planesofpower

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 18 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.

Eighteen years and still kickin’. EverQuest is no World of Warcraft when it comes to user base but it’s hard to deny an online only game having this kind of a lifespan is impressive. It’s doubtful that there are new players signing up daily. At best old users are returning during promotional times with free access of celebrational perks. Why is that? What kind of hooks has Sony Online Entertainment dug into us to keep us for so long?

Well a lot of it I feel we approached in the past two articles – The larger community surrounding it, as well as the intimate community within it definitely play a part. If that was it thought people would just have abandoned it for newer games or gotten bored long before EQ had time to build up steam. What we’re looking at is something bigger than just the social network serving as the blood pumping through it. The other part was more mechanically driven, controllable by the developers at SoE to ensure players always had something to do. As long as there were new goals, new progression systems, players would have a reason to come back and play with their friends. From the very start of the game leveling up gave you a now iconic tinny shrill sound of “DING!” that would wake the dead if played loud enough. It was somehow both soothing and terrifying at the same time hearing that at 3am on a Sunday night when you’re alone. Once you ran out of levels to gain they’d add alternate advancement systems, epic gear upgrades, and elusive spells or trinkets to keep you plugging away. No exaggeration, I eventually acquired an item that all it did was turn you into a skeleton aesthetically. I ended up selling it for $175 in real life. There was always another step you could progress your “toon” with from a gameplay standpoint, another carrot dangled in front of you to chase. As a player you were never left wanting or directionless for long. Putting a cherry on top of this deliciously inviting pie was the flagpole event and ultimate goal within the MMO genre: Raids.

Let’s start from the beginning. Pretty basic for most familiar with RPGs was the idea of advancing your level. Kill a few rats to gain experience points and die a few times in the process. Eventually gain enough experience for the game to surprise you with that sharp DING!. Now at level 2 you gained additional health points, boosted stats, raised caps on proficiencies, access to new spells, etc. You felt that power immediately as the same rats before cowered before you… Not really, but it meant no more deaths for you as you slaughtered them by the dozens chasing that next level up. Just before the rush of power starts to get old you hear DING! as you reach level 3. Now those rats give far less XP since the game scales down the percentage gained from killing those level 1 rats, encouraging you to hunt enemies matched to your level. This leads you further away from your starting point in the world to pursue bigger game to hunt. Instead of bats and rats you move onto stray orcs, snakes, or pumas in the next zone. DING! DING!. At this point you start to chase that ridiculously sound for that rewarding sensation from hearing the level up noise. If you’ve ever chased trophies or achievements on modern gaming consoles you know the itch well. It’s Pavlov’s bell for gamers as we become conditioned to reach that next peak of continued satisfaction. By level 10 your efforts against equal level enemies prove fruitless as they’re almost a guaranteed death for you. In EverQuest, death means a permanent loss of experience. Killing lower level creatures just barely gives you any noticeable bump in your progress bar at this point. So then you turn to the general chat and start recruiting others in your hunt. Maybe just one or two others to ensure survival, but by your 20’s we’d be hunting in a group of four or more. It was the only way to progress and reach that next DING! you were salivating for.

Leveling up has a visual cue as well.

That’ll lead you to a level cap eventually. It would take literal months in order to go from level 1 to 50 to reach that cap in the first iteration of EverQuest. The next release, Rise of Kunark, would extend that cap to level 60. Don’t get too excited though as for the next two years it wouldn’t rise past that since the game wasn’t balanced for increasing levels just yet. They also made it so the time it took to gain those 10 additional levels pretty much the same length of time it took to get the first 50. Then just when you’d reach that cap as a “casual” player putting in 20 hours a week, SoE would release a new expansion with a new form of growth. That expansion, Shadows of Luclin, introduced us all to the new carrot known as Alternate Advancement levels.

What the hell is an AA level you ask?! In 2001 I hadn’t seen anything like it. You could essentially change the pool your earned experience was going into once you hit level 50. A toggle between your standard leveling and the AA levels. Deceptively the gain seemed to go so much faster than normal levels so it was hard not to jump in immediately, level 60 be damned! Once you earn a level though you could distribute a point across various tiered perks to grow your character the way you wanted. The tiers corresponded to categories specific to your class. The initial tier was the same for all 14 classes… Druids, Wizards, Warriors, etc. Second tier skills were tailored to a group of like classes… like Wizards, Necromancers, Magicians, and Enchanters were all Intelligence based magic users that had the same options. The final tier were class specific so at that point those four classes had entirely different options. For the first 6 points in AA you could boost your core stats like Strength, Stamina, Intelligence, etc. After those you could choose from the second tier which gave stuff like increased mana pools, stronger spells, etc. Then the good stuff kicked in once you spent 18 points and could access your class specific skills. For my Shadow Knight that meant I could get the ability to summon a demonic Clydesdale horse instantly. Wizards could get a skill that converted all their mana into an massive surge of damage. Rangers could get a perk for infinite arrows of any kind. In short that’s when things became awesome for everyone and it was incredibly difficult to not want it all. So from that point on life in EverQuest was about gaining AA levels so I could get my ultimate DEATH PONY.

