Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Goodbye EQOA

Everquest Online Adventures is closing down tomorrow night. As it is and was one of my favorite MMOs (at least to level 20), I thought I'd do a retrospective on it. I apologize in advance for the absolutely horrible "screenshots" consisting of photos of my TV you are about to see. I couldn't figure out any other way to get images of the game with what I have on hand.

My history there in brief:

I first started playing the week that the game launched nine years ago. I had only dabbled in Everquest at that point (Dark Age of Camelot and Phantasy Star Online were my first MMO poisons of choice). I liked the setting of EQ but found the game way too clunky and grindy to be compelling. However, with PSO having sucked up tons of my time the previous year, I was foaming for another MMO I could play from my couch. I tried EQOA on a whim and it instantly hooked me. I and three other players started a guild on the Hodstock server that prospered at first, and then crashed and burned within six months for a number of reasons. It was my first experience with a MMO guild. I've seen that arc play out in a number of other MMOs and guilds since, but that first time it really shook me. I played EQOA almost strictly solo from then on, and actually didn't join another guild in a MMO until the second time I tried WOW years later.

So what was it like?

EQOA was a really odd hybrid of old school and forward looking MMO design. The low level game was incredibly fast paced for its day. It was easy to start a character and be level 8 in two or three hours. Considering the era that was a blinding leveling speed. The low level game also had a lot of quests, and they gave good rewards. This also was pretty shocking back then. For example, your first quest had you to level 2 and with a new piece of armor within five to ten minutes of starting a new character.

Up until level 20 or so, you would alternate between levels that had a quest and ones that didn't. A quest would give you almost an entire level, then you would spend a level or two grinding until you got up high enough to unlock your next class quest. I know of no other MMO designed explicitly to alternate quest based leveling with grinding mobs. Knowing that I'd get a cool quest with huge rewards the moment I hit the next level actually actually made grinding fun for me at low levels.

The low level game was also incredibly diverse. By the time of Frontiers there were 11 different races to choose from. Each of them got their own starting area. Further, and astoundingly by modern standards, every single class of every single race had their own unique quest chains up until about level 20 (and a few higher level ones). Yeah, the structure of the quests was often pretty similar among classes. But just experiencing all the story lines that went with them was engaging. By playing a new race-class combo up to level ten, you would end up learning a lot of new stuff about the lore of a given race.

Every single one of these races (plus Trolls which you can't see unless I scroll down) has their own starting area.

EQOA was quite hardcore in some ways. There was no in game map. Heck, at first the game didn't even have a coordinate system. That led to vague directions via tell such as "head northwest into the desert from Freeport and then turn north at the big rock with the zombies" being commonplace when trying to find a group. Further, from level twenty on the game became just as grindy as contemporary MMOs such as EQ and DAoC (neither of which is nearly as grindy now as they were back then).

There were very few quests after level 20, and they didn't generally yield enough XP for more than a quarter of a level. A lot of classes were also very slow soloers and couldn't really make much progress on their own past a certain level. For me personally, that meant the game tended to end on a given character at some point in the low-to-mid 20s just as surely as modern World of Warcraft ends for me at the level cap (or EQ ends for me by level ten on most classes), as it simply took too much time to make any real progress after that.

I should also mention that the graphics were sparse, even for the time. The decision to go with a seemless zoneless world did a lot to enhance immersion once you were already digging the game. However the lack of discrete zones to render, plus the lack of RAM on the Playstation 2, also meant that new players were greeted with graphics that were atrocious by PS2 standards. We were used to games like Final Fantasy 10 and Baldur's Gate Dark Alliance (or Black later); not games with graphics on par with PC games from 1999. I suspect that this, more than anything, likely hurt the popularity of EQOA when it launched.

EQOA had some neat ideas modern MMOs should copy

EQOA had a lot of interesting features I wish some modern game designer would rip off. For example the coach system. To get to a given coachmaster the first time, you had to run there. Very often that meant long tense runs through zones of giant angry mobs that could easily one shot you. Once you talked to a given coachmaster, you could forever-after swift travel back to them. Getting within a few miles of a new coach only to get butchered and re-appear in your starting city was heartbreaking. Making it to a distant coach after up to an hour of dodging swift and violent death was elating. Even after you got all the coaches, crossing the main continent usually took about three swift travels; so the game's sense of scale was still preserved. At the same time, travel was instant so you never had to spend ten minutes watching your guy ride on a horse or a griffin.

