Monday, May 25, 2015

Common Fluency : Everquest

Playing on Ragefire these past couple of days has reaffirmed an uncomfortable truth: for me, after more than a decade-and-a-half and well over one hundred MMORPGs, nothing the genre can offer has ever surpassed the effortless, natural pleasure of starting a new character on a new server. To step out into an unforgiving world with little more than the clothes you stand up in and an empty backpack waiting to be filled, well it's the pure essence of what drew me in all those years ago and held me ever since.

In creating the concept of the Progression Server SOE and now Daybreak Games have had to make many necessary compromises. A list of all the ways the current systems differ from any of the variations that existed during the twelve or so months between the April 1999 launch and the arrival of the first expansion, Ruins of Kunark, would fill this blog post several times over. Every single one of those changes has made the game "easier" than it used to be. And yet it's still not easy. Not easy at all.

Aywren asked in yesterday's comments for advice and information on the appropriateness and practicalities of soloing under the new ruleset and I replied that I have always believed EQ to be a very solo-friendly MMO, which I have. It occurred to me today, though, how very much that solo-friendliness depends on experience and knowledge. Much, much more so than any MMO that I've played, or at least any that was released in the last ten years or so. 

Six-boxing means never having to ask for help. Which is just as well because everyone hates you.
As you join Ragefire, your character is inserted automatically into a number of custom chat channels. Yesterday I found myself listening to chatter from characters in my level range, my class, my geographical location and more. Everyone was asking questions. Where do I go? Who do I speak to? What level do I need to be?

These are the kind of questions you expect to hear in any new MMO but they mask a deeper concern: how do I survive here, let alone prosper? How do I even get started? For example, where are the quests?

Famously and perhaps surprisingly in a game that has the word in its very name, Everquest does not use quests as a framework for gameplay. There are quests of course, many hundreds of them in the classic game alone, but there is nothing to tell you where they are, how to find them, how to proceed if you do or what you might get if you succeed. There are no exclamation points, feathers of flags above the head of any NPC. There are no tidily arranged "hubs" marking a breadcrumb trail across the zone.

Players aren't used any longer to being cast so adrift, especially right at the beginning of their journey. Worse still for many, at no point do you ever find out if you are "done" with an area, whether it's time to move on, or if it would profit you to stay a little longer.

Backing away...backing slowly away....
It's not even something you can tell easily by looking at anything as basic and fundamental in most MMOs as the level of the mobs around you. In Classic the scope of opportunity in most zones can span almost the entire level range of the game.

This morning in North Ro, where my Level 3 necromancer was happily hunting Level 2 aardvarks and decaying skeletons, someone trained a Crypt Mummy to the nearby inn. The mummy was somewhere in the mid-teens, capable of killing my necro in a couple of blows. It hung around the doorway for a while, preventing anyone from using the facilities (which didn't bother my necro, who had already been told he was persona non grata there due to his filthy proclivities). A little while later, further out on the sand hunting Level 3 Young Pumas, he saw a Sand Giant serving up rough justice as it wiped out a group a few levels higher than him as they camped the very same camp of undead from which the mummy had been trained.

In Norrath everyone is very much in it together, for good or for ill. The Hill Giants and Griffins that send you running for cover as they wander by are the prey of other players whose level you one day aspire to reach. Everyone is on their honor to look out for everyone else and the example of the reward for hard work and determination is always there before you: power, freedom of action, revenge, wealth.

New-fangled conveniences... mutter mutter
Actually this one's a big improvement and long overdue
You cannot help but be aware of the danger posed by creatures outside of your level range but unlike other games you equally cannot be quite certain what is and is not within your capacity to handle. Mobs do have exact levels but that information is concealed at all times. You are merely permitted to see a range of colors and descriptions that encode vital information, which you must learn to decode by trial and experience.

Before you attack anything - or even if you intend to run past it - you should target and "consider" it to assess the risk. Only at this point do you learn whether your target is higher or lower than your own level, something you have to derive from the color of the text. Only if it matches your level exactly will you be certain - mobs of your precise level have their information in White. Below you comes grey, green, light blue and dark blue and above you comes yellow and red.

That helps but not as much as you might imagine. Each color encompasses a level range that is itself variable according to your own level, something that really matters a great deal when considering things that are more powerful than you. In Everquest levels mean a lot but then so do many other factors and many of those are invisible.

It's true that you can tell the attitude of every creature from its description but its easy to forget as an experienced player that the hard information comes with a figurative wrapper. Before you can make a full risk assessment you have first to be able to parse the descriptive language for meaning. An animal that "scowls" at you will attack , unprovoked, from its maximum agro range while one that "glares" will let you pass by unharmed unless you almost trip over it, whereupon it will turn and fight. A "dubious" creature will only attack if you attack it first.

Let's not even start on which creatures are worth killing.
Armadillos drop several stackable items
worth almost 2 gold each though.
Just sayin'
Which would be all very well if you could see the aggro range somehow. You can't. Or if the aggro range was constant. It's not. Or if every creature of the same level was of comparable difficulty. They aren't.