Yet levels can’t sustain a player forever. For any RPG worth it’s weight in 1’s and 0’s we know it can’t be left to levels alone. Another key aspect of progression comes from obtaining powerful new weapons and gear. Our most beloved “phat lewts”. While we started off our journey slaying rats, bats, and orcs with nothing more than a rusty sword, somewhere along the way that didn’t cut it anymore. Your weapons and armor would come to define your success as much as your character or AA levels did. I’m not quite sure how it worked at the beginning since I jumped into EverQuest just before it’s first expansion but there was never a clear cut path in getting better gear like in the RPGs I was used to. Normally killing baddies, visiting new towns, or cracking open a dungeon chest would garner your next new favorite toy to cherish. It’d do you well for a few levels before repeating that process and finding a new pokey-stabby that let you advance further than before. EQ didn’t have any of that. Initially enemies would drop plain swords or clubs, eventually “Fine Steel Sword” would drop. These were never a huge upgrade and didn’t make a difference in battle. What they were good for though was selling off to vendors to acquire currency. From there you’d hit up the nearest player-market and barter for a stronger shield or spear with your hard earned gold and platinum pieces to whatever nice player felt like not scamming you like a used car salesman. There were no structured systems in place to handle this aspect of the game. Once again it just spawned from the community working together to organically grow this virtual living world. How players got by in the early days before this need grew this secondhand market is beyond my understanding.

Example to player driven marketplaces

Climb the levels, get shiny “gently used” gear on the market, maybe once in awhile get lucky in a group to find a rare enemy spawn with loot that was worth a damn to wear or sell on the market. Life was good. You know how it could be better though? Getting some of that fancy “No Drop” gear from the highest end dungeons. Other high end characters would run around clad in a fully matched set of the coolest looking armor. The shiniest of the shinies. By the nature of these armor pieces being classified as “No Drop” by the game meant they couldn’t be traded off of the character that looted them initially from the enemy that was killed for it. Killing those enemies meant grouping up and raiding. Once again the game was requiring you to grow outside of your comfort zone and expand your social network in order to progress… which you desperately wanted to in order to get the undisputed best gear in the game. Plus did I mention how cool you looked with it?

The nifty bit about acquiring those No Drop items was the work that went into getting high end gear meant that you valued it even more. Once you had a full set of planar gear from raiding either the Plane of Fear or Plane of Hate, you had dozens of other players that helped you get it. They pushed forward alongside with you to secure pieces of their own or were just paying it forward as someone helped them. So in the endless quest of reaching the peak of your character’s growth you now had the idea of helping others in at the top of your priorities. You needed to surround yourself with other players just as strong as you were in order to progress.

A sword in your hand was nowhere near as strong as 36 other players rallying behind you after all. Your goals shifted from being the best from an individual standpoint to wanting to be the best tank for your guild. “If only I could boost my armor stat higher, our cleric could heal me less and use that mana towards buffing the rogues defense”.  Raids became the reason to progress. The reason to meet new people. The reason to spend nights researching better techniques in forums. The reason you dedicated your playtime to the weekend with the guilds. It was the symphonic peak of EverQuest’s social and mechanical systems working in tandem to create a euphoric state of play. Get together with a few close buddies, a bunch of familiar players to pad out the rest, and spend the better part of an evening (or two) trying to clear out the hardest encounters the game had to offer… for the greatest loot the game had to offer. Risk vs reward was always in play when it came to EQ. This meant clearing out alternate planes like the aforementioned Plane of Hate and Plane of Fear along with their residing deities Innoruuk and Cazic-Thule, respectively. Any time you get the opportunity to kill a god you know there’s something good for you awaiting within their pinata-like corpse. Since raids took so many to kill these creatures they normally would drop 10+ items for various classes. Seems like a lot until you remember a raiding party regularly consisted of 48-72 players. The first time you kill one almost never granted you your heart’s desire, but maybe on the third or fourth time. Once again it gave you a carrot on a stick to keep chasing. Gotta keep the players playing ya know?

Trakanon in all his undead glory.

Beyond those planes you also had dragons as potential raid encounters, albeit a bit quicker and easier to manage. In the early days of EverQuest Lord Nagafen and Lady Vox were two star-crossed lovers that happened to be dragons cast away to their brimstone lined lair or icy mountain prison. Eventually more dragons would come including a personal favorite of mine, Trakanon, the undead poison dragon within the dungeon of Sebilis. During his encounter he’d randomly transport players to a pit of monsters away from the raiding party the longer the battle went on. It effectively put a timer on the encounter which created a rush of excitement I hadn’t felt before. After a grueling battle of organized chaos we’d emerge victorious as I had slain my first dragon. I didn’t get any loot out of the encounter but the memory of it still sticks with me over 15 years later. I loved the thrill of it all and that was reason enough to continue playing and progressing. I wanted more dragons, more gods, more raids, more fun, and more memories.

From the first DING! to my first dragon kill was quite an adventure inside the game and out. It had spanned over a year to get to that point and I had met a lot of friends. I still hadn’t capped out or come anywhere near it despite how often I played. Which I did play, a lot. Almost too much. Which is what I want to focus on in the next article. With every good feel in our life there’s the risk sacrificing bits of yourself for it. There was a dark side of EverQuest for a lot of people and I want to explore that with you all. At the end of the day, you don’t earn a nickname like EverCrack from being a wholesome game that you could stop playing at any time.

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