I haven't posted much about Massively Multiplayer Online Games since I started posting here because, in most cases lately, I haven't been much of a fan. Without going into a giant history of the genre, they have become synonymous with grinding, or endless loot and experience farming for no other purpose than showing your uber "toon" off to others. This isn't to say I don't play any of them. I've played my fair share, including World of Warcraft, Guild Wars 1 & 2, and some other lesser-knowns. I don't consider myself super hardcore or anything like that, but I've been around the block a few times and for a while I enjoyed them. Most of my stints have been short-lived, my enthusiasm petering out after a few weeks. After a time they all seem to share the same faults that I had come to dislike.
But it wasn't always this way, there was a time when MMORPGs were new, even during the earliest MUD days, when online games aimed for real worlds and not just loot-grinding theme-parks. These are the games I think a lot of RPG fans dreamed about when the internet first became popular in the early 90s. One of the biggest games that launched in the late 90s that attempted (at least at first) to reach these dreams was EverQuest. While this eventually became the model for most modern game MMO game design, many people I think forget how many things modern games lost in translation to the original template.
Things like dropped loot on death which required "corpse-runs" meant that if you were high enough level and you lost your equipment in some deep dungeon, you may never see it again. Other interesting mechanics included the requirement for players to literally spend hours sitting and reading spell books to memorize them. The game also lacked many things modern MMOs take for granted, like quest markers, and even an in-game map!
I love EverQuest for everything it did and still does (although the game has changed a lot since its beginnings). If you want the real EQ experience, I recommend checking out Project 1999, an emulator that mimics the game as it was before Sony Online Entertainment screwed it up after the Velious expansion.
Anyway, my purpose of this post isn't really to talk about EverQuest, but its sequel, EverQuest 2 which I'll get to in a moment.. What I'm really trying to say in this post is that I think I've come full circle a little bit. During those early-days, including MUDs, I could tolerate the repetitiveness of these games just fine. After several years, I went through several years where I could not tolerate anything but "sandbox" worlds. Now, an MMO has changed my mind a bit.
For a long time I avoided EQ2 because I had heard that it shared basically nothing with its predecesser. "It's another WoW themepark clone", I was told (even though EQ2 actually predates WoW) and I wrote it off. This was during the time I was playing Guild Wars 2 and its shiny new event system which I will also get to in a minute. But it's interesting what can happen to your opinion when you're presented with something that completely upends your preconceived notions of it.
EverQuest 2 is a theme-park* MMO. And I apologize for throwing around terms that may be unfamiliar to some. The term, "theme-park" refers to a type of MMO that revolves around following and solving quest hubs that lead you onto another quest hub, and on and on. Basically it reminds you of a theme park because you are going to and from static attractions. There is no real, "living" world or anything like that of a "sandbox" MMO. In other words, they're not even trying to make things plausible or realistic. In general, in my opinion, most of the time this is "can" be a bad thing.
I add the caveat because EQ2 is perhaps the single exception to any MMO I've played where this actually works. Why does it work? It's certainly not because the game does any one thing better than any other game. In other words, there is not one single mechanic that this game hits out of the park. You can pick any one thing and probably find it done better or equally well elsewhere. But, you see, EQ2 does so many things pretty darn well that makes it shine. While most games boast one or two "revolutionary" mechanics to advertise themselves, they are lacking in other departments.
I want to talk about big. There are a lot of "big" video games out there. They are usually measured in a lot of ways; geographical world size, number of hours, number of NPCs, etc. But usually when we talk about a "big" game, we are measuring breadth, not depth. I like using the Elder Scrolls games as a good example. These are enormous games. Giant worlds, tons of stuff to find, lots and lots of dungeons to explore, loads of quests and so on. But, when you think about it, most of these mechanics are only skin deep. Most dungeons, NPCs, and loot start to feel rather similar after a while. There are a lot of them, but they don't really provide much depth.
A very good way to understand game depth is the total number of unique assets a game uses. Assets include unique graphics, sounds, music, and data. A lot of people will say Daggerfall is the biggest game ever, but only if we're defining its breadth. It's actually a really shallow game in terms of breadth. You will probably see nearly every game asset within the first couple hours of playing it since all dungeons and towns use the same textures, models and data. Daggerfall is one of the largest games in terms of breadth, but one of the smaller games in terms of depth.
