Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Ghost Town of Norrath, Part 1

Posted by Rampant Coyote on November 18, 2013

So a few weeks ago, I did the unthinkable. After nearly a decade, I reinstalled EverQuest. The original.

Well, “reinstalled” is perhaps the wrong term. My original discs were not used. As the game has gone “free to play,” I just installed the new client. I doubt that my old account is available anymore (any attempts to access it were met with failure), so I started over fresh. Brand new characters in an old, familiar world.

It was weird, man.

By way of backstory – I started playing EverQuest only a few days after it launched (although technically, one of the Sony producers had me goofing around in the beta days before it launched). I played it a lot. I eventually quit simply because I had just started “going indie” and realized that I couldn’t keep up with the necessity to do big raids on a nightly basis and make any productive effort towards my games. I’d played in MUDs before (years before), and I’ve played several MMOs since, but EverQuest will always be the MMO for me – as crude and painfully designed as it was.

After hearing that it’s a lot easier to solo, now, I figured I’d start up a character or two and play for a few hours and see how it panned out.

I’ll go into the mechanics of the changes in part 2. From a game design perspective, it’s been fascinating to see how the game has evolved – to going free-to-play, to intense competition from more modern MMOs, to dealing with having a really huge world and not a lot of players to fill it. Suffice to say that from a gameplay perspective, the absolutely “free” experience is in almost every way superior to the one I paid hundreds and hundreds of dollars for back in 1999-2004. The astonishing thing to me is that the game is still “live.” Whereas other, newer MMOs have come and gone, shutting off the servers for good, Norrath is still around.

It’s a little bit of a ghost town, but it’s still there. For now.

The new experience forces you into the city of Crescent Reach, and allows you to start in a tutorial zone. The tutorial is to help you learn the complicated controls of the game. In addition, the tutorial tends to finish you several levels higher and nicely outfitted with gear that much higher level characters would have fought over back in the early days of the game. When you choose to exit the tutorial zone, the game deposits you in the city of Crescent Reach – the new starting city for all races and classes.

This change of venue was what kept EverQuest from getting too heavy on the nostalgia for me, aside from the familiar sound effects. Another shocking change that I believe went into effect shortly after I left was an emphasis on actual quests – half of the game’s name. These changes were well under way when I left the game (shortly after the Froglocks became a playable character), but it was fun to see how much they now had top billing – at least in the new zones, with UI tools and far better logic for handling quest stages, and everything!

But a big part of my visit was for nostalgia’s sake. Is it possible to feel nostalgic or even homesick for an imaginary place? I dunno. Ask the Star Wars fanboys. Arguably, it’s that feeling that was the genesis of Dungeons & Dragons – an urge to revisit these old, beloved worlds in a new way, on one’s own terms. Once I finally found the portal to the Plane of Knowledge – a nexus with gates to all over the world of EverQuest – I was set. I’d also created a wizard at first, particularly for their ability to teleport all over. It was time to visit the old lands!

EQFreeportTo be honest, the original lands that made up my most lasting memories of EverQuest were already becoming depopulated long before I left the game. In order to sell new expansions, I suppose, Sony had to make the newer content more interesting and lucrative than the old to encourage purchases. They succeeded, and players fled the boring old content for the new, more souped-up content.

At some point, they went back and cleaned up some of the old stuff. For example, Freeport, and the neighboring zones (Commonlands, the Desert of Ro) – where I’d spent most of my time in those early days – was completely made-over not long after I’d quit playing. I believe some storyline updates justified the change. It was both familiar and unfamiliar. Both were refreshing, after such a long absence from the game.

EQQeynosQeynos, perhaps the signature city of the game (after all, it is “Sony EQ” spelled backwards), hasn’t changed much, at least. While it looks a little better in high-resolution, widescreen display, and has had some content updates over the years, its easy to walk in and party like it’s 1999.

As long as you ignore the fact that there are no real people anywhere.