Also notable was the depth of the character development system. One feature that no-one should steal is how EQOA dealt with stats. As you leveled you got a ton of points to put into stats like strength and stamina. Not only were you given very little guidance on where best to put them, the guidance the game did give was sometimes wrong. For example, most cloth casters needed a ton of points in dexterity to make their spells hit harder, yet among them the stat was only highlighted for wizards.

A level one troll shadow knight in his newbie area. Though you'd have know way of knowing it from in game feedback, these guys need some mixture of Agility, Dexterity, and Intelligence in addition to Strength and Stamina (the latter are the two stats highlighted on your summary screen) depending on whether you want them to solo well or tank well.

However, from there things get much better. There was an Alternate Advancement system that opened up right at level 1. I knew some players that would set 50% of their XP to AA from level one on. They would take ages to level, but for their level they were butch. Every class also had a number of Master Class options that granted different sets of abilities and major stat boosts (you only got to pick one). At least two options were available for any given class (some had up to four), and each race also had "racial paragon" Master Class available.

On top of that, you could become a lycanthrope such as werewolf, werelion, or werealligator. These also granted substantial stat boosts that stacked with your AAs and Master Class, and allowed you to transform into various animals. If for some reason lycanthropy didn't appeal to you, you could instead become a vampire. Finally, if being a slight gimp with no regular master class and no horror themed infection that stacked with it appealed to you, you could take a werehunter master class that (if I remember right) allowed you to attack players that had become lycanthropes at will. Overall, the depth and variety of character development options was astounding, particularly for the time.

Finally, the system that I most dearly hope will get stolen is the crafting system. First the not so lovely. Any character could advance any craft they felt like. However, in practice it didn't make a lot of sense to work on crafts for items you personally couldn't use, since there was no formal way to transfer stuff among alts. In order to swap items among characters specializing in various crafts, you would list items on the global Auction and then hurriedly swap over to alts to buy them before anyone else noticed them. I don't remember losing any crafted items to strangers that way, but it was certainly harrowing.

A crafting screen from EQOA. The thing to notice here is that I'm "experimenting", trying a new combination of ingredients I haven't before in the hopes that I can learn a new recipe. In practice it wasn't too hard since the system would tell you if you were trying to combine ingredients that didn't make anything. However, you did have to figure out what combinations to try on your own. There was no in game guidance .

The great thing about the system, is that it wasn't hard to get the hang of and you could make a huge variety of useful items. Even at very low levels, you could craft standard gear (armor especially) that was better than anything that you could get from a merchant or was likely to drop for you. Only gear from quest rewards tended to be better, and quests that granted gear only came roughly every five levels. The crafted gear was thus very useful.

The above naked troll a few hours in, wearing a full set of heavy armor that he crafted. He got a chest that was an upgrade soon after, but for the rest of the slots this easily crafted gear made everything else he had available from merchants or drops look stupid.

At higher levels, the crafting system really opened up to your whims. When making a basic set of gear, say a plate steel helmet, you could add in a gem to give it additional properties. A gem could add in a big buff to one stat, a medium buff to two stats, or a random ability (for example a flaming damage proc to a weapon). In a crafting system with far less of a learning curve than EQ II, EVE, SWG, or DDO you could make just about any item you felt like. Want a full set of +strength and stamina leather armor? OK. Want to buff your dex to the moon with gear to see how much damage a wizard can possibly do with shock? Done. Want to make a full set of +charisma plate-mail that no-one in their right mind would ever put on? Go for it, I hope the giggles are worth it.

