Tuesday, April 2, 2019

There Is No Mystery Left: EverQuest

Pete from Dragonchasers posted yesterday about his preferences when playing various kinds of video games on console or PCs. Among the differences he mentioned that shiboleth of gaming, immersion:

"I find that playing on console ... There are fewer distractions and I tend to play for longer sessions which also helps with immersion...

On the PC I’m constantly distracting myself with FOMO around Twitter or Discord. I run with 2 monitors and always have social media up on monitor two and constantly scan it. Because of this I just don’t “sink in” to a game quite as much; my attention is always divided."

This triggered me. I got a flash memory of playing EverQuest in the distant past. Shivers.

For many, EQ was the very definition of "immersion", a true virtual world, where people set up home, lived their lives. That scared people.

These days we hear very little about the supposed addictive nature of the hobby but back then MMORPGs were frequently cited as potential mental health nightmares. In the early 2000s, one of EverQuest's most widely-used nicknames was EverCrack, a reference to the infamously addictive and soul-destroying cocaine variant that was by far the most demonized drug of its day.

I have no extant screenshots of EQ before about 2004. This looks likes a very early version of the moveable, windowed UI.
The mere fact that I felt I might need to gloss "crack" when mentioning it 2019 is an indication how quickly these things change. I listened to a very interesting item on BBC Radio Four last week that asked the question "why is crack cocaine rarely mentioned in the news these days?" to which the answer appeared to be "because the crack epidemic went away".

And why did the drug that the media spent so much time and energy warning us about not turn out to be the apocalyptic scourge they predicted? Luckily the program had an answer: apparently all that endless, hyperbolic publicity gave the drug such a bad name it actually did terrify people to the point that the curious wouldn't touch it, demand dropped, tastes moved on (or back, in many cases, to regular cocaine). The juicy crack stories dried up and, by and large, everyone forgot about it.

For a while. As anyone who's been around for longer than a couple of decades soon begins to realize, these things are cyclical. If you google "trends in crack cocaine news stories" you'll find that, as reported, ironically by the BBC, crack is back.

As in drugs, so in music, movies and gaming. What was old is new again. What goes around comes around and like that.

Fortnite, of course, is the new EverCrack. Or it was last year. Are people still worried about Fortnite or are we on to some new demon already? The roundabout keeps spinning faster and faster. It's hard to keep up.

And this appears to be a slightly later, cleaner version. Actually, this is better than the UI I use now...

Getting back to EverQuest, what Pete's comments made me think of wasn't so much the addictive rush of early EQ as its sheer purity. He's absolutely right about the modern approach to MMORPG gaming on PC. Compared to the original experience, what we enjoy today is adulterated, fractured, incomplete.

One of the reasons frequently cited for the decline of the genre is the contemperaneous rise of social media. It's become a truism to assert that turn-of-the-century MMORPGs were the social media of their day. For many hundreds of thousands - millions - of people, playing an online game provided their first and for a while their only experience of talking in real time to friends and strangers around the world.

This is entirely true. What's less well-reported, I think, is the focus the primitive technology of the late 20th and very early 21st centuries brought to the mix. In those increasingly difficult to remember days we tended to do one thing at a time. Well, perhaps not one. Fewer, though. Certainly fewer.

If you played EverQuest you had to concentrate on that. There were consequences if you let your attention slide. Corpse runs. Experience loss. Misery and despair.

More than that, the game itself resisted distraction. You could not tab out to look something up on Allakhazam let alone check your email. EverQuest could not be windowed. It used all your screen space and all your processing power. You played it until you'd had enough then you closed the program and did something else.

There are surprisingly few images of the original UI online and I strongly suspect that those there are come from P1999.

Unless you were bad. If you were, you might download a piece of third party software called Win-EQ which, among other things, allowed you to play EverQuest in a window. Illegally. Against the terms of the EULA. Risking a ban should you be caught.

I'd been playing EQ for several years before I even heard of Win-EQ. When I found out what it was I wanted nothing to do with it. It was cheating. No-one I knew (and at that time I knew scores of people in game) admitted to using it. It was for bad people.

We goodies sat and medded with our spellbooks open, filling the entire screen. I played for years with no distractions or media other than the official EverQuest display, a nine-inch square inside a UI that filled the rest of my 14" CRT monitor, my only contact with the outside world the chat box at the bottom center of the screen. That was immersion for you.

I did sometimes hear of people who had two PCs running at once. I occasionally grouped with someone who had Netscape upon on a second monitor so they could check things on Caster's Realm or EQ Atlas. We did in fact have two PCs in our house from early 2000, with Mrs Bhagpuss playing EverQuest in one room and me playing EverQuest in another. I don't think it ever occured to either of us that you could have two in the same place...

