Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Many Happy Returns : EverQuest

Writing this short series of posts on the Seven Ages of EverQuest has been a useful experience for me. It's brought back a few lost memories but more importantly it's allowed me to start putting the fragments I already had into some kind of order.

I'm minded to sit down and draft a personal timeline to firm things up even more, although one the evidence so far I'd be well advised to do it on index cards, so I can shuffle them about every time I realize I've got it wrong.

One of the main reasons I find it so confusing is the sheer number of times Mrs. Bhagpuss and I left and came back. I think we must have taken something like half a dozen separate runs at the game, spread across a ten-year period from 1999 to 2009. Since then it's just been me but I've probably added another three or four notches to the tally, the latest of which, still ongoing, began with the introduction of the Overseer feature.

This third and final (spoiler - no it's not!) part of the story begins with the phase The EverQuest Show calls "Renaissance". I'm not sure whether it marked a commercial resurection for the game - it was notable that Holly Longdale referred to 2015 as the year when EQ's population once again began to rise - but without doubt the years from 2006 to 2010 saw a huge improvement in both the content and direction of the game.


The Serpent's Spine

We came back from wherever we'd been (EverQuest II again, I think) specifically because of promises made in the promotion of this expansion, which was, as Wikipedia puts it, "added with the aims of making soloing... a more viable option." Ironically, we then proceeded to duo much of the content, rather undermining the whole concept.

The Serpent's Spine was Sony Online Entertainment's attempt to re-boot the franchise. By this point it must have been obvious that EQII had dropped the baton EQ had passed and also failed to carve out its own niche in the exploding MMORPG marketplace. World of Warcraft was expanding exponentially, becoming a global phenomenon, while SOE's play for the same market was faltering in its slipstream, watching the competition accelerate relentlessly out of reach.

EverQuest players had, to the greatest degree, declined to abandon years of progress for the dubious pleasure of starting again from scratch in the Norrath of five hundred years hence. Paradoxically, all too many of them seemed more than willing to drop everything for Azeroth. The stubborn EQ players who remained may have seen WoW as a dumbed-down, clownishly easy game for children, yet it offered so much that so many of them had yearned for. WoW was solo-friendly, directive, linear and compartmentalized. And it was cleaning up.

The Serpent's Spine, like EverQuest's first and third expansions, Ruins of Kunark and Shadows of Luclin, wasn't really an expansion at all: it was a whole new game. It featured a new race, the dragonborn Drakkin, complete with their own starting city, from where it was possible to level up all the way to the new cap of seventy-five without ever leaving the expansion.

To make things even more appealing to the burgeoning crowds of neophyte hobbyists WoW was bringing to the genre, TSS had a coherent, linear storyline and was designed to be soloed, theoretically by any class. To make that possible something entirely new was added to the whole game: the ability to rest.

"Resting" has nothing to do with the "rested xp" we're used to now. In TSS, to rest simply meant that mana health and endurance now returned rapidly as soon as you left combat. Instead of having to meditate for long enough to go to the kitchen, make a snack, eat it, do the washing-up and still have time to spare before your mana bar filled (casters) or to be forced to wait for what seemed plenty of time to go out to a restaurant for a three-course meal (melee) you could now watch your bars refill in a minute or two.

It was a genuine game-changer at the time, particularly for melees and melee-hybrids. I remember putting several levels on my long-neglected warrior and rogue just for the novelty of killing a mob with less than fifteen minutes downtime before the next. The "con" system, whereby you were able to judge which mobs would kill you instantly and which would take a little longer, also received a solo-friendly revamp, making pulling considerably less of a death lottery.

The zones I remember us spending the most time in were Blightfire Moors and Goruka Mesa. We might have gotten as far as the ice giant city of Valdeholm, the final levelling zone for the expansion, by which I mean we may have seen it from a distance. I'm sure we never went inside although I've hunted it to oblivion since, with only my mercenary by my side. 

We didn't make new characters. I never liked the Drakkin much - skinny humans with delusions of grandeur. I think I must have been playing my beastlord. I have no memory of what character Mrs Bhagpuss played. I can't find any screenshots to check, although I'm sure many were taken. Stuck on some defunct hard drive, no doubt. There's a pile of half a dozen not six feet from where I'm sitting.

