Daily Archives: August 7, 2021

Immersion on the Bad Linoleum of Norrath

Having done what I consider the easy immersion study with Lord of the Rings Online… easy both because I can identify the hooks that get me and because I have played it seriously as recently as 2018… it is time to move on to the next time.

It is time for EverQuest.

Classic EverQuest

EverQuest is going to be a tougher row to hoe for a few reasons, the first of which is that I haven’t played it seriously in ages.  I think the last time I played for anything like real was in the run up to the 20th anniversary, and that was a bit of a lark because they had bonus XP going to I made it up to 50 in a couple weeks of short daily sessions.

Before that I played through to about level 20 with a couple of characters when the Vox server launched, which has to be six or seven years ago at this point.  And before that it was when the Fippy Darkpaw time locked progression server launched, when Potshot and I played seriously as a duo for a few months, until the PlayStation/SOE hack turned off all their servers for a few weeks, which kind of broke our stride.

There were a few runs before that.  I went and played when they launched The Serpent’s Spine expansion, which promised a new and soloable quest path.

But all of those runs, they were based on the memory of the game when it launched, the sense of immersion I felt way back in 1999 and 2000, when I was logging on every night and had some friends to play with there regularly and it was the place to be.

So the immersion factor is something from way in the past, before most of the key points in my adult life, like marriage and parenthood.  Going back to play keeps the ember of the immersion I felt in the game alive after all these years.

Second, if I was bitching about the UI being a problem for immersion in LOTRO, how the hell do I explain it with a UI that looked like this?

Out in the dark night

I lifted that screenshot from the web ages ago because I have no screenshots left from that era, but look at that UI.  And that was all crammed onto a 17″ monitor running at 1024 x 768 resolution, a size so small that I could easily lose a window of that dimension on my current monitor.

Third, the whole thing looked pretty primitive, even back in 1999.  Being an early 3D rendered title in an age when cards that could render 3D could only handle relatively few polygons and textures of limited size, the landscape could look like it was fractured from some opaque crystal material that broke into a myriad of sharply defined triangular surfaces.  I’d played Delta Force before EQ, which used voxels, a rendering tech that at the time gave a much more realistic surface texture.

A swimming pool in Qeynos

And each giant facet colored by a texture that looked more like bad linoleum than grass or dirt or rock or whatever.  The trees looked like cardboard cutouts.  The character animations were minimal and the running animation was always just a bit off from the movement.

Never an immersion breaking name in EQ!

That was kind of rough looking, even in 1999.

Finally, EQ didn’t even have the things going for it that LOTRO did.  If you look back at my LOTRO immersion post, I list out the elements that I felt helped me on the immersion front, which included the following:

  • Familiar lore
  • Good adaptation of the lore to the game
  • Mechanics are familiar but not identical to other fantasy MMORPGs
  • Familiarity with the game
  • Well done landscape that feels like Middle-earth

None of those five apply to EQ.  I’ve already dispensed with the quality of the landscape, and familiarity wasn’t really a thing, being the first 3D MMORPG I played.

And the lore of Norrath?  Here is a dirty little secret; for all my years of pining for the game and singing its praises, I know diddly squat about the lore.  I was never a raider, so if you listed out all the raid boss names I might recognize five or six.  I was also a bit of a “roll player,” one who was into the mechanics and optimization as opposed to being immersed in the lore.  I still am that way to a certain extent.  I prefer my own story to the one the game tries to overlay on my adventures.

There is, however, one item from the LOTRO list that EQ did have, and does have still.

  • Feeling of place within the game

When I go there I feel like I am somewhere in a way that a lot of games struggle to capture.

I suspect that the primary through line of this series about immersion is going to end up being a sense of place, a feeling of being somewhere alive.  So I can’t just drop that “place” bullet point and keep going.  I am going to have to justify it every time I bring it up.

So what made Norrath in 1999 feel like a place despite the limitations of the tech at the time?

To start with it was an interconnected world.  Even chopped up into zones it all still felt connected.  You could travel overland and by ship from one end of the game to the other and it took time and could be quite dangerous depending on your level.

And then there is what they did do well with the tech they had, like light and the day/night cycle and fog.  I know Bhagpuss is going to complain about the fog, but I felt it gave the game atmosphere, texture, and a sense of foreboding.

Barbarians in the fog and snow

I remember looking up into the trees in Surefall Glade where my first character, a half elf ranger, literally the worst combo I could have chosen, and seeing them rise up into the mist, disappearing into it so you could only imaging how tall they much be.  And, after exiting the tunnel that led into they Qeynos hills, having the medium distance fade into a fog.  I felt considerably apprehension the first time I went all the way down the road to North Qeynos because the zone line had nothing but fog beyond it.

The fog filled a role beyond atmosphere of course.  It was there to limit how much your video card had to render.  It was a common trick in the early day of 3D.  I remember it from Starsiege: Tribes as well, the middle distance fog and firing my disc launcher into where I thought somebody might be and seeing my rounds disappear into that mist.

The fog went away later.  Video cards improved and the poly count of the early game was ridiculously low just a few years down the line.  I missed the fog when we were playing on Fippy Darkpaw.  It took some of the mystery out of the world.

But night remained, and it was an entity all of its own.  I remember waiting at a guard tower in West Karana in the night because visibility was greatly reduced… at least until we all discovered the gamma setting… and you couldn’t see dangers that might be waiting for you if you went traveling alone.  You could see distant lights and light sources on players and the occasional NPC.  The jack-o-lantern heads on those scarecrows were lit up at night.  But a wolf or a bandit might be invisible in the dark until you stumbled onto them.  And worse things might loom out of the night suddenly.

