Thursday, 14 August 2014

Old Dogs, New Tricks: Everquest

For quite a while now SOE has been in the habit of re-purposing old zones. I'm not sure just when it began but I first noticed it in the Seeds of Destruction, Everquest's 15th expansion, which arrived in the autumn of 2008.

Of course, Everquest zones have always been fluid. Splitpaw has changed ownership and level range several times over the years. Firiona Vie went from the primary good-aligned elven outpost on Kunark to a dark elf stronghold of evil. Kerra Ridge, Kithicor Forest, Grobb and plenty more besides have suffered their invasions and revolutions over the years. Norrath has always been a living world.

Then there was the long-running series of graphical revamps. Some, like the one that destroyed the ramshackle charm of Freeport to replace it with a bewildering concrete wilderness, ever afterwards shunned by all, were devastatingly ill-judged. Others, Nektulos Forest, for example, weren't terrible, although come to think of it, it did take two passes to get that one right. It's even possible, whisper it softly, I might prefer the new version of Oasis.

In the end, though, few contemporary or former players appreciated the graphical re-envisionings, while many complained about the violation of their misty, blood-soaked memories. Changes that put different, usually higher level, mobs in existing zones tended to be better received but even that risked complaints from those who felt disenfranchised by the new order.


The current orthodoxy is a much safer bet all round. Instead of altering existing zones and risking trampling on tender emotions, how much better to slide an altered copy of the zone in alongside the unaltered old one. Or, more practically, slap down a portal to an alternate version of reality.

EQ2 has The Ethernere, in which, to quote the Wiki, "Every area of Norrath has its own home". Everquest has The Void. You'll pardon me if I'm vague on the lore here. Nearly fifteen years and I have only the fuzziest idea what's going on. I believe there are storylines. I know Zebuxoruk has something to do with one of them. Not being a high-end raider, however, most of the finer details have passed me by.

Whatever the supposed reason, with the aid of a few color filters, usually green, and some very dim lighting, developers are able to re-use existing zone layouts and get away it it handsomely. I'd like to think I do know an old favorite when I see it, even when it's heavily disguised. Eventually. If someone gives me a hint.


Even before I took SOE's shilling for a free level 85 I'd spent a fair while in Oceangreen Hills. It was one of the better places for my level 84 Beastlord to struggle through her daily, thirty-minute, veteran double xp "lesson". At one level higher but, crucially, with a storming pet and a complete set of level-appropriate gear, however, Oceangreen became my magician's private playground.

So, Oceangreen is Qeynos Hills and what would Qeynos Hills be without Blackburrow?  Quiet, peaceful, safe...let's not go there.

The entrance to Old Blackburrow looks very similar to the old Blackburrow entrance but with one major difference. These gnolls know how to lock a door. The high-level version that abuts Oceangreen (not to be confused with the high-level version of the original zone, known as Reinforced Blackburrow, which occasionally appears during various special events as a treat for higher level players and a damned nuisance for everyone else) requires an access quest.


I like access quests provided they're reasonably short and not too complicated. This one fits the bill perfectly. Bracka, a Darkpaw Gnoll in a camp that's carefully hidden, right at the far end of Oceangreen, well out of sight of Old Blackburrow, explains the sorry plight of her clan: bigger gnolls stole their lunch-money came into their home and kicked them out. Funny - that happened to the original Splitpaw gnolls too. And then the Tesch Mal when the Elementals arrived. Must be a gnoll thing.

Despite the fact that I've been roaming round the edge of Bracka's camp for weeks, indiscriminately murdering his kinfolk whenever I'm a few kills short of the next percentage point on my xp bar, he asks me if I'd like to help them out in their eternity of need. Go kill some Blackburrow gnolls he suggests, although he seems a little muddled on just how many. Looking at my journal I think the quest got a difficulty pass in my favor somewhere along the line but whichever dev retuned it on his lunchbreak didn't quite get all the numbers lined up.


Whatever. It's killing gnolls. Who cares how many? Off to the slaughter we go, my merry little band: magician, mercenary and elemental.

With Bracka's quest as a passkey we slip through the door and inside we find...Blackburrow! It's exactly the same only better-looking. The tunnel that proved, so many times, just those few desperate yards too long; the old hollow tree that nearly made me quit for good a few weeks after I began, when I fell down the concealed trap and couldn't get my body back; the long ramp down to the yipping, howling, gnollish depths; the rope bridges, the underground lake... everything's just as it ought to be.

In no time and the classic fashion I've cleared my fifteen ten "any old gnolls" long before I find the five three special, unpronounceably-named "elite" gnolls. It's not quite a jolly romp just yet though. Even at 88 some caution and care is required. Blackburrow has always been famous for adds. And trains. A mistimed pull here can still spell, if not disaster, a fast trip to the supposed safety of the zoneline. If you make it.

Seeing the word "elite" in the quest description makes me jump to conclusions. I head to the old Elite ledge. I remember when I was in awe of the groups that would set up on that terrifying slab, huddling in the corner, medding up to beat the respawns in their search for the elusive Studded Leather Collar and the even more elusive "great xp".


In Old Blackburrow, it seems, there are no Elite guards. Their place has been taken by slavers, four or five of them with just the one slave. Wouldn't you guess it, he wants to be rescued, and wouldn't you guess it, I'm naive enough to agree.

I'm not quite so naive as to jump in to save him, when I see that instead of stopping in the traditional manner to get himself killed by attacking the first gnoll he passes, my escortee is blithely strolling up the ramp, gathering outraged gnolls like a labrador picks up burrs.

