Awakened Nostalgia - EverQuest Relived

Where would you go if you could relive your glory days? Were you a head cheerleader? Captain of the football team? Hardest partier in college? Or maybe you had friends with whom you would travel to exotic faraway lands, finding adventure at every corner, developing your friendships into something that transcended age, race, sex and politics. Maybe you were one of the hundreds of thousands of people who spent countless hours living excitement, heartache, euphoric victory, and mortifying failure in an online world we all came to love called EverQuest.

Nostalgia's calming caress has fueled some fantastic accomplishments and EverQuest fans have been incited to motion for just that. 11 years and 16 expansions after its initial launch players everywhere still enjoy the game or hearken back to the early years when it played a large role in their everyday lives. Some of these players have experienced such ardent longing to relive days past that they have created a time machine of sorts. One that will take them back to Norrath as it was in 1999.

The Draw

First, let's explore what made EverQuest so popular that thousands of people have signed up to go back to 1999 to play it all over again.

EverQuest came onto the scene very near the dawning of MMOGs. To say it was a different time would be like saying Sean Connery played the best James Bond--it's both obvious and quite true. Soloing was rarely an option, death penalties were severe and unforgiving, reputations made the player, and raids could last all weekend. The flavor of MMOGs has changed dramatically over the past decade and today the average player simply doesn't have the patience and/or time for the old-school MMOG. So what was the hook? Why did so many people live and breathe EverQuest? I asked that very question of John Smedley, President of Sony Online Entertainment, and the creator of the original EverQuest.

"I think it was partly the time and the place," Smedley told me. "It was most peopleÂ’s first MMO. I would say it had a little bit of an older crowd. ThereÂ’s such a feeling of nostalgia for the first experience. It was the first translation from when you played tabletop D&D to an online game."

The nostalgia Smedley spoke of certainly rings true. In 2006 SOE opened up what they dubbed Progression Servers, which allowed players to start all over again from the beginning. As guilds and alliances defeated specific content the next expansion would be unlocked. The result was a certifiable success. Many players new and old jumped at the opportunity and both progression servers filled to the brim on opening day.

So does SOE plan on opening more similar servers?

"I wouldnÂ’t say 'progression,' " said Smedley, "but we do have other things planned like that. We did the 50/51  server recently. [A server that allows players to start new characters at level 50 with 51 Alternate Advancement points. -ed] WeÂ’re planning on more stuff like that that will keep people interested and maybe offering them a slightly different way of playing. We try to change things up a little."

50/51 or Progression, Live or Classic, the allure of EverQuest still draws many players. Part of the attraction lies in the difficulty level of the game, which simply isn't seen in many of today's MMOGs. Cliff  'Nilbog' Gibson, founder of Project 1999 reminisced fondly about the days of 1999 EverQuest.

Project 1999 is an emulated server that attempts to recreate EverQuest as it was in 1999, before expansions and back when it was a very different game from the MMOGs of today. The project is not supported by or affiliated with Sony Online Entertainment, and playing it requires a breach of the EQ EULA.

A Group in Crushbone
A Group in Crushbone

"I missed the difficulty of original EverQuest," he explained. "The players of all games have always complained about the death penalties, running naked to retrieve their corpses, and the unforgiving nature of the game, but I think they desire the challenge."

The challenge of the game was certainly a common theme as I spoke to more people. I approached two of the top raiding guilds involved in Project 1999 and asked them what made EverQuest their game of choice.

"There hasnÂ’t been a game like [EverQuest] in difficulty and content matter," said Xzerion,  guild leader of Inglourious Basterds. "You have to be good at playing your class. In World of Warcraft, you were playing with a bunch of nine year old kids and all they had to do was to show up, get some levels, and be somewhat useful on a raid. Here, it is clearly evident if somebody is playing with you and is not good and could deter whatever group or raid youÂ’re trying to take part in."

