Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Why do I love Everquest and why do I not want to go back?

Eventually, this will happen: me writing a proper article about Everquest. This article is basically me breaking and listing down what I loved about Everquest, compares it to other MMOs and RPGs, and sometimes regrettably stating why it cannot be done anymore at this present age.

A quick disclaimer: I started Everquest when I was 13. That's 12 years ago since this article was written. I started, I think around Luclin era so I did not actually experienced things like East Commonlands market except in Progression Servers. So do not go around saying 'Oh Everquest went downhill after Velious expansion, you know nothing'. I can speculate why it went downhill, but it is already ridiculous for me to start  play a first-generation pay-to-play MMO when I was 13 in Singapore (I cut my allowance $1 per day), let alone earlier.

But the point of this article is not wholly about comparison between MMOs, and me giving high praise to Everquest due to nostalgia. I am just trying to examine why Everquest is so revered, outside of taking my virgin online experience. Being a games designer 12 years later, this is important and interesting to me. It can't be just 'taking away my virgin online experience'. There must have been some things that Everquest did right. In fact, I feel that there are some things Everquest did right back than that feels wrong in current context, which explains why MMOs nowadays do not appeal to the old players of Everquest.

Huge World
The world of Everquest, or Norrath, is actually small compared to current generation MMOs like World Of Warcraft (of course I have to bring it up eventually). Yet when I played WoW, EQ2, TERA or City of Heroes, their worlds seemed smaller. Why is that?

The first immediate answer is the mechanic known as Fast Travel. You not only see that in MMOs, but also in single player RPGs. This comes in a variety of flavors: hearthstones, teleportation scrolls, portals, NPC dialog warps, flight paths, and blatant 'open-map-and-click-location'. The reason for its implementation is to provide convenience to players, because as designers, we want to remove as much negative emotion the player is experiencing as possible.  

When I joined Everquest, they already had these Nexus Scions, which are portals located throughout Norrath (I think there are like only 4-5 of them) that activate once every 15 min and takes you to Luclin, the moon. There it is like some mass transit interchange where you can board scions which will teleport you (again, another 15 minutes) to it designated continent. 

When I played Progression Server, it was so much worse. Travelling to Freeport to Qeynos feels like travelling to another country although they are in the same continent. Continent-to-continent travel is worse. The boat takes forever to arrive. You literally see people walking up to you at the docks asking if the boat left, in which you might reply, "Well, I was here when the sun set and when sun rose, so it should be coming soon". And when the boat arrives, there will be this fear that you might be taking the wrong boat. But all this creates a pretty unique experience that cannot be found if you have Quick Travel. 

I am going to go off in a tangent and mention that Ocean of Tears chat is so funny and unique sometimes. Ocean of Tears is a zone between the continents Faydwer and Antonica. Up to this date, I have no idea what are people doing in that zone other than waiting for boats, and reporting if a boat was recently seen going a certain direction. "Um, I think I saw a boat go westwards just now, or rather I think it is west".

Despite that, I find that it is difficult NOT to have Fast Travel implemented in today's games. People nowadays are 'busier' as compared to the past. 'Busy' as in that there are more distractions in their lives. Back then, social networks were either non-existent or at an infant stage where not many people are using it. Games and entertainment were mostly found either on home consoles or the PC.  The most we had were Instant Messengers like AIM and MSN, which were not exactly very exciting compared to the distractions we have nowadays like Facebook or Twitter.

The point I am trying to drive here is that in MMOs of the past, people can actually afford to spend most of their time idling and socializing in-game. Nowadays, there are things you might rather be doing if you are a typical consumer like checking out Facebook or Twitter, chatting on mobile apps that support group conversations, play those social games which requires your time once every 10 minutes or even watch shows that you purchased and downloaded. The internet is becoming faster and more robust which allows us to do access such distractions.

Exploration in Everquest is really fun. This is because the game encourages exploration. No, I don't mean blatant 'Get XXX amount of experience points for visiting a new location for the first time'. What I meant is that the circumstances given to you and your characters implicitly forces you to look at your surroundings. This is a reason why the memories of people who play Everquest is very strong; because they actually remember places.

