EverQuest Remembered is a multi-part series in which I look back on a game that meant a great deal to me, partially due to a matter of timing and circumstance. When tasked with the idea of blogging about something that I spent the better part of five years of my life actively playing it was difficult to nail down what to write about. Putting thoughts to paper I’m left with topics ranging from it’s cultural impact to individual relationships, shaping a fledgling genre to bringing out the nature of who we are as players. There’s a lot to cover here in regards to my personal retrospective of this 17 year old game… but if you’ve got the time, I’ve got the stories – and maybe by the end you’ll have a deeper understanding of how lines of codes shaped my world as much as theirs.
In the last entry of EverQuest Remembered I spoke a lot from my own personal introduction to the game. I’m gonna switch gears a bit with this one and speak a bit more on the broader impact it made on the industry as a whole. Conceptually, mechanically, and socially EQ set the rules and language for both RPGs and MMOs that still influences today. It’s been nearly two decades, but it’s impossible to see the modern landscape of either genres existing as they do if Verant Interactive hadn’t created the template for all that followed after 1999. Technically Ultima Online released two years prior as the first commercially successful MMORPG yet EverQuest’s 3D rendered world lead the charge for what we’d refer to now as an MMO. Enough with the generalities though, let’s dig into the specifics of what I’m talking about here.
Conceptual Design Elements
Designing a game that hasn’t been done before that allows hundreds to thousands of simultaneous players in a heavily Dungeons & Dragons inspired world? I have trouble assembling a LEGO set with the exact amount of pieces and instructions. Yet somehow the developers of early EQ built from the ground up a fluid system with various levels of depth and infinite complexities. Most notably was establishing 14 unique classes while somehow structuring a functional group system. EverQuest allowed up to six players in a party to hunt monsters together. This was achieved by creating roles that over time we’d come to establish as the core of all character designs in gaming going forward: Tank, Damage Dealer (aka DPS), Healer, and Support. Prior to this everyone just kind of existed as individuals when playing games. Now with defined party roles instead of being able to solo up through the game, it forced players to rely on each other and forge alliances and friendships. Often it’d be referred to as “the holy trinity”, groups would require 1 Tank, 1 Healer, and 1 Support for crowd control. The other three slots could be a mix of anything else as long as you had these three roles in their group. Each provided a critical specialization that allowed for a stable group for slaying enemies into the late hours of the night during that endless chase for experience, levels, and loot.
- Tanks would be the front line of combat, tasked with keeping the focus of attacks and absorbing damage.
- Healers would… well, ya know, heal the tank while trying to remain unscathed.
- Support was key for keeping the enemy ranks at bay while the party fought 1 mob at a time.
- Damage Dealers were fragile creatures that had to unleash on the mobs without stealing focus
These roles would go on to define pretty much every MMO I’ve tried since then, if not also some key RPGs like Dragon Age Inquisition. The only variance comes with what exactly defines “support”. With EQ there was a vital need to control crowds of enemies otherwise you faced a total party wipe. Other games shift that to empowering defensive spells called buffs, or crippling offensive spells deemed debuffs. In all cases that support role heightens the effectiveness of the rest of the group to ensure survival and efficiency while not contributing much (if any) damage or healing directly in battle.
Two other key components carry on after the idea of group building/class roles. The first was how to create an entire world to explore. Our world is seamless. You just walk in any direction and things just continue onward without distinct boundaries. Years later this was realized with the single player epic Elder Scrolls 3: Morrowind – but Bethesda’s approach always missed the mark for me. Realistic sure, but interesting? Not at all. Areas never seem to feel dynamic all the way up through their latest release of ES5: Skyrim. It was just an endless set of plains, woods, marshes, etc. EverQuest’s solution scratched the fantasy itch of locations rich with lore, themes, tones, and points of interest that made large expanses they called “zones”. For example as an Ogre, the first zone I started in was the stone city of Oggok. Within it’s area there were caves, forts, guilds, a moat, battle arena, shops, and even a bank for storing your belongings. When you left the zone you came into another large area called The Feerrott; a thick jungle forest covered in a foreboding layer of fog inhabited by low level creatures and lizard-men zealots that worship the god of fear, Cazic Thule, who’s temple lays opposed to Oggok across the zone. Heading into that Temple of Cazic Thule then brought you face-to-face with more powerful lizard-men in a setting that invokes an atmosphere of ancient Egyptian tombs and pyramids… Complete with a central burial plot, traps, and devious mazes lit by torchlight. The way these zones function would continue on into games like World of Warcraft, Lord of the Rings Online, or even with Destiny. They created unique locales to find either certain types of enemies, or to provide tiered access to the content in the game. Despite the Temple of Cazic Thule only being a 10 minute run from the starting city of Oggok for Ogres, the lowest level advisable for entering the temple would be around 30… something obtained after hundreds of hours of play. Anything less than that would almost ensure death for the player… and oh yeah – I forgot to mention that Temple also hosted the gate to one of the two most difficult locations in the game; The Plane of Fear in which the god Cazic Thule himself resided in.
