It's likely no secret that I am/was a huge fan of a little game called EverQuest. As the game turns thirteen years old today, it also becomes free to play for the first time. I'll probably fire it up in a few days just to wander around and see the old sites. I haven't actually played on a daily basis since 2004, but I still think about that game almost every day. I could probably write a story a week regarding specific adventures I had in that game, but I doubt many would read it. Between 2000 and 2004, I logged over 350 days of play time in the world of Norrath. Since that time, I've slowly come to the realization that not only were those years (particularly 2000 to 2002) the most fun I've ever had in a video game, but are likely the most fun I'll ever have. I've tried to play several MMO's since then, but the magic of early EverQuest cannot be recreated.
Today's MMO's are way too hand-holdy. I totally understand that publishers saw the rising popularity of MMO's and sought ways to bring in an even bigger audience (make things easier), but it has destroyed a lot of what made EverQuest special back then. When I started EQ, my halflingcleric was dumped into Rivervale with no more than a few rations, a few bottles of milk, and a note telling me to visit my guildmaster in the nearby church. There were no in-game maps. There was no radar. There was no glowing line on the ground telling me where to go. There wasn't even a quest log to keep track of what I'd done and where to go next. And, for a while, there wasn't even an Allakhazam to go look up info (partially because you couldn't play the game in a window then anyway). I'm sure this all sounds ridiculously archaic to many of you, but you know what? All of these things combined gave you a sense of freedom to choose where you wanted to go, what you wanted to do, and an exhilarating sense of exploration and discovery. There was no checklist to go through the motions. You had to make tough decisions on who to trust and take risks. Sure, it was confusing and scary, but I honestly think that's how you should feel entering a huge, new world.
One of my big gripes about most 'modern' MMO's is that there is no real penalty for dying. In EverQuest, when you died, you lost a decent chunk of experience. You would respawn completely naked at a bind spot in the nearest city, if you'd remembered to do so, and immediately be tasked with getting back to your corpse that contained all of your stuff. If you didn't get to it within 24 played hours, it rotted and was gone forever. Now, if you stop and think about that, typically where you die in a game like this is not a safe area. And now you have to go to that same spot, with no gear, and get your stuff back. There were countless occasions where I lost a level due to numerous deaths within one single raid. Terrifying, right? Not even Dark Souls goes that far. But you know what? It was great. It brought a danger to this virtual world that brought people together. There is/was a zone just outside Rivervale called Kithicor Forest. At night, it turned from a newbie zone into a nightmare of high level undead. Even at max level, I still hugged the wall if I had to run through that zone. Bottom line: you should be afraid to die in MMO's.
Another thing that's killed the genre for me is instancing. While sometimes maddening, much of the drama that made playing EQ interesting was competing with other players and/or guilds for certain encounters, raids, and loot drops. Being able to enter your own version of a dungeon in order to complete a quest certainly makes things easier, but it also breaks the illusion that the world you're in is a real place. During my time in EQ, many of the top tier mobs only spawned about once a week (real time), so when one popped up, it was often a race to see which guild could mobilize, assemble, and initiate combat. I once camped a particular spawn for 19 hours straight for a piece of a key I needed. The named NPC that I needed had a spawn time of about twelve minutes. So, every twelve minutes, I hoped he would spawn only to be faced with a placeholder I had to kill in order to restart the timer. I'm sure that sounds excruciating, but it's stories like that one that are what made this game so memorable. I can still tell you the names of guildmates that came by, late in the night, to make sure I was still awake. I even had one who decided she should call me on the phone around 4am to make sure I was alright. These were people I never actually met in real life. And that brings me to the last portion of my rant.
Community. There's no real sense of community in today's MMO's. And, when I say 'community,' I'm not necessarily talking about friendly people. I'm talking about the dynamic of truly having to account for other people, good or bad. When everything is handed to you and you can complete most quests on your own in your own private, instanced zone, you lose a large portion of what made early MMO's exciting. I haven't played EverQuest in about seven years, but I could still list off over fifty names of friends and enemies I had in that game, and I didn't even play PvP. On the other hand, I probably couldn't tell you ten names of players I encountered in the MMO's I've played since then.
Look, I know I sound like the old man talking about walking up hill in the snow both ways, but I liked that hill and I liked that snow!