EQ the Return Part 2: Over-Correction?

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.

2 thoughts on “EQ the Return Part 2: Over-Correction?”

  1. Fooking brilliant.

    I’ve actually been thinking about the “EverQuest phenomenon” for a little bit now. Why was this old game so fun? Is it just because it was the first? A little…

    But you really hit the nail on the head — the difficulties, the chaos — these created a real sense of *danger*, and conversely, a real sense of *accomplishment* when you achieved something.

    In several years of playing EQ, I got *one* character up to near max level. NEAR. In two years of playing WoW, I’ve gotten *five* characters to max level. Getting Triajj, my priest, to 70 in WoW was nowhere NEAR as rewarding as getting Dalorno (it’s not delivery!), my monk, to 62 in EQ. I mean that was a MAJOR accomplishment, with lots of real work put in.

    It’s interesting how you point out that the very things we griped about — the camping, the trains, the incredible grinds and xp loss — might actually have been something that made EQ *fun*. Not a single MMO since then has recaptured the sense of immersion and adventure that I had in EQ.

    Another thing that I think is interesting is the “instance” phenomenon — when second- and third-generation MMO’s pioneered the idea of “instanced” encounters (where every person/group/raid that entered an area entered their own private copy of that area), I cheered. Less camping… less waiting a week for that uber-raid-boss to respawn. Less trains! Hooray!

    But since then, I’ve reconsidered; there’s something awfully… *artificial* and lonely about instances. You feel very clearly that you’re just in a computer-generated CLONE of Karazhan (or whatever). There’s no chance of a random halfling running through, training everyone. There’s no *consequences* — if another group killed UberEliteBoss03 ten minutes ago, you’ll still encounter UberEliteBoss03 when you go in. In EQ, things that died stayed DEAD… at least for a while. And while this created all kinds of contention and camping, it also seemed more…. real. Guilds worked out rotations. People had “play nice policies.” It was much more like reality, where things make a difference, where your actions have consequences, and where you have to learn to work with other people (even people you don’t much like) for the greater good. So, in an odd way, instances really break immersion, don’t you think?

  2. [NOTE] I just took a moment to fix the fact that comments are freaking impossible to read in this new theme!

    EQ is a weird bird. It was a phenomenon for its time, and it’s hard to tell what gamers would have put up with if they weren’t just falling over themselves with excitement over the “online RPG” thing. As I mentioned before, it’s clear that it never really developed it with a cohesive plan… the game is just a conglomeration of a fantasy gamer’s wet dream of features (which is pretty much what the MUD they were inspired by was). Word is that it wasn’t even supposed to be online at first. As such, it’s a hardcore experience, steeped in some odd choices in the interest of “realism”. Racial languages? Waiting for the ship to travel between continents? Roleplaying to get a powerful mage to bind you?

    Nonetheless, that game was packed with stuff that still gives WOW and its legions of developers a run for its money. People might be impressed by the story-ish stuff they experience in WOW quests, but I’ve still never seen a more memorable character than Fippy Darkpaw. And all that stuff mixed together into an impressive, albeit uneven and chaotic whole.

    Instances are a great example of something that sounds awesome but maybe is a bit less so. I laughed in the early days of EQ as I attempted to hunt gnolls in Blackburrow while it was packed like Saturday night at the Roxy. “Pardon me, was that your mob?” “After you.” “This one’s mine, killstealer!” “Crap, train!” These were bold moments of adventure? Instances certainly solved all that. Of course that ignores some of the exciting moments I had in Befallen, when I had to shadow a more powerful party while retrieving my corpse, deep inside. That WAS a bold moment of adventure.

    Instances recreate the Diablo experience perhaps, but they only work well when the content is well-crafted and convey a storyline (since it is nearly impossible to tell a story in pieces to random members of a thousand-plus community). I’ve really enjoyed some of the story-based instances in LOTRO, for example, but of course they are trying to evoke the feeling of a 50-year-old series that was already told linearly. However, when there are just a series of creatures plopped in a dungeon, instances might simply be a lazy way of keeping things balanced.

    I still believe that there are more natural tales to be told within an MMO space that are very different from tales told in books. An MMO world is a chaotic place and players all want to feel special, but in the end the player only experiences his or her own story. If an MMO creator can actually deliver an individualized, personalized tale that is cohesive and interesting, it shouldn’t matter that it happens in a world full of ninja-looters and griefers, and we’d see a true step forward in MMO’s rather than backsliding into session-based conventions like instances.

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