Admit it. World of Warcraft created the MMORPG industry. I'm talking about the industrial component, involving hundreds of millions of dollars of revenue a year. I'm talking about the mind-blowing popularity. I'm talking about PowerPoint presentations about customer retention, and a few press releases a year telling the media that they've gained another few million subscribers.
None of this is a negative. In fact, I can only applaud and thank Blizzard for its success - it brought a great deal of exposure and popularity to the genre, and created thousands of jobs in hundreds of development houses. Without sarcasm or cynicism I can say that Blizzard took a model that worked before and made it a true business, one that raised the profile of a genre so much that national newspapers and old people knew what it was.
But it didn't do it alone, and it wasn't first. The genesis of the modern MMO industry was, ultimately, in the hands of Sony Online Entertainment (originally Verant and 989 Games) and a team of developers including the slightly disgraced veteran and creator Brad McQuaid. The game they made was EverQuest.
To all but the most hardcore World of Warcraft, Warhammer Online or Age of Conan players, the original EverQuest would have seemed a monstrosity of unforgiving difficulty. There was little or no guidance beyond the original tutorial, and there were literally tens of quests, with no shiny yellow exclamation marks bobbing above NPC's heads. In fact, most of the game was left up to the imagination and investigation of players, who were given no guidance beyond the knowledge of the name of areas and cryptic clues left by the designers throughout the original world.
In fact, the beauty of "Old World EverQuest" (referring to either the very first release of the game, or said world combined with the Ruins of Kunark and Scars of Velious expansions) was that most of the game - and I really mean almost everything - was left unexplained. After 'hailing' an NPC (pressing H or typing "Hail") players would have to communicate with them - typing in random words and names, or handing over particular items in the hope that it would unlock the next step of the quest. This was at times aided by particular words being in square [brackets], signifying what word to type, but many times it was left up to the whimsy of the player to work out what to say. Much like the average player's conversation with a woman.
Many of these quests didn't reward experience, and for the most part you were left to grind - a negative term in the industry nowadays - all the way to level 50, then 60, then 70, then 80. The idea of moving to specific areas and completing quests was an alien concept - players did what they could to score as much experience as possible, and always in a group (as going solo was eventually suicidal). Some classes - for example Druids, Necromancers, and (during the Planes of Power expansion) Enchanters - would 'kite' enemies in circles, chipping away at their health bars with damage-over-time spells and keeping themselves as far away as possible, hoping that their prey would die before they got too close.
It was, on reflection, an utterly bizarre way to game. Most of the time, groups of players would sit in areas, 'pulling' (leading creatures towards their group, preferably one or two at a time) and killing things for hours on end, gaining experience, levelling up, and then moving on to another area to do the same thing. At the high end, raids would take place, much like World of Warcraft's, but without much of the environmental drama of encounters like Onyxia - and the entire lure of them was to score better equipment.
If you were to die in the old-school EverQuest, your corpse would also be a static object, holding all of your equipment. You'd have to venture on corpse runs - quirky, naked journeys into the depths of wherever it was you expired in the hopes that you would find your corpse and equipment without dying - and yes, your corpse would expire. Better yet, a death would lose you experience, at times un-levelling you if you lost enough. Clerics could resurrect you, but only regain you 90 per cent of the lost experience - this was eventually raised at the higher echelons of the game.
To put it bluntly, EverQuest lacked structure and goals. Eventually, in the Lost Dungeons of Norrath expansion, SOE added in dungeons and in later expansions 'tasks' (read: quests). There was plenty of downtime, it took months (no exaggeration) at first to level to 50 or 60, and frankly, even when you reached that level, the grind never ended with the Advancement points that added new, ridiculous dimensions to many classes.
But why would people play it? Why did I, a veteran of five long years, find myself addicted to what was arguably not an experience that hinged upon its content, or even its goals?
Because, frankly, by the very virtue of trapping people in the same areas together for hours on end, SOE created unusually strong and powerful bonds between them.
The problems with EverQuest - ranging from its draconian levelling curve to some of the utterly broken quests to the wonky raid encounters - were shared across servers, and the communities surrounding them were close-knit and hard-working. The reliance of many encounters - from simple to complex - on the abilities of each player, the toughness of the game and the sheer repetition of killing the same things for hours on end demanded players that were both good at the game and fun to talk to.
