Monday, May 1, 2023

Set Adrift On Memory Bliss: The Monsters&Memories Stress Test Is Well-Received By All

Over the weekend, Niche Worlds Cult, the developer of retro-classic mmorpg Monsters &Memories, ran a couple of stress tests to see how their servers, login processes and various mechanicals might stand up under pressure. The plan was to open the game to anyone who cared to download the client so they could wander around and try out such content as the project's pre-pre-alpha build had to offer. 

There were hefty advisories on the extremely undercooked nature of what was there to see and warnings not to expect too much but in the event it seemed like no-one who turned up had bothered to read them. 

Not that there were complaints - far from it. I heard very few in the ninety minutes or so I was there. No, it was more that everyone appeared to have decided to behave as if it was the launch of a new game - one they were really enjoying.

It was surreal, honestly. For a start it was really, really busy on the Saturday night, when I was able to play. I couldn't make the Friday time-slot due to being fast asleep but NWC had very sensibly and thoughtfully staggered the two events so as to make them available to a wider range of interested parties. On Saturday, the servers opened at 6PM my time and I was there, ready, with the client downloaded and patched.

It's like EQ and Vanguard had a (very inbred) baby...

There was only one server in the list so I hopped on that one and made a character. First signs were that the team might have been a tad... shall we say... ambitious? Character creation offered a choice of  a full dozen races - and eighteen classes. Of the races, only Gnome, Human and Ogre were available but all the classes were ready to play.

I thought I'd made a Gnome Elementalist but when I logged into the world it transpired I'd made a human instead. Whether that was a bug or my own ineptitude I can't say but either way it was a felicitous outcome. Gnomes, when I saw a few scuttling around, looked pretty weird and very small, a bit like hyperactive toddlers. I was happy to find myself playing a much better-looking human.

If you look really closely, you can see that Human is highlighted in green, something I did not notice at the time.

At this point you might be expecting an account of what I did during my hour and a half. It's coming - sort of. The thing is, I could easily sum up everything I did in a sentence: I ran around and took a lot of screenshots. That's it.

Okay, it's not absolutely all I did. I fiddled around with the settings and the UI a little because I just can't help myself. I also did the first quest hand in, of which more later. And I tried to fight one mob. Which killed me. Instantly. Oh, and I did a corpse recovery. Not sure why. I think I must have been swept up in the general enthusiasm. It was hard to avoid it.

Not everyone's as diligent about picking up their corpses as I am.

Since we're seven paragraphs in already I'll try belatedly not to bury the lede for once: Monsters&Memories isn't just an homage to mmorpgs of the EverQuest era - it's freakin' EverQuest Redux. Seriously, it's all but identical. Not just the ethos but the specific milieu. It's like an alternate-dimensional Norrath. And where it's not EQ Resurrected it's clearly Vanguard, which is very much the same thing.

Let's take a very specific example. One of the most universal experiences in original EQ was the note you handed in to your guildmaster. It just sits there in your inventory when you first log in, waiting for you to find it for yourself. When you do - and once you've figured out how to click on it to read - it it tells you go to go find a named NPC, the head of the guild for the class you've picked, so you can hand the note over to them. 

Nights are very, very dark. Humans do not have infravision. Or ultravision. Or a torch in my case.

For your effort, which usually takes a while because there's no map and no directional markers or even a punctuation point over anyone's head, you either get killed (If you accidentally auto-attack the person you're supposed to be giving the note to.) or you get a smudge of xp and a dirty vest. M&M follows this precedent precisely, apart from the vest. I got a belt instead.

But that wasn't all. I don't know what other classes get but as an Elementalist I also got a pinwheel and a box. I was supposed to wander around the city with the pinwheel until it started to spin, letting me know I was in the presence of a hungry Djinn. At this point I would light some incense and the Djinn would give me a pearl. 

It does look like the kind of place you might find a Djinn.

I had to do that three times to get pearls of water, wind and fire, which I would then put into the box, along with my pinwheel and my belt. Then I'd come back to the guildmaster and hand the whole lot over. To what end, I know not because I didn't do any of it.

Seriously - it's a stress test for a game that's not even in alpha yet! Why would I be doing quests? And yet everywhere people were doing just that. General chat was perpetually filled with the typical questions and demands of any busy starter area in a brand-new game. People were questing and levelling like it was going to matter!

And also like somewhere you wouldn't want to wear a padded jumpsuit.

You know what? Forget questing. They were forming groups! At Level 1. And doing dungeons. At Level 3! People were even flaunting their qualifications - "Elementalist Lvl 4 lfg. Have pet". Level frickin' four!? HOW??

In the ninety minutes I was able to play, which comprised a half hour when the server came up and an hour later in the evening, after I'd stopped to phone my mother and walk the dog (By which time the one available server had grown to three.) I made precisely no xp at all. Unless I got some for handing in that note. I might have. I didn't notice.

That water's looking pretty tempting around now.

For the longest time I couldn't even find anything to fight. Monsters&Memories has one the largest cities I have ever seen in an mmorpg. It's unfeasably gigantic. The main gates and the newbie grounds reminded me of Freeport but the rest is extraordinarily redolent both of Khal and Ahgram, the two middle-Eastern cities in Vanguard. It's hardly surprising. Vanguard always was the true sequel to EverQuest. Until now, apparently.

