Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Call That Progress? : EverQuest

Yesterday, UltrViolet of Endgame Viable posted at length about his unfortunate experiences on the new EverQuest progression server, Coirnav. Many of the technical issues he experienced could be addressed and corrected with some research and a few tweaks to the settings but the probems he encountered with the gameplay itself are perhaps less tractible.

What struck me most was the way parts of his report could have been lifted verbatim from the complaints of a frustrated new player c. 1999. I suppose that could be seen as an endorsement of Daybreak's efforts to replicate the authentic, original EQ experience. What puzzles me a little is that  anyone would want to recreate it to begin with.

As someone who was there at the time I have long believed that the huge majority of the many, many changes that SOE and later DBG made to the game have been very much in the game's own best interests. The way the interface has evolved is a prime example.

Modern EQ (if that's not a contradiction in terms) has one of the most flexible, customizeable and comprehensive front ends in the genre. You can move and resize every window, change the font and the colors, create new chat windows and channels. The whole system is fully moddable.

Typical gnome. Even the mercenary has to pose.

Some aspects, like the loot system, are significantly superior to anything available in any other MMO I've tried. There's a fully fuctioning quest journal and a quest overlay to track objectives. In-game maps are standard and you can install custom maps like the ones Keen recommends from Brewall if you want even more detail.

Because of the age of the engine some of those facilities are a little...idiosyncratic but modern EQ has all the conveniences MMO players have come to expect over the two decades since the original game appeared, crushed into a small square at the center of your 14" CRT monitor. Why anyone would want to go back to basics when so much has been improved beats me. It's a bit like building a mansion and insisting on living in the basement.

If you read the MMO news sites and follow the blogs that still mention older games, you'd get the impression that my view was an anomaly. Apparently what everyone wants is a time machine to take them back to the dawn of the MMO era. Trion is only the latest developer to jump the nostalgia train - quite effectively according to some reports - and of course we have Classic WoW (Official) to look forward to, always assuming we live long enough.

Even so, I was somewhat surprised when I logged into EverQuest this morning. No, I wasn't making a character on Coirnav. Been there, done that, using the tee shirt for a duster. I knew DBG had been making a habit of starting new progression servers but I hadn't quite realized just how far it had gone.

Five of the six "preferred" servers use some form of Progression ruleset. There's even a sixth, the original Fippy Darkpaw, which is no longer preferred and sits below the line in "Standard", although, as I just confirmed by trying to log in my only character there, it still requires a subscription. It's also dead as dead can be, as I discovered when I created a new character using my All Access account to check.

I made a gnome, ran to the PoK book in Steamfont and zoned into Plane of Knowledge. I was the only one there. I'm not sure I have ever been the only one in PoK, not even after a server crash. I tried the Guild Lobby. Empty. The Bazaar. No-one. As best I could tell I was the only player on the server. Eventually someone else appeared and I asked them if it was always so quiet. Yep, they said, it is.

So that's the ultimate fate of the progression server, just in case were you wondering.  Is there really a market for six timelocked/prog servers, covering overlapping eras, all running at once? You wouldn't think so but then who'd imagine a 19 year old MMO would be able to support twenty-two servers in the first place?

Well, DBG, apparently. And it seems they're right.

Most of those servers have been around for a long, long time but even excluding the nostalgia circuit, a couple are relatively new. Vox started in 2012, when EQ went Free to Play (Your Way) and Brekt, a server whose name I had never even heard of until I logged in today, began just last year.

Fippy Darkpaw Guild Lobby. I own it.

I couldn't find much about Vox from this year but according to Reddit and the forums the server was still thriving in 2017. You shouldn't believe everything you read on the internet, though, and following my Marie Celeste experience on Fippy I thought maybe I should double-check. It so happens I have a character on Vox so I logged him in.

He was a level 1 Cleric, camped out in the suggested starting zone of Crescent's Reach, the newbie area from The Serpent's Spine expansion. I have no memory of creating him and he doesn't seem to have been played.

(Just for the record, it transpires that I have two more characters on Vox, on the account that used to be subbed. Both of them have been played somewhat, a Level 3 Paladin and a Level 6 Necromancer, both gnomes, of course. I have absolutely no memory of creating, naming or playing either of them. I have far more characters in EQ than I could ever hope to remember).

