Video Games

Grand Experiment Thoughts: Part 1

I’ve played a lot of games. An awful lot of games. One of the game types I have played most over the years have been MMOs, dating back some 14-15 years at this point. Yes, I’ve played a genre of games fairly religiously for roughly half of my life. I have just finished a couple of non-MMO games, and I’m not really playing any MMO at this point, beyond popping into SWTOR to play some Huttball, or pissing around in Guild Wars 2 from time to time. My schedule has been so inconsistent that I just get left behind, or I end up racing ahead, and my experience isn’t really the same when that happens. I’m very aware I’m tied to the social aspect of gaming first and foremost. Frankly, MMOs have gotten less and less social as a response to issues of the past. I know that it’s incumbent upon the user to shape their own experiences, but without a clear onus of social pressure placed upon them it’s a bit harder to codify and regulate that. With all of that in mind, I found myself with some time on my hands and no game to play. A friend was chatting with me, and sent me a link to something he had been trying to get me to try for years, EQMac.

EQMac is Everquest that has been frozen in time at the Planes of Power expansion. This was only for Mac computers, and the development was shelved at that time, though the server was kept open. Weirdly, this server required a paid and active subscription until recently, when EQ finally went Free to Play following the hacking of the SOE Station account database. EQMac never made the switch to the Free to Play model, it simply became a free game. If you have a Station account, or if you just go and make one, you can play the game. Recently, a windows client (linked above) was released which has seen a bit of life breathed into the game once more. My friend really wanted me to play with him, and I loved Everquest, so I decided to look at this as an experiment.

Games have trended to be more and more accessible over the years, and what used to be called “Quality of Life” features are now required parts of gameplay that have been hardcoded into a genre. So much so that when a game does even the slightest thing different, it is hailed as revolutionary. Even if it’s really not all that different. However, what lessons have never been retained from the past? What has been shucked for the all-consuming forces of usability and market share? It’s been so long since my first experiences, I have to question my thoughts to know if they are truth, or tinted with the rose-colored glasses of the past memories of the first-timer. The experiment is based off of this. What can I learn from the original Everquest when I am playing through it and looking at it through the lens of modern gaming. What lessons have been left behind, and is there any value in trying to pick them back up? If lessons haven’t been picked up, I want to examine why and then evaluate that reasoning. Am I crazy? Maybe! Regardless, here is the first part of a multi-part series without any ascribed ending.

I will try and only address a few things in each of these posts, or they will get too long in a hurry. Let’s start with the two things I was most struck by, factions and zones. I could talk about death and dying, but that’s really a whole post in and of itself.

*Factions*
I chose to play a gnome, because gnomes are the master race. They are small, they die the cutest, and it looks like you are running the fastest, even though you move the same speed. The best thing about gnomes is that Ak’anon is a completely amazing steam city way before steampunk caught on as a thing. Steamfont is the tits. I decided that this time around I would play a Shadowknight. I have never played a Shadowknight before. I played a rogue, cleric, paladin, ranger, and druid, when I played the game originally. So I select my race, my class, and then I have an option to select my deity. Oh shit, I had forgotten about that entirely! The deity you select totally plays a huge part of the game experience. As a Shadowknight, I only have the option to worship an evil god, and only the evil small people god at that, Bertoxxulous, the Plaguebringer! This immediately made me panic a little bit, was I going to be killed in my own hometown? I couldn’t remember!

See, that’s the thing about starting out in EQ. Your allegiances were tied entirely to your gods and your race to a smaller degree. If you worshiped an evil god, the goodly people would be out for blood. This created somewhat “soft” factions. There were towns into which you could not venture, but your group and guildmates could. However, you could simply kill some monsters and get friendly with a particular group, though it took an awful long time.

To me, this is very different than simple faction selection in modern MMOs because it wasn’t a hard line. I wasn’t competing against other players, or forbidden to group with them, but there was a word story and the driving force of that story were the gods. If I wanted to get friendly with one of the groups, I had to work out and I could do so at any time. There wasn’t a single decision point. There were many decision points.

This reminded me of the Scars of Velious Expansion. Full disclosure, this is my favorite expansion of any MMO. There were three distinct factions in the expansion. The dwarves, giants, and dragons. The dwarves and dragons were more or less indifferent to each other, but the giants were opposed to them both. The dragons were then split among themselves. Being aligned with the dwarves meant you opposed the giants, but not that you were necessarily allied with the dragons. You could swap at any point in time, and each faction had their own quests, rewards, and raid content.

