Monday, September 9, 2019

Fight For Your Right (To Party): WoW CLassic, EverQuest

There was a time for me when weekends in MMORPGs were all about grouping. Admittedly, we'd be going back a long way. All the way to 2000-2001, I'd guess. I tend to think of my early days in MMORPGs as being mostly a solitary experience but that was never really the case.

I did solo a lot, partly out of choice, partly out of necessity. When I came back from the game store on that fateful day in November 1999, clutching the oversized cardboard box containing the EverQuest CD-Rom and accompanying book-sized manual, which I'd been reading on the bus journey home, I was more than a little nervous about where it might take me.

Stepping out into a virtual world was all well and good. I was up for that. I wasn't worried about the fantastic monsters that might try to tear my character limb from limb. I was much more wary of the real people I was likely to meet, people who might want to talk to me about... well, who knows what?

The first couple of sessions were so chaotic and confusing that talking to anyone, real or imaginary, was scarcely an issue. Working out what the heck was going on occupied all my mental bandwidth and then some.

After a few days I got the hang of the basics and started to plan. Yes, in those dim, distant days I did make plans... kind of. I read a lot of online guides about how I should approach this weird new world. I'd done quite a lot of research before I even bought the game, trying to decide between the then Big Three, Asheron's Call, EverQuest and Ultima Online,  a decision later tested to destruction when, inevitably, I bought both the others to see if I'd made a mistake. I hadn't.

Long before my curiosity got the better of me I had to work out what to do with the game I'd chosen. I knew it had some social elements but even a cursory search on Netscape Navigator (for which I probably have as much nostalgia as for any MMORPG I've ever played) brought up plenty of suggestions on how to play EQ as Billy No-Mates.

Most of those suggestions, some of which I still have, printed out and preserved in one of the three lever-arch files that sat next to my 14" CRT monitor as I played, were awful. Not just unhelpful but plain wrong. Whoever thought Dwarf Cleric was the best choice for a solo class/race combo in EQ in 1999 needed a sound slap with a wet haddock.

So I made a Dwarf Cleric. It took me two weeks to get to Level 11. Probably about 40-50 hours at least. It would have been 80-100 but by then I was already sharing PC time with Mrs. Bhagpuss. Looking over my shoulder as she played, at least as soon as she'd managed to stop laughing, she decided she had to play too.

For a couple of months we took it in turns, sharing an account in flagrant contradiction of the EULA and any shred of logic. Sharing an account is not a good idea for so many reasons.

One of us would play while the other sat in an armchair and watched, giving "helpful" advice and making "amusing" comments so, in a way, I wasn't even soloing when I was soloing. There was something of a team effort going on - or a sitcom.

Blackburrow, on one of EQ's Prog Servers. I forget which. Not exactly the authentic experience.
In game, I didn't really talk to many people directly. I tried a few groups early on, mostly in Blackburrow. They were disasters. I died so much I couldn't really see the point. I went back to making my own way, where I died less but levelled even slower

Meanwhile, Mrs Bhagpuss was networking. In no time at all she'd found a crew to hang with. I can remember a couple of their names even now. I carried on my own sometimes merry way, trying different classes, different servers, reading yet more mostly misleading guides.

By the time Ruins of Kunark, EverQuest's first expansion, appeared in April 2000, we had a computer each. Mrs. Bhagpuss played upstairs and I played in my "study" on the floor below. We still watched each other play now and again but mostly we were, literally, in our own worlds.

I played on Brell Serilis, then Test and later Luclin, Lanys T'Vyl and eventually on almost new server SOE opened to meet the ever-rising demand. Mrs Bhagpuss stayed on on Prexus, where we'd started, until somehow, a few years later, we ended up on the EU server Antonius Bayle. There we grouped together for almost two years. We made a whole raft of mutual friends and associates and it became the peak of my grouping career, but all that was still far in the future.

Kunark changed things for me in a number of ways, not least in how it changed my willingness to group. Within a few weeks of the expansion's launch I was in the habit of soloing my Druid in the mornings before I went to work and then again in the evening, when I came home. I got her into the twenties and started to hang out in what was, at the time, thought of as the armpit of Norrath, Lake of Ill Omen.

LOIO was the pre-cursor of The Barrens in World of Warcraft and of Paludal Caverns in Luclin era EQ.  /ooc was famously salty and ribald. The zone was always packed. There were always multiple groups forming and recruiting to work the many recognized camps, some of which were effectively small, open-zone dungeons.

I can't now remember how my confidence grew to the point where I felt not just able but eager to advertise myself in /ooc as available for healing and support duties (not that we called what a Druid did "support" in those days, but it was often the role I took, all the same). I'd taken to duoing quite often with a French-Canadian Paladin, hunting along the shores of the lake, so maybe that eased my social anxiety, which was, perhaps, higher then than it is now, although it's always been more a desire to have complete control over my time than any nervousness about talking to strangers.

My concern in accepting groups has always been "How do I get out of this when I want to stop?" rather than "What am I going to say to these people?". As must be evident from this blog, I rarelyl run out of things to say.

The pick-up groups (another term I can't remember us ever using back then) in Lake of Ill Omen solved that potential problem. They were fast-forming and fluid. People came and went all the time. Because most of the camps were either outdoors or in ruins with multiple entrances, when someone needed to leave it wasn't like trying to get a replacement down into a dungeon.