Froon!

The first time I saw Froon march out of the darkness towards me I about wet myself.  It was amazing.  Mobs wandered the zone.  It wasn’t a static world, but one with a rhythm.  It wasn’t a complicated cycle and you could figure it all out with a bit of patience, but you had to put some effort in.

And, speaking of effort, there were no maps.  We had to draw our own.

West Karana all on One Map

I grabbed any decent map I could and printed them out at work and annotated them as I played, something that added to the experience.  It was a hassle, another impediment to play, and something I am not sure I would put up with today, but I was younger and more adaptable back then.

Finally, while I didn’t know anything really about the game when I went down to Fry’s to buy it on launch day, I did quickly discover that Aradune and company had cribbed much of the mechanics of Norrath from TorilMUD, so there was a bit of… diagonal familiarity I could leverage.  That didn’t help with the world, but I knew up front at which levels you got new spells, which came from TorilMUD, which had borrowed the pattern from Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition.  That wasn’t much to hang your hat on, but in a big new world even a tidbit like that can sustain you until you get on your feet.

A lot of what worked for me in EQ was very much rooted in the time.  I was both younger and more invested in some games.  The raw and primitive nature of the game wasn’t so stark compared to its competitors, such that they were.  It was also something of a bridge between MUDs I had played for most of the 90s and the MMORPGs that would come to dominate the first decade of the 21st century.

Still, there was some bit of magic involved.  Even now, more than 22 years later, if I log into EQ and wander around Qeynos Hills and West Karana, I can still find traces of the emotions that first gripped me back when the game was new.  Maybe I am more attuned to nostalgia or visualization than some, but I can still get there today.

And even when I am doing something not from 1999… I have to admit I do like the tutorial they put in… and struggling with the complexity of all the features and skills and spells and AA abilities, there is still a bit of the original that shines through.

Anyway, that is a lot of rambling memories and what not, and I could probably keep on going, but I want to try and wrap this up at some point, so lets get to some bullet points.

So what have we got?  Let me throw a few out there.  Like the game itself, the list of possible bullet points is longer and deeper than you might expect.

Pro immersion:

  • Feeling of place within the game
  • A connected world that required travel
  • A feeling of different places in that world
  • A simply huge world at this point
  • A freshness that has somehow remained with me
  • Night/light really changing the feel of the game
  • A sense of danger in the world
  • Mercenaries if you can’t find a group now

Immersion breaking:

  • Looks primitive today compared to even slightly newer titles
  • Can feel simplistic, unguided, and grindy
  • Layers of systems in the UI can be difficult to decipher
  • Level cap has gone all the way to 115
  • Level boost only gets you to 85 and lands you deep in confusion
  • Figuring out your spells for any casting class past level 30 or so
  • Really not that enjoyable solo, the tutorial being a promise unfulfilled

This is one where I encourage you to suggest further items as my short term memory isn’t capable of juggling all the possibilities at once.

Aside from my emotional attachment, my ability to find the seeds of immersion in some nostalgia haze, Probably  the biggest single plus is the game world itself, which is much more expansive than you probably dare imagine. (Except you Bhagpuss, you’re way ahead of me on that front.)  Travel, even with the Plane of Knowledge and portals and what not is still an adventure because there is simply so much world.

27 expansions over 22 years have expanded the game world beyond imagination.

That is a lot of walking

The last time I was trying to do something seriously in EQ I spent most of my time just trying to get places like the Scarlet Desert, which is on the moon.  That in and of itself was a fun adventure and very much got me into the zone.  There is probably a challenge in just visiting every single zone.

It is just a pity that even the best and newest stuff looks old.  The company has gotten more out of the EQ engine that they probably ever imagined, but one of the many reasons WoW took off was Blizz had the tech and the knowledge to make a much better looking world just five years later.

Meanwhile, the biggest weight around the game’s neck has to be the fact that SOE, Daybreak, and now EG7 have added so many new systems to the game that figuring out how to do something, how to get somewhere, how to find some tidbit of information you need, can be quite taxing in and of itself.

Read that Scarlet Desert post I linked above for a sample.  I am talking about an EVE Online level of hidden features and “I didn’t even know about that” potential.

And then there is the downside of the sprawling world, which is less getting places and much more knowing where you should even go.  The game throws hints at you, suggests zones when you level up, gives you advice, but a lot of it was accurate when written but out of date five or ten years down the road.

It is a game where I want to join a regular group to explore the world and yet wouldn’t even begin to know where to go or what to do.  There are two sides to that whole dynamic.  Exploring and being able to get lost or having to find your way carefully can be very immersive, but being aimless and unguided is not.  Even if the journey is the reward, you still need a destination to plan your route.  And fog.  I miss the fog.

It is a Bartle explorer’s paradise in that it has much to explore beyond just the massive world, but the weight of 22 years of expansion and additions makes it the Winchester Mystery House of MMORPGs; cool and interesting, but it seems like living there would also be a lot of work.

I am not entirely happy with this post, here at the end, largely because I kept straying off the immersion aspect and delving into what feels like rating the game itself.  There is certainly a connection between the two at some level, but they are not one and the same.  But that is also the danger of trying to explore through words a game that is this old and sprawling and to which I still hold considerably emotional attachment.

Still, the post went well enough that I already have the next title to discuss in mind.

The Immersion Series So Far: