Saturday, 28 January 2017

Rebuilding Freeport : EverQuest

A couple of days ago, Wilhelm posted what seemed to me to be a very provocative piece of agitprop, in which he asked - nay, demanded - "Where the Hell is that EverQuest Successor Already?". The post itself may or may not have been layered in irony but it and the comments it generated positively dripped with hooks. Since I generally need no encouragement whatsoever to ramble on about EQ (the problem usually being how to stop me) I could very well have found myself continuing the discussion here today.

As it happens, though, this post is at a tangent to the main argument. It's more a thank-you to Wilhelm and his commenteers for nudging me, at last, to do something I've wanted to do for years. Something I've started to do several times only to lose my nerve and back away. Something that, if it hadn't been for Wilhelm's post and the comment it received from someone called "Great Sword", I might never have gotten around to doing.



Here's Great Sword's comment in full:

Interesting to see news regarding EQ. I recently discovered something very relevant to this post — Project 2002. They are similar to P99 and host their files in an easy download ( all files no searching), right to the PoP expansion. It’s a wonderful server, a lot like returning to EQ after you left back in 2004…There is a strict no 3rd party software and a manual 3 box limit with a focus on grouping.

I had very vaguely heard of P2002 somewhere, somewhen, but for whatever reason I'd never investigated further. I am, of course, hugely more familiar with P99, the quasi-legal archival enterprise, sanctioned by John Smedley before his fall from power. As Wilhelm points out, though, even with the legal issues pushed into the background, P99 requires a retail box purchase of the EQ Titanium compilation, currently retailing for $140 and up on Amazon. That presents a very high bar.

Also, I am not particularly keen to revisit the original, 1999, version of EverQuest. I played it and I loved it at the time but I'm one of the least bitter of veterans. To my eyes, EQ has improved continually and markedly throughout its lengthy lifespan. Even if I could go home I'm not sure I'd want to.

The mysterious "pile" - it's still there...

If I did have an EQ time machine I don't think I'd set it for 1999 anyway. We all have our favorite periods or time-spans within the MMOs we favor but I look back with enormous fondness on several epochs of EQ. Early Velious was magical and I absolutely adored the Luclin era. The reign of Lost Dungeons of Norrath was one of the most intense and involving six months I ever spent in any MMO. I could even make a case on behalf of Depths of Darkhollow, The Serpent's Spine or Secrets of Faydwer.

Truth is, I love EQ in all its forms and faces. I don't feel a sense of loss or betrayal when I look at what the game has become - just a deep satisfaction that I've been lucky enough to be there all along  to see it change.

With one exception. Freeport.

What SOE did to Freeport, one of the most emblematic of all MMO cities, was a crime. Specifically, it was vandalism. They tore down a work of art and a piece of history and replaced it with an ugly, confusing mess. Everyone hated it. Everyone avoided it. Now everyone ignores it.

One big difference - I can read the signs. In 2002 on a 14" CRT monitor this was just a blur.

So, I'd long had it in mind to visit Project 1999 purely to see Freeport again. The real Freeport. I looked into the possibilities  a few times but the cost of that genuine copy of Titanium was always too high and the alternatives looked too shady. And other than seeing Freeport not much appealed. 1999 was setting the dial just that bit too far back.

2002 though...

I googled it. It did indeed appear to be just as easy and straightforward as Great Sword claimed. This morning I made an account, downloaded and installed the files and guess what? It was.

Seriously, the entire process was easier than installing and patching many commercial MMOs. It took about half an hour including all the downloads. Other than some fiddling with screen resolutions when I logged in the entire process was just about automatic.

Whose sweat? Not Lucan's, that;s for sure.

So, there I was at character creation. I made a human ranger only to be reminded rangers can't start in Freeport. Yes, it's been a long time...

My second attempt was a human Paladin following Mithaniel Marr. There was a brief FFS! moment when "You are entering The Mines of Gloomingdeep" flashed across the screen but when loading completed (very much more quickly than it ever did back in the actual 2002) there I was outside the Cleric Guild - in Freeport!

What followed was both a huge nostalgia trip, an emotional welcome home and a reminder of just how very, very unforgiving EverQuest can be for a newcomer. Starting out in Freeport there's a total absence of any suggestions on what to do or where to go. If this is a theme park it's one with all the rides powered down. No wonder they created Gloomingdeep.

It's not only that all - and I mean all - of the expected lifelines are entirely absent - no feathered quest-givers, no sparkly trails, no encouraging voice-overs... It's not even that the designers seem content just abandoning you to your own resources. It does sometimes appear they've set out, willfully, to confound and confuse you.

There's something not quite right here...

Why, for example, does a new Paladin appear outside the Temple of Marr? The one and only starter quest that Paladin gets requires she present herself to her guild leader - who isn't in the Temple of Marr. He is, unsurprisingly yet now obscurely, in the Halls of Truth, an entirely separate building, across the river.

As a new Paladin you have no idea of any of this until and unless you decide to open your inventory. Assuming you know how to do that. When you do, you'll find a very bad sword, some food and drink and a candle because back in 1999, although not in 2002, it really did get that dark in Norrath.

