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.

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