"To be able to progress and meet your full potential as any kind of class, you have to understand the game mechanics," added Otto, former guild leader of Inglourious Basterds. "You need to understand the layout of the zones; you need to understand how your class is beneficial in group situations. Every other MMOG that IÂ’ve played is just so easy that the journey to the final level in the game can be accomplished within a few days, at most. ThatÂ’s what I liked about EverQuest--it took time and effort... I think that without the difficulty of the game, you miss out on the fulfillment factor."

One of the guild's officers, Karsten, agreed, and offered a more analytical perspective. "I would answer in a much more metaphysical and psychological way," he began. "That question opens up a large variety of ways in which you could answer it. The succinct way of answering it is that I like playing EverQuest in the same way that IÂ’m attracted to women who are hard to get.  ItÂ’s a sad commentary on the psychology of what mankind is attracted to. I really do think that one of the reasons why EverQuest was so popular is that I think they [SOE] put together a game that specifically plays on those parts of humankindÂ’s personalities. A lot of us play EverQuest because of our latent masochist tendencies... We like EverQuest because itÂ’s difficult.

"I remember that when I started playing World of Warcraft, I couldnÂ’t stop raving about the fact that it didnÂ’t try to punch me in the face whenever I logged on and tried to XP, and that was refreshing and nice, but itÂ’s also the reason why I quit playing it."

Stanley Soulcat, guild leader of Transcendence, another top guild on the server, had a slightly different thought on the classic EverQuest experience.

"MMOGs were a lot less commercialized," he said. "Back in the old days, there was UO [Ultima Online], and then nothing until EverQuest came around. And based upon my opinion, back in the day, people didnÂ’t enjoy the PvP environment that UO offered, and EverQuest gave them that PvE environment and allowed them to have a better time and not constantly be trolled or attacked."

So what exactly is Project 1999 and does it fit the bill for what these players are looking for?

The Scoop

In the words of Nilbog: "Project 1999 is an attempt to recreate the original launch of EverQuest. We use the EverQuest Titanium client with the open source work of the EQEmulator community, and players will be able to relive their original experience." And that's exactly what they've done. This is Classic EverQuest, without any expansions, with all of the old systems and mechanics in place. For all intents and purposes, this is EverQuest as it was in 1999.

The plan is to follow the same timeline as the original title, chronologically activating expansions around the same time they were originally released. Nilbog says they intend to unlock two expansions--The Ruins of Kunark, and the Scars of Velious, matching the timeline as closely as they can, opening the expansions roughly a year apart. There are no current plans to release any further expansions on the emulated server.

The experiences between EverQuest of 1999 and Project 1999 are very nearly identical. The old textures and models are all in place and the classic quests are active. The crafting and spell casting systems are reminiscent of the era; the zones and monsters are all classic, as is the lengthy combat and the somewhat brutal death penalty. Certain fans have even stepped up to contribute to the project, offering "classic" interface skins.

The project started in the fall of 2008. Nilbog  started the project solo for a couple of months and then realized he was going to need some help.

"[I] started recruiting long-lost comrades. The open beta testing lasted around a year and weÂ’ve had about five developers at a time."

"We have a few devs that are kind of enjoying themselves playing right now," added Sean 'Rogean' Norton, co-manager, "so they havenÂ’t been as active recently on the developer side of things. As people go, we find new people to step in and help out. ItÂ’s an ongoing process."

A Hill Giant in Rathe Mountains
A Hill Giant in Rathe Mountains

Rogean is the current owner of EQEmulator. Once he saw Nilbog's project he became immediately enthralled.

"I actually joined a little after launch," Rogean told me. "I noticed one night while working on the main EQEmulator website that there was this new Project 1999 server showing up on the server list that had over a hundred people online. I was like, 'what is this?' I logged in and I noticed how laggy it was because they were trying to run it from a cable connection. So, I was like, 'alright, this has gotta change.' I happened to have a server standing by, so I had them jump on that server and I moved everything over for them and then it kind of took off from there."

And take off it did. The population of the server continues to grow on a daily basis and thousands of accounts have logged in.

"We have almost 27,000 characters, and 14,000 accounts. Our population at prime time has surpassed the 600 player mark," stated Rogean.