The last bit of conceptual design is something a bit more personal. Despite playing RPGs for years on SNES and PlayStation, I never quite “got” buff or debuff spells. Sure there were spells like quickness, haste, strength up, or whatever in Final Fantasy games, but I never used them. Why waste your time prepping for damage or slow trickle effect spells like Blind, Mute, or Frog when I could just pile on with damage spells? EverQuest’s decentralizing of power from your sole control to a group created an appreciation for what they brought to the group. As primarily a tank role when I played, gaining regenerative health, quicker attacks, higher defensive stats highlighted just how much more effective I became with those support spells. Suddenly blasting mobs with fire spells became a lesser priority when my survival wasn’t guaranteed anymore. Going forward from that point it helped me get strategy in RPGs in a way that didn’t register before. Oddly enough going back to games I struggled with like Final Fantasy Tactics became an infantile challenge now that I understood how to manipulate the field to a point of ridiculous ease.
Somewhere between the mechanical and conceptual designs was questing. EQ was crammed full of so many quests accessed through obscure lore and prompting of NPCs. One of the first to create the now cliche ideas of a the town guard instructing you to “slay 10 rats, bring me their tails”. This remains in play with all modern MMOs and is considered one of the core aspects of a good MMO, specifically the subset called “theme parks”. In a massive open world, how do you get a player to explore? This even went on to dominate with single player open world games like Final Fantasy 12 or InFamous. How do you push them out there into the wilds? How do you motivate them to play without a central story to guide them like Secret of Mana where your direction is clearly defined both on the grand scheme and the micro level? By littering the world with NPCs requesting you to help bring them things, to slay certain creatures, and send you off into new zones to meet new allies, challenges, and faces both friend and foe. One quest directs you into the next zone where five to ten more await. After clearing up all the available quests, a new one will be presented chaining you into the next tiered zone to continue your advancement as an adventurer in this world. One game that expertly nails this design started back in 1999 by EverQuest is Final Fantasy 14: A Realm Reborn. Questing remains one of the most rewarding experiences in MMOs still to this day by providing gear, story, and healthy chunks of level advancement for the players. I don’t see this fading away from the genre any time soon.
Side note regarding quests: It’d been said by team leads back in the day that only some 30% of the quests implemented in EverQuest were ever finished by players. This partially came from how the quest system worked back then. Unlike WoW’s clear labeling of “!” and “?” marks above NPCs to indicate a quest was available, or a quest log to keep track of what you had – EQ simply functioned via text prompts. Some NPCs would nudge you along with comments like “I really wish someone would handle these [rats] flooding the town.” When you typed in a response to the general chat channel of “what rats?”, that NPC would continue with another prompt of dialog indicating how to meet the requirements of their quest. As your levels climbed up NPCs were less supportive and relied on the players to just figure out keywords or phrases that would trigger questlines. Sometimes they could be learned through reading in game books/scrolls, others from observing events elsewhere in the world and connecting the dots themselves, and most commonly by being shared via forums outside of the game itself. It was the wild west of MMOs back then, but damn was it rewarding when you felt you were the first to discover something as it was nowhere to be found online.
Aside from all the ideas that drove this game to be one that inspired over a decade of design for MMOs, there was a lot that have carried on structurally from the mechanical standpoint. First and foremost is one of the more abstract elements of MMO and the first to scare away traditional gamers: Pop-up action buttons. From City of Heroes to Dark Age of Camelot to Star Wars: The Old Republic, they all share this common element. Sometimes referred to as whack-a-mole play, the management of powers and spells are tied to cooldown timers. For example if your Wizard casts Lightning Bolt, you have to wait 15 seconds before you have the ability to cast it against despite having plenty of mana to do so. Combat usually amounts to learning a good rhythm to cycle through your skills so you’re actively engaging the combat. Perhaps you have another three spells that take 5 seconds each to cast… Acid Arrow, Burst of Light, and Explode. So then you’d constantly cast your spells in that order of Lightning Bolt > Acid Arrow > Burst of Light > Explode > Lighting Bolt > … repeat until dead or out of mana. These timers act independently of any actions being taken in the combat. It’s not necessarily the most active approach to getting your adrenaline going, but it’s been effective enough to pull players in for years across several games. It’s functional, familiar, and essentially a key piece of DNA in the genre that started with EverQuest.
The UI of EQ had never been considered elegant by anyone yet somehow it’s design also has survived the years of evolution within online gaming. Progress bars, hotkeys, enemy target reticules, party health monitors, and a myriad of other cluttering yet required info dumps have yet to fade away. Even games ported to consoles like DC Universe Online or Final Fantasy 14:ARR still suffer from obstructed visuals and feedback on every inch of screen possible. It’s a necessary evil of these games due to the complexity, a constant juggling act of priorities as you struggle through encounters. Tanks needs to make sure they’re the only ones being targeted or taking damage, healers need to make sure everyone stays alive, and supports need to keep an eye on all the buff timers to ensure all their allies are operating at max efficiency. For better or worse this aspect of MMOs started back with EverQuest and has remained ever since despite constant improvements. The day a new game releases without the ability to toggle off the UI so you can actually take a screenshot worth seeing we’ll finally be able to say this piece has been put to rest alongside the 20th century it was born from.
