Ok, so maybe the epic-ness of this midi track it doesn't quite shine through today. I guess it was never really the song itself that grabbed me, it was the promise attached to it. EverQuest promised an open 3D world bigger than you could ever conceivably explore. It promised long term character growth and constant persistent multiplayer. It promised so much game, and delivered so little.
Yes, EverQuest was huge both in its scope and in its problems. Its developers were committed to creating a world where players *must* work together to achieve success. The idea was that this would create a real sense of community, of banding together against insurmountable odds. The reality was that it made for one of the most punishing and unfun experiences a majority of the time, forcing you to focus efforts on finding said groups, balanced collections of players & classes who both played a around the same speed as you and whom you trusted fairly well.
Want to try going it solo? Experience the sadness of dying alone over and over and over. Even with a group, the difficulty of leveling and the agonizing pace of experience gain would never abate, and the threat of death was always looming around every corner. The game was a tremendous treadmill. In addition, the world at times seem almost sadistically constructed -- high-level monsters were randomly placed in low-level areas, and the AI was such that they would chase the poor new players as long as it took to kill them, unless they could escape to the next "zone". As if the death penalties of losing experience and potentially a previously gained level weren't enough, you also ran the risk of potentially losing ALL of your equipment and inventory if you don't get back to your body. And don't get me started on the ridiculous endgame, the massive raids of hundreds of players all standing in place for hours watching their characters swing swords and/or wave wands with little damage numbers appearing in the chat bar. These raids would make World of Warcraft's old 40 player raids seem positively exciting. Just look at this example of EQ's pulse-pounding raid action:
Why would anyone play such a thing? Well, because it was new. It was a world to explore, and we didn't know any better. No one had done this type of game before. No one knew how punishing it should be or what systems make the most sense for a game this big, this ambitious, designed to keep players playing indefinitely (hence the name). There was no World of Warcraft yet to copy off of. This was the first.
A punishing, massive, and at times cryptically designed group based RPG – much closer to Dungeons and Dragons perhaps than many more recent MMOs in the same vein, which end up playing more like action games. The only thing missing from the DND comparison would be any sense of role-playing or storytelling. In EverQuest, you didn't need to use your imagination – the world was built for you, for better or worse.
That's not the whole story of why I played so long, though. There were two big reasons top keep me playing EverQuest for over 3 years. The first is that many of the friends that I made in SubSpace decided to start playing EverQuest, and I tagged along because why not try something new with friends? Thus was born the guild "Hero", a group with a joyful and also sad history of adventure and absorption into the mega-guild Realm of Ages, which tackled the game's super high level endgame content in those aforementioned 100+ player raids.
To be fair, as boring as raiding was, the folks in Hero and RoA made the game much more fun than it would have been otherwise. I'm really thankful that I was able to play with them for so long. Even though I never became a raiding master or a high-level contributor, I felt like I got to see a lot of things in the game that would be very difficult to see without a tremendous amount of help. And I got a lot of very good equipment that Talroke the Puny Shadow Knight had no business having.
The second reason I stuck with EQ was much more personal. My Dad and I both played games. EverQuest was a game that only one of us could play at a time (the lack of household awareness of things like "routers" and "broadband" at the time made sure of that). Still, even with this restriction, my Dad and I were quickly addcited to the game. We created characters on different servers, and took turns playing. I have many memories of sitting behind him, watching him actually contribute to some amazing raid (he attained a much higher level than I ever achieved) or fight some creature I never encountered, or him sitting behind me, observing and offering suggestions. We started characters on other ends of the world – he started a barbarian shaman in the glacial ice region, while I started a wood elf in the forested region, a continent away. So it was also a way to see different areas of the game earlier than I would have been able to otherwise.
Again, this world was BIG, and traveling across it was NOT easy. Nothing captures the feeling of vastness this game would give you then traveling between continents for the first time. At one of the major cities, you would get on a boat at a dock, and the boat would leave for a 30 minute or so journey across the ocean. Sometimes on these voyages you would see strange things – islands roamed by cyclops, stirrings in the water of dangerous sea life, etc. The voyages gave a sense of scale to the world that would've been impossible with something like a teleportation spell – although those existed as well for higher level players.
In addition, the starting areas of EverQuest had character. Take the barbarian hometown of Halas. Here is a place that does not like visitors – the only way to get there from civilization is to travel through a pitch black maze of caves, which was a murder hole for newer players trying to escape the zone into the nearby capital city of Qeynos. Unless you were a race with dark vision -- i.e. not a Barbarian -- you'd better hope you were able to figure out the game's clunky lighting system. Fire beetle eye, anyone?
If that's not punishing enough for you, try my own personal starting city, Kelethin. The wood elf starting zone sits entirely among the treetops – with zero safety railings. Yes, the forest floor was littered with the corpses of fresh young wood elves, especially a certain patch very near to the new character spawn point. That's one way to fertilize your crops, I guess?