This in turn built gigantic communities for each server, such as Veeshan's Fires of Heaven and The Nameless' Legacy of Steel. Both of these housed people who now work for Blizzard, including former Legacy of Steel guild leaders Tigole (Jeffrey Kaplan, lead designer on WOW and now the company's next MMO) and Rob Pardo, who is Blizzard's overall design chief. These communities banded together to talk about the game, plan events, sell and trade gear in the game, and complain at length both about bad players and bad design decisions. This made for an enthralling meta-game unto itself: the powerful communities with their self-made internet superstars, like Fires of Heaven's Furor, who had game-wide fame for his legendary rants about EverQuest.
Even the less hardcore players were exceedingly chatty, organising themselves on forums to trade, discuss, and even in some cases organise raid calendars to allow every guild on the server to get a fair shot at every creature. As most of the boss creatures were initially non-instanced and only respawned once a week, some servers (such as The Rathe) would play nice with each other. Others, such as Stormhammer - the controversial server that charged players extra money for "more GM events" organised by SOE - would have a race-or-camp policy, with groups of 50 people crowding areas in the hopes to be the ones to cause the most damage and 'own' loot rights to the corpse.
Servers became self-policing and strangely communal, even between thousands of people. Recognisable faces appeared on forums and in-game, and became well-known for being good, bad, or annoying. The difficulty of levelling meant that players really had to spend time around each other. One gets a name for one's self by reliably being in an area at any given time, which was almost a requirement of playing.
The game has changed, though. In many cases, raids have become instanced. The levelling curve has been tweaked, quests added, original mysteries solved and elaborated upon (such as where the bloody hell Mayong Mistmoore was) and a great deal of accessibility added.
"I think in some ways we have adapted to make the game less time demanding than it was in the past, but I don't think that necessarily makes it any easier," says current senior game designer Ryan Barker, who's been working on the game for eight years. "It's a very unique situation we're in that we've got players that have quite literally grown up playing our game.
"As you grow up your priorities change, and we've found there to be a strong demand for alternative ways to play EverQuest that aren't as time intensive. Back in the original release it wasn't uncommon for dungeon runs to last upwards of three or four hours, with raid events often taking much, much longer. A lot of people aren't able to commit that kind of time in a single sitting, but they still want to play. It's important for a game like EverQuest to appeal to a broad range of play styles and we've worked towards that goal."
And it's true. Players voted with their wallets when World of Warcraft emerged: an easier, slicker, more accessible yet remarkably similar game, with the backing of Tigole and Furor, former hardcore players who now embraced Blizzard's ethos. Players moved in droves, guild numbers dwindled, and some servers merged to provide enough players to socialise with, even in the more user- and time-friendly environment.
Regardless, EverQuest soldiers on, thanks to an emotionally and temporally invested community of gamers. "When I started playing EverQuest I was in my early thirties," says nine-year EverQuest veteran Alan VanCouvering, assistant lead designer (and Enchanter). "Most of the people I played with were a lot younger, most in their twenties. One was fifteen, maybe younger, when he joined our guild. That was ten years ago.
"Ten years is a long time for anyone, but when you're 20 (or 15) those then years are pretty significant. So now most of our players are veterans, not just of EverQuest and other MMOs, but in their lives as well. Our expectations as gamers have changed quite a lot. We expect more. Other games have joined the field since we all started playing EQ and those have impacted what gamers expect to see in any game that they play, even EverQuest... especially EverQuest."
I can't fairly guess where EverQuest will be in a few years. When World of Warcraft was released - and please note, this was over four years ago - many players said that this was the end of the game. Seven expansions later, EverQuest has sailed past its 10-year anniversary last March - she ain't dead yet - and players are still enthusiastic enough to keep plugging away. The addition of micro-transactions may have helped players keep going through the tougher times, or just given them a little boost to an already flourishing addiction. Or it could just be that, like it or not, EverQuest is an unstoppable force that can and will succeed into the future.
If it ever goes, I'll be playing The Last Post in tribute.