The city, whose name hasn't stuck in my mind, although I'm fairly sure it was mentioned, is extraordinarily well-realized for a game at this very early stage of development. It has all the necessary functions like banks and class guild halls but also statuary, boulevards and ambience. It also has guards you can ask for directions because of course it does. EQ had them...

I'd make a deposit - if I had even one copper piece.

Once again, I have to repeat that, for a game that's supposedly not even in a pre-alpha state yet, there's a surprising amount to do. I think the reason people were playing it like a game they'd just bought was mostly just because they could. There were quests and they worked. There was gear. There was progression. So what if none of it was going to stick around the moment the stress test ended? There was fun to be had so they were having it.

And those who'd knuckled down and got on with levelling were rewarded. On the Saturday when I played, the four-hour test was extended for a further four hours, for no other reason, I believe, than because people were having such a good time and saying so, enthusiastically and often. You can't buy a reaction like that but you sure can encouraage it when you get one.

The harbor's not nearly so inviting when you have to swim it in the dark - in your underwear.

There were devs in the channel chatting with players and they must have been ecstatic about how well it was all going. Not just the technical side, which seemed rock solid while I was playing - no lag, no disconnects - but the reception the game was getting from the crowd. They bloody loved it.

I loved it too but with an element of distance. It was wonderful to see such a faithful recreation of a thing I once worshipped, carried off with such success. I could feel the commitment to getting it right coming off the screen in waves. 

Speaking of harbors, this horseshoe-shape with a statue at each end is so Khal!

The thing is, though, I'm not sure it's what I want for myself any more. I'm not saying it's not. It might be. Certainly the mechanics and systems are exactly right for me - as far as they go. I love levelling every bit as much as I ever did, as evidenced by Mitsu, the EverQuest II character I've been turning into one of my most rounded tradeskillers in years these last few weeks. 

What I really don't think I want any more is the kind of exceptionally slow, ponderous and painful levelling that would be a necessary part of any faithful recreation of old EQ. My feeling is that those processes were accelerated for good reason. I know a lot of EQ vets think it's been all down hill since Kunark but I'm not one of them.

As they say in Qalia "Always pray for rain".

None of which will stop me for a moment from jumping into any open testing NWC offers for Monsters&Memories in future. What they've put in place already is a hugely impressive achievement and I'm fascinated to see where they take things from here. I'll be very happy to give them whatever help and support I can by playtesting or stress-testing and by recounting my experiences to whatever audience I may have.

If I'm ever going to put in the very significant number of hours necessary to do a new mmorpg justice, though, I fear it's going to have to be one with a lot more modern features than any genuine repro ought to offer. Like a decent map, for a start. And quest markers. And no corpse runs. 

"And on the surface of Norrath did Tunare create the Elves, creatures of limitless grace and beauty"

Yeah, I'm soft. But then, I'm also old. Life's too short to go get your corpse, especially when you respawn on the opposite side of the furshlugginer city. I had to run all the way round the outside walls and swim through the harbor to get back! And yes, I know it's very impressive that swimming is in and works already but it wasn't much of a comfort at the time.

And that's about all I have to say on the subject just now. For another view, Stingite at The Friendly Necromancer managed to get some time on days one and two. He got a lot farther than I did. 

But I bet he didn't take as many screenshots.


  1. Love the write up, and I'm glad you got to check it out! I count 14 screenshots on my desktop! :) Thanks for the links!

    1. I took sixty. Some were for this post but most just because of how good the city looked with all the white marble and blue sea everywhere. Looing forward to see how the game develops.

  2. "get killed (if you accidentally auto-attack the person you're supposed to be giving the note to)"

    That brings back a memory. The one and only time I ever played Everquest (of any variety) is right when the original came out. My cousin had it and had been having fun with it, so I went over there to give it a try. I chose a Dark Elf Mage (so edgy) and got "the note". I eventually found my way to the Guild Hall, greeted the guard there… and he straight-up murdered me.

    As you say, I eventually worked out that I must have bumped the control key or something while I was hitting enter, and attacked instead of speaking. By then, though, I was two days noped out. Did not have any interest in paying money for a game that just baited me into my own murder.

    I kept playing MUDs, and eventually quite a bit of WoW and EvE. Never did get back to EQ. To be honest, your posts have tempted me greatly. Maybe someday soon I'll try to catch up on 25 years of EQ history.

    1. My own classic introduction to EQ was to make, as my first character, a wood elf starting in the treetop city of Kelethin. In absolutely typical fashion, I then managed to fall off the edge of one of the platforms while I was stil working out how to move. The fall killed me. It was night. I couldn't even work out how to get to my body (There are elevators) let alone find it in the darkness.

      Unlike you, though, far from putting me off it just made me more determined to figure out what the heck this weird game was all about. I deleted that character and started over with a human warrior, figuring that would be about the simplest thing to learn on, and everything followed from there.

      EQ in 1999 was an absolutely amazing experience, if not life-changing then certainly perception-changing, through the combination of a persistent, three-dimensional fantasy world and real-time communication with actual human beings all around the world we live in. It's still an amazing, fascinating, insanely complex game a quarter of a century later but I don't believe there's any way to come to it now and have even a small fraction of the experience people had back at the start. It's why all these revivals are doomed to be of interest only to nostalgists and will never have any hope of finding a new audience of any significant size.

      Still, with that caveat, I'd very much recommend anyone with the interest and patience to give it a try even now. It's a much better *game* in 2023 than it was in 1999, even if it isn't the mind-bending experience it once was.


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