Saturday, 20 April 2013

A Testing Experience: Everquest, EQ2

Isey posted a comment that got me reminiscing about my very early days on Everquest's Test server. I started to reply but I had more to say than would fit into a comment so...

My very early experiences on EQ1's Test server were what really nailed me onto MMOs, I think. I started EQ in late 1999 and by early 2000 I was already finding the community a little difficult. I server hopped a few times looking for something that felt right and ended up on Test.

At that time it was normal for Test to be taken down on the fly with no warning several times during a single evening play session. When the server came back up, which could take anything from a couple of minutes to many hours, there would often have been a roll-back. All the experience you'd gained, any levels, any drops you'd found, any progress of any kind - gone.

Oh Noes! That is not right!
Even if there was no roll-back your character would be restored at the last "save". In those days Everquest saved your character automatically but incrementally. I can't recall the exact increments but they were in minutes not seconds. When this automatic process kicked in a message would appear in the chatline telling you your character had been saved.

The game also saved progress when you took certain significant actions like crossing the invisible barrier from one zone to another. In Everquest it was always wise to hunt near a zone line for reasons of self-preservation (although not at one, where the risk of being run over by the train of mobs following someone else's desperate flight was ever-present). On Test, doubly so. Skipping back and forth between zones was like putting your xp in the bank.

At that time the level-cap in EQ was fifty. The visual indicator of your character's level was a yellow bar divided into five sections known as "bubbles". Later a blue line was added beneath which broke each bubble down into a further set of ten. That happened because gaining xp in Everquest was so attritionally slow at that time that you literally could not see any movement whatsoever on the yellow bar when you killed anything, which was deemed to be somewhat disheartening.

A later add-on version
After the blue line was added we used to talk about "doing a blue" or "getting a yellow" and
it became possible to talk about progress in timescales shorter than "a session" but back in early 2000 a full evening's play on a normal server would possibly, maybe get me one yellow, 20% of a level, if I was very lucky, stuck at it, killed non-stop and, most importantly, didn't die. One death would wipe out the majority of that progress.

It would seem counter-intuitive, then, to move to an unstable server with a much higher risk of losing progress but there were good reasons, or reasons that seemed good to me at the time. In 2000 Everquest was a runaway success. Servers were bursting at the seams with players. One of the main complaints was overcrowding. Certain areas had xp modifiers or had mobs that dropped items which could be handed in for bonus xp and those areas were permanently camped, often with waiting lists. Even at low levels mobs had a respawn time of 12-20 minutes. You either waited a long time between spawns at the good spots or roamed around and took lower rewards off whatever you could find. If you could kill it. If someone didn't steal the kill.

At busy times the atmosphere could get overheated, fractious, recriminatory. I heard somehow that fewer people played on Test because of the risks involved. Better yet, in recognition of those risks and in an attempt to offset them, Test had a large, permanent bonus to xp.

There was no way to transfer to Test, nor to bump up your character's level, nor to get free gear. All those inducements and incentives came years later. At that time if you wanted to play on Test you rolled a character there and leveled up just like any other server.

Alright, who saw me first?
I rolled a necro, a new class to me. I picked it because I'd read the necro could solo, something that was supposed to be beyond most classes in Everquest (In my experience most classes could solo, with the exception of Rogues and Warriors, and even there some determined individuals managed it somehow. Whether soloing them could be classed as any kind of entertainment is another matter).

I loved playing my necro. He seemed very powerful and versatile compared to the ranger and cleric I'd been playing before. Not that there weren't problems. The trick I mentioned before about zoning to force a save clashed badly with the inability of pets to cross a zoneline. Same thing if you camped out to character select, which would also force a save but cause any summoned skeletons to collapse in a clatter of bones.

After a while I discovered that dropping a coin would force a save. Those were the days when you could drop anything on the ground - armor, weapons, food, gold. You'd see it lying there where you dropped it and you could pick it up. So could anyone else. That's how we traded items from one character another on the same account in those days before shared banks and in-game mail.

