EverQuest II at Fifteen and the Memories of What Could Have Been

I am sure I’ve told this tale before… probably several times… but playing EverQuest II back at launch was really a last minute decision for me.  Meclin… or Gaff… or Rarik…  or whatever I call him these days… Tim I guess… with whom I had played Sojourn/TorilMUD on and off for the previous decade, was suddenly taken with the idea of playing EverQuest II.

An ad for EQII from the August 2004 issue of Computer Gaming World

I hadn’t really been paying attention.  I’d stopped playing EverQuest for a variety of reasons, gave my account to a friend who still played and was doing some multi-boxing (they never changed the password, so I checked back on that account and found all my chars deleted), and basically played single player games or online match-based games like Delta Force and Battlefield 1942.  I knew some people who played EQ or DAoC, but I wasn’t interested.  I had neither the time nor the inclination.

TorilMUD revived itself, after having gone missing for a stretch, in early 2003 which got some of the people I knew back together.  I dove back into that and for one last stretch it became my main game.  But after getting to level cap and getting into a guild and doing zones regularly, word started to get around about EverQuest II.

There was a strong tie between TorilMUD and EQ, with TorilMUD having been the home of a number of EQ devs, including Brad McQuaid, and having served as the basic template for EQ.  A lot of early EQ, from classes to the death mechanics, were rooted in TorilMUD.

So with an new EverQuest coming, it was natural for people to be looking into it.  Not me however, I wasn’t feeling any sort of itch.  Tim though, he was listening to the reports on the new game.  He even passed me a write up somebody had done in beta.  He wanted to get in on the new game, and all the more so since he missed out on early EverQuest.  So a bunch of people from our guild… him and Chandigar and Pril and Oteb and a few others… got on board with playing EverQuest II at launch.

Or almost at launch.

We didn’t get there for the first round of servers.  But the team at SOE had a plan for launch that included bringing new servers online as the current ones filled up.  So we joined in with the launch of the Crushbone server on November 13, 2004, fifteen years ago today.

My earliest screen shot of EQ2 – Nov. 14, 2004

We got in, got through the Isle of Refuge, made it to town, and eventually formed a guild the next day.

Our guild on Crushbone

The guild was a mix of TorilMUD players and some EverQuest players that included a friend of Tim’s.  We all joined together and became the Knights of the Cataclysm.

The EverQuest II lore is based on a cataclysm, the breaking of the moon that rained down debris on Norrath, sundered the lands, broke up continents, reworked the landscape, and basically provided a way to start from scratch to a certain extent.

The game, heir to EverQuest, the reigning champion of the fantasy MMORPG genre with more than 550K subscribers, was expected to carry on the tradition of the original.  The headline of the review by Jeff Green in CGW was The Once and Future King!

Unfortunately, cataclysm proved to be something of an apt metaphor for the game.  There was a lot wrong with it at launch.  For openers, the systems requirements were way too high, something that prevented much of the EQ base from even considering migrating to the new game.  And that migration was clearly central to the plan at SOE.

There were also a myriad of bad assumptions, bad features, and last minute changes… the game was already a year or so “late” so the need to launch seemed to be driving much of the process at that point… that hamstrung the game.

Some of it was self-inflicted.  There has long been the tale about how the EQII team felt they had to steer away from the original game and create their own lore.  Crafting, which had been its own class during the beta, because a sub-class for players, though retained the same advancement structure.  What it also retained was an overburden of complexity and interdependence between the professions.

Adventuring classes had the odd archetype system, where you chose fighter, rogue, cleric, or mage up front, then specialized at level 10, then again at level 20, at which point you were finally at your final class.  But there were really too many classes and too many races and not enough character slots (just 4).

Grouping was pretty much required if you wanted any sort of smooth ride while leveling.  Some zones were locked behind group quests, though only if you wanted to go there before a given level.  Afterwards you could just walk in.  And somebody at SOE had given too much ear to people complaining about twinking in the forums, so a lot of spells could only be cast on groups members, others had pitifully short duration, and some spells combined both.  Gone were the days of casting Spirit of the Wolf on grateful lowbies.

And then there were the core issues, like zones.  The market was moving towards the seamless world idea, but EQII still had you zoning.  And there wasn’t even the illusion of a single world as with EQ.  The place was chopped up into disconnected areas that you visited via a portal or a bell.  I am sure that some problems were solved with this approach, but it left the game feeling less like a world.

Add in the graphics, which were not bad if you had a rig that could display them, though the color scheme tended towards muddy, but when you did crank them up went a little too far into the uncanny valley when it came to characters, and the seeds of discontent had been sown.

