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 isnt 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.
Ive 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 quit because it took up too much time. The impact of World of Warcraft over time is also undeniable.
But while its no longer a leading game in the MMO space by any stretch (WoW does hold that title), todays EQ retains a small but dedicated fanbase whose members 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.
“Were basically stunned by it ourselves,” says Holly “Windstalker” Longdale, executive producer of EverQuest at Daybreak Games. “Ive played them all. The majority are gone now. But weve 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 its 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 (thats correct, you cant go straight up and down in EQ like in WoW) where solo play is darn near impossible.
“Everyones 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 with WoW theres constantly young people joining it. I cant 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 tanks (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. Its an ages-old formula everyone has followed—search, fight, level up, repeat.
Players helping players
Nature abhors a vacuum and so did EQ 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 Casters Realm, are gone. Allakhazam, the most thorough of databases, still survives and is part of a gaming network offering similar reference materials to WoW, Final Fantasy, and Lord of the Rings Online.
Players also helped each other out directly, likely leading to relationships in EQ being stronger than those I've encountered in other games. For instance, I started on the Quellious server (all of the EQ 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 set up healing stations in remote zones like The Estate of Unrest, where players were often on their own.
“I dont think games these days can support a guild like that. Back then you needed 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 HUs 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 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 didnt 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.