Sunday, 4 December 2016

One Size Fits All : EverQuest

A post by Telwyn at GamingSF reminded me of something I hadn't thought about for years, namely the way just about every MMORPG has vendors who stand around selling things that no-one wants to buy. It's not just weapons and armor, either.

Food, drink, potions, crafting and harvesting tools - you name it and there's probably an NPC with an inexhaustible supply standing ready to serve your characters day and night (literally). It goes deeper than that too. If your game has housing of any kind then odds on there are basic tables, chairs, beds and bookcases up for sale in a crafting hall or town square somewhere not far from your door.

The longer established your game of choice, the more extensive the range of merchandise available, but even brand new MMOs start out with busy marketplaces and well-stocked tradespeople. And it makes sense in a way, there at the beginning, as hordes of eager adventurers pour out of the gates of the tutorial dressed in little more than a few meager quest items and the odd stat-free drop, while the crafters have yet to find their way to the forge.

Whether anyone actually gears up at an NPC vendor even in those early days in any modern MMO I'm not so sure. It probably depends on any number of factors: how generous the developers have been with the loot tables in the starting zones, whether gear progression is tied to questing, how fast the leveling speed is set and so on. My guess is most of those NPCs find the trade going only one way as they shell out for an endless stream of beetle mandibles and spider eyes without ever earning a copper back from sales of their unfashionable stock.

When I first stepped out into Norrath those many years ago, though, things were very different. I had no concept of "gear progression" for a start. EverQuest, famously one of the most inaccurately named MMORPGs of all time, didn't begin to use questing as a primary means of supplying usable equipment until many years later. In those days we wore and wielded what we could find and we felt pretty darned lucky if we found, well, anything.

Back then I very definitely wasn't concerned over the quality of the armor and weaponry the NPC vendors had for sale. My big problem was with the prices they charged. I remember standing in North Qeynos scrolling through the stock on the marketplace vendors, wondering how anyone could ever hope to save up the outrageous sums they wanted for basic leathers.

That, of course, was when the sight of a gnoll waving a stick could start a feeding frenzy among new players. It might be a  Cracked Staff (non-magic, no stats)! Such a windfall, not something you could expect every session, meant either a major upgrade to DPS or, if you already had one, a boost to your finances of around a platinum piece, always assuming your character had good faction and high charisma.

In such a world, armor selling for two or three times that per item seemed almost unimaginably
desirable, and equally unimaginably out of reach. Even now, seventeen years later, I can recall the astonishment we felt when some high levels (they must have been in the low twenties at least!) swung by the bank in Qeynos and dumped a whole set of chain armor on Mrs Bhagpuss's shaman. It felt like winning the lottery.

It was relatively common back then for higher levels to offload trinkets and trash from their packs on passing newbies, the basic principle being that one man's trash might as well be another man's treasure. And how were we to know otherwise? In those days, hunting out of Qeynos, the East Commons Tunnel marketplace was little more than a rumor and the advent of the NPC Broker system was still several years and a space voyage away. We had no way of judging value other than the prices we saw on the vendors in the starting towns and villages and those vendors were gougers, every one.

They didn't sell rubbish though. The items the vendors had were either identical to the stuff that dropped, often without even the names changed, or, in some cases, better.

The sequence I remember went thus: you began with the newbie short sword you were given at character creation. That, you upgraded at the earliest opportunity to a rusty version, as soon as you could prize one out of a gnoll pup's lifeless paw.

You'd then use your minimal smithing skills to put a dull shine on it with a sharpening stone. That would give you a Tarnished Short Sword, which would most likely have to last you until you were high enough level to hunt bigger game in a dungeon like Blackburrow, where, theoretically, a Bronze weapon might drop.

Might but rarely did. If you had the coin, though, you could skip the unwilling middleman, avoid the RNG shuffle and simply buy a generic Short Sword from a vendor.

If you follow those links you'll see that not only is the vendor-sold sword always available it's also a superior weapon to any of the others mentioned so far. In fact, dropped weapons didn't supersede vendor-bought until you hit Fine Steel, which you wouldn't normally have expected to see until you began grouping in earnest for serious dungeons like Unrest or Mistmoore.

Can I help you, Sir?

So, when MMOs were young and we were innocent (relatively speaking), these basic vendors did serve a purpose and weren't, after all, so basic as you might imagine. I certainly bought my share of Swords and Staffs from NPCs before I had characters high enough to twink their juniors with hand-me-downs.

As the genre matured, if that's what we call it, the window of opportunity between launch and the end of a useful life for basic vendor stock (which in EQ probably lasted at least a year, or until the arrival of the first expansion, Ruins of Kunark) shrank almost to nothing. I remember going through something similar in Dark Age of Camelot, Vanguard and a few more but I struggle to remember having bought anything other than consumables from the vendors in the last half dozen or so mainstream MMORPGs I've played.  

Blade and Soul, Black Desert, The Secret World, ArcheAge - theme park, sandbox or hybrid alike, just about everything comes via quest, drop, crafter or auction house. GW2 was slightly different, it's true. The plethora of Heart and Karma vendors did give an impression that low-level shopping might be a major feature of gameplay but it turned out to be a mechanic more akin to quest rewards for a game that professes to have no quests.

And yet every new MMO seems determined to roll out with the same indefatigable salesforce set up to sell the unnecessary to the uninterested. It's become a trope of the genre and one that I would miss were it to be taken away. I may not want what they sell but I'll defend their right to sell it to the end.

And anyway, they must be selling the stuff to someone, right? Else where do they get the money to buy my all my burned out lightstones?

3 comments:

  1. I remember trying to gear up in the early days of EQ, following the old MUD rule of "any gear in a slot is probably better than an empty slot."

    And one of the nice things back in the EQ, as was the case in MUDs, was that gear people sold to the vendor then appeared for sale again. Yeah, we've been down that route before, but it was still cool back in the day.

    I don't think I've bought gear from anything but special point vendors (like WoW gear for honor points) since the EQ.

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    Replies
    1. I still firmly believe that anything is better than an empty slot. I'll put appearance-only gear in there if nothing else comes to hand.

      One of the things that never gets mentioned when the old, very much missed, "buy back what other people have sold" thing comes up is the way those second-hand items were priced. The idea generally seemed to be to make the re-sold items unattractive for players to purchase when compared to almost any other means of gearing up. That principle, however, seemed to be applied inconsistently, sometimes wildly so, which was what led to the bargain-hunting mentality among some players, myself very much included.

      There's a full post in here. I may get around to it sometime.

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  2. I made several thousand gold in WoW selling basic white items from the Blood Elf starter zone- back when that was loads of cash. Some of the gear there had a unique look not found anywhere else and was valuable despite not having any stats of note.

    Project : Gorgon seems to have the player sold items available on vendors.

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