EverQuest’s long, strange 20-year trip still has no end in sight

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 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, 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 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 like in ) 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 guild Final Empire on the Povar server. “There is no influx of younger people, whereas 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  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

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.

Players Helping Players

Nature abhors a vacuum and so did players. Since you had no idea what you were doing or where you were going in this game, fan sites quickly bubbled up in the early days. These served as crucial repositories of information. Some, like Caster’s Realm, are gone. Allakhazam, the most thorough of databases, still survives and is part of a gaming network offering similar reference materials to , and .

Players also helped each other out directly, likely leading to relationships in being stronger than those I’ve encountered in other games. For instance, I started on the Quellious server (all of the servers are named after game deities), where there was a rather unique guild called Healers United. To be a member, you had to be able to heal—HU had no warriors, monks, rogues, or casters. The guild was led by a shaman, Michelle “Juror” Shea (nee Barratt), and the group would do things like setting up healing stations in remote zones like The Estate of Unrest, where players were often on their own.

“I don’t think games these days can support a guild like that. Back then you needd someone to come rescue you. You needed help, and so much of the game was built around other players helping you,” says Mike “Loral” Shea, her husband and HU’s top cleric.

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, 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 , 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).

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 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” like others beat Ultima. (Hence the name: you’re foring.) 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. 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, was a tough game to play. And in 2019 it still is, just in a different way.

Modernizing an MMO

When 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 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 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 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.

In the pre- days, I knew guilds that raided five nights a week for five-six hours a night. was like a second job. These days, my guild raids just two days a week for four hours each day. That’s partially because 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;  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- days, I knew guilds that raided five nights a week for five-to-six hours a night, to the point  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 , 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 , 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  in 2004 took a huge divot out of the fanbase. No one knows the numbers now, but is hardly alone in a likely slow trickle-out of MMO players. These days, even ’s subscriber numbers have been in a freefall for years.

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