When I logged the cleric in there were sixteen people in the zone. Sixteen! I haven't seen that many people in Crescent's Reach for a decade. I ran him to the book in Blightfire Moors and zoned into PoK, where there were just under fifty people. Not bad for the time of day. The Bazaar had over eighty traders. The real shock, though, was the Guild Lobby. There were just five people there, including me.

The weirdly obscure PoK book in Blightfire.

By comparison, when I log into my regular server, Luclin-Stromm (if you can call a handful of times a year "regular") there are usually something like three to four hundred people in those three zones combined. That's down from maybe 500+ five years ago but it still feels very busy.

The key difference is, I think, in their levels. On Vox the levels in my Plane of Knowledge search result stretched from the low teens to the level cap, with a good representation across most of the range. On Luclin or Saryn or Tunare most of those would be max levels; in the dogpile in The Guild Lobby, virtually all of them.

The appeal of The Guild Lobby is that it's where everyone afks to get MGBs, because it used to be the only public zone where buffs didn't expire - although now they also last forever in Plane of Knowledge, I believe. That's very much an end-game thing, though, and it seems Vox is not an end-game focused server.

For comparison I also logged into a couple of servers where I have characters I haven't seen for a while. Bertoxxolous-Saryn and Tunare-Seventh Hammer. They were both busy enough - fifty to eighty in PoK, eighty to a hundred in The Guild Lobby. I didn't go in The Bazaar. There's only so much random zoning I can stand.

Enough with the research. Since I'd logged him in, I thought I'd give my old Ogre Shadow Knight a run. When I talk about my glory days in EQ, plenty of them were spent playing that SK, although nowhere near as many as on my Cleric or Beastlord. I grabbed Franklin Teek's task for level 60, so as to give myself an easy ride, and headed to Undershore.

Adds. We can handle them.
The SK was about three-quarters of the way into Level 65 when I got there. When I left, about ninety minutes later, he was 12% into Level 66. By EQ standards that is lightning fast soloing. I was very pleased. Undershore is a Hot Zone, there's 1.5x XP running on the server for the Anniversary and I popped my Lesson of the Devoted for another half hour of +100% but even with all that I wasn't expecting to ding, let alone get safe, as we used to say.

It was nice to find I still remember how to play an SK but not so much to remind myself it's still as slow and repetitive as it always was. Some classes are a good deal of fun to solo but I never felt SK was one of them. It's kind of like being a Necromancer with the power switched off.

Tanking for a group I always enjoyed, even if it was often stressful, but soloing or even duoing as an SK tried my patience back in the day. It's much, much safer with a Cleric Mercenary alongside but it doesn't get any more interesting. At least he doesn't have to fear-kite so there's that, I guess.

All things considered, I had a lot of fun dipping back in, visiting some old characters. Partly it was the investigation. I've been watching a lot of Scooby Doo: Mystery Incorporated recently and all that looking for clues about population density really hit the spot. The gameplay itself was something of a bracer, though.

I'm not at all surprised UltrViolet found it hard going, particularly on Coirnav. As Gnomenecro observes in the comments, Progression servers really are only suitable for veterans who already know the ropes or people who have a willing vet on tap to hand-hold them through the difficult early stages.

Medding still a thing, I see.
Wilhelm is also correct that for most people it all hangs on whether you find a group you enjoy hanging out with before it all gets to be too much trouble and you quit. It's that shared experience, often first encountered at bandit (or dervish or orc goblin or kobold) camps or in one of the first open dungeons like Crushbone or Blackburrow, that turns a few confusing, frustrating, lonely hours into an exhilarating, amusing, entertaining session you can't wait to repeat.

For anyone new, hoping to have the kind of good times devotees like Keen can apparently turn on at will, I would advise staying well clear of Coirnav and the rest of the Progression servers. I'd suggest making a character on Vox, where you can play for free. Do the Mines of Gloomingdeep tutorial (I loathe it but I don't for a moment question its worth for a genuine first-timer) and then head to Crescent's Reach, where on the evidence I saw today there will be enough new players to make the place feel lived-in.

From there, follow Almar's excellent guides or just use the in-game Zone Guide to find level-appropriate hunting areas. Solo if you enjoy it - I always did. I recommend playing a pet class - necro, mage or beastlord - for solo fun but with a mercenary anyone can solo these days.  I guess if you really hate other people you could always sub and play on Fippy. Pretty much have your own private EQ right there.

As Wilhelm says, though, if you want to make friends fast you can't do much better than a druid. Everyone loves SoW, even in 2018. If you find going it alone tedious or difficult, start grouping. It's never too soon, although not a lot really happens before you hit double figures. You can have a lot of fun at a kobold camp at level 5 if you run into the right people, though.

Give EQ a chance to get its claws into you and it will never let go. Nor will you want it to. Just don't make it harder than it needs to be by throwing your lot in with the "it was so much better in the olden days" crowd. It wasn't. It's better now.


  1. Well, I've tried playing EQ1 recently after one of your posts, but it ended even before I made it out of Mines of Whatever. It's horribly dated and as unfun as it's possible and I say it as a fan of Vanilla WoW. With graphics that made me nostalgic about first Playstation, terrible UI, tons of unintuitive systems made over the course of the game, which are probably pretty simple for veterans to understand, it all quickly turned into some monstrosity even during tutorial. Maybe I'm just part of the wrong generation and would've gladly played it if I were at least 10 years older, but now I don't even want to try grinding mobs at a snail's pace for all eternity with little bits of story once in a while. And even if I wanted, Diablo clones would do better.

    1. It's fine. Every game's not for everyone. It does help to understand that EQ is fundementally a sandbox not a theme park but if the issue is the graphics there's not really much you can do about it. I personally can't get anything out of retro 8-bit games, pixel rpgs or pretty much any game that uses isometric 3D - and I was around when all those were new. I hated them all then and I still do.

      EQ, though, looks beautiful to me. I was playing yesterday and admiring how wonderful the gonome running animation is - as good as anything in GW2! And the zone in the screenshots above, Undershore, I find breathtakingly lovely. That just comes down to tastes, I think.

    2. Gameplay is the actual issue, I wouldn't mind graphics if I found the game interesting. I know it has humongous world with rich lore, which might be a great fun to explore, but I'm just spoiled by much faster games like WoW or GW2. Compared to that, EQ1 combat is a slog and knowing that most of the gameplay is tied to it just demotivated me from continuing.

      I apologize for harsh words in my earlier comment, I've exaggerated my actual feelings about the game. As you've said, it's probably just not my cup of tea.

    3. I didn't think you were harsh at all. You raise some really fascinating issues over expectation and image that if I wasn't so ridiculously short of time right now I'd love to explore in a full post. It's the very aspects of gameplay in EQ that you find a slog that I most miss from post-WoW MMOs. It took me years to acclimatise to having to quest for xp and I still dislike it. One of the reasons I prefer Heart of Thorns so strongly over Path of Fire is that HoT strongly rewards grinding mobs for Mastery xp. I posted about that at the time - it was one of the most fun things I've done in GW2, ever.

      Even for people who played way back when I think it can be quite hard to remember that for many years MMO gameplay had very little to do with either questing or narrative. Both of those have become so central it seems they must always have been there but by and large they were later additions. EQ does now have quest hubs, quest-driven leveling and a central narrative but when I play I avoid all of that and I think the game still tends naturally towards the older gameplay, particularly at very low levels. For example, I hit level 10 last night and got a pop-up window telling me where to go to start class armor quests - I doubt many players who don't instantly take to the game will ever get to Level 10 to see that - it took me about five hours and I've leveled dozens of characters.

      Anyway, as I say, it needs a post. Maybe I'll get time for one before we mve on to other things.

  2. I find the progression servers have all of the new conveniences of EQ but just the reliance on other players. Always found it a "best of both worlds" approach. But yes, not much future in it - but a lot of present!

    1. The weird thing about the launch of Coirnav is it's resulted in me leveling a necromancer on Vox. Played for an hour last night, did two levels. Seems like an interesting server with definitely a lot more going on at the lower/mid levels than the servers where I normally play. Going back to do some more after I finish my GW2 dailies.


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