There's also something that looks like a small, beige washcloth, which is in fact a note introducing you to your Guild Leader. That's your NPC guild leader, not a player, who might actually care enough to explain this stuff to you. At this point, far from having a guild or friends or possibly any fun, you need to intuit that a) this washcloth is some kind of a note and b) that you read a note by right-clicking it with your mouse. Good luck with that.

Nope, still not getting it...
If you're paying attention this is the point you realize you aren't where you need to be. You need to explore the city to find the building you want, then explore that building to find the NPC who, it seems, holds your future in his hands. Once found, you have to somehow conceive that the way to "give" him the note is to left-click it so it sticks to your mouse pointer then drag it onto his body and let it go.

Well I've done all this a hundred times so of course I just sailed through it. Not.

I did remember you need to speak to your guild leader but I forgot all about the note so I barged straight through the first door I saw - the one I spawned right next to - and spent ten minutes (literally) running up and down the stairs of the wrong guild house fruitlessly "hailing" everyone I saw. I won't even go into how you're supposed to know how to "hail"an NPC. Or what "hailing" is.

Eventually it came back to me about the note. I opened my pack, found, clicked and read it. I'd love to say I struck my forehead and said "D'oh!" and ran straight to the Paladin guild but what I actually did was run straight back into Temple of Marr yet again - still not noticing it was the Cleric Guild - for another, equally fruitless, round of stair-climbing and hailing.

D'oh!

So, to cut a long and increasingly frustrating story short, I did finally read the note again, more carefully. Taking in what it said, at last, I went looking for the Halls of Truth, which turned out to be pretty much across the street and round the corner.

Even once I was in the right building it took me another five minutes to find the right NPC because of course he's not in the main hall or near the entrance or anywhere remotely obvious that you might expect to find your first responder quest guy. No, he's out on a terrace at the back of the guild, moodily staring at a pond.

I got my shirt, which is what your Guild Leader gives you on your first day in Norrath, indeed all he gives you, and put it on. Along the way I'd somehow acquired another note from some Knight or other which he wanted me to take to someone at his home in The Commonlands. Seriously, that's all the direction I had. That's like giving someone a letter to deliver and addressing it "Jim, Jim's House, Nebraska".

Mention of The Commonlands did remind me of another very odd design decision taken by the original EQ team. The Paladin and Cleric guilds are both in North Freeport but there is nothing a level 1 Paladin either can or indeed should kill in the entire zone. The nearest practical place to begin using that really crappy sword is the brief strip of desert outside the gates of either East or West Freeport. Nothing tells you this and in a game based almost entirely on killing things that seems like an oversight.

Now this guy lives where, exactly? Oh never mind, how dangerous can it be?

If there's ever been an MMO where the question "where do I go to level up?" represents a genuine cry for help rather an indication of severe lack of imagination, EverQuest is that game. You could so easily spend that famous first thirty minutes in which new players decide they've made a terrible mistake and wonder what the refund policy is, just running around North Freeport (or North Qeynos for that matter). You'd never see one rat let alone kill ten. Which no-one is asking you to do anyway. If only!

Goes without saying I had a wonderful time. I visited all the old haunts - the Theater, the gallows, the marketplace, the bank... I took screenshot after screenshot and just rolled in that good old Freeport dust, at least until the thunder started and the badly-animated rain came down in lines.

I killed a decaying skeleton for his rusty halberd, so slow but so much more satisfying than my stupid rubber sword. Then I killed an orc pawn to see if he had any armor, which he did, only it was the wrong size. I'd forgotten armor comes in both different materials (cloth, chain, leather, plate) and sizes (small, medium, large).

Gimme yer pants!

It took me an hour to get to Level 2 although a lot of that was exploring. It was still a lot faster than it would have been back in  the day. Project 2002 has a 20% xp bonus for a start. It's not the genuine 2002-2004 experience because, guess what? Time travel doesn't exist!

All the same, P2002 might be the closest you're going to get to that lost past and it looks like the easiest way to get there, too. Nevertheless, I won't be settling down and leveling up there. I'll keep paying my All Access sub to DBG and when I want my EQ fix I'll find it on the official servers, most likely trying to edge my Magician closer to three figures. Still, I'm very glad someone's taking the trouble to preserve at least one version of the "Golden Age" and I'm also glad I took the trouble to open that door to the "past", at last.

Even if you can't really go back in time, you can go back to the real Freeport. I recommend it.

10 comments:

  1. I am not sure where that post really came from. It started with the title and that last little paragraph, then I sort of ran amok in the middle. I put some appropriate tags on it and let it go, wondering what the response would be, and now it is one of the most read posts this month and I am afraid to respond to the comments with any of my thoughts lest I break the spell.

    On other topics, I remain happy that I started in Qeynos back in the day. While I felt the sting at the time of how much SOE favored Freeport, nearly 18 years later Qeynos is mostly as it was back when I first logged in. Not just Qeynos either, but just about everything west of Highhold pass is still crappy textures and awkward angles, without a curved line to be seen anywhere. Blackburrow is practically a work by Picasso compared to things like the revamped Commonlands. And given the resource constraints at Daybreak, I would guess that Qeynos will remain as it is until the game gets shut down. My nostalgia touchstones in Norrath... Qeynos and the Karanas... remain intact.

