearly any older MMO, I often encounter things that are a bit mysterious to me.

The game isn't perfect of course.  The graphics are often dated, though for a game that game out in 2005 and tried for hyper realism they are also better than you would expect.  It has so many systems that it's often hard to get your bearings.  For example, I've been playing for a month and I still don't know what familiars are about, how to get one or exactly what they do.  The game itself is also often hard to navigate. When you finish questing in one area, it's sometimes next to impossible to figure out where to go next without consulting a guide.  Quests are often also quite old-school.  In some zones there are no in game markers, and the written instructions on the quests are vague.  You will often get stuck and need to consult a wiki. However, to my tastes these are mostly nitpicks.  I like exploring, and all that "cruft" that's accreted over the years actually gives me a lot to dig into.  I even like that I can pick whether to work through a zone that holds my hand with quest blobs on the map, or head to an older one where I will actually have to explore. 

My character's tiny apartment.  This is one of the cheapest ones you can get, and it allows you to place more than 200 objects anywhere you like.  The housing items also have a lot of neat little details.  For example, the books on the table on the left are individual books, any of which you can pick up and read.

If you can get past the slightly dated graphics and gameplay that is at times arcane, you will find a real gem of an MMO with months of content in every direction.  The core systems, when you finally understand them, are also really well designed.   "None of the core systems are completely broken" is so rare in modern MMOs** that it's practically a revelation. That this is true of a game that came out nearly 20 years ago, but not of so many more modern MMOs with budgets comparable to 100 EQ IIs is absolutely baffling.  

*Desert of Flames was the game's first expansion, released in September 2005.

**FFXIV perhaps excepted, and even there you have the issue where advancing a level often has almost no affect on  your character.