(Note: I played without player names displayed much of the time, and spoke with guild members via voice comms, so player names might not always be accurate)
It feels strange traversing the frigid tundras around Halas, the home city of Barbarians new to Norrath. This is where I started my two-and-a-half-year stint in the world of EverQuest way back in 2001, and taking a nostalgic jaunt around its neatly-segmented mix of sheer canyons and sprawling snow-blustered plains feels like exploring one of those eerie abandoned theme parks. Where once the place was brimming with intrepid newbies scalping their first ice goblins, shouting their first 'LFGs', and attempting to navigate the mapless MMO world, in 2016 I'm the only one here, and the hollow whistle of the 10-second blizzard loop around me is a fitting stand-in for the figurative tumbleweed.
I'm not just here to reminisce about one of the greatest time sinks of my life. I'm here because, 17 years on from its initial release, EverQuest lives on, and I’m curious to find out what keeps it ticking. I created a Barbarian, and went in search of people in my old starting zone. I didn’t expect there to be new players as such, but at least veterans who created new heroes to work their way through the game with.
But there was no one...
It should’ve crossed my mind that there's an inverse correlation between a game world that has just released its 23rd expansion and continues to grow physically (I’m told by the devs that there are now 1,600 zones spanning around 1800 sq. miles) and a population that's steadily shrinking. My freewheeling approach to this field study was akin to an anthropologist touching down on a random ice plain in Greenland with no bearings whatsoever and asking where all the Inuits are.
So I headed on over to the Plane of Knowledge, which was, 15 years ago at least, the central meeting point and hub of all Norrath. Upon arriving, I bashed in the ‘/who all’ command and was notified that there were too many players to count in the zone. This felt like a good starting point.
But getting to know people in a game where guilds, alliances, and friendships have been all but established over the past 18 years isn’t easy. I soon got the impression that while player avatars were idling around in the Plane of Knowledge from force of habit (and maybe a desire to show off their snazzy gear and mounts), socially they were caught up in an endless web of guild chats, dedicated chat channels, and private conversations; addressing them with a good old-fashioned face-to-face ‘Hail’ was as archaic in this world of indirect meta-communication as a pager in the age of the smartphone. There were few people looking for groups, and fewer still chatting publicly - the majority were simply sitting around like empty vehicles in a supermarket car park, albeit embellished by the occasional glimmer of a spell being cast.
After several futile attempts at an intro, some slightly macho responses along the lines of ‘They just don’t make ‘em like they used to’, and what I’m pretty sure was a cyber-sex proposition from a wood elf (a story for another day), I thought better of it and headed to the forums, where I was quickly barraged by responses. My guide to the world of elite guilds and raiding would be Raptor, leader of Iratus Lepus - a guild of over 400 members, 186 raiders, and ranking a lofty third in the raid progression, which he tells me has become the modus operandi of the game today.
"Ultimately what drives you to quest and improve your character is the raiding aspect,” Raptor tells me. “There's some grouping still, but what the game is known for these days is raid progression".
Most of the players I spoke to shared this view. EQ forum member, Strawberry, put it particularly succinctly: “ you're not just one person in a raid, you're a person fulfilling a specific role that others depend on. If a few people don't decide to log in on a raid night, there might be 40 players who can't raid and play the game. It’s why it’s so addictive, and also why I now quit raiding”. It’s as if, over the years, the old MMO fantasy of creating a glorious individualistic hero has been replaced by an almost communist mentality of everyone wanting to do their little bit towards the grand goal of taking down the game’s formidable raid encounters.
Raptor invites me along for a couple of raids that the guild’s previously completed (taking me to one of the newer raids was deemed too risky). I wouldn’t be getting involved in the action myself, so it was fitting that one of the casters turned me into a pumpkin-headed scarecrow - a fair reflection of how useful I’d be to the raid. What you see below is the MMO world’s equivalent to frontline war journalists wearing kevlar under their buttoned-up shirts.
I just prayed that the creatures we’d be facing would respect my journalistic neutrality and not treat my conspicuous pumpkin bonce as a homing beacon for their attacks. Raptor made it clear that part of the thrill of raiding was that one poorly positioned player attracting enemy attention could bring the whole thing tumbling down. And it went without saying that if one person might do that, it’d be me.
As we embarked on our first 54-person raid in the Ruins of Lxanvom it quickly became clear that my anxieties were unwarranted. The guild had done this many times before, and each of the players knew their role. We took on several waves of ragtag invaders, before confronting the raid boss Emollious himself - a kind of giant ice golem who needed to be drawn into various coloured auras around the room to prevent him from healing and buffing up.
The guild functioned like a hivemind, taking up battle positions almost wordlessly with groups scrambling into adjoining rooms to take out healers and other enemies before they could help their master; one group of raiders covered the east entrance to the room, another the west, while I stayed safely with the main group in the central chamber. Such was the ease of the endeavour that we chatted away while chipping away at the beast and its minions.
I put it to the guild that raids are, of course, inveterate to the higher-level game of most MMOs, but that in EverQuest it seems that this higher-level game is all that’s left. One of the things that hooked me on it all those years ago was the incredible, simple fantasy of being an adventurer in an expansive, unknown world populated by fellow adventurers. Getting through those early levels was the greatest part of the experience for me; with no map to guide you and heavy penalties for death, EverQuest felt hostile and daunting in the early days, but also exhilarating. Is there any of this fantasy left? Guild member Balen has his doubts: "It used to be this vast unexplored world, and there were zones you’d never even try to go into because there was so much consequence with death - back when your items stayed on your corpse when you died. Some of that mystique has definitely faded.”