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    1. It was a great post - very nuanced and quite hard to unpack. I was looking forward to seeing how you replied but I can understand why you might want to leave everything open to interpretation. I might well come round at some of it again - so much to bounce off there.

      Freeport and Qeynos are a duality for me. Hard to imagine one without the other. In EQ1 I probably played Qeynos side more, in EQ2 the reverse. Like Isey, though, the starting city and area I probably favored most in EQ1 was Ak`Anon/Steamfont. Over time I played through every one. My least favorite was probably Neriak/Nektulos Forest although I'd also rate Neriak as the most visually impressive of all the original cities.

      I'm looking forward to revisiting all the revamped zones in their original form. I like a lot of the new versions, especially the desert of Ro/Oasis, which I think is a genuine improvement, but it will be good to see the old Lavastorm again.

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  2. I kind of miss MMOs starting this way. It is subtle, but it means all the difference when you want players to live in your world. Nowadays, there are a ton of tutorials and handholding and voice acted background and an immediate focus on fighting and leveling.

    I liked how games like Ultima Online would let you pick a town of your choice and gave you enough starting gold to buy something before you adventured out of town.

    I think their could be a better compromise between past and present.

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    1. I was thinking about this. The knee-jerk reaction is that modern-day players would never stand for this kind of nonsense but then I thought about the huge growth and success of "Survival" games, where you literally start with nothing. Not only that but many of these games seem able to attract big audiences even in Early Access, with broken systems and very little in the way of hand-holding or explanation.

      The old MMO "new player experience", namely dumping everyone in the world and expecting them to get on with it seems to have more than a little in common with the "Survival" approach so I'm not sure. I think it still could work. It would need, as you say, some degree of compromise. I'd like to see someone try it, anyway. I bet even Brad's pantheon team go with a detailed tutorial if they get as far as Open Beta though.

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    2. The difference, in my opinion, is in the labeling of the game. Post-WoW, you can't call a game an MMO and not have much of its audience expect certain conventions. Look how difficult it was for GW2 to train its players away from exclamation marks and towards orange circles - first, they still had to be minimap labeled as orange circles, there were pre-launch blog posts convincing its starter playerbase this was a spectacular great new thing and garnering acceptance, and then post launch, signposts like the content guide arrow and the New Player Experience (RIP carrying feed bags to cows, new players can't handle that, press F to feed, press F to everything) still had to be implemented. Even now plenty of newbies lose the plot and have to be explicitly told to seek out events.

      Survival sandboxes may get away with the dumped into the game to figure it out on your own shtick, but you know what happens after an hour or two (at most) of spirited experimentation? Most players use a wiki, on which there is some kind of step-by-step getting started guide.

      I suppose if you label the game a "survival" MMO, there might be a little more genre acceptance of entering a situation without a clue and being expected to figure it out. But by and large, most players still want a Dulfy to tell them what to do next.

      What might be an interesting spin that not many new games have tried but used to be more commonplace in the older games is the reliance on a new player mentor, a live person who hangs around the newbie zones offering help and advice, retrieving corpses for the errant experimenters, being social and having that newbie-advisor interaction be their content.

      Dunno, I'm not sure what has to be designed in place for such an organization to work again, in this era where the only thing more likely to greet newbies in a completely open sandbox are griefers and bullies.

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    3. All true, particularly ANet's withering loss of faith and confidence in its own ability to "break the mold". Realistically, though, there never was a time when MMO players didn't refer extensively to 3rd party walkthroughs. Within weeks of installing EQ I had three lever-arch folders of printouts from EQAtlas, Allakhazam and Caster's Realm among others. You couldn't (legally) tab out to read the websites so I, like many players, simply printed out entire websites.

      I am 100% in favor of full walkthroughs and guides like Dulfy's. I have, and never have had, the slightest interest in wasting my time deriving from first principles things other people have discovered before me. I have a very simple rule of thumb - I try new content once without looking stuff up and the moment I hit any barrier that means I'm no longer having fun I go for help. This is entertainment not some kind of moral or spiritual examination.

      If you design your MMOs so that that information is found outside the game, though, or even within it but OFF by default, I believe you should be able to have the best of both worlds. The problem is the creeping infantilization of the playerbase, the assumption by developers that players will be unable, not just unwilling, to cope with anything other than spoon-feeding.

      Then again, they can see the full demographic results of their constant monitoring. Maybe those feed sacks were an "I quit" point after all...

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  3. Outside of my Troll main, I did all Gnomes. Even on my return to the progression servers. Love(d) that zone.

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    1. As I commented to Wilhelm, I tried every starting area at one point or other but like you Ak'Anon was my favorite. I wish they'd kept it for EQ2 instead of dungeonizing it.

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  4. Now I want to go patch EQ and check it out again. Been almost a year since I logged in.

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  5. You could be eligible for a free $1,000 Amazon Gift Card.

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