You really don’t see that sort of soft faction alignment any more. This was done away with in the great grind purge of MMOs. However, faction and rep grinding has snuck back into a lot of the games, particularly WoW and Rift. That’s how they decided to throttle rewards, progression, and completion. Unlike EQ, this was almost never done at the cost of a different faction, save the Insane/pirate stuff in WoW. It’s almost as if the lesson was learned that grindy is bad, and this model was abandoned, but after it was semi-implemented the good and flexible aspects were never reinserted. It’s possible that this is entirely an engine issue, but in EQ I never had an issue with swapping, since it was entirely kill based. Again, this is not ideal or necessarily as fun as it could be, but it was simple enough to be handled FOURTEEN years ago.

Let me be clear, I am not arguing in favor of faction grinding as awesome, but I love the organic factions that were presented in core Everquest, and how they were intertwined. This created a very interesting play dynamic and made the experiences feel very different. I easily consider this a Lost Lesson, and it’s something to consider for the future. It made the world feel more alive, you could experience things all with one character instead of being hardlocked by a single decision point, and it was extremely organic.

I’d like to see something like this implemented with modern sensibilities.

*Zones*

So Everquest is old. In computer game terms, it might as well be on display in antique store or used in a sitcom as an insult by a snarky pre-teen asshole kid who quips a one-liner set to a laugh track. One of the limitations of the tech was that each area was broken into discrete locations that loaded independently of each other. These were typically called zones, and the practice of moving between areas was called zoning. It seems laughable now, given that every modern MMO is an open world, save for dungeons, which are all instances. In EQ, the idea that something might be instanced didn’t really catch on until the Planes of Power expansion, and then only in extremely limited ways. Plane of Time was an individual instance, and maybe Plane of Earth B. I can’t recall offhand, but I know Plane of Time was definitely.

While there were definitely dungeons, everything was an open area in terms that anyone could come in and out. This has a number of implications when taken in the light of modern games, but it’s not the focus of my discussion right now. What struck me as I was playing the game again is that vast level bands that often occurred in zones. You know how modern games often have level bands right there on the maps? Something like 16-24, or 1-7. I am sure you have seen this. In Everquest, level bands might look something like 17-25 and 35-40, or 13-20 and 30-32. There were often distinct areas of the zone that existed solely for you to explore once you hit higher level. Hell, one of the zones I spent a lot of time in was 30-35 and then 45-50, probably higher than that if you had expansions.

The point here is that it was extremely common to revisit an area in EQ. In fact, there were so many different leveling paths, including deciding to go to war with one of the towns in the game, that it is extremely likely that you would never level the same way twice. In fact, it was only this current time playing that I experienced an extremely famous area of the game, High Hold Keep. In all my days playing, I had never spent significant time in the zone. If you are a goodly character, you could spend time killing goblins and orcs. If you are an evil character, you could wail on the humans that staffed the pass. Crazy to think that fourteen years later I experienced an entirely new portion of the game.

I equate this very much to a sandbox experience, as opposed to what is commonly termed as theme park. EQ rests somewhere in the middle of this, with lots and lots of options, but still a defined experience.

Now, is this a good thing and a true lost lesson? For me, as someone who has extolled the virtues of exploration, I feel that it is. I wanted to know what the fuck was in an area I couldn’t yet access, and would definitely come back to check it out once more. That being said, it was certainly possible to experience extremely little of the content, and you might definitely “get sick” of an area. I have less sympathy for that second feeling, but in EQ travel was a major restriction on your time, and while it was still cool and neat, it might restrict where you wanted to go and explore. After all, there was no guarantee that you could find a group or get involved if you spent all the time running there. There was no group finder, or channels until much later, and there was really no concept of a way to check if you could get somewhere. This is a different issue really, but it all plays into the cons of a system like this.

I’d probably like to see more of this in games, as it really does seem to flesh out the world, and it’s a cheap way to bring back the thrill of exploration and content. Not to mention it almost forces contact between different bands of players. A level 14 would be in the same area and chat channel as a level 35. Given the pacing of the game, something I will discuss in a future post, it was inevitable that these two people would end up talking to each other. This simply doesn’t happen in modern games. This had a huge social impact on the community, and those bonds that people made in places like Unrest, an undead mansion house, often lasted throughout the rest of the time they spent in the game.

You just don’t see that any more. Yes, linear progression with ease of movement and clarity has its benefits, but why not combine the two? Have exploration and backtrack options. Don’t restrict it to just dungeons, have it in more areas. More work? Maybe. The benefits are clearly, there, and I feel that this is something that has fallen by the way side in order to streamline and improve the leveling experience. In most games where travel is trivial at best, why WOULDN’T you do this? You want people to experience your content, and there is something to be said about the feeling of expertise that people would gain. The high levels in the zone would be authorities on the lower level content and could provide instantaneous help and conversation.

It’s a shame that this hasn’t been explored more, and it’s definitely something I would consider a Lost Lesson.

So there you go, a few days back into the game and two areas of interest delved into with many more to come.

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