On chat, you see them. Mostly, it seems, old-timers who have done like I did, jumped back in for old-times’ sake, and found that the game was still entertaining enough that with a bunch of other regulars to share the experience with, it’s worth their time. In the new starting areas on the Plane of Knowledge, things are bustling much as they always were. Newbies (who are, as often as not, old-time veterans) cleaning up the yard trash outside the main city. Dumb questions, dumb answers, snark.

But most of the zones – and after nearly 15 years of continuous operation (and constant expansions, the newest one released only a month ago), there are a lot of zones – are empty of players.

The other players were at once the high point and low point of my EverQuest experience. I remembered spending hours and hours in the Temple of Cazic Thule – when it was being farmed constantly for Rubicite Armor, the amazing plate mail wearable by some non-plate wearing classes with an astonishing +19 armor class, it also offered three whole points of regeneration per “turn” (about five seconds of real-time). The zone would lag, people would be nasty towards each other, but it was also a source of great experience points. Not to mention the chance of getting in a rubicite “camp.” Even if you couldn’t use the armor yourself, you could sell it to other players for a small mint. Unfortunately, back then, my primary was a rogue, which was perhaps the most singularly useless class in the game at the time, so getting an invite into one of these groups was unlikely.

cazicthuleLater, a patch turned changed the drops from Rubicite to “Ravenscale,” a rogue-only armor. Suddenly, getting into one of these farming groups as a rogue went from being difficult to impossible. Nobody wanted someone in their group who might have a legitimate claim on the treasure found. No, no rogues allowed at all to farm the rogue-only armor, but if you were in the zone, they’d be happy to sell you what they found for an exorbitant price.

Yeah, people sucked. But they were also a source of the fun, too. Future expansions and changes to the rules and world – not to mention a leveling out of the player base – made the game a little bit less competitive and cut-throat. I made some great friends online in the game, some of whom I got to meet in real life later. They were what kept me in the game far beyond the time I should have quit. I wasn’t so much playing a game as hanging out with friends inside a virtual world. Instead of playing cards, we were taking down dragons.

Going back to those early zones, though – they did bring up weird memories. They seem very different – empty, obviously – and purposeless, like an amusement park closed for winter. The NPCs still recite their canned pleas for assistance – the wolves of Halas still desperately need my help, fourteen years later. Nevermind that almost nobody ever comes to even hear their pleas anymore, let alone assist them. Their most desperate hour is frozen in time, as it was always intended to be, but it seems strange coming in at this time, so much later. It’s like a variation of Princess Leia’s recording in R2D2 repeating endlessly to an empty chamber, begging, “To whom it may concern: You’re my only hope!”

One of the more amusing surprises came as I made my way to Firiona Vie. That particular outpost – the landing-point for “good” races on the continent of Kunark – was filled with happy memories for me. It was the first expansion for EverQuest, and a badly needed injection of fresh, better-designed, better-balanced content for the game. It was around this time when rogues – besides getting some badly needed equipment options from the new expansion – received some tweaks and ability upgrades that finally made my preferred class a viable – and even desired – member of a group. And it was about this time that I met many of the friends I mentioned before.

There was new stuff everywhere, and it finally seemed like players were getting enough “elbow room” that they weren’t quite in such a hyper-competitive contest for camping the optimal spawns anymore. Plus, after a year of having every inch of Norrath explored in detail and practically recited by memory by all players (to the point where every item was referred to by initials – and everybody knew what it meant), it was thrilling to have some place new to explore. I’ve always been something of the explorer. While it didn’t last long before Kunark, too, was extremely well-traveled and documented, that feeling of excitement never left. I wanted to live in Firiona Vie. While the later “big” expansions to the frozen northlands of Velious, or even to the moon, Luclin, were similarly fresh and appealing, they never held quite the magic of a game reinvented for me.