Sadly, all my screenshots from EQ before about 2005 seem to be lost. Here's one from round bout then.
Saturdays and Sundays became the time when I grouped. Particularly Saturday after breakfast until lunch, then again around late-afternoon. I'd have breakfast, log in, and see if anyone was recruiting. If they weren't I'd /ooc "22 Druid lfg". Just that, usually.

Contrary to Belghast's excellent and highly-recommended guide on getting groups, in EQ back then, public channels always got you groups fast. Well, they got me groups, anyway. I don't recall having to wait more than a few minutes most sessions. Sometimes I'd get a tell asking me if I wanted to group before I'd even asked. Druids were in demand back then.

I used to have my preferences. I loved the Sarnak Fort, especially Back Door. It was fast, frenetic, frenzied and you could run if things went totally south. As they often did. If I couldn't get the Fort I'd take whatever came. There was always something.

As I recall it, grouping like this didn't move my xp bar all that fast. There wasn't a lot in the way of exciting drops, either. It was faster than soloing but, at least for a Druid, one of the best solo classes, not by much.

What it was, though, was fun. Really good fun. Exciting, amusing, entertaining and, eventually, exhausting. About two hours at a stretch was enough for me. I'd break for lunch then solo in the afternoon, playing any of my army of characters on half a dozen servers, before coming back for another group session after tea.

When Scars of Velious arrived at the end of the year my Druid was just barely high enough to meet  the entry level requirements. In more than six months, playing anything up to forty hours a week, I'd managed to advance from the low twenties to the very beginning of the thirties. I did play a lot of characters but even so, leveling was slow back then.

Lake of Ill Omen, for which my Druid was now almost too high, gave way to Iceclad Ocean, where I spent my time pulling Dervishes from the base of the ominous Tower of Frozen Shadow. At the very bottom of the level range I found it harder to get groups and there was more waiting around but every Iceclad group needed Harmony and Ensnare so I usually got picked up eventually.

From there on the barricades were down. I zig-zagged between solo and group play at will and whim for the next few years, eventually ending up grouping more than I soloed for around eighteen months at the height of the Planes of Power/Legacy of Ykesha/Lost Dugeons of Norrath era, late 2002 to early 2004.

After that my desire to group faded, slowly. I grouped a good deal in EverQuest II for the first few months but my PC struggled in dungeons and I was playing second cleric to Mrs Bhagpuss on main heals, which wasn't ideal.

When EQII's population all but collapsed under the impact of WoW's far greater accessibility and much superior gameplay (before Scott Hartsman rode in on his white charger) we went back to EQ, where we changed servers and made a new set of friends for a while.

We stayed about six months, grouping sometimes but nowhere near as often as we had done on Ant. Bayle. We returned to EQII, where we played mainly on Test. We went to Vanguard at launch and stayed a year and a half. We came back to EQII yet again, moving to the Freeport F2P server when it opened, where we stayed until finally moving to Guild Wars 2 in 2012.

Another thing about grouping... I hardly take any screenshots. Someone tends to die if I do. Usually me.
Much safer to take selfies solo.

All of that I remember as the Duo Years. We learned to play as a highly effective and versatile team of two, plus pets, often playing classes that weren't ideally suited for trying to do with two people what the game expected would need four or five. I main healed as a Necro for years with Mrs Bhagpuss tanking as a Bruiser!

Duo play is a form of grouping, of course. Bearing that in mind I can honestly say that over twenty years, even though I tend to think of myself as a solo player, I have repeatedly chosen group play over soloing when given the chance. Even then, I bet I've spent far, far longer soloing.

In the last five years I've barely grouped at all. The all-pile-on open group/zerg playstyle introduced in Rift and exemplified by GW2 has made formal grouping seem almost archaic. I only group now if I absolutely have to.

It's a mindset WoW Classic is doing its best to change. I don't think it's any kind of exaggeration to say that in the last two weeks I've been in more groups than I've had in the last two years. They're classic pick-up groups like the ones I remember so fondly from Lake of Ill Omen. They last as long as they need to last and when I want to move on I say "thanks for the group" and off I go. I feel free, empowered, not trapped and claustrophobic, as I did in FFXIV Main Quest treadmill a few years back.

I spent much of Sunday afternoon dying in a determined but not very competent (no healer for a start) group in Redridge. All my armor fell off. I ran out of food My bear was complaining bitterly and threatening to leave. I had a great time. Everyone was upbeat and in the end we got what we'd come together for in the first place - the head of some orc with an unpronounceable name.

Then I spent forty minutes duoing in some orc-infested cave with a very competent and cheery Paladin three levels below me. I would have carried on longer only I had to stop for tea.

It felt like the old days. Weekend casual pugging for fun. When I finish this post I'm going to go do some more. It's so busy stil I bet there's a weekday pug scene. What could be better?

You can call it nostalgia if you like but I'd prefer to look at it as good game design. Whatever it is, I'm just going to enjoy it while it lasts. I might even try a dungeon run.

After all, what have I got to lose apart from the cost of repairs?

1 comment:

  1. "What it was, though, was fun. Really good fun. Exciting, amusing, entertaining and, eventually, exhausting. "

    Bless you. As a card-carrying curmudgeon I get so frustrated with people who seem to forget that games are supposed to be fun. If they're not "getting something" then an activity isn't worth their time. Like if the loot isn't good or the exp isn't good, then the attitude is "why bother doing it?"

    Actually it makes me sad more than anything; I feel like fun should be its own reward.


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