"Primetime for us are the big internet nights," he continued, "which are Thursday and Sunday nights. What we also have to keep in mind is that we donÂ’t allow boxing on our server. You canÂ’t have two characters from the same IP Address online at once unless you apply for an IP exemption for two or more real people in the same house, and this is enforced by the server staff. That means all those players are real people, which is a huge accomplishment. The other server that comes close to us in population on the same login server is Project EQ, and roughly half of their characters are boxes. To have over 600 people online at one time is a huge accomplishment for us and itÂ’s steadily increasing. We hope it keeps doing that."

The Cogwheel

With the amount of people playing the game, concerns pop up about the server stability. How many players can the server support? Rogean promptly answered.

"Currently, the amount of players a single zone can handle is around 140. The server itself has no global population limit, and any zone that approaches those numbers may start having problems, but it won't affect other zones. I constantly look for ways to increase the code efficiency to raise this limit. Bandwidth-wise, we actually have two servers, and theyÂ’re both on hundred megabit connections in big data centers, so I donÂ’t see bandwidth being a huge problem. We can always add another server or two if we need to down the road as we get more players, and I donÂ’t think that weÂ’ll be hitting that upper limit too often on the players in the zones." In addition, a new server has just been ordered for the project, and will be placed in a new facility with an even more powerful connection.

Apart from server stability, development takes up its resources. Things like quests, NPCs, zones, spells and crafting all need to be carefully tuned by volunteer staff. The players themselves play a pivotal role in the recreation of the experience. "Every day we recreate the quests and NPCs as they are found missing," Nilbog said. Rogean expanded.

"As we get more and more players, our bug forums are filling up, and I have to say that Nilbog has been doing a fantastic job of going through all the bugs, adding stuff thatÂ’s missing, and weÂ’ve got it pretty close to how it was in Classic. Typically, nowadays, youÂ’ll be hard pressed to find anything thatÂ’s missing, and if you did that rare quest back in the day that nobody else ever actually did and it happens to not be working, make a post and weÂ’ll fix it."

When he says "fix it," he means by hand. There was no code from the EverQuest client that recorded the placement or pathing of NPCs. "There were some original show EQ packet logs," Nilbog mentioned."ItÂ’s not fully comprehensive, but it helped."

"Everything on the emulator is coded by hand, everything is technically different," Rogean responded. "We make things as close as possible, but nothing is ever going to be certain. So, for example, the mob pathing system is as close as possible, but it still relies on manually implemented waypoints. When we add waypoints, We try to make them as close to Live as possible, but when youÂ’re dealing with stuff thatÂ’s not really documented, and pathing waypoints wouldnÂ’t be anything that people would be concerned about keeping documentation on, we have to go by memory and try to be close as possible, but it can only be so accurate."

It's undoubtedly a lot of work, particularly considering the staff operates on a volunteer basis.
"Everybody doing this is volunteering their work. The server is kept alive by donations and we donÂ’t get paid. [Most of us] have full-time jobs ourselves in real life, so the time we do spend working on things is our free time," Rogean commented.

"ItÂ’s pretty difficult to find the knowledgeable people who would do quality work for free," Nilbog concluded.

Volunteer staff extends to customer service as well. There are GMs available in the game to help out with issues, and these people, too, are unpaid and simply doing it for their love of the game.

"We have Guides," explained Rogean. "This is the same thing that you had on EQ Live... Since weÂ’ve been kind of overwhelmed by the numbers weÂ’ve been getting recently, and with more people playing, you get more petitions, more bug reports. All around, weÂ’ve been kind of swamped lately. WeÂ’ve already got a couple Guides on staff, but Guides are people who play on the server who are volunteering their time to also act as a Guide. You have to be careful when doing that. You donÂ’t want people who are going to be corrupt at all, and weÂ’ve had our fair share of corrupt accusations, so weÂ’re being very careful with that. The developers do have GM access on the server to help out as well, and have more access than Guides depending on if they have play characters or not. Guides can answer petitions, and they have a limited number of commands that they can do in order to help out. WeÂ’ll be adding more Guides soon, but thatÂ’s still a work in progress for right now. Everything we do is voluntary, so we only have so many people committing so much time to help everybody out."