I made my way through treacherous half-dark-elf, half-giant-spider drachnids and the armored, bipedal wolf-men drolvargs, but as I approached the outpost I was surprised to find there were no guards at the bridge. Worse, there were scary, powerful golems and dark elves. I carefully made my way into the city anyway, and discovered that sure enough, it was barren of anything but enemies. Something had happened in my absence. I have since discovered that the NPCs there had been relocated to some caves, but it was a little bit of a shock. What had been my favorite place in Norrath, for a time, now rendered desolate.

Back again to North Ro, just outside of Freeport. In the earliest days of EverQuest, there was a Sand Giant who roamed freely through that desert. He was unstoppable. At that time, few players were high enough level to defeat him, so he was simply a hazard. So many times, I would be fighting sand scarabs or giant tarantulas and I’d suddenly be confronted with the “loading… please wait” screen because that giant had wandered up next to me and slain me before I even realized I was under attack. I hated that guy. At higher levels, I’d kill Sand Giants just for pleasure, out of revenge. The one in North Ro, however, was a rare spawn who would almost always die as soon as he’d appear, because there was no longer a dearth of higher-level players capable of taking him on.

Nobody goes to North Ro anymore. Nobody bothers to take him out. Until now. Thanks to very rapid leveling, I found myself at the southern end of North Ro, and saw that Sand Giant wandering around. It’s been fourteen years, but I think that only sweetened my revenge as I burned him to the ground.


Filed Under: General - Comments: 5 Comments to Read

  • Jesse Chounard said,

    I hope you kicked that Sand Giant once for me while he was down. He had it coming!

    A friend tried the game again and I was sad to hear that they completely overhauled Befallen. I spent so much time in that zone. We were way too low level, and it was a truly scary place.

    I can’t go back, but I definitely have fond memories of EverQuest. (Of course, now I’m super curious what Blackburrow or The Estate of Unrest look like with nobody in them.)

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Can’t tell you about Unrest, but Blackburrow was much as I remembered it (not that I spent that much time there), but without the constant trains to the zone-line. While the game is a lot more solo-able now, you have to be very careful in dungeons, as you can still get easily taken down by a hoard of low-level mobs if you let a runner get away.

  • Brian 'Psychochild' Green said,

    EQ1’s design was interesting. It was heavily influenced bu DIKU text MUDs, with a healthy dose of crazy stuff on top. A lot of the design decisions were good and terrible, often in equal measures. As the post say, the people were the best and the worst part of the whole game. The design that lead to ever more interesting lands also creates the problem of low-level areas that are empty all these years later. But, it’s these same design decisions that made the game endure this long while others, as noted, have quietly shuffled off into a corner to be closed down.

    Not that anyone here probably needs to dive back into EQ1, but occasionally they do “progression servers”, where they start from the original game (or, as original as they can get it) and then unlock expansions at an accelerated rate. The latest was “Fippy Darkpaw” server, and you can read about some adventures over on an MMO blogger’s site: http://tagn.wordpress.com/tag/fippy-darkpaw/

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Yeah, the progression servers are (currently) only for gold membership. If was really interested in resuming my old EQ Habit I might go for that. But this was really more of a quick visit to check out the ol’ neighborhood.

    I’ll tell ya – and I guess you’ve been in this situation yourself, kinda, Brian – it would be kinda tempting if I was given the existing world, servers, code, and resources, but had the leeway to otherwise reinvent the game from the ground up… what would I do with it?

  • Brian 'Psychochild' Green said,

    Well, I was in that situation, but not really. I had a lot of expectations to live up to from the existing fanbase. People who wanted to relive the glory days. But, I think the reality is that online games are determined in a large part by the community. Without that community you won’t recapture that old flame. Note that the community is larger than just the individual people, so even if you get the same old people playing the same old game, you won’t necessarily recapture that magic.

    I think that the fairly radical direction of EverQuest Next shows that even SOE doesn’t believe they can keep doing the same old game again and expect success.