Now the biggest games of all require both a lot of breadth and a lot of depth. I believe MMORPGs qualify as the biggest games since they have both in spades. It's difficult for non-MMOs to compete because once their development cycle is finished, other than perhaps a couple expansions, the game is complete. The only way they can compete is by using a lot of procedural and random generation. But that's not depth. In the table-top world, P&P games probably have a lot of breadth as well since a GM is required to continue facilitating fresh content whenever a game is played.
And the biggest video game of them all in terms of breadth and depth? I think EverQuest 2 may very well be the king. And this is precisely the reason why the theme-park model works here: content. EQ2, with 10 expansions and multiple, deep, systems, is overflowing with stuff to do. The best theme-parks are those with lots of attractions, and EQ2 doesn't disappoint. It's really quite ironic because since EQ2 has so much stuff in it, so many fresh places to see and experience, I feel like overtime this theme-park has actually become much more of a sandbox.
I've spent 30 hours in this game and haven't even completed the first zone. With hundreds and hundreds of zones, you can see how big this game is. And that's not even touching the myriad of sub-systems the game has to offer. I just want to go over some of these systems.
I want to spend a minute talking about the bread-and-butter system of pretty much every modern MMO: the quests. EQ2 follows the general follow-the-arrow-above-their-head mechanic of other games in the genre, but with some important caveats. First of all, there are a gazillion of them. Unlike its predecessor which oddly had a lack of quests, EQ2 makes good on its name and just overwhelms you with quests to complete. This is actually very important because it means that you will spend barely any time at all grinding (or just killing stuff with no reason than to gain xp and loot). The game gives you so many goals to achieve that every bit of your experience can be had with a purpose. I can't explain how much difference that really makes in a game like this, but it really helps.
Secondly, the adventuring quality of EQ2 is helped by the fact that many of its quests have permanent world effects. I was shocked to find out that after killing some monsters in a quest actually meant that the monsters were permanently gone. This means that your affect on the world actually has some permanence to it, and that is a really nice touch. Coming back to a completed area will stay completed forever. The only other game that does something like this is Guild Wars 2 in their dynamic questing system, but oddly enough, I found EQ2's system to work better since the changes you make actually stay persistent.
GW2 uses a looping system for all dynamic quests. So, for example, if the centaurs are attacking a camp you're supposed to kill them off which, eventually, saves the camp. When you're done with this, the camp stays saved only for a short time. When you come back the next day, you find the centaurs attacking the camp again because the quest has reset itself. At first this seems cool, but you eventually realize that the whole thing is a gimmick. Just a way to hide the static world making you feel like you really have no impact at all. In EQ2, things stay changed forever. And I like that far more. What's amazing is that hardly anyone realizes that a better realized system for permanent changes already exists in EQ2 which has been drowned out by the hype machine in GW2 PR department.
Many MMOs boast crafting systems, and although EQ2's crafting system is a pretty fun sort of mini-game, I've seen something similar before in games like Vanguard. But what makes crafting really cool in EQ2 is the sheer amount of stuff you can make, and how early on in the game you can do it. This isn't something reserved for high level characters, this system runs on its very own level up system. By gathering and crafting, you gain unique crafting levels, distinct from adventuring levels. You can literally play the entire game as a pure-crafter and not kill a single monster. This is really cool and makes the system feel like it has a big part of the game and not something just tacked on.
Housing, unlike other games, plays a very big role in EQ2. Again, not something for high-levels. You can start buying homes very early on. They come in a million varieties, from a two-room apartment, to a giant castle with outdoor areas and multiple levels. Furniture can be gained from quests, loot, and from crafting. Housing is a thing of beauty in EQ2. Again, you could spend your entire game crafting and decorating your house.
Like the housing system, there is an equally deep and interesting dungeon building system that you can create yourself and let others enter. One interesting thing here is how you can obtain "monsters" in the same way you can find drops for housing. This provides an interesting way to build up your dungeon inventory rather than just getting everything at once.