So what keeps the team motivated?

"The happiness that people seem to get from it," Nilbog replied. "ItÂ’s great. I enjoy classic EverQuest and this is great."

"And you get your name out there a bit too," Rogean added. "People look up to you a little bit, they respect you, and they realize the work youÂ’ve done. You get a lot of thanks-tells and a lot of praise on the forums, so itÂ’s a good feeling.

"We have our bumps and everything here and there, and been through a few rough things. Obviously, when the server first started, we had to move. When Nilbog first started, he didnÂ’t anticipate the rush of players, and thatÂ’s why we were so laggy on the opening day, and thatÂ’s when I stepped in and helped him out."

Should the unthinkable happen, and Nilbog, Rogean and the rest of the crew need to free up time in their schedules for other things, they're pretty confident the server would continue onward.

"I think if something happened to one of the primary people, me or Rogean, I donÂ’t think it would come to an end," assured Nilbog. "I think that thereÂ’s enough interest in the project that it could be maintained indefinitely from volunteer work. I donÂ’t foresee leaving, but I think it could be maintained from just the interest in the game."

Rogean agreed. "Nilbog and I are both very rooted in what we do as far as maintaining the server goes. If one of us just decides one day to up and leave and become unresponsive, then there might be a problem, but I donÂ’t see that happening for either of us. We know weÂ’ve created something special, so weÂ’re not going to let it go to waste. If we did come to a situation where we didnÂ’t have enough time to commit to the project any more, weÂ’d make sure that somebody else would fill in our spot."

And how do players play their part?

"Continue to file bug reports," Rogean answered, "but when filing bug reports, be as accurate as possible providing as much detailed information as possible as that just makes our lives easier. We do what we can to fix all the bugs, but with the amount of things we have to do, it just makes our lives so much easier if we have a detailed post that we donÂ’t have to look up all the facts or look up all these extra things that could be posted by the person."

"Research is the best thing possible," added Nilbog.

"If youÂ’re posting something that needs a change, itÂ’s best to cite a reference. Those references could be huge for us," continued Rogean.

"We do have Guides; we have a Guide application forum. We ask that any Guides who apply be knowledgeable with EQ itself, classic content, and also have somewhat of a knowledge with computers in general and, obviously, with EQ and the client on the emulator, and emulator experience as in being a GM on any of the other servers in the past."

The Legality

Creating a server which essentially offers a free-to-play variant of a commercial subscription-based game can certainly raise eyebrows. I asked Smedley about SOE's stance on emulated servers.

"Our stance is that they shouldnÂ’t be doing that," he began. He then acknowledged the effort. "Practically, our stance is that IÂ’m amazed that people know how to do that. Typically emulators have a very limited functionality but it really is an amazing technical feat... until those people start charging and ripping us off, then it becomes something else."

Curious to find out more about the legal latitude, I approached J. Michael Monahan, II, an attorney with Pattishall McAuliffe in  Chicago who teaches video game law at Chicago Kent College of Law (Law 638 Video Game Law).  He noted that an EQ emulator faced several legal hurdles "assuming that Sony doesnÂ’t just bless it and say 'thatÂ’s neat.'"

"ItÂ’s not quite the same, but the situation is similar to the Battlenet case," Monahan explained. "In 2005, Blizzard sued the creators of a clone Battlenet server who had basically reverse-engineered the server side.  The clone server worked essentially the same as the Battlenet server, but did not implement the 'handshake' code that made  sure that only legitimate copies of Warcraft or StarCraft could use the service.

"The appeal focused on the DMCA anti-circumvention provisions because those with a pirate copy of Warcraft or StarCraft, could use  the  multiplayer mode on the clone server where they could not on the actual Battlenet server. If the emulator overrides these kinds of protections coded into legitimate EQ client software, then DMCA issues could come up here.