Over time and with experience you will come to know without having to check, for each kind of creature you encounter, in a particular zone that you feel you now know well, what will or won't attack, how close you can approach before something unpleasant is likely to happen and how likely you are to survive the experience. When you get to that point you may feel you're really beginning to make progress but there's so much more to learn before you can begin to think of yourself as a seasoned professional adventurer. For one thing, there's the matter of faction.

There are visible factions you can see and measure and affect. Each time you kill a gnoll you'll be given a list of all the groups in Norrath who approve or disapprove and a numerical value for how much more they like you now because of your gnoll-killing ways or, conversely, find you increasingly detestable for picking on poor innocent gnolls (it's mostly gnolls who feel that way and who cares what they think?). You can and probably should make concerted efforts to curry favor with certain groups, not least because it may stop some guards, who you might have imagined were placed there to help and protect the characters of paying customers like you, from instead attacking and killing your character on sight.

Norrath is a world that seethes with intrigue from the pettiest official to the mightiest cabal. You can get on the right side of some of them but there's always someone on the wrong side of you. There are NPCs who will kill you for the class you chose or your race; they will kill you because you cast an illusion or because you killed someone they like, even though you had no idea they even knew each other.

And after "What Do I kill?" comes "How Do I Kill It?" Let's slide over that one for now...

Even animals have their alliances. I had completely forgotten that Fire Beetles in the Deserts of Ro consider all beetles to be their kin and come racing to the assistance of Scarabs. At least those two look alike. Often creatures that are normally disinterested, like Decaying Skeletons, will become hostile if they notice you  attacking one of their ilk but sometimes creatures that seem to have nothing in common at all will leap to each other's defense. There's literally no way, in game, to know what social ties underpin Norrath's wildlife other than by observing and remembering each encounter.

I could go on and on and on but the the detail doesn't really matter. It's understanding the  level of complexity involved that's the key to survival when you set out to solo your way across Norrath. Compared to any modern MMO you care to name Everquest, even now in its much-simplified and ever-increasingly user-friendly form, offers a ferocious learning curve. It's all very well for me to claim blithely that anyone can and should jump in and solo away but I really ought to remember that it took me months of playing 20-40 hours a week just to get to the stage where I could comfortably and confidently run a character from one end of a zone to the other and expect to get there alive.

So, yes, if you haven't played for a while or ever, do give it a try. I firmly believe that beginning a new character afresh on a new server remains the most compelling experience MMORPGs have to offer and Everquest retains all its magnificent potency. Just don't expect it to be easy. Or painless. Or quick.

It's like learning a language. You can pick up enough to get by in quite a short time but proficiency takes years. I'm nowhere near fluent yet but I'll keep trying.


  1. Brilliant, and so true.

    Did it take much to re-remember? I suppose you have been playing all along, but the new EQ isn't quite the progression server EQ (which isn't quite the real EQ). I'm about to dip in, and hoping my memory serves me correctly.

    1. Thanks! It was obvious things like conning mobs and paying attention to agro radius that caught me out at first. Although as you say I have been playing EQ regularly it's almost always been as my mage, going from 85 to 90 and she is not only extremely powerful but she has instant unbreakable invisibility and levitation up all the time when she travels so mostly she flies 100 feet above trouble and lands safely. Also at her levels the zones she frequents tend to be like regular MMOs, with almost everything there around the same level and she levels in places where almost everything cons some color of blue.

      I'm getting back into the swing of checking first and giving everything a wide berth until I know it likes me - it soon comes back to you!

  2. I firmly believe that beginning a new character afresh on a new server remains the most compelling experience MMORPGs have to offer

    I very much agree with this statement. Thanks for all your interesting posts and more importantly for all your brilliant comments all over the net. Keep up the good work :)

    1. Well, thank you! Added your blog to the blog roll too.

  3. Wonderful post, thanks for taking the time to write, I appreciate it.
    This certainly makes me interested in EQ, more than I ever have been

    1. Thanks. To some degree I think I'd suggest just trying the regular version of the game first - it's more accessible, although probably still very confusing for a newcomer but it's free, whereas you can only play on Ragefire if you pay for All Access. The big advantage of starting on RF is how very busy it is at low levels of course - although currently it's so busy I can't actually get in!

    2. Thanks. To that end am I better off starting with EQ or EQ2. i started MMO's when DAoC launched & played most since then, although none have bought back the same experience for me


    3. The real problem with both is that as very mature games they have immense complexity that can seem overwhelming even to someone familiar with the form. I think EQ2 is probbaly a lot easier to come to grips with for a real newcomer but someone who's played many MMOs for as long as you have should be well able to get to grips with either EQ or EQ2 I would think. Just don't try to do everything at once!

      If I was going to choose between them for a place to begin...hmm. EQ2 offers a lot more hand-holding and feels a lot more familiar to a post-WoW generation. If you don't play on Ragefire then chances are you are going to pend a lot of time soloing for a long time to come and while soloing in EQ is absolutely fine, especially with Mercenaries, EQ2 is designed for it now.

      I dunno! Maybe you should go for Ragefire after all - still a ton of people around at low level and the opportunities are there to join guilds, group up, all that stuff...sorry - that's not much help! Just pick one and give it a whirl!


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