Boy, twinking was a scary thing to do back then. Take some precious item like a Shiny Brass Shield, drop it on the floor and camp out then log another character back in as fast as you could, hoping no-one else saw you drop it or just happened to pass by and picked it up. I used to do my swaps in one of the upstairs rooms in an obscure Freeport Inn and I was always paranoid I'd been followed.

Anyway, I quickly got used to the outages and the roll-backs, to the ritual of dropping a copper every time I looted anything worth keeping or made any noticeable progress. I loved the lower population density. I could get camps worth camping without having to wait. Even with the occasional roll-back, what with playing a more capable class and having the benefit of the boosted xp I was having fun and going faster.

Then came The Wipe. I'd made it into the mid-20s, much higher than any character I'd had before. I came home and logged in to... nothing. With no warning whatsoever there had been a full character wipe of the entire server. Huge controversy ensued. Verant, as it was then, made various contradictory statements and took several positions. I'm not sure the truth ever came out in full, but as far as I remember it was eventually established that the wipe had been done by someone who didn't have proper authority as part of some in-office power play.

After several days of dithering a decision was made to reinstate all characters, naked. We got our characters back but we didn't get our stuff. A one-time offer was made for Test characters to move to a Live server of their choice. I thought long and hard about it and decided to move to the then newly-opened Lanys T`Vyl. Thus ended my first run on a Test server.

Meet and greet in Thundering Steppes
I'd been bitten with the testing bug and I'd also found my limit. I'd take pretty much any disruption, difficulty or disadvantage up to losing my character as fair trade for the excitement, novelty, camaraderie and fringe benefits of helping to test new content and systems while I played but I had to have a permanent character. If that's in doubt, I'm out.

Like Isey I subsequently played on DAOC's Test server, although never as my main server, and saw it utterly ruined by the decision to allow copies of Live characters to be imported. I would have played on EQ2's Test server from the beginning had they not delayed its launch for several weeks so that by the time it came up I was established elsewhere. I made and played a character there as soon as it became possible and when Mrs Bhagpuss and I came back for a second run at EQ2, when Scott Hartsman began to turn the sinking ship around, we made Test our permanent home. That lasted five years, until we moved to try the beta version of the Freeport F2P server and somehow never came back.

It may be that my days of testing are over. Other than SOE I'm not sure if any companies run full-time, as-Live Test servers any more. Even SOE have moved on, doing most of their testing on Copy and Beta Test servers these days. Perhaps it was something of its day and that day has gone. If so, I'm privileged to have had the opportunity to experience the brief flowering of something very rich and strange.





3 comments:

  1. Amazing - I love looking back. Sometimes I think the way forward with MMO's is finding the right parts of the past to modernize.

    EQ is free now, and I have it on my PC and log in for fun to say hi to the odd people who are still on EQ Test. There is a progression guild there now because they get to see the encounters first. It's breathed a little life into it. I haven't killed a single mob in that game but I just pop in and mess around.

    I remember I lost a full set of Bronze plate trying to self twink a gnome cleric. I found a good spot in the caves I used to do it - but someone must have followwed me in that one time. It was gone in the 1 minute time it took to logout/in. Was devastating.

    You would probably enjoy this old old EQ post of mine from 2009 if you want something to read these days =)

    They don't make testservers like that anymore, sadly. I don't think they could replicate it. I never did go to EQ2 - was it a good testserver environment?

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  2. I really loved EQ2 Test. It was (probably still is) a great server. The community was very dedicated and extremely idiosyncratic. Involvement from SOE varied enormously depending on which Devs were around when - Domino and Kaitheel were particularly active and communicative in the latter days I played there, as was Rothgar for a while before that. In the early years we had a regular QA presence there but that disappeared later.

    There were some absolutely monumental dramas, one of which easily rivaled the Great Wipe from EQ1. It was like living in a soap opera a lot of the time. I loved it, when it wasn't driving me nuts. My five years there cemented my belief that the primary unit of an MMO isn't groups or guilds, it's the Server.

    I've added IHASPC to the blogroll, by the way. I have no idea how I haven't come across it before...

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  3. Thanks Bhagpuss =) I stopped writing for over a year (yay Real Life) so just getting active again =)

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