Chasing EverQuest - Reliving the Dream on a Retro Server

EverQuest was my first true online love.
EverQuest was my first true online love. We'd stay up to the wee hours of the morning, just talkin'. She'd be there for me when I needed her. We couldn't get enough of each other. I would spend all day with her when I could, and at night I'd wait for my live-in girlfriend to fall asleep then sneak off and spend the rest of the night with EverQuest, quietly crawling back into bed at six a.m. before the girlfriend woke up.

It was a life of duality but I loved it.

Now almost 12 years later, with a career in the MMOG space, I've spent a lot of time with a lot of different MMO games. I've seen all the hot new titles, and even have had a few long-term subscriptions with some of them. I've enjoyed my time with these games but the truth of the matter is, as anyone can attest, there is simply never a 'replacement' for your first true love. Sure, you can find something that fulfils your needs, and maybe even one that you'll be able to love and enjoy for the rest of your gaming life, but that first love will always be special and no other game will offer that same feeling that you got when you obtained your first magical weapon or defeated your first raid boss.

So what happens years later when that first special game shows up on your doorstep again late one night, looking as tantalizing as ever, and potentially offering you a chance to relive some of those memories from all those years back?

You invite her in and play the crap out of her, obviously.

This is what has happened to thousands of old school EverQuest fans on February 15th (which just happened to be the day after Valentine's day. Lonely hearts, and all that). Sony Online Entertainment launched their new Time Locked Progression Server which has allowed players to experience EverQuest again for the first time.

EQ Dwarf Pit

The mark of a brilliant game: Dwarves everywhere.

The premise of the TLP is genius. The server launched with only the original content available; no expansions or their corresponding content are available. As players defeat the content, the next expansion becomes available for unlocking. This part is something we've already seen circa 2006 with the launch of the first progression servers. The TLP, however, has one major difference. Precisely when an expansion is to be unlocked is left completely up to the community. After the content is beaten a grace period is put into effect. For classic era this grace period is 90 days. It will be shortened to 60 days for the rest of the expansions. After the grace period has expired a server-wide poll is taken where every active member of the server, level 30 or above, votes as to whether or not they wish the next expansion to be opened up. If the majority says yes, the next expansion is opened immediately. If no, then the current content stays in place for a while longer and another poll is taken at a later date.

The response to this server has been overwhelming. Minutes after launch if you weren't in game you would be met with a "server full" error when you tried logging in and it could take you upwards of an hour to get past the lineup and get into the game. Every newbie zone was lined wall to wall with players as over 300 newbie characters were packed into every starting area. Finding a mob to kill was like finding a $20 bill on the ground in Times Square on New Year's Eve. You felt lucky to see it, but you knew dozens of other players were running to get to it too. The server was so popular, in fact, that SOE opened a second TLP server just hours after the launch of the first one to meet the demand.

Surely this can't be a very fun experience, one would think. Why would I want to fight hoards of obnoxious players to get one piddly scrap of xp? To answer that, no one would. However, one of the most incredible side-effects of launching an old school server is its niche appeal. This isn't the b-net kiddy krowd or the narcissistic neo-griefers playing the game. This is old school elegance. Camps are (mostly) respected despite the insane mosh-pit population. Player courtesy is as common as retribution paladins.

Contested mobs ftw. Image courtesy of fippydarkpaw.com This is easily understandable after giving it some thought. This type of server is appealing almost exclusively to the old-era EverQuest player. A recent poll taken by one of the largest guilds currently on the server reveals the average age of the 200+ surveyed is between 35 and 45. Not only do these players have full time careers outside of the game, many of them have families and responsibilities that isn't typical of the populations of newer games. In addition, these players played EverQuest in its golden age, when your character reputation was your livelihood and your actions had consequences. In short, this community is a culmination of the older generation of MMOG player who has been fondly reminiscing days thought to be long gone. It's a unique community that offers a helpful, sympathetic gaming experience not likely to be seen in any other game anywhere on the planet.

The draw varies from player to player. Some, like me, are going back to feel the rush and give in to obsession all over again. Having been out of game for far too long now getting caught up with all the new content and lore from expansions we've missed is a bit overwhelming, so this is a chance to start fresh and savor the journey. Others, though much fewer, have always wanted to play the game but were similarly too overwhelmed with too much history behind the game to get started easily, until now.

So, what about the actual gaming experience? Is it fun? Very much so, but new players coming in to the game need to be very aware of the fact that it is a 12-year old game and design philosophies have changed dramatically over the last decade. You won't be soloing your way to end game. You'll need a group, and you'll need one constantly. Brad McQuaid and John Smedley envisioned this game as a social experience, and that's how it plays.

You also won't be running from NPC to NPC collecting quests and following quest trackers to level up. Some quests are worth doing for their item reward, but mostly experience will come in form of killing mobs, and killing a lot of them. A typical 4-hour session involves spending 30 minutes finding or starting a group, another 30 minutes to an hour finding a spot to hunt, and the rest of the time pulling mobs, killing, and looting. Don't expect to reach max level in a week as only the sleepless and most efficient can pull that off. After 50 hours of game play my character is level 17, and I consider myself only slightly above average in terms of efficiency planning and playing.

EverQuest Boats

Waiting on the boat is a trademark EverQuest Experience.

Why would anyone want to put themselves through that painfully slow leveling curve? Again, it comes down to the game's community-centric design. Downtime exists in the game and dungeons aren't cleared in 5-10 minutes. The bulk of this game is the social experience. Very few other games allow you time to chat with your group and make new friends as you grind away the xp. Very few other games give you the sense of accomplishment for every item you equip. Traveling across the world is difficult and treacherous and you'll need friends at every corner. But in the end, you'll feel much more rewarded over something as simple as a newbie shield than you would by earning welfare epic #1337 in more modern games.

Returning players should also be prepared to accept the fact that your first love, while she may still have the sexy appeal she did 12 years ago, has aged. That exciting sparkle in her eye has been replaced with a sultry stare. Some of the revamped zones are in their "new" state, such as Freeport and Commonlands. You still lose experience when you die, but all of your equipment is soulbound and stays with you upon death. Spells and their level to attain them have not been reverted back to their 1999 schema and most tradeskills use the updated system. There are a few other differences between this server and a historically accurate recreation of the game but for the most part, the game experience is as hot and memorable as it was at the turn of the millenium.

The other catch of aging is that what was modern and stylish in 1999 may seem a little dated now. That Britney Spears baby tee may appear a little out of place at first. The graphics in the game are old, and this is emphasized to a shocking degree when the game is played on a modern computer with a large wide-screen monitor. What was built for 15 and 17 inch monitors doesn't necessarily translate well when it's blown up to 27" and beyond. You may feel a bit silly playing a game with low-bit textures on your 52" LCD HDTV. There's a certain charm in a nostalgic look, but DX11-enabled this is not.

It is unlikely we'll see many EQ virgins on this server because of these things. But, really, the target audience is the aging gamer who remembers how things used to be and has longed for the return of those days for many years now. That type of player will not be disappointed.

As far as I'm concerned the new age player can keep playing the new games and I won't think ill of them for not playing the EQ TLP. I actually value the fact that we're unlikely to see much of a new breed coming into the game. It gives us old school nostalgia lovers something special just for us.

So I'm back in the pattern of staying up until 6am, spending every free waking minute thinking about the game, shirking my responsibilities to sneak in more time online. This article was going to have charts and video, but I spent the entire week playing EQ so I didn't have time.

Welcome back to my life, EverQuest. I may not be 21 anymore, but you sure know how to make me feel like I am. I'll send your regards to my ex. See you tonight. xxx

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