Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Two Weeks In Another Camp: EverQuest

Isey has been playing EverQuest. Not Live. Not Progression or Time Limited Expansion. He's gone straight to the source, or as close as you can get without a time machine. Project 99.

P99 is

 "the classic Everquest MMORPG Gaming Experience as it was in 1999 and onward... giving Players the opportunity to experience Classic EQ Once again"

Several bloggers I follow have given it a throw over the years. The only ones I can think of who stuck with it long-term would be Keen and Isey. Keen, as far as I can tell, spends almost all of his time in groups. Isey, I think, does some grouping but also solos.

Two decades on from its heyday, the enduring, popular image of EQ is social. People talk about the friendships they made and the time the game allowed for making them. They recall the meaning of reputation and community. A key reason for playing on progression servers: "it makes it easy to find groups".

We see this mantra repeated for other MMORPGs with a nostalgia market to serve. As Jeromai points out in the comment thread "...revisiting City of Heroes... seems more about revisiting the idea of the social networks and community" than it does about enjoying the gameplay itself.

That's not how I remember EverQuest, back when it was the West's most successful and best-known MMORPG. I don't recall people gushing about the great friends they were making or the social bonds they were forging. That happened, sure, but it wasn't what people talked about.

They talked about how and where to get the best XP, which camps were worth joining a line for, what classes were most wanted in groups and which could solo. They asked how to find rare spawns. They complained about overcrowding and kill stealing and not being able to get a good camp, or a good group, or any group.

In short, they talked about mechanics. The social networks EQ fostered were the backdrop to what most people were there to do: kill mobs, level up, get better gear.

EverQuest, the game that used to be known as "EverCrack", was for years the focus of both academic research and widespread speculation on its supposedly deeply addictive nature. It spawned endless debates on Skinner Boxes and dopamine triggers. Indeed, a Google search in 2019 shows that those discussions continue, unabated.

EQ, almost more than any other MMORPG, has a terrifyingly effective set of systems which, whether by design or chance, foster and sustain repetitive behaviors that would in other contexts suggest neurosis - even psychosis. In what other game would you stay at one single camp for two weeks as Isey says he just did? What other game even has "camps"?

Back in the day, when EQ was Big Dog, more people seemed to be frightened of these systems, scared of the effects they were having on their lives and mental health, than seemed to enjoy or welcome them. Forums were incandescent with demands for everything to be made faster, easier, less obsessive.

As the genre matured, fewer and fewer developers chose to follow the specific mechanics that made EQ so compelling. It became more important to provide end points so players could comfortably stop when they wanted, or more importantly needed, but many players couldn't wait for the change that would eventually come. I remember names disappearing from my friends list or guild roster because they feared what the game was doing to them, or would do, if they stayed.

Are people really nostalgic for that experience? Maybe. Time soothes. Memory fades. And nostalgia is always out of focus.

 Asmiroth and Pallais both make solid points in Isey's comment thread:

"Nostalgia is more than the game but the entire memory of that time period. For most of us it was a simpler time, and one of continual exploration and newness".
 "Sometimes it is fun to revisit an old neighborhood. You might not want to live there today, but reliving some of the good memories is pleasant. There’s also comfort in the familiar."

Those are great explanations of why nostalgia servers draw big crowds when they launch. But why do they stay?

Well, most don't. For many nostalgists, myself and Wilhelm, say, a stroll around the old neighborhood is plenty. It's like stopping off in the village where I grew up. Sometimes I do that, when I pass by on my way to somewhere else. Take a wander round, see what's changed. What hasn't. Yet. Then back in the car and move on. I know the past is gone. This is just the place where it happened.

Your old town, your old college, your first girlfriend or boyfriend. They all change but so do MMORPGs. Isey says "I can leave for years, and come back, and I won’t be any further behind (or ahead)" but can he?

Not in a living MMORPG he can't. We've all had that unhappy experience when, on a whim, we go back to a game we left years ago, only to find everything has moved on without us. We don't know what to do or where to go. We head for the places we remember and hope they haven't changed so much we can't recognize them. If we stay, we either change to fit the new world or we fall into a fugue state, playing and replaying the parts we learned to an audience of NPCs and emptiness.

"Classic" servers aren't like that. They change not at all. They're cryogenically frozen in time, even if that time is a period not a moment. Even progression servers run on a fixed loop. You can hop on at any time and know exactly where, and when, you are.

These aren't living worlds. They're instruction sets. Always providing someone can recover the code (easier said than done but being done more and more - and more and more effectively - year by year) your past can live again. If you call that living.

Isey, depressing himself with his own philosophical probing, asks "Am I having fun, or living a life I can’t leave behind?". It's an exceptionally good question to which the answer could equally, and equally unsatisfyingly, be "either", "neither" or "both".

When it comes to questions about MMORPGs there's rarely a simple answer. In this case, answering Isey's original question, "Why does nostalgia work", you have to remember there's nostalgia and then there's mechanics.

If you look at the surge popularity of freshly-launched Classic and Progression and Retro servers you're seeing nostalgia. If you look at sustained populations in established revivals I believe it has more to do with systems.

EverQuest has a formidable event horizon. Fall through that meniscus, escape is far from certain. Should you manage it, that ferocious gravity may pull you back, again and again. Much of what made up that mass has long since dissipated but the core remains: that ineffable gameplay loop.

"I log in and grind out percentages of percentages of levels" says Isey. Is it fun? He doesn't know. We never did, any of us. We weren't there to enjoy ourselves, anyway. Who ever logged into EQ thinking "I'm really in for some fun now!"

EverQuest was never something that you just played for fun. It wasn't even something you just played. It was something that played you, too. You stared into that abyss and the abyss stared back. Then your camp started to respawn and you thought "screw that".

Harmony, Ensnare, Entangling Roots, Immolate, Creeping Crud, Drifting Death. Maybe a Firestrike, if you have the mana. Sit and med. Stand. Repeat.

Come for the nostalgia, stay for the... stay for the...

Just stay.


  1. Super tangent.

    I am utterly amazed at the (traditional) Amish. I can't fathom having to give up today's niceties to go back 150 years. That people willingly emulate that lifestyle given other options... baffling.

    Sure, do it for a lark to see what it was like, say you had the experience. See what was different and better appreciate what you have... but to permanently live there?

    EQ hits me like a truck. The mental space is interesting to see, but really only to highlight the massive advancements we've had in 20 years. Jeezes I had too much free time when I was younger.

    1. The Amish lifestyle choice is even more interesting when you consider that it is, to a large extent, voluntary. According to Wikipedia the popular belief that there's an institutionalized rite of passage where adolescent Amish go out and live in the non-Amish community isn't accurate, but they can certainly experiment and go outside the Amish community without incurring too much in the way of penalties.

      Like most family-based, semi-closed communities, compliance relies heavily on the threat of losing social ties. Amish who don't conform risk being "shunned", which means losing all contact with family members. That's enough of a risk to put most people off leaving many comunities, not just the Amish.

      On the other hand, the low-tech Amish lifestyle is aspirational to many non-Amish. If it wasn't for the religious requirements I imagine they'd have a serious problem with people trying to join up. There are a lot of people around who don't really think much of worth has been added to society in the last century or two (usually excepting health care and sanitation). I know a few of them, or I used to a few years back. The Amish don't by any means reject all modern medicine, anyway.

      And yes, that really did go off on a tangent!

  2. Your post inspired my next post (as these things often do) - so instead of commenting a long one here, just wanted to say thank you (and stay tuned!)

  3. Just wanted to say I thought this post was beautifully worded. Also, I tried to comment earlier with Name/URL, but for some reason my comment hasn't appeared.


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