A lot of subtle factors come into play. The first factor is the lack of maps. The lack of maps in Everquest forces player to remember routes by recognizing points of interests. If you leveled in areas like the heavily forested Greater Faydark, the most fearful event that can happen is dying and losing your corpse at an area without a landmark you can identify so that you can find your corpse after you respawn. Getting lost in the middle of nowhere is a common occurrence in Everquest and players often find themselves navigating their way without the usage of maps.

Of course, I understand that it is a too overboard not to have any form of maps whatsoever. Losing your way and wandering for hours without the slightest clue where you can possibly lead to literally several hours of frustration. Having a map gives players more clues on where they could possibly be lost at and reduces the possible time spent being lost. However, games nowadays took it many steps further, usually implementing some insane level of a GPS system that tells you exactly where you are, where you need to go, where NPCs are and more, all on a map. I understand why these features are implemented (again, for convenience and prevent waste of time) but I feel that it is too much. It has a great risk of causing players to look at their maps more than their surroundings.

That being said, I concluded that any form of aid you provide to players for navigation will directly affect their awareness of the surroundings. I will bring up a notorious example which is Elder Scroll IV's Oblivion. My friends used to kid me by saying, "Oblivion? Just follow the red dot!". Oblivion has an implementation where it places a red dot on your character's compass, so that you will know where is the general direction you need to go. I have asked a few people around me, some of them Elder Scrolls fans, whether they could remember the some of the towns inside out, or even the Dark Brotherhood lair. None managed to answer with confidence. How is it that for a game which promotes immersion not allow players to remember the places they visit? If you asked people to navigate through Morrowind's confusing as hell city of Vivec, I bet there is a higher chance of them being able to.

The last point, in my opinion, is having fear and excitement while exploring. Nothing beats the feeling of expecting the unknown. There are lots of places like this in Everquest where players hear stories of death from them. There are many reasons why. Firstly, death penalty is harsh, involving corpse runs and experience loss. Secondly, it is a common fact that you cannot fight any mobs straight up after a certain level. Thirdly, what if you cannot find your corpse? Exploration is that dangerous, and because of this particular deterrence, it makes the world feel big. And it makes exploring exciting.

That sounds contradicting. If there is deterrence  how can players be encouraged to explore? So let me put it into perspective. We know that this is true: the more emotions a player experiences, the more memorable the experience. In World Of Warcraft, there was not much excitement in exploration. I can do anywhere I want, and if I encounter the 'unknown', at the very worst I lose some cash. I practically saw almost everything in vanilla WoW as a Horde, including Alliance areas like Darkshore, Stormwind and Ironforge. Heck I'm not even a rogue who can sneak around without anyone noticing. I can go to so many places with so little risk, it's not memorable at all.

Sure I have gone to Ironforge and other Alliance areas as a Horde in WoW, but that is nothing compared to walking through Maiden's Eye in Everquest with a beating heart filled with fear of encountering some shadowknight mob that can root me and harm touch me to death. Walking around the Plane of Fear is much worse; the entrance is not even the exit!

Nowadays though, I doubt people have the patience or time to do corpse runs any more, or deal with experience loss. Because of this, to make a world fun to explore these days, it would take a combination of great aesthetics, achievement design, level design, quest design and good core gameplay mechanics. I feel like I'm stating the obvious, but it is not easy for all those things to come together.

No Instancing
Until the Legacy of Ykesha expansion, Everquest did not have instancing of any sort. This means that whatever you do will the impacted on the persistent world, small or big. If your group is camping the Orc Hill in Clan Crushbone, it means that everyone in the zone will need to deal with you if they want to kill a certain mob on Orc Hill.

Persistent worlds let players the feel that they exist in the world. If you guild destroyed a raid monster, it's not going to spawn for a couple of days and other guild can 'feel' your guild's presence. In my opinion, it is a very key factor for players to feel immersed in the world. This is why I loved existing in Everquest.