Raptor echoes this sentiment: “For the newer player, it ends up as a race to 105 instead of an adventure. It's been brought up to the developers before that the levelling system is out of whack at this point.”
Patches in recent years have propelled players to the raiding and high-level game - XP gain has been accelerated, HP has been inflated, and AI mercenaries are there with you from level 1, capable of single-handedly cleaving through enemies all the way up to level 65. These overhauls suggest that developer DayBreak Games isn’t focusing so much on reeling in new players, but rather catering to the loyal veterans who remain, and who want to get their new characters to the elite-level action as quickly as possible. There were no new players among the people I spoke to, but plenty of returning ones who could never quite leave behind the game that was, in most cases, their first ever MMO experience.
I can vouch for there being something inimitably powerful about that first foray into an MMO. While most people eventually tire of the over-familiar world and move onto the next one after a couple of years, others take comfort in the familiarity, and settle deeper into it instead. If your experience is defined by people more than graphics and technicalities, why would you leave? Some people are quite content never to leave their hometown...
It seems that the smaller the EverQuest community gets, the more tight-knit it becomes. With so many glossier, more modern alternatives to choose from, it’s unlikely that many new arrivals come here through the game’s Steam page (DayBreak refused to give me any info on player numbers). Plenty of long-time EverQuest players have introduced the game to their relatives, bonding over it while helping nurture a community in which most new members these days are introduced to it through the lens of existing players’ love.
“I got my parents into it and we’ve been playing as a family since early 2000,” says guild member Vronig. “They are both in their fifties and this is still their main MMO. My son plays with me sometimes as well”. Within Iratus Lepus there is also another father-son team (the father introduced the son), as well as Balen, who served in Iraq and would use EverQuest to communicate with his son after missions. “It was a neat growing experience for him, and I’ve seen the skills he’s picked up in EverQuest carry over into real life,” he says. “He’s studying mechanical engineering in college right now”.
Most of the trolls have moved on, and I didn’t meet a single filthy casual (or person young and dickish enough to use that term) while playing either. What’s left is a sizeable number of players, mostly over the age of 40, who are growing up alongside the game, steadily redefining the EQ community over the years: from teens and young adults in 1999 seeking adventures in a mysterious fantasy realm, to older adults and parents with established friends, guilds and alliances, who know all there is to know about Norrath, and are bound by their years of memories as well as the unique challenge of EverQuest’s famously tough raiding.
If EverQuest at its peak was a continent population-wise, today it’s more of a village, where according to Raptor, “pretty much everybody on the server knows everyone else”, and where you can quickly build a reputation for yourself - for better or worse.
When we get onto the topic of reputation, the guild members reminisce about players from times gone by. There was one infamously glad-handing guild leader who’d irritate others by being over-friendly and rambling about Jesus. A more fondly remembered player, Wars, was something of a legend on the server, regularly speaking with developers about how the game could be improved. He passed away from cancer several years ago, and was immortalised in the form of a weapon that every player can acquire. There have been plenty of poignant gestures like this over the years, endowing Norrath with a sense of history that transcends the line between game and real life.
With the Emmolious raid brushed aside, next on our hit list was the goddess Luclin. I almost felt sorry for her in her miserable mausoleum, doomed to be repeatedly beaten down by raiders who’ve long-since figured out her patterns and fighting habits. Being the giant that she is, her back-handed karate chops swiped at the air high above our heads, reflecting her ineptitude much like the pumpkin head reflected mine. It also felt like an apt reminder that the creaking engine running the show is ancient in gaming terms, and that the enduring appeal of EverQuest isn’t in its spectacle.
As we pummeled the hapless deity into oblivion, I asked what everyone would do if EverQuest folded. Raptor said that they’d try to stick together, and find another game that’s as close an approximation of EverQuest as possible. There’s a solemn murmur of agreement, however, when Vronig says “It really tears at my heart to think that all the time and effort I’ve poured into this character that I love could disappear. I pretty much dread that day, and hope it never comes”.
The friendships and bonds in EverQuest have had longer to evolve than any other major MMO in existence. Since it first launched, there have been two attempts to succeed it, in the form of 2004’s EverQuest II and the recently aborted EverQuest Next. While the former is still plodding along, its developers clearly underestimated the emotional attachment people had to the original (as well as the impact of World of Warcraft, released a few weeks later). EverQuest wasn’t just some game that could be replaced by a sequel, it was the world’s first fully-open 3D online world and, for many thousands of people who ventured into it in its early years, remains the only one they ever needed. As one guild member put it, EverQuest is a “a staple safe haven in our lives”. With a role like that, it’s not a game they’ll leave for a sequel, great graphics, or the promise of new adventures, but only out of reluctant, heavy-hearted necessity.
Time, like an ever-rolling stream, will one day bear Everquest away. At least that doesn’t look like happening any time soon but, when it does, these players will at least know they met the fate of heroes. Like the sword that embodies Wars, they too will pass into myth and legend.
In the next part of my dive into old-school MMOs, I’ll be venturing into the endless wars and tri-divided world of Dark Age of Camelot