The recent tenth birthday of EverQuest made me sit back and take pause from my otherwise uninterrupted online gaming life. While not joining that title at launch, I did wander up to it several months afterwards, in late 1999, and fall for it hook line and sinker, starting a love affair that has varied between obsession, distant coolness and all stages in between ever since. Seeing a milestone such as EverQuest's anniversary can't help but make me stop for reflection and perhaps it isn't until you take a step back that you can see the larger journey that has led from there to here.
Ten years ago, MMO gaming as we know it today, was in its infancy. It was a brave new world, and full of unknowns, experimentation and blank canvases. While many text-based online games had come before, the age of the graphical MUD had only just begun, with a much smaller choice of titles than today; Meridian 59, Ultima Online, Asheron's Call and EverQuest being the most widely known.
A smaller world, and a significantly different one too, in a number of substantial ways. How do contemporary MMOs compare against their decade-old forebears?
Early MMOs were hard work, and I wonder if it was even anticipated that most players would ever 'finish' the game at all, back then. EverQuest in particular with it's anecdotal '2000 hours to the top' play progression, was always a somewhat serious proposition. These early titles were designed for the long haul, and were a real commitment, both in time and effort. Taking a cue from earlier pen and paper Dungeons & Dragons parallels, the focus seemed more on the journey than the destination of modern gaming's end-game raiding. A level was often just a statistic, like being a Warrior or a Dwarf, and not something that changed as often as today.
Much of this slower rate of progress came about from downtime, often literal, where characters needed to sit and rest, or travel long distances or wait for very long respawns. A continual gripe with many players, subsequent titles aimed to ease the passage in a variety of ways. Anarchy Online added recharge kits to eliminate recovery times, and most modern MMOs now have health and power regeneration of such speed that continual fighting is quite the norm. Travel routes reduce lengthy wilderness hiking and almost all modern MMOs come fully equipped with sophisticated public transport networks; griffins, subways, horse hire or teleporters. Instanced content now means that rarely does a player have to actually camp a particular spawn point, endlessly murdering repeated place-holder trash to get the necessary drop for a quest, and quite often, the named monster will oblige by dropping one set of giblets for every member of the team!
In general, modern MMOs are faster. A player can reasonably expect to get more done in a shorter span of play, giving rise to the term 'Casual'. I'm not sure that anyone playing an MMO ten years ago was Casual, or at least would not have been called such. Perhaps more significantly, a player of a modern MMO can more or less expect to complete the game; to reach the maximum level, with a far less involved commitment of spare time.
Victories and defeats in early MMOs tended to matter a lot more than today. EverQuest featured experience point loss on death, something effectively unheard of in the modern MMO age, where experience point 'debt' is the norm. Poor play could actually undo progress, rather than merely slow it.
"Victories and defeats in early MMOs tended to matter a lot more than today"
Keeping that equipment is a lot easier today too. Few modern MMOs feature the Corpse Run; where a defeated player must run, equipment-less, back to the scene of their demise, and somehow drag the dead body out from under the monster they couldn't beat with all their items equipped in the first place, in order to get that equipment back. The thought that that corpse could just evaporate, taking all the equipment with it, if this run wasn't done soon enough, is practically inconceivable today, and would cause apoplectic petitioning and bug reporting if it were introduced overnight in any modern MMO.
The rewards for success given to a Modern MMO player can be somewhat less meaningful than in days of old, but in keeping with the general increase in progress, above, offered by most titles, the rate at which these successes happen is far higher, which all averages out quite nicely. We win less, but do it more often. Similarly, it could be argued that as we lose less when defeated, we are more inclined to try risky or stupid things, and so lose more often as well.
Ten years ago, I'm not sure I'd even heard the term 'sandbox', let alone could point at a game and call it one. MMOs tended to be presented as spaces in which to go off and have virtual adventures. A basic expectation existed; of fighting monsters and looting treasure, but beyond that, you were left to your own devices. EverQuest's big 'thing' was indeed, the introduction of Quests – a large number of specific tasks to accomplish, accessed rather [obliquely] by pretending to actually [talk to] the NPCs. These quests were often deliberately obscure and cryptic – especially the ones where they'd not brothered to put any [square brackets] in at all! Mostly though, you just picked a direction and slayed yourself a path to the horizon. As a result, role-playing was probably a more popular thing than it is today; we very literally had to make our own entertainment in those days.
Today, things are very different. The people with jobs needing doing have big exclamation marks over their heads; they write it all down in a special book for you, and often, the world map has an X on it, and possibly even an arrow on the compass. Even having a map or compass at all wasn't something you could take for granted ten years ago. For many, the questing becomes the main point of the game; encouraged by lucrative rewards, and the system works so well that it isn't actually necessary to read the accompanying text at all.
So 'sandbox' has become a thing in its own right, to distinguish from its opposite, the 'theme park', and modern MMOs can often seem like a series of chained together amusement rides. Groups form for specific quests, rather than for the more flexible general hunting of a decade ago.
My early MMO life was plagued by the constant question; 'Why play an MMO if you're only going to solo?' and back then, soloing was very much the aberration. The games were generally designed around a balanced class mix of six players, working together. The idea of the Elite or Boss Monster, and Group Quest came much later, so early MMOs had to be balanced in such a way to give groups lots to do. Solo players had to pick at the edges, or simply avoid whole regions of the game entirely, and anyway, why shouldn't they? It's a Massively MULTIPLAYER Game after all!
"The general philosophy of these times seems to be that grouping is a bonus activity"
Taking lessons from World of Warcraft, very few modern MMOs require a group to get through, and the general philosophy of these times seems to be that grouping is a bonus activity, offering even better rewards, loot and experience, rather than the grouping being the main event of yore.
MMO evolution is very much a gradual process, with each new title taking lessons from the complaints of the last and altering accordingly. It is a process driven by we, the players, our likes and dislikes, and our ability and willingness to meet the challenges placed in front of us. I would suggest that this process tends toward the easier game each time, but perhaps it is important to remember that these are games, and meant to be enjoyed; with hardship existing only to provide satisfaction at success.
As the years roll by, our lives change. Ten years ago, I had the time, energy and inclination to devote myself to a single MMO in an obsessive manner, playing the same game 30+ hours a week, and not minding that I seemed not to be getting anywhere for my trouble. It was what MMOs were, for me then. Now, with a busier life, other commitments and perhaps a little more perspective than I once had, I find myself appreciating the modern way of doing MMOs. I feel like the MMO genre has grown with me, and expect that it will continue to do so.
Best of all, all four of those titles of ten years ago, are still running today, side by side with the flashy modern MMO youngsters, providing a suitable range of choice and letting all of us find the kind of gaming experience that fits. There's room for the old and the new.