Twenty years ago, a company in Southern California launched an online game that would go on to serve as the model for many more titles to come in the massively multiplayer online RPG (MMORPG) space. And unlike many games that sought to replace it over the years, this one is still going today.
No, this isn’t about World of Warcraft—that game only turns 15 in 2019. Before there was WoW, there was the MMO pioneer EverQuest. This sword-and-sorcery-based game was developed by a small company, 989 Studios, but it eventually reached its pinnacle under Sony Online Entertainment after SOE acquired that studio roughly a year after the game’s launch. Today, EQ marches on with a dedicated player base and another developer, Daybreak Games, at the helm.
I’ve been a dedicated player since the early days, and others like me would likely acknowledge the game peaked early. A variety of factors have whittled down the once mighty player base since: many just simply walked away, either busy with life or quitting because it took up too much time. The impact of World of Warcraft over time is also undeniable.
But while it’s no longer a leading game in the MMO space by any stretch (WoW does hold that title), today’s EQ retains a small but dedicated fanbase who complain as much as they praise it. And in an era where most games have a shelf life of four to six months, EQ has officially spanned four presidential administrations largely off that kind of support.
“We’re basically stunned by it ourselves,” says Holly “Windstalker” Longdale, executive producer of EverQuest at Daybreak Games. “I’ve played them all. The majority are gone now. But we’ve been making more money year over year since I started working on this game. Our special sauce at this point has been nostalgia and reaching out to people who want to play it again.”
The game still has a trickle of new players, according to Longdale, but it’s understandably hard to attract a whole new generation of young players to a DirectX 9 game with 15-year-old player models and a broken Z-axis (that’s correct, you can’t go straight up and down in EQ like in WoW) where solo play is darn near impossible.
“Everyone’s getting older. We all seem to know someone going through serious health problems,” says Angie “Istraa” Dwyer, leader of the EQ guild Final Empire on the Povar server. “There is no influx of younger people, whereas WoW there’s constantly young people joining it. I can’t remember the last time I met someone under 30 unless their parents played, too.”
In an increasingly competitive field—not just in the MMO-sense, but for attention and free time at large—what inspires players to keep a shrinking, distinctly un-modern game alive? Maybe certain gameplay aspects made EQ feel different from its MMO brethren at the start, but in retrospect the secret to the game’s survival depends more on impactful, longstanding relations between players.
Making an MMO mark
EverQuest followed many of the rules for Dungeons and Dragons-inspired games that came before it, like Wizardry and Ultima. You made a character from one of four classes: combat or tank class, damage melee, damage caster, or priest. The tank’s (warrior, paladin, or shadow knight) job was to get the attention of the monster you are fighting (known as “holding agro”) while the damage dealers like rangers, monks, and rogues did as much damage as possible. Casters would cast magical damaging spells while priests healed the group. It’s an ages-old formula everyone has followed—search, fight, level up, repeat.
The game had a variety of races right out of Tolkien and other fantasy books and classes right out of D&D. You could be good, neutral, or evil and worship a corresponding god (which, in the end, has become pointless to the game). Most every MMO that followed the same recipe. The names are different, the spells are unique to each game, but the inherent structure is often the same.
But beyond that, EQ was totally unlike Wizardry and Ultima. In those games, you created a party of four to six players and played all of them as a party. The games were turn-based, and you could save the game at any time and reload in the event of failure. In EQ, you played one character and had to find groups with other players. That often meant traveling to various zones, sometimes at great risk, to LFG (or look for a group).
EQ also presented a unique challenge. The game had no manual. You didn’t know where anything was; you started out broke with no gear except a crap weapon. You spent your EQ youth learning your class and all the complexities of it. And if you died, there was no reload and start over. You had to get your body back to get your gear.
Ultimately, there was no “beating” EQ like others beat Ultima. (Hence the name: you’re forever questing.) There was always something new to do, most often tradeskilling (the art of player-made equipment) or raiding.