Unfortunately, no instancing has tons of cons. In the end, as a designer, you are hoping that players establish some sort of soft rules amongst themselves so that they do not screw each other over, upheld by every player's integrity. Even worse, these players usually have no way of stopping people who do not follow said rules outside of attempting to outcast them by word of mouth. Not very effective. Old Everquest veterans have seen how ugly this can become and trust me, it's not very fun.

In the end, I feel that instancing is a necessary evil in MMOs, but it should be used sparingly like in high end dungeons. Honestly, I think having a relatively fast spawn rate on pre-maximum level content would suffice for players, if the world is vast enough to spread their density thin. This is because the numbers of such players will increase as they enter the region, and decrease as they out-level the region.

High end content is different though. This is because the higher end content will be saturated with players at maximum level whose numbers will only get larger over time, as such it is safer to provide them with unlimited  access to content and there is currently only one known way to do it: Instancing.

These are the 3 main points why I loved Everquest when I was 13 or 14. It felt like a truly open and huge world that I enjoyed exploring and just plain existing and chatting with random strangers around me. Too bad that now that I am busier (or rather, we), I do not see how any of these will work for me and for the current generation of gamers. Fortunately, there are so many MMOs nowadays that most of us can simply pick whichever feels like the right one and play.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Icewind Dale 2 - Revisited (Part 5 - Underdark and lots of monks)

Chapter 4 starts off pretty grandiosely with some epic music outside of the large Black Raven Monastery. It created a sort of excitement within me that caused me to foolishly cause some of my party member to drop to 1 hp for crossing a flimsy bridge (the designers were apparently nice enough not to cause my guys to die). Content within the Monastery though is slightly disappointing.

It started off with a small complication of course. Apparently outsiders are not allowed to enter the Underdark caverns below the Monastery. The first NPC who greeted my entrance, Salisam, told me that. He offers me, however, a deal to be initiated into the Black Raven Order if I were to remove the deputy leader from power, Aruma (considering that the real leader is supposedly gone to the main bad guy's lair for negotiations). If I were to do that, power will fall onto Salisam and he promised to grant me my wish. Well, monks are lawful people, so I obviously accept.

So I met Aruma, and there was this weird half-fiend (incubus if I remember) named Dolon, who seemed very fond of Aruma and vice versa. I sent my scout to conveniently enter Dolon's guest chamber and found her dairy (which are the bane of all scheming bastards as usual) who showed that she was specifically sent by the bad guys to seduce Aruma. Of course, being a nice guy, I showed it to Aruma. Aruma got angry of course, but Dolon begged and pleaded and swore that his love for her is true. Wow, that certainly got...awkward? No awkward is not the word. Happy? I'm not sure. Anyways, since monks cannot get into love and all that, Dolon suggested that they both run far away from everything. Aruma agreed, leadership was given to Salisam and I get to go through the initiation test: The Eight Chambers.

The Eight Chambers...were...underwhelming. It is basically 8 Chambers (duh) and I can only send 1 naked character to complete each one. I get to rest him between every chamber, so of course I sent my best candidate for all of them - my tank.  Seriously, I think clerics do really well in these chambers. Wizards or sorcerers might do pretty decently too. This is because not only do I have to fight naked (only with a single normal weapon found in the chambers themselves), I cannot cast any buffs on myself before entering. 

Some of the chambers are boring design-wise. A couple was so bad that I actually remembered them, like the first chamber: The Chamber of Stone. In that chamber, I have to pull 4 levers in order. Each lever will spawn different amounts of annoying stone monks that will attack me. If I screw up the sequence of levers to pull, it will reset. There is no clue whatsoever to what the sequence should be so it's basically trial and error, and every lever you pull is just watching your singular character trying to beat up multiple enemies. 

On the bright side, some chambers are interesting to me, like the Chamber of Battle where I have to fight regenerating monks and defeat them at certain positions of the chamber in order to complete it. Amongst the 8 chambers, around 5 of them were bad or unmemorable but at least the rest were decent so I did not really have much to complain about. 