"On the content side,  the emulator does not provide the EQ client,  where most of the game content resides," Monahan continued. "This includes the images, models, audio files, textures and artwork.  The recent litigation over the WoWGlider software, however, found copyright protection for an MMO's 'non-literal' elements, namely the online experience created by connecting the various images, models, and other content from multiple clients through a game server.  Because the WoWGlider software avoided Blizzard's Warden program, Blizzard raised DMCA anti-circumvention claims.

"The reason that [the WoWGlider case] became a DMCA puzzle was, when youÂ’re talking about just the skins and images that you and I would easily recognize as copyrighted, those works exist on the client side. Warden didnÂ’t prevent a player from accessing those works, because you could pull up the images and audio without logging into WoW. So, the WoWGlider creators argued that no DMCA violation existed because Warden did not protect the copyrighted content.  The court ultimately found that Warden did protect a separate copyrighted work – the 'non-literal elements' of WoW – and that work was infringed when players accessed the WoW server using WoWGlider to circumvent Warden.

"So if Sony takes issue with the project, under the WoWGlider case, it could argue that the emulator infringes  the non-literal element of the game experience provided over the legitimate EQ server. ThereÂ’s a lot of questions and details between here and there, but that would be at least one theory."

Another theory was presented by the fact that Project 1999 does not charge for its services.
Monahan refined. "But the fact that youÂ’re not collecting money for [use of the server] doesnÂ’t take you out of the trademark game."  According to Monahan many  trademark issues, however, seemed unavoidable.  "Trademark rights can come from a number of game elements.  Titles are the most obvious, but trademark rights can arise from well-known characters (e.g., MASTER CHIEF), settings (SAN ANDREAS), and even game items (ASHBRINGER).  If the emulator continues to use EQ terminology, they may run into trademark problems."  Even though the emulator does not compete with the original EQ game, Monahan notes that Sony could assert its trademark rights in the well-known EQ franchise including EQ2 and other EQ merchandise. "Even without direct sales of emulator accounts, the project faces brand problems, because trademarks protect against consumer confusion as to sponsorship and affiliation.  It is not hard to expect consumers to believe that the emulated EQ game does not have the sponsorship or approval of Sony."

The final element, in Monahan's opinion, are the terms set out in the EverQuest End User License Agreement for each client program. The EQ EULA states:

"7. Subject to the terms of this Agreement, we hereby grant to you a non-exclusive, non-transferable, revocable license to use the Software solely in connection with playing the Game via an authorized and fully-paid Account."

"So the player's right to use the client software is tied to a valid EQ account," Monahan annotated. "Accounts (even free-to-play accounts) on a non-Sony server will not be authorized.  It also prohibits the creation, and arguably use, of server emulators:

"You may not create, facilitate, host, link to or provide any other means through which the Game may be played by others, such as through server emulators."

"Based on these provisions," he continued, "SOE could challenge the emulator project as vicarious copyright infringement under a WoWGlider theory.  Put simply, anyone playing on the server would be violating the license grant in the client EULA and therefore infringe SOE's copyrights.  Since 100% of the use of that emulator is infringement, SOE could sue to enjoin the emulator much like the record labels were able to enjoin Napster and Grokster.  Indeed, EULA violations established the direct infringement that got the WoWGlider makers into trouble."

Kelethin Bank
Kelethin Bank

While Monahan may have painted a somewhat bleak picture, the team at Project 1999 was a bit more optimistic.

"The EULA states that you cannot emulate an EverQuest server," acknowledged Rogean. "This is not a legal issue; this is more of a contract for your play accounts. If they wanted to, they could ban your EQ Live account as youÂ’re violating your user agreement, but that doesnÂ’t make it illegal.

"Since we wrote the code, everything we wrote is what weÂ’ve done and itÂ’s all by hand for us, so we are not running any of their code. People have to find their own ways of getting the client or buying [EverQuest] Titanium. WeÂ’re not distributing copyrighted files, which helps us a lot legally since the biggest argument for emulator servers nowadays is that you have to have a certain client to play on them.