Raiding is where the game really set itself apart from similarly themed single-player games. EQ players organized into guilds, where all of them could talk among themselves. Some guilds were known as purely social guilds, where the players all talked in guild chat but mostly did their own thing during gameplay. Others were organized primarily around raiding, where all of the members would gather together to take down a massive target for the best of rewards. (Game gear for characters falls into two categories, group and raid, and the best gear in-game comes from raiding.) With raiding, the proposition was simple: bigger risk, bigger reward.
In short, EverQuest was a tough game to play. And in 2019 it still is, just in a different way.
Modernizing an MMO
When EQ started, the top level for players was 50. Now it’s 110. Over time, it became clear there was no way the game could have level 50 players and keep them challenged. So to keep players challenged, levels were raised with new expansions. The creatures you fought were that much tougher, the loot better, and so on.
Today if you see anyone below 110, it’s likely the alt of a player being leveled up or maybe a returning player coming out of a multi-year retirement. On rare occasions, I’ll see a new player in server chat looking for a group and wonder how they got that far in the first place—modern EQ really offers no semblance of a low-level game. And accordingly, the game has almost no genuine, new low-level players.
Raiding changed, too. It used to be raid targets like dragons were in open zones and anyone could engage. With five- to seven-day repop timers, people would wait for raid mobs to repop and then there would be a mad rush from raiding guilds to engage first. This caused so many headaches that often Sony in-game support people had to mediate. Developers eventually threw in the towel and created instances, beginning with the Planes of Power expansion in 2002, where multiple guilds could share the same targets without getting into fights.
That reality is kind of sad. When I started, a new player zone like Greater Faydark would have up to 50 people during prime time. Now I doubt two or three people pass through the zone in any given day. But as a game like EQ ages and its core audience improves, old content is abandoned—it becomes too easy, old gear is surpassed by newer gear, and experience slows down.
Once-great challenging raids and zones become abandoned. Old raid targets that slaughtered entire raids I was on can now be soloed with any class of character. The game could lose 90% of its content, and no one would be affected due to the higher level caps. It’s a bit of an MMO-version of the chicken and the egg: which came first, the lack of new players or the lack of new player content?
On reflection, this plays out most prominently (and most interestingly) in how much EQ’s signature raiding has changed logistically. When I started, you had one chat window for everything: talk, group chat, guild talk, and battle spam (melee and casting damage, plus healing). Now you can have five and filter them all out. The game was max resolution of 800×600 then; I play in 1920×1080 now. Today when my raid leader guides 50+ people through Discord chat by voice, I get to hear a wonderful array of accents from around the country.
But while it may be a more organized experience, raiding has become much shorter and much more intense. In the pre-WoW days, I knew guilds that raided five nights a week for five-six hours a night. EverQuest was like a second job. These days, my guild raids just two days a week for four hours each day.
Raiding has become more organized, and the pace of raiding today is way faster. In 2001, my character my die a dozen times in one night; EQ can now feel like a FPS game. In a way, the game had to evolve like this. If people were having the same raid experiences now, with The Burning Lands expansion, as they did in Scars of Velious, players would get bored. The developers have evolved the game over 20 years, and one way was to make everything faster. In the pre-WoW days, I knew guilds that raided five nights a week for five-to-six hours a night, to the point EverQuest was like a second job. These days, my guild raids just two days a week for four hours each day.
Thinking back specifically on my time with EQ, the peak of the game was arguably 2004 with the release of the Omens of War expansion. That was the last time then-developer Sony Online Entertainment owned up to its player base, putting the public figure at 450,000 in the press release announcing the OOW release. But that release also said 2.5 million players had played EQ, which seems to indicate the game lost two million players in its first five years.
In retrospect, this migration is not surprising. Many players quit early on since the game was so difficult and unhelpful, and the launch of World of Warcraft in 2004 took a huge divot out of the EQ fanbase. No one knows the numbers now, but EQ is hardly alone in a likely slow trickle-out of MMO players. These days, even WoW’s subscriber numbers have been in a freefall for years.
Listing image by Daybreak games