I remember The Serpent's Spine as a well-designed expansion with several memorable and enjoyable zones. We didn't, by any means, spend all of our time there but we saw a good deal of what it had to offer. I know it fairly well now, having been back many times.

Even now, it remains Darkpaw's preferred starting point for new and returning players, provided they start at level one, that is. Heroic characters beginning their journey through Norrath at 85 start in House of Thule. To emphasize the preference, five of the current Hot Zones are in TSS. They give increased xp and the game prompts players of the right levels to go there.

Did TSS bring new players into the game or tempt back those who'd strayed? I have no idea. I certainly remember it as being busy back at launch and it still has its moments. I suspect, though, that it was too little, too late. WoW was gathering momentum before rolling over the entire genre and crushing the life out of it forever. It was too late for fresh starts.

The Buried Sea 

Except, of course, it never is. When The Buried Sea arrived we were off on a new start of our own in Vanguard, an adventure that turned out to be one of the best experiences of my MMORPG life and one of the highlights of Mrs Bhagpuss and my times playing together. Nothing EQ had to offer was going to compete with that, least of all an expansion featuring pirates.

I didn't think I'd seen all that much of TBS but it seems I spent quite a while there in later years, although if I hadn't written about it I might not have remembered. I had to look it up to remind myself.

It seems I liked it. Franklin Teek sent me to somewhere called Jewel of Atiki, about which I had this to say: "It was with surprise and delight... that I arrived in one of the many zones I've never before visited, Jewel of Atiiki, to find myself in an analog of ancient Egypt. Pyramids, sphinxes, efreeti, palm trees and...gorillas?"

I posted a few more pictures a few posts later but I don't think I went back much after that. I seem to remember the drawback was travel. The mobs were killable and the xp was good but it took forever to get there and even longer to move around the zones themselves.

It's a perennial problem in EQ. Complain all you like about fast movement ruining immersion but so does always ending up in the same places because they're the easiest to get to.

Secrets of Faydwer

In the last part of this series I said that 2007's Secrets of Faydwer marked Mrs. Bhagpuss's farewell to EverQuest. That's true but not in the way I meant. It was indeed the expansion whose content our characters were duoing at the end of the last and final time we played EQ together but it wasn't the current expansion when we were doing it. That would have been 2008's Seeds of Destruction.

Had it not been for SoD, I very much doubt we'd ever have seen SoF at all. It came with a level increase taking the cap to 80 and even the opening zones were intended for high level characters. For all SOE's talk of making the game more soloable, we'd have needed a group to prosper there at the time the expansion launched.

Of course, this being EQ, we'd have had little trouble finding one. There would have been pick-up groups aplenty. There always are in the introductory zones of fresh expansions. By 2007, though, our pugging days were largely behind us. We'd have needed a stronger incentive to entice us back for one more go. That incentive wasn't to come until the folowing year.

I can tell you plenty about Secrets of Faydwer all the same. Since I've reverted to playing the game solo in recent years I've probably spent more time there than anywhere else. I levelled my Beastlord into the low 80s in the opening zone, Dragonscale Hills and my Magician went into the low 90s doing tasks for Franklin Teek in Hills of Shade and across the various sky islands with their towers and fortresses belonging to Meldrath the Mad.

The EverQuest Show has a separate category for the Age of Nostalgia but Secrets of Faydwer is where the trend began. It doesn't play with time the way later expansions do but it plays with memory. The main reason I like EoF is that it's genuinely an extension of the original continent of Faydwer. It's not another plane or a subterranean lost world - it's just a part of Faydwer you never saw before, over the mountains, not very far away at all.

Meldrath is a great villain, one of EverQuest's best. I've never faced him down in this version because this is EverQuest and you'd need to raid, but his insane influence is everywhere. The place clicks with clockworks. Transportation is by cannon-fire. A skyscraper-tall robot clomps around the opening zone and if you clamber through a hatch in his boot you'll find yourself in a whole new zone inside him. Between all that and the lush, werewolf-infested forests that recall Lesser Faydark, it's one of mid-period Norrath's most familiar-feeling settings.

Just writing about it makes me want to log in my Magician and take her for a roam. At 97 she should be able to own most of it.

Seeds of Destruction

And so we come to one of EverQuest's most controversial expansions. Not for anything it contains by way of content or storyline. Just because Seeds of Destruction introduced mercenaries into the game.