"The other thing is that you canÂ’t make any money or profit off of these types of things. If we started charging people to play on our server, then it becomes a legal issue, and then they would have a legal argument. People can donate for server costs and what-not, which goes back into providing what theyÂ’re playing on for free, but thatÂ’s completely up to them. We do not require it."

The Mood

And what does the community feel about Project 1999 and Classic EverQuest? Otto, former guild leader of Inglourious Basterds added his thoughts.

"I havenÂ’t had this much fun playing video games since EverQuest came out, when it was classic. When I found out about this classic server, I was instantly attracted and came right away to this server. So, IÂ’m here for the classic feel and to relive EverQuest in its finest days."

"There is no other MMOG that is going to give you the level of nostalgia that Project 1999 will," added one of the guild's officers, Karsten. "This [server] offers you a better way of spending your classic time than any other server thatÂ’s ever been created, ever... TheyÂ’ve done a very good job of keeping the classic feel and keeping the integrity of the server... The hacking is very low."

Stanley Soulcat from Transcendence told me that for him, Project 1999 "is a rush and, at the same time an amazing chance to display your gaming skills in front of your peers... I would say significantly more so than in other games.

"If you liked EverQuest before it went to the moon," he concluded, "come back because they have recreated it in such an amazing fashion as to not be repeated."

With such a high level of nostalgic appreciation and enjoyment of the server, one may ask why SOE hasn't created a purely classic server. The Project 1999 team had its own theory on that.

"They had their attempt at it with the progression servers--Combine and Sleeper," offered Rogean. "That didnÂ’t live up to the expectations. Within three to four months, we were already in Luclin. People tend to think that the classic experience ends when Luclin opened, so at that point, a lot of people lost interest. Every month, another expansion opened and it rapidly declined in population.

"It wasnÂ’t a true rollback to 1999, so you were still using the latest client, the latest mechanics, the latest spawn updates and nerfs; all that stuff was still in the game. It didnÂ’t live up to the expectation in the long run, and Sony has come to the conclusion that it would be a hassle to open a classic server as they would have to support a different code base and a different server altogether, which is pretty much years older than anything theyÂ’re currently working on now, and they didnÂ’t want to deal with that hassle."

Raiding Vox in Project 1999
Raiding Vox in Project 1999

Whether or not Sony creates a Classic server or missed their chance, they're still very much committed to EverQuest and its players. Recent rumors have cropped up that Underfoot would be the last expansion of the game's 11-year running. Smedley confirmed that this was indeed just a rumor.

"I came out of a meeting two weeks ago where we were focusing on an expansion that will be coming out later this year," he told me at GDC in early March.

I also asked him about the future of EverQuest and "EverQuest 'Next' " which was leaked out in the game's Anniversary book last year. What is "EverQuest 'Next'?"

"It’s what it sounds like," Smedley said. "We’re not going to stand still with the EverQuest franchise. We’re working with it now and we’re going to take it to the next level. We intend for it to be the game of the century – you watch."

The Bottom Line

For over a decade now EverQuest has enthralled thousands of gamers around the world. Nostalgia has played a large role in reserving the game a special spot in player's lives. There's something markedly powerful about a title that can retain such popularity long past its expiry date in terms of advancement in the technology of today. Such potency to power motivation for players to not only rebuild the experience by hand, but be joined by thousands of others with the same sentimental affinity to play the game is not only rare, but impinging monumental.

Whether it be the difficulty of the game, the social implications, or just the fondness of yesteryear that brings players back one thing is amply clear: The impression that EverQuest made in 1999 is still very much recognizable today.

If the enticement to play the game as it was over a decade ago pulls you strongly, Project 1999 has made a lot of people happy but at the cost of breaching the EULA with SOE. Maybe one day we will see the teams from Sony and Project 1999 come together and find a solution. When that day comes, bring a sleeping bag, because it will be one hell of a lineup to get in game.

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