As for internet access via a handheld device, well that was the stuff of science fiction. Imagine it - something the size of a paperbook book or even a pack of cigarettes that you could tap with your fingertips to look up what spells a Level 27 Druid got or where to go for the Level 24 Mage pet. Fantasy!
I envy even this level of simplicity. Although why I have Group and Target on the right I cannot imagine...

What I had, in point of fact, were three ring-binders with sheafs of paper printed out from the various essential online resources. And a book to read during long med breaks. After a couple of years I also started to listen to the radio while I played, if I was soloing. An actual radio, in the room with me, not some online app.

Perhaps, looking back, the experience wasn't entirely pristine but it was undeniably less diluted by distractions and diversions than it has been these last dozen years. I never tabbed out at a loading screen and found myself twenty minutes later, watching Rilo Kiley on YouTube with no memory of how I got there.

As Pete says, consoles don't generally dicker with such dilletantism but they can't stop you from having your laptop open beside you on the couch, your phone on the armrest, your tablet on the side-table. Nothing any games designer can do can prevent you from spoiling every surprise or taking a wrecking ball to your sense of immersion if that's what you want, or if that's what you can't help yourself from doing.

Genies can't be put back in bottles even though that's a quest we've most likely all done, successfully, many times. The wave of faux-retro MMORPGs still in development hell - Pantheon, Lucimia, Camelot Unchained et al - all rely to some extent on reviving and recreating that sense of immersion and community. Holly Longdale, in the numerous interviews she's given for EQ's 20th, has been hammering home the rediscovered belief at Daybreak Games that "social dependency is who we are".

It may be who they are. But is it who we are, any more?


  1. There is a definite pull to the social dependency for some of us old guys still going the nostalgic route. Yes, I enjoy much of the QoL that new versions of our old games have (and new versions of the new games have innately. It's like working on an old car, or refurbishing furniture with friends. Sure, it's way easier to go to buy new but spending time with friends working on something that isn't easy isn't always so bad. Largely absent from daily life, really.

    1. Something I wanted to fit into the post but couldn't find room for is the well-documented collapse of voice communication by telephone since the mainstream uptake of texting. There's a ton of fascinating commentary on that and what it tells us about human psychology. The short version seems to be that, given the choice, the majority of people prefer to communicate asynchronously and without the audible and visual cues we've evolved to give and receive; there are a lot of implications for cultural development, related to the way emotions are transmitted, which feeds into some of the more challenging behaviors we see in 21st century life. It's scary and fascinating.

      The odd thing in gaming, though, is that we seem to be runing in the opposite direction. In a number of settings, particularly where PvP and large, complex PvE like raiding is involved, we're moving away from text towards voice. I read that mainly as a reaction to complexity, though, and we can already see the popularity and success of systems that seek to automate that need and remove the necessity for direct, personalized communication in games such as Apex Legends. I'd be surprised if voice ever becomes the dominant communication mode in gaming, although I guess you also have to bear in mind AI servants like Alexa and Siri, which are mainstreaming the concept of spaeaking out loud to computers...

  2. Man, look at all that text chat front and center, almost as if it were part of the game and an input source of information!

    I used to put global chat channels in City of Heroes at the bottom center of my screen. I just saw it more when it was centralised, rather than tucked away in a corner.

    1. That's a very astute observation. When you consider how very limited the screen real estate must have been when they were developing EQ, to devote that amount of space to text chat, and to place it in such a prime position, says a huge amount about how important the developers considered communication to be, both between players and betwennplayers and the game itself. I guess that's not surprising, given the ancestry of EQ going back to text MUDs but it's still something we don't often acknowledge.

      These days, with most MMORPGs having adjustable UIs, I almost always put my text window in the lower left hand corner. I also tend to use tabs, which hides chat even more. I might have to rethink that. Indeed, this post and the screenshots are making me consider rethinking quite a bit about how I set up my UIs.

  3. I'm playing Elder Scrolls Online now, and I find it's a game that demands your attention, especially if you want to follow the story. I have a browser open for times I need to look at a map or lookup a recipe, but those are times I'm not actually playing.

    As for the chat channels, EVE is the one that really takes the cake. I don't just have chat in the lower left hand corner. I have it running up most of the left side of my screen. It's basically a requirement if you go into dangerous areas to have it open and pay attention to the local chat.

    1. I hear a lot about "Local" in posts I read about EVE. I imagine it more as a kind of radar than something where people actually have conversations! As for ESO, it never really holds my attention that way, largely because I find the quests extremely dull and generic and the voiceovers unlistenable. I can see it would play more like a single player game if you got into the questing, though.

  4. Today I learned, Crack is not just a slang term for Cocaine!

    I 'missed' EQ at the time as I think I've mentioned before, because I was in the main competitor at the time: Asheron's Call. I don't recall the same restrictions on being able to, or 'allowed' to alt-tab but we certainly didn't have any of that new-fangled 'Borderless Windowed' mode which makes it such a snap to do like these days. If you wanted to alt-tab, you had to be prepared to sit through the switch in all it's release and recapture of screen exclusive mode.