If I'm not mistaken, I think EQ2 has the most number of race/class combinations of any modern game. Besides regular adventuring and crafting experience, the game has Alternate Advancement, points you earn like XP that you can put into very specific traits to further specialize your class. So between all the options available to me, I'm playing a Human, Rogue, Swashbuckler, Fencer. The combat system can be extremely deep because of this. Chained, heroic attacks, and different kinds of buffs and positional abilities make the game easy to learn but extremely complex to perfect. Not only are there tons of combat abilities but, lots of non-combat skills, upgrades, heroics, dragon and more that you can obtain. The number of options is dizzying.
There is an appearance tab where you can replace any item you are using with another for flavor. This is awesome since it means I never have to be locked in with what I'm using for others to see me with.
You have loads of mounts that vary from standard ground-based rides to leapers, gliders, and full fliers. You also can get pets, and lots of interesting appearance equipment. And like everything else, this stuff is available very early on, not just for the ultra-rich or high level characters.
The loot is extremely varied. Besides weapons, armor and other trinkets of varying color you can equip with, you have the aforementioned furniture and monster pickups as well as collectible "shinies" (that I've only seen in Rift and Xenoblade Chronicles). You also have Lore and Legend pickups which start a quest to learn more about monsters which can give you a special monster specific ability. You can also find other quest-starting items which can send you off to a distant continent for a completely separate quest chain.
One nice touch is the inclusion of books. A game gets a +1 in my mind when there is background lore to be read. EQ2 includes lots and lots of books, of which you can build a library around in your home or guild hall. Also, there are writable books where you can record a journal. Very nice touch.
You have guilds and grouping like other games, but a really interesting mechanic is mentoring. There is so much content in this game and it is practically impossible to see everything, much less experience it while at a level to make it interesting. With mentoring, you can group with someone 50 levels lower than yourself and all of your power and equipment will scale down to your mentor. Not only does this make low level content still viable, but you still get experience for doing it. You can do this in a group or even lower your own level and do the content solo.
This may not be as important for some people, but as I've written about before, theme is very important to me. A good, engaging world can make a bad game descent, and and average game great for me. Theme includes everything rolled together: art, music, design, lore, and story. I love all of it in the EverQuest universe. The art is classic fantasy styled. No, puffy marshmallow heroes here. Monsters and heroes are modeled after 1980s fantasy art. The game has possibly the best theme song of any MMO and a crap load of songs and sounds for every zone. The world is designed to be high-fantasy swords & sorcery in a classic sense. What makes the lore great is that it's subtle. You find bits and pieces in books and quests throughout the world, forcing you to put the story together yourself.
I like the fact that EQ doesn't require me to suspend my disbelief as much as other games. Lord of the Rings Online, Age of Conan, Star Wars, and other IP-based MMOs are a hard pill to swallow because they stray so far from the source material. Why are there all of these random hobbits running all over Moria in LotRO? In EQ, I can love the world as a crazy, everything and the kitchen-sink, generic fantasy universe without worrying about things staying all consistent. But at the same time, the game is strictly S&S fantasy. There's fairies, dragons, goblins, trolls, gnomes, and more....and thankfully no gonzo lazer guns or space ships mixed in.
With all of these features, it becomes very simple to role-play as well. The other day while doing some questing in-game, I was surprised to find a wolf following me around wherever I went. This was a person playing a Warden class who had shape-shifted. This sparked a tremendous RP opportunity to have a player-run pet.
The community is older than most, because many players grew up on the original game way back in 1999. These players are far more mature and dis-positioned to role-play than other MMOs. There's always an interesting interaction just waiting around the next corner.
I could keep going, but the bottom line is that the game is just chocked-full of content to do. That's why the theme-park model works for this game and why it may very well be the biggest game I've played. Big in both breadth AND depth. There is never a dull moment in the game, never a reason to have to grind, and never a reason to feel like you're led by the nose. For that reason, this is my favorite MMORPG at least in the standard AAA sense.
The best part is that the game is free to play. Other than the dungeon maker (which costs $15), everything else is completely free. Very little is locked behind pay content. And SOE has a reputation for making past expansions free when they release a new one. So if you like something you have to pay for now, just wait a year or so and you will probably see it become available. But with the amount of stuff to do for free already, it's unlikely you'll ever be looking for more anyway.
Come and check it out. I play on the Antonia Bayle (RP) server as Jemmajune.