For my money, mercs were the single best innovation the game ever had. The ability to hire an NPC to fill the role of a player meant two things: soloing suddenly became fully possible and genuinely enjoyable for all classes and pugging became hugely easier, safer and more reliable because you never had to wait for a healer or a tank.

Mrs. Bhagpuss and I returned for our farewell tour as a duo and it was a tour. With the addition of an NPC mercenary each we were effectively able to act as a small group. It also meant neither of us had to heal and we always got a rez.

We played a number of combinations of classes and mercenaries. Often we took two cleric mercs along, reducing the risk of death to the point that we were able to explore areas we'd never seen before or expected to.

We pushed deep into Gates of Discord and Omens of War, far beyond the boundaries those expansions had imposed on us when they were new. Wall of Slaughter took an ironic turn as we became the ones doing the slaughtering.

The highlight of that time was our foray through the higher planes. When Planes of Power was endgame we were still fairly new to serious group and guild play. We'd scarcely progressed past the first planar tier - Disease, Justice, Nightmare and Innovation. After a couple more expansions we'd made it as far as Tier 3's Plane of Tactics and Bastion of Thunder. I think Mrs. Bhagpuss, who briefly joined one of the biggest raid guilds on the server, might have seen a little of the Tier 4 Elemental Planes. I certainly didn't.

With mercs in tow and both of us playing pet classes, effectively making us a six-character group, we made it all the way to the Plane of Time, the final zone in Planes of Power. Obviously, by then most of the flagging had been removed, or at least I assume it had. I can't actually remember. I do know we weren't killing any gods, mercs or no mercs, so we must have been given a pass on that, at least.

The whole thing was such fun we spent what I recall as several months there although it was probably more like a few weeks. We both levelled characters into the low eighties but at that point it began to feel like hard work again. We drifted away once more, I think back to Vanguard for a while and then for three months in Lord of the Rings Online before returning yet again to EQII. Or somewhere. Frankly, who knows? We were always paying something but exactly what we played when is probably lost forever.

This, you may notice, isn't telling you anything at all about the Seeds of Destruction expansion itself. That's because, back then, we never touched it. I'm not sure we even knew where it was.

I did eventually get to see some of the new zones, which turned out to be not so new at all. It was the beginning (I think) of the major re-use of art assets, something that would become a trend in both EQ and EQII for a while. Oceangreen Hills was a reskin of Qeynos Hills, complete with its own version of Blackburrow. Old Commonlands was... well, you can probably guess.

I saw a good deal of both of those after my Magician took the Heroic option offered by Daybreak and jumped to 85. She doggedly levelled from there to 93, some of which I documented here on the blog, before it all started to get too much. Franklin Teek began sending her to Old Bloodfields, Seeds of Destruction's timewarped take on the Omens of War zone and it didn't go well.  She retired for a time to brood in the Guild Lobby. She's still there now, only thanks to the Overseer system she's closing in on 98 and she's not had to waggle a finger.


This whole Renaissance section has taken longer than I expected but this bit's going to be short. To the best of my knowledge I have never even set foot in Underfoot. Looking at the list of zone names there's not one I recognize. I've seen it described as "Gates of Discord 2.0" and it was supposedly the toughest expansion SoE ever released so I don't feel I've missed much.


And there I'm going to leave it. I really did think I'd wrap the whole thing up this time but as usual I had more to say than I expected. Not to tempt fate but the final part really should be brief. Looking at the ten expansions it covers I think I've only set foot in two of them and then only in the starting zones. Surely I can't have two and a half thousand words in me on that?


  1. The Serpent's Spine era was probably the last time I tried to play EQ as just a normal player and not part of a special server or during something like a double XP event. It also corresponds with the launch of my blog, so I have a bunch of posts about the early levels.

    It seemed pretty reasonable for EQ, but it felt pretty awkward coming from WoW and EQII.

    The one thing I do remember was that the book to get you to the PoK was out in the Blightfire Moors in a place where it was a hazard to reach if you were a lower level player. They have since moved it to a more reasonable location.

    1. Yes, I once spent fifteen minutes running around looking for that book because I remembered where it was originally and had forgotten they'd moved it, even though I'd been playing when it happened. The perils of coming and going so many times.


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