    Anywho, that's not even really the part I wanted to comment on! The comment exchange between Pete and yourself on Pete's post, and now your post here have made me think more about the implications of the lack of social media, or even in general an ability to communicate with people outside of the game, as a sort of follow-up to my last post on the social shift over time as a gamer.

    Back then it certainly seemed like all your relationships and friends existed in the game. Exclusively so. Sure, there was email if you had access to it. And I just looked up when ICQ came out. Apparently it launched November '96, so would have been around and I was probably even using it by the time of AC's retail launch end of '99.

    Yet for some reason or another, at least in my experience, there was no commonplace transference of game friends to another platform. I'm not sure if this was because none of the options were so ubiquitous as what we now have, or whether it was just the folly of the young to believe that nothing would ever change.

    Because I can tell you there are certainly people I met in my early MMO days that I would give almost anything to have stayed in contact with over the years since... But didn't.

    Some disappeared from the game. Where days since last /seen became weeks. Then months. And you just had no way to no what happened. Sometimes it was *me* that disappeared for a break from the game for some months. Then when I returned it was not always to the same groups.

    There was an exquisite delight, though, in seeing an alert for an old friend on your friends list come back online at the same time you were revisiting the game.

    Some of those I was able to 'save' out into other platforms like MSN Messenger, Steam, Skype or whatever the primary out-of-game platform was of the day. Discord seems to play a big role here at present.

    1. I could do another whole post based on your comment. Not going to, but I could. I am a strange mix of personality types when it comes to interactions with other people. I always come out as "Balanced" on those Extrovert/Introvert tests and in most kind of psychological tests my result seems to hang somewhere in the central, neutral space. In real life that translates as being able to socialize freely, conform to social norms of behavior, make casual friends with reasonable ease. It also means that the friendships I make tend to be relatively ungrounded. I find it mostly as easy to stop associating with someone as I found it easy to start. I have had lots of friends over the course of my life but at any given time I'm not in regular contact with many of them.

      I think that makes MMORPGs a particularly good fit for me. Back when the games required socializing I was able to do it without any great difficulty. I also enjoyed it, but I never felt tied to a particular game because of my social networks within it. I was always more interested in the games (and my characters) than the people I played with. If I wanted to move to another game and people I was playing with didn't I would just go.

      I almost never post screenshots with character names in (I have an overly developed sense of privacy in some regards) but I did so deliberately in this case. I can remember, quite vividly, just about everyone in those shots (not the two old UI ones, which I stole from the internet!). Before I addded them to the post I considered whether, in the almost infinitely unlikely event that any of those people might ever see them, I would be bothered that they might get back in touch. I decided that while there are some very good reasons why I would definitely not want to hear from one or two of them ever again (when I sometimes say I used to be heavily involved in guild drama I am not kidding...), there are others I'd really like to chat with over old times and find out what they're up to now.

      But, as you say, had I wanted to do that I could have exchanged email addresses at the time. And I didn't. Hardly anyone did. We just used to talk about the people who went missing and speculate. It really was a different world.

    2. I decided to do the post and bump what I was going to write about for this instead.

      But that is more along the lines of my first comment, so figured this still warranted a response here.

      I find it really interesting your take on this. On the Introvert / Extrovert scale I lean toward the Introvert end, but not heavily.

      It sounds like you were at then essentially where I have landed NOW. I can socialise when it is required easily enough and I enjoy it with the right set of people. But the ties are tenuous and transitory, if my interest wanes in a game I will move on without any compulsion from such ties to stay.

      Back then... I don't know that I ever felt compelled to stay due to my social ties. But they were certainly stronger than anything formed today, even so.

      I think my error, if there was one, was the belief of the young that everything would be fine and no cause for concern. (I would've been 16 when AC launched to retail.) It was a transference of that feeling of invulnerability to these bonds, that Asheron's Call was forever and so there wasn't any NEED to make a connection outside of the game...

      ..Maybe. It's difficult to recall my thought processes at the time, especially given on this matter I think there may well have been a complete lack of thought or consideration of the implications of not safeguarding such ties.

    3. I do think age factors into it hugely. I often wonder what my life would have been like if we'd had the technology we have now, when I was a teenager. Or even the technology of the late 1990s. I imagine I would be a very different person, or, rather, a very different version of the same person. Fundamentally, the technical possibilities we take for granted now, for both communication and creativity, were the exactly the kind of things I dreamed about having in the 1970s and 1980s. And I had that energy and drive and confidence of youth, then, to make the most of them.

      I was 40 when I discovered online gaming. It still took over my life and who I am now is significantly different in some ways from who I would have been without it, even coming to it at that late stage. But if I'd been 16...


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