Meanwhile the gaming market itself had changed.  When EverQuest launched in March of 1999 there were other MMORPGs, but they were pretty different.  Ultima Online had its isometric 3rd person perspective.  Meridian 59 was all about PvP.  When Asheron’s Call showed up it had a different advancement philosophy.  These were all distinctively different titles.

By late 2004 more games had appeared in the genre.  Dark Age of Camelot talked about being like EverQuest with PVP but without the “suck.”  There was already news coverage for other competing titles.  Guild Wars was in the offing.  Brad McQuaid had already left SOE with some of the original EverQuest crew and Vanguard: Saga of Heroes was vying for the successor to Norrath title.  And, of course, there was that title from Blizzard that was getting lots of coverage.

And so the cataclysm metaphor seemed apt.

Not that it was all bad.  The game’s housing system, and how well integrated it was to the game, including a trade profession dedicated to building furniture, still stands apart from any other MMORPG I have played.  Its free form decorating and the ability to hang trophies from your adventures on your wall, as well as being your in-game store front, worked very well.

As a group, as a guild, we stayed mostly pretty dedicated to the game for almost a year.  But we were something of the exception rather than the rule.  People who did not feel at home in the new world often went back to EverQuest.

But in a couple of weeks after we first logged in World of Warcraft launched, and a lot of people who didn’t go back to EverQuest moved on to WoW instead.

SOE knew they were in trouble pretty quickly after WoW launched, and the game started changing to adapt.  We got little quills and books over quest givers, the EQII version of the big yellow exclamation mark and question mark in Azeroth.  Trade skills got revamped.  We got offline selling.  The emphasis on grouping being a requirement after level 20 or so was relaxed somewhat.  A lot of those group encounters in the Thundering Steppes were made solo encounters.  Buffs got saner timers.  Travel was tinkered with.

Meanwhile, the SOE mania with more content lest we all leave… EQ was well into its “two expansions a year” era… meant that an expansion popped up before some of us were at level cap.

Within a few months people started to fade away.  On guild coms people were pining for Vanguard, which they were now sure would be the real EQ successor.  I went off and tried WoW. came back for a while, then a large portion of the TorilMUD faction in our guild went to WoW together, settling on the Eldre’Thalas server where I still play some of the characters I rolled up back then.

And now here we are, fifteen years down the road, and the game is still there.

As their splash screen proudly declares… though that is the original EverQuest box art

It has been updated, changed, and re-arranged over the years often, but not always, improving the game.  It still gets a new expansion every year, which is a lot more than many games in the genre get.  People still pine for an alternate universe where WoW never launched, but I don’t think that would have made the game any more popular.  It was a mess at launch, but has matured over time, so that the game today plays differently than it did way back when… though there are too many damn skills still.

Oddly, I think the fact that the game has changed so much, mostly for the better, is one of the reasons that the whole progression server idea isn’t nearly as popular for EQII as it is for EQ.

In EQ the old locations mostly look about the same.  Okay, they updated Freeport, but Qeynos and Faydwer still look as crappy as they did back in 1999.  Even if the progression server isn’t a pure 1999 experience, you can squint your eyes and pretend and mostly feel the nostalgia burn.

But EQII?  How the hell does Daybreak even begin to simulate the chaos and dysfunction that was early EQII?  So much has changed that there is no going back to 2004.  There simply aren’t enough free resources at Daybreak to re-create the original game.

6 thoughts on “EverQuest II at Fifteen and the Memories of What Could Have Been

  1. bhagpuss

    Spot on! It drives me nuts when some rosy-tinted fantasist starts banging on in general chat about how much better EQ2 was at launch, especially the crafting. It was a hot mess for months until Scott Hartsman got his hands on the controls. At least, I always give him the credit. Maybe he was just the figurehead, although Rift in beta and the first weeks after launch suggests he knew what a good MMORPG looked like.

    I’d forgotten the uncanny valley character models. It mostly affected the human/elf races anyway – playing a gnome or a dwarf it wasn’t so obvious. One thing no-one mentions much any more is the “first ever fully-voiced MMO” thing SOE was pushing as hard as possible. As I remember it, the voice-acting was the main thing they wanted everyone to know about. I still have my talking Lucan house item somewhere.

    The problem was, apart from Christopher Lee and Heather Graham in the lead roles, most of the voice acting was abysmal. Really, really bad. And anyway, voice acting and MMORPG gameplay really don’t go together. I can read a quest so much faster than I can listen to one and the acting is better in my head. It’s notable how fast they dropped that idea.

    In the end, though, it all turned out fr the best. Vanguard really was the real sequel to Eq but EQ2 became one of the best MMORPGs of all time on its own merits. I’ve been playing it all weekend and chances are I’ll be playing more EQ2 than any other game all winter. Not bad for a fifteen year old game.