Completing the chamber leads me to the Raven Tomb under the Monastery, where my party encountered 4 very well animated golems surrounding a very bright platform with a treasure chest on it, obviously a trap. I, of course, triggered it in my cockiness since I'm half-buffed (this took care of all my fight so far) but holy crap these golems are tough as hell. Stoneskin wore off much faster than I expected against these guy. So I reloaded and tried again, this time with so many buffs on my 2 clerics it filled the entire character portrait. Thankfully, I managed to defeat them with ease and got my reward which is a bunch of really good but alas, useless magical objects. 

Aside from that, we encountered an army of gray dwaves trying to raid the Monastery (the ones we met at the previous chapter). We took them to screw off, they didn't listen and now they are dead. So off I go to the Underdark passages.

The very first thing that happened was a greeting by Malavon, a Master Of Sorcere (basically a really powerful male wizard in a drow society, go metagame knowledge check!) who asks for help. He states that there are driders breeding in the east blocking my path and I need to get rid of them. Metagame knowledge tells me that driders are half-drow half-spider that can only be created if some powerful servant of Lolth is involved. For those you get that good, the rest can ignore my previous statement. The fact of the matter is that you cannot 'breed' driders so I found it quite interesting to check it out. Malavon also asks to persuade his sister (who is the leader of the driders) to return to his camp. What?! Drow males asking a favor from outsider to 'save' his sister? Totally unheard of.  

The creatures in this area can be rather annoying. There were mushrooms creatures that can fear you during combat, which surprised me since my characters have good saves, but there must have been so many of them that eventually a couple of my characters would crack. Thankfully, clerics have a level 1 spell called Remove Fear that also prevents fear effects, so it wasn't much trouble. In the driders' lair, I came across the Red Wizard responsible for the breeding process.  Ah Red Wizards of Thay, of course they are involved. The process is pretty disgusting. It feels like some screwed up human experimentation thing. So I killed him and killed all the driders except Malavon's sister whom we managed to persuade to return to Malavon. Yay! Happy ending!

This is when the game gets confusing. See, beside the drider cave, there was this particular building I couldn't enter for no apparent reason until I defeat the driders, and it happens to be the building I need to enter to get to where I need to go. I might have missed something, but without the information as to why can't I enter it, it seems utterly silly. Anyway, that building is a home of mind flayers. Well, thankfully, all my characters have really good Will saves (2 clerics, 1 bard/druid, 1 sorc/paladin) so I wasn't that afraid.

Immediately I was attacked upon entering. The first went down really quick because my characters happened to be buffed beforehand (naturally). After defeating them, I began to explore the dungeon. At first, I thought it would be a dungeon. I mean, it IS a dungeon, but what I saw was not your typical dungeon but a maze. A circular one. It annoyed the hell out of me. I hate exploring mazes, or things that look like mazes, so I rested, rebuffed to the brim and started bulldozing the entire place. 

It happens that the Elder Brain in the middle of the dungeon will summon every creature it can in the dungeon to defend it. Well, thankfully none of them were as strong as the crazy golems I fought that were guarding the treasure chest at the Raven Tomb, so the fight cleared easily. It looked like a crazy fight though; fighters, mages, mind flayers, golems were squeezing their way to my party. The arcane spell Chaos helped a whole lot in this fight (as it did with all fights that look like they can get out of hand).

Finally we emerged from the dungeon into the open. Oh look, it's Oswald! And some forgettable bad guys as a chapter closing boss fight! Well, unfortunately it is less exciting than the Elder Brain fight so I shan't describe so much here. After the fight, we board the ship to Kuldahur, because the gnome suggests that it's a good place to go next. 

Just a quick PS, throughout the game, I probably left out a few encounters. There was one outside the mind flayer dungeon and the first encounter IN that dungeon has against a named mind flayer, for example. However, they are uninteresting and I just didn't feel like boring the text with more 'and I streamrolled them, again with my fully buffed clerics of destruction'. The fights are becoming more and more trivial as my characters get stronger.