Outside in Oceangreen, with the merc giving me dirty looks as she heals us all back to full health, I ruminate on how fortunate it is that no-one else chose to visit Old Blackburrow today. I'm so out of practice I forgot to yell "Train to zone!"

Returning under the umbrella of permanent invisibility (all very well until I run into one of the handful of undead gnolls scattered around the tunnels) I decide to take a voluntary dive down the old tree trap. Some extensive exploration and a few scuffles later I find the "elite" gnolls standing idly around the shores of the underground lake. None of them even has the grace to carry a fishing pole.


Forewarned of their dangerous nature (as opposed to the puppyish exuberance of the couple of dozen of lesser gnolls I've had to polish off to get here, presumably) I approach cautiously. They do have very nice armor and a ferocious demeanor but they aren't that tough, at least not when you chain-stun them and set them on fire. Still, I wouldn't fancy a runner much and they take a bit of knocking down after they turn at 10% health, so after the second one almost makes it to a bunch of his friends I do something I haven't done for a long, long time. I return to the spawn of the first one I killed and camp his replacement.

Boy, that brings back memories. I never did like camping stuff much. I had a two-spawn limit for most drops - if I hadn't got what I came for in three kills I'd move on. Didn't get much I wanted that way but I did get to keep my sanity. After years and years of more modern MMOs, where a slow spawn means having to wait more than a minute, the quarter-hour passes slowly. Not sure that's a piece of golden age gameplay I want to see make a comeback.

Time will pass though and at least I only needed a kill not a psuedo-rng-cursed drop. With all my boxes ticked, a quick trip back to Bracka and there I am, flagged to enter Old Blackburrow any time I like.

I will be going back but only for the fun of roaming the old place again (or the Old old place, should I say). I certainly won't be going there for the experience. Ninety minutes I was in that dungeon and I made 1% of the level, including the xp I got for the quest hand-in! The money wasn't up to much either. Killing gnolls just never gets old though so everything evens out.

When SOE announces the details of the forthcoming expansions for Everquest and EQ2 at SOELive this week I'll be neither surprised nor disappointed if we learn that more re-purposed zones are on the way. I've always had a strong curiosity for remakes of favorite movies. It's fascinating to see familiar things from a different angle and when that curiosity's been satisfied I can settle back and enjoy the original with renewed appreciation.

This way of doing things seems, finally, to offer the best of both worlds, the old and the new, the future and the past, even if we're not quite sure, existentially, which is which. Either way, it certainly beats giving the Karanas a makeover like The Commonlands got, that's for sure.



5 comments:

  1. I am not a current EverQuest player, nor do I plan on ever returning, so take my opinion with a grain of salt. Results or otherwise, I prefer when they overhaul zones and move stories forward rather than instance them off or create new versions. I know there is a warm gooey center at the heart of this genre where people want comfort and familiarity, but I do genuinely love seeing a zone transform and change into something new. I also think it has a bigger impact when that zone is the only version of itself.

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  2. I think that's fine when your game is growing and adding new players all the time. For a game that long ago ceased to be of much interest to anyone other than its long-established fanbase, though, I think it's more likely to be counterproductive. Once the growth period ends (and over the last few years few MMOs have even had the luxury of a growth period) it has to be about catering to your existing customer-base, which includes the people who used to play but don't play any more and to get their attention you need to play the nostalgia card not the novelty card.

    I think it's very instructive to see that, having pressed the Big Revamp button with Cataclysm and then the New! Shiny! button with MoP, Blizzard are going for the "Same but Different" approach with WoD. It seems to be a progression path that MMO devs need to take to arrive somewhere close to where their players' feelings lie.

    There's food for thought in this about the position of virtual worlds vis a vis games. I'm all for VRs but as time goes on I feel increasingly that the concept offers an inappropriate framework on which to build commercial video games. VRs are better suited to art installation and social experiments. Commercial MMOs require much tighter targeting on viable markets if they are to prosper and if there's one thing I've learned about MMO gamers over the years it's that no matter how much they claim to like real, meaningful, radical changes in their games they actually respond best to notional, trivial, pretend change.

    You pretty much *have* to be a creature of habit to play (post-WoW) MMOs in the first place. No-one who genuinely craves the unexpected and the unpredictable could stand to play most MMOs for more than a few days. The illusion of change when nothing really changes at all is perfect for the market almost all MMOs manage to attract.

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  3. I also think not overly much altering content is the way to go, also as it can be very disheartening to new players to hear all kind of stories of content they'll never get to see themselves and hence will also put them 'behind' the established guard.

    Personally, while I want to like EQ and e.g. the graphics are fine by me, the ancient UI is the one thing that puts me off playing it, call me whatever you want but even the most basic controls are a pain to me.

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    1. I think Everquest presents a huge challenge to anyone with a post-WoW sensibility. Almost everything about it would feel alien. Having begun with EQ, however, it has exactly the opposite effect on me. Going back to it feels like slipping on a comfortable pair of well-worn slippers after wearing a stiff pair of formal shoes. I like modern, fixed UIs well enough but on balance I prefer EQ's extreme flexibility.

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    2. Not just alien, but very difficult to read due to small fonts to boot.

      Does the flexibility mean that, if I dive in deep enough in the basic controls, I could cut the clutter of screens by toggling things off in the basic UI, increase the font size etc., or do you need Add-Ons for that :?

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