Quirky little FYI – probably the first satirical self-referential experience I can recall for gaming was born from this. A small “game” was released for free online called Progress Quest. An obvious jab at how the focus point was always where your health bar was, mana bar was, or experience bar progress – PQ was an self-progressing game where time passed and it just constantly filled bars to level, to finish a quest, to hit weight capacity, to completing an upgrade, etc. It had absurd races like half-halfing or quarter-orcs and classes like Tickle-Mimic, the quests were goofy like “pigs fed”, earning armor like “slightly musty rust covered chestplate”, it was done with a good sense of humor on how ridiculously dedicated some of us got for minimal improvements over hundreds of hours of play… all just by watching bars fill up and empty out.
Wrapping up on what’s endured since the inception of EverQuest into modern influences is the social structure offered. The literal core of MMOs is Multiplayer. Without the functionality to interact with others you’d be left with a game that probably wouldn’t have made it into proper development. The beating heart of EQ spawned from the aforementioned group party system. By forcing players into relying on others versus being able to solo all their way through the content creates a dynamic of appreciation for others. It’s not unlike meeting coworkers for the first time. You don’t know each other, you have no clue what each other bring to the table, and have no clue if you can trust them. All you have is a shared goal between you that ties you together. Based on the need for others you take a chance and let them into your circle to work with in hopes of achieving your own goal. During your shared time together you manage to crack a joke or make an obscure reference that bridges that stranger gap. You start to make a connection from that point on. Perhaps that moment doesn’t exist because you’re on a different level personally. Making a joke in a group could rely on you crossing a 40 year age gap and all the values and experiences that just doesn’t land… yet you find yourself among reliably sharp players that handle their role better than most you play with. You want to lean on them in the future and keep calling back to each other. Players I knew at level 5 I knew at level 60. We ran through a lot of the same zones for leveling, play during the same hours, or roll with the same circle of players. Just like work you learn who can finish a project on time with you is someone you’d likely to work with on future events, the same occurs with having an effective group to play with. Over time those people become your base reason for playing long after the play of EverQuest stopped pulling you in.
The peak moment of social play came from the next level of grouping that was designed for the end game: raids. Raids allow groups of groups to work together to take down dragons and gods, the meanest of the mean of Norrath. While a group could hold 6 people, some raids early on saw up to 30 or 40 players all working together to take down a single encounter. In the Plane of Fear for example, a raid would have those 30 players working together to clear out all the enemies in the zone before facing off with the god of fear, Cazic Thule. If you didn’t, as soon as you attacked him all the creatures still alive would join in to support their god in battle… and it would end poorly for all of those 5-7 groups of players.
The rewards of working together with 30 some friends for hours of play to both test your limits as a player as well as potentially receiving some of the best gear in the game was unmatched. It’s feels like winning a championship on a sports team, placing first in your class on your finals, or receiving hundreds of retweets on an observation you posted. You become the focal point of your peers and it feels great to be part of something larger than yourself. It may sound a bit big or romantic, but it’s true. There was no feeling quite like tackling the undead dragon Trakanon or getting fortunate enough to obtain the most powerful weapon for your class from a god, being one of the seven people on your server that have that weapon. EverQuest created this structure of camaraderie, of teamwork, of brotherhood. It created a system of needing each other that lead to groups, groups of groups called raids – Which leads into World of Warcraft’s best scenarios like Tomb of Sargeras in their latest expansion Legion, or Wrath of the Machine or Vault of Glass in Destiny. It’s the top tier experience of their respected games.
There’s no lack of influence on the modern state of MMOs that spawned from EverQuest. From concepts like zones, class roles, expanding skills… to UI, questing, pop-up skill buttons… or finally grouping, friendship, and raids. It’s not often you can cite designs from a game nearly 20 years ago and all of the terms being still prevalent in the discussions around the genre. That’s like using Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater or Donkey Kong 64 as benchmarks of their respected genres still today. Usually discussing games from the last console generation leads to blank stares or regurgitation of second hand accounts of a game. Somehow though the core of what EverQuest was can be seen in any release within it’s genre (and beyond with games like Destiny) up through 2016. Sure you can spin it as everyone trying to ape World of Warcraft’s success, but even WoW itself is a mutation of the foundation created by Verant Interactive with EverQuest… yet somehow none have ever managed to capture my imagination or attention the way EQ did back in the early 2000’s. I doubt any ever will either.
Next time I look forward to diving a bit more into the social nature of EverQuest. While this time I dabbled into how groups and raids functioned, I really want to go into just how strong of a community focus there was on both a game-wide level and server-specific one as well. Look forward to sharing with you.