It’s been fun watching the EverQuest Next news and reactions at SOE this year; after several development reboots, Sony finally showed off the latest direction of the venerable MMO title. For those who are not completely up to speed where EverQuest (EQ) fits into MMORPG history, it was the big MMO on the block after Ultima Online, but before World of Warcraft (WoW). It was known as EverCrack in its early days due to the addicting lure of a vast world with lots of stuff to do in-game. Later days brought EverQuest 2, but that wilted before the might of WOW polish and popularity. EQ and EQ2 have hung in there quietly all these years, while WoW has gone on to become the MMO standard. But Sony has been working on this new version for awhile now, and last year they announced they were going back to the drawing board with the game, with SOE president John Smedley basically saying it was too much of the “same old, same old.” Sony wanted to do something revolutionary with the next version of EverQuest, not a simply polish of old engines and ideas.
Not too long ago, there were only a few MMORPGs on the landscape; the genre was relatively new. The big names started with Ultima Online, Dark Age of Camelot, then EverQuest and EverQuest 2, and finally, the ultimate behemoth, World of Warcraft (yep, I know your other favorite was in there somewhere as well, but those are the biggies). Since that time, the genre has literally exploded; currently, there are almost 600 active MMORPG’s available, from every genre imaginable, with emphasis on one feature over another, browser-based, to mobile, and even some targeting consoles. How the heck do you choose? I say this because to many folks, an MMO is a long-term commitment; many are looking for a game home that will provide off-hours recreation for a good many years; many solid friendships and even marriages have come from people met in-game, so finding that right mix is essential. Keep in mind that as you ask yourselves these questions, there is no right or wrong answer; everyone has their own preferences for play, just be honest with yourself.
It pays to narrow down the options, so let’s start with…
Many early computer adventure games intermingled plot and mystery, action and puzzle – Myst, Silent Hill, Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, Zork, Ultima, The Longest Journey. Playing these games growing up, friends and I spent long hours taking notes, making maps, figuring out plot connections – all this alongside the combat that could crop up at any time. Figuring out how to open the mysterious locked chest or opening the secret door, or discovering that the king is possessed was half the battle, and when you did figure it out, it was often as exciting as the most challenging combat in the game.
Even better were the games where nothing was truly spelled out for you – you found clues as you explored, and serendipitously the story or mystery emerged as you put the pieces together. Myst was the best at this; you were simply dropped into the situation and left to stumble across strange notes, books, sounds and images, and left to put 2 and 2 together. It was amazing.
So why is the investigation mission completely missing from the modern MMO?
The biggest selling point for the MMORPGs is the “massively multiplayer” part of the acronym. At the time that many small Dungeons & Dragons groups were gathering 3-8 players around the dining room table, folks at Essex University in the UK were creating the first text-based “MUDs” or multi-user dungeons that could have as many users all playing in a shared virtual world.
While on the surface it would seem that there is a lot in common between these two scenarios, they are actually quite different – the former has a small group of players sitting face-to-face and working through a roleplaying scenario using the standard rules of conduct of any public social interaction. Sure, they may be playing in character, but because the person is sitting directly across the table, all the power of verbal and non-verbal communication is at the group’s disposal, making for an infinitely complex and memorable session. In an MUD, the number of players was greatly increased, but there comes with that a great deal more anonymity, and none of the non-verbal methods of communication one can have in-person. Communication was by text only. It’s the difference between a small town where you know all the neighbors and a big city where thousands of strangers walk by without ever speaking to each other. Ironically, while it became much easier to gather large groups of gamers in a MUD, it’s was still very difficult to produce the quality of interaction you’d get in a small tabletop roleplaying session.