In all, from the very beginning, EverQuest was designed to teach you to respect the world and avoid danger. Death was everywhere, and death meant a loss of progress, sometimes quite a lot of progress. This, combined with the reliance on having a regular group of people to progress at later levels, created a very stressful game, and often quite an isolating one. I never actually achieved a very high level in the game, despite having many friends to play with. I just could not grind as hard as they could, and they would out level and outpace me, making it difficult to play with them. The game just could not keep my attention quite as tightly as with them in its traditional form. Instead of power-leveling one character to the maximum, I constantly created new characters to experience different classes and environments -- hampering my progress toward any level cap significantly.
This brings me to a less traditional and very short lived aspect of the game, one that gripped me entirely, but that you've likely never heard of: Play as a Monster. This experimental feature allowed you to spawn on one of the PvP servers as a low-level monster. No progress, no items, no experience points -- just a single spawn as a fire beetle or a kobold or some other wimpy creature. Die, and that spawn was over.
This essentially allowed you to go into the world in camouflage, becoming part of the environment -- very similar to the world-invasion style multiplayer that Dark Souls would popularize years later. While this feature was available, I was completely addicted to it. Every time I clicked the "monster" button, the game would find a monster somewhere randomly across it's massive game world, and give you control of it. This sounds like it could be a bit boring -- and sometimes it was. But, consider the moments where you appear somewhere familiar -- say, the forest surrounding Kelethin -- and recognized that you had spawned as something that, though low level, was nevertheless about 5 levels higher than the average player in that area. Yes, you could wreak some real havoc. Eventually, of course, people figured it out. My rampage as a level 9 Crushbone Orc in the Wood Elf starting zone was probably my bloodiest spree as a monster, but eventually a band of newbies formed to hunt me down and end my reign of terror.
That's just scratching the surface of being a monster, though. More subtle interactions were possible as well. Imagine you are a low-level player in a low-level group, and you are tasked with the duty of "pulling" monsters to the group to be killed. This was a very common assignment in EverQuest, as groups would usually pick a safe spot out of the path of rampaging high-level monsters or fields of random spawns, and make camp there to kill things and take their stuff safely. So, you run out to the fields with your bow and arrow, and you spot a lion of about the right level, and you shoot it with an arrow. This should provoke an immediate reaction as the lion AI locks on to you, ready to chase you until the ends of the earth (or in this case, to a very quick end at the hand of many low-level daggers).
Instead of chasing you, however, the lion sits down.
You cannot believe your eyes. What programmed behavior is this? Have you tamed the lion? Is it a quest giving lion, some kind of rare spawn? Or has the lion developed consciousness? Is it submitting to death, tired of the endless line of players jogging past it, ignoring it entirely, or of being lead to lion-murdering teams over and over?
Being uncertain of an entity's status as AI or player-controlled is one of those strange states in gaming where you start to question what signifies sentience. Going back to Dark Souls, I'll never forget the first invasion I experienced in Dark Souls 2 -- a player named Armorer Dennis. He was the first invader I ever encountered, a bright red specter of death and aggression. I was terrified of him. I ran from him, and he chased me through the level, firing all kinds of high-level spells. Finally, after dying to him twice, I hid from him in an attic up a ladder for 10 minutes, thinking I would ambush him as he came around the corner. My heart was thumping. I was ready to fight, to go down swinging. I watched that door for a long time.
But Dennis never came. He couldn't climb the ladder. He was actually an AI invader masquerading as a player, and his pathing didn't extend that far into the level. When I realized this, after laughing at myself, I was suddenly no longer afraid of him. I went back and found a way to grab all the stuff he was guarding without fighting him and run off to a new area. That hint of intelligence can give an experience life, and make you always question -- does that thing really see me? Or is it programmed?
Beyond the PvP aspect, there is one last element to monster life that I found while roaming the world as a lowly bug, something I never did find as a player: freedom. Sometimes you would spawn in an area with zero activity. No players running around making things happen, just the monsters wandering on their patrols, just the environment being itself. A lone monster with intelligence crawling across a vast wilderness. Something about the experience of exploring the area as one of its "enemies" – as a cog in the machine so to speak – gave them an entirely new context. You could go anywhere you wanted, and you were unlikely to be attacked. You could go into the places the players never went because they were too dangerous or too maze-like, or because there was simply no reason to look inside that room. You could see things that likely very few players had ever seen, simply because they didn't see the purpose in claiming that particular hill in the middle of nowhere.
This was the one thing that EverQuest achieved that no other game I had played before it was able to do – through all of its hardship and danger and challenge, it made me respect the world to the degree that the freedom to explore that world was a miraculous gift. Thus, a lowly orc shaman crossed a desert filled with cyclops, a kobold explored Minotaur labyrinths, and an ice gnoll wandered the crags outside Halas. In a way, this was the true fulfillment of what EverQuest promised to me in its intro screen -- not a power fantasy, not a platform for social interaction and competition, but simply a place to explore different enough from our own and convincingly realized. A place where you could, at times, tell your own story entirely without words.