As I mentioned last time, I’ve been delving back into the first Everquest after a hiatus of six years. So far I’m at Level 12 and reliving some good times in Befallen. As I said, there’s something fun and intense about the experience that I haven’t felt in the long line of succeeding MMO’s.
Certainly one element about it is the sense of danger that exists. From corpse runs to trains there certainly are a lot of things that keep players on their toes. Combats were risky… a few bad misses or fizzled spells and that blue mob suddenly had the upper hand and you were fighting for your life. Players are flush with stories of how they overcame adversity, or had victory snatched from their hands at the last minute.
So it’s interesting to consider for a moment the fact that all the “problems” that each successor, from Camelot to WOW, have tried to fix were indeed features that made EQ fairly dynamic and more importantly unique.
Consider zone camping. Due to technology limitations that were less stringent in WOW and DAOC, Everquest was broken into zones or sub-levels that created hard boundaries that initiated a level load for the player… and of course monsters could not cross. As such, a common practice was for players to use the zone edge as a safe zone (even if they were deep in a hostile area) because they could exit the level at the first sign of trouble.
This tactic came hand-in-hand with the risks of monster trains, which resulted from the fact that Everquest monsters were vindictive and followed you almost forever once you damaged them. What’s more, if they happened to pass by another idle monster, that creature would likely join in on the chase. This resulted in dungeons sometimes being the scene of ridiculous parades of hostile creatures, all chasing a single player balls-out (see inset). Once a train started, a party had almost no choice but to evacuate to the zone, which of course led all those mobs to the happy zone campers sitting to gain back their health… you can imagine the carnage that erupted.
Zone boundaries (and hence zone camping) were eliminated through the introduction of continuously-streaming levels in games like WOW. The removal of barriers like this made it also necessary for the monsters to give up any chase for a short distance, more or less stamping out trains… This is not only because it would be ridiculous for a snow creature to be led all the way to a desert town, but because streaming levels have very stringent rules about the graphic and sound assets loaded for each area, and hence a wolf needs to stay within its expected habitat. (This is the biggest challenge for us when dealing with open world mechanics of This is Vegas.)
While gamers generally shouted “Hooray!” at the demise of these odd mechanics, ironically these were the same players that were carefully planning around zones and trains… In the Everquest community, it quickly evolved from capitalizing on quirks of the systems to legitimate tactics. And these tactics were just as interesting as the “mez/root/tank/heal” manuevers that had developed over EQ’s combat. They provided an additional layer of experience between “per combat” and “per session” that might be called “per expedition”.
So am I saying that players were having fun and just didn’t realize it? Well, sort of. I’ve held for a long time that gamers don’t always understand what makes a game fun, and that penalties, inconveniences and grinds are often a close companion to reward (as opposed to creating a “win game” button). However, in this case, gamers were complaining more about chaos and unpredictability than against the situation itself. They just never knew when a train might come in from some other player and ruin their evening.
Nothing is more frustrating than to spend an evening and not make progress (this was one of my biggest pet peeves about Everquest back in the day), and many players had successful sessions punctuated by devastatingly frustrating sessions. No doubt, they always remembered the worst ones. These gamers wanted a more predictable and efficient way of exchanging time for advancement, and they always seek out the easiest path to do so.
In EQ they found areas where they could spawn camp with the easiest XP and loot. They located the areas with the biggest reward for the lowest risk. And when new games came out like Camelot and WOW where these aspects were more predictable, they rejoiced and jumped ship. They moved to experiences where each encounter was more predictable, where nothing ever went really, really wrong. They played in games where they could maintain a basic strategy and always end up on top.
Ironically, what they moved towards is al almost perfect definition of a grind.