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  2. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    @Bhagpuss – Yes, the voice acting and the occasional “we’re going to make sure you’re paying attention to the quest text” gimmicks early on were not missed by me when they got dropped. I still occasionally run into an interaction where I want to say, “Just give me the damn quest already, I’ll read it in the quest journal!”

    I think WoW was really the sequel to EQ. It was an obvious upgrade/development of EQ and even the Blizz team has recognized this up on stage at BlizzCon. It was EQ without the suck, to borrow the phrase from DAoC. It has changed a lot over the years, but WoW Classic has given us a glimpse of how it took the EQ idea and ran with it. Even things people complained about in WoW, like instanced dungeons, were lifted straight from EQ.

    Vanguard wasn’t a sequel so much as an attempt to rewind back to 1999 with better graphics and some new gimmicks, a denial of reality, an attempt to manifest a vision that was not in tune with the context of the time. Vanguard needed to have launched in 2003. Launching in 2007, two weeks after the first WoW expansion, doomed it as much as anything. It would have died off quickly had SOE not picked it up and, as we have heard, the time spent trying to fix it was never anywhere close to repaid.

    I am glad in a way that SOE expended the effort it did, as it will keep it from ever becoming one of those “if only it had been given a chance” titles. It was given more chances than it deserved, including a free to play conversion with a cash shop, and it failed to gain any traction outside of a very small circle of fans. Think how far along the emulator would be now if it had been killed off by SOE sooner!

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  3. flosch

    I guess EQ2 and WoW’s expansion should at least have taught every company to never, ever name any part of their game cataclysm again, or preferably even mention it in the story background.

    The zoning and travel system was especially jarring. I’m not sure the trend towards seamless worlds was that clear though? Many games over the next years had zoned worlds. In fact, Wow is probably one of the most extreme “no zone border” examples for a good many years after its release.

    I liked the concept of archetypes, classes, and subclasses. It helped with analysis paralysis to a degree, because you could makes choices more gradually. Too many classes in the end though probably, yes; the subclasses would have better worked as elaborate talent/AA specs I guess.

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  4. Toldain

    I am one of the few people, I guess, that liked the first crafting system in EQ2. It was logical, and had a good progression, and required you to actually pay attention while crafting. AND, since it require subcomponents that, eventually, you couldn’t make yourself, it emphasized trading, which is something I like.

    I had one guildie go into Alchemy just so he could provide WORT (remember WORT?) for everyone. And another set up a business as an armorer (if memory serves) and capped his crafting level in a couple of quick months.

    But it seems that for most people, having to go to the market in order to level up your crafting was too much of an ask, even though things like Guild Wars 2 do it. Also, the whole “crafting is like a mini battle” thing seemed weird to people, too.

    I had a heart attack, which resulted in two stents being inserted in my right coronary artery but otherwise had little lasting effect on Nov 7, 2004, and and started on EQ2 the next Tuesday, Nov 10. I had to stay home from work, so there wasn’t all that much else to do.

    To me the big negative was the loss of driveby buffing. It really was a major component of social glue. I recall posting about it at the time.

    What turned out to also be a negative was the strong emphasis on group play. There was very little content that one could solo. WOW’s big innovation, in my opinion, was to make the game much more solo friendly.

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  5. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    @Toldain – Saying something positive about EQII crafting put your comment straight in the spam directory. You’re lucky… or I’m lucky… that I fish through the spam folder diligently now and then.

    I remain somewhat torn on EQII crafting. I am one of those people who went alchemist on day one, one of the two stand alone crafting professions, and did very well by it. I was popular in the guild. But the idea that we were all going to be buying and selling our bits and pieces on the market never materialized, in part because SOE was so afraid of the economy getting out of control again that they kept the money supply very low. It was the era when no mobs dropped coin. So you made stuff for friends and vendored stuff rather than sell it on the market because the market was completely saturated.

    I am also not sure that crafting needs to have the same level structure as adventure levels. I realize that is an artifact of an earlier design when crafting was its own class, but it has been a downside at times, again largely because SOE mishandled it. At times leveling up was a horrible grind, at other times they made it trivially easy. You knew when it was too grindy because trade skill botting was rampant for a while and even SOE at one point said they were looking the other way on that. It is in a better place now through the writ system, but even that has some issues. I skipped some expansions and I cannot do writs past level 100 because they requires recipes you need to have faction in an older expansion in order to buy. Oy!

    And, of course, when they made a crafting system where you could craft decent gear for every single slot they had to make it so you needed to replace every single item of gear every ten levels, which I always found a pain. At one point they were forcing that by basically making gear stop working if you were 10 levels beyond its range. For all the good ideas they kept getting themselves in a bind over unintended consequences.

    Oh, and shared bank slots. That is one thing that EQII got right on day one. I know the idea came up in EQ, but they did that very right on day one in EQII. An absolute requirement for your crafting alts.

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