No other crafting system I have ever encountered provided such flexibility and accessibility at the same time. The various gems that you needed for nicer items were also completely random drops. This led to a healthy economy when the game was at its prime. Random gems you couldn't use (until much higher level) could be auctioned by low level characters for what were vast sums of wealth to a starting character. You could spend the cash on gear in the AH, food and water to help out-of-combat health and power regeneration, or use it to power through the low level crafting tiers that didn't use gems. Even at higher levels you would often find gems that added to stats you didn't care about. You could use these to make gear for alts or auction them in order make cash for gems with stats you did want.


There are more items I could go on about (and may, for example the role of EQOA in the history of Erudites in EQ lore). However, I think I've gone on enough for now. My gratitude to anyone who has weathered this far in a rambling post about a fairly obscure MMO. By the time you are reading this EQOA will likely have closed its doors forever. We will have lost something really unique that stood on the threshold, both historically and in terms of design, between the MMO founders of the late 90s and the more modern fare we currently enjoy. The loss of some clever designs that came out of that compromise, and have yet to be emulated by more modern MMOs, strikes me as a tragedy for our genre.

I leave you with an epically bad screenshot of the original Yeebo Fernbottom, a green haired halfing druid from Proudpine Outpost:

Bye EQOA, you will be missed.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Sights from SWTOR

Aesthetically, I believe that Star Wars the Old Republic offers some of the most astounding virtual spaces available among modern MMOs. There are certainly MMOs that equal it. For example the utterly free to play [$0 for the client, $0 to play, and no cash shop...really it's free] puzzle based MMO Myst Online. You can get the client and start playing here if you are curious.

That said, my main intent in this post is to offer a shallow justification for a slide show. When it comes to breathtaking sights and making your character look like a badass through found gear, in my personal opinion SWTOR trumps most MMOs on the market. In no particular order, these are the sorts of things you should expect to see while playing it:

Space combat. It's on rails like Starfox but still fun, and quite pretty.

My Bounty Hunter and a companion talking to a random quest giver.

This is a character I started on a new server, to hang out with a guildie from LoTRO, at around level 4.

This is what she looks like now at level 26.

Taken from a space station orbiting a random planet.

I have no idea where I took this screenshot, but I wouldn't mind having a poster of it.

SWTOR is a very pretty game if you can run it at a decent frame rate. Say what you will of whether it's innovative or not, there is no denying that it provides some gorgeous virtual spaces to explore.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Even more MMO shininess

Vangaurd: Today it was announced that Vanguard is going to go FtP. It's a MMO that I've always wanted to try, but never got around to mainly because of reports that the servers are dead as a doornail. This will certainly be enough to get me to at least try the game out. Hopefully all the MMO enthusiasts that have been aching for a more open world experience than most MMOs offer, and that has decent populations, will have less to complain about soon.

Dungeons and Dragons Online: In my last post, I forgot to mention the DDO expansion that's coming some time this summer. The expansion will link the game directly into the Forgotten Realms, a setting that I suspect is a lot more familiar to most D&D enthusiasts than Eberron. It will also offer Druids as a playable class, complete with the ability to shapeshift into various animals and summon an animal companion. The latter is reportedly a powerful pet that levels with you, on par with the mechanical pets that Artificers can summon. If the Druid ends up being as capable as the Artificer and the Monk (and there is no reason to expect otherwise), it should be an extremely fun class to play.

Monster Play in LoTRO: earlier tonight I decided to try out the new and improved Weaver in LoTRO. The moors were absolutely hopping, with at least a full creep raid and a full freep raid fighting back and forth across the map. There were so many players, in fact, that when I stumbled on a major engagement I promptly lagged out and died. Still, I'm glad to see activity picking up again. My experience as a creep newbie was much improved over previous times I've rolled one. The beginning tutorial now leads you painlessly through all of the basics you need, and hands you a ton of daily quests to get you headed out and about the moors.

Weavers do seem much improved from the last time I tried one. They now start with a nice assortment of ranged DPS and snare abilities, as well as a pet with decent hit points. If you really want to tick someone off, you can disappear underground and become invulnerable for 30 seconds or so...leaving your pet (that's worth zero points as a PvP kill) above ground to fight in your stead. I leave you with a picture of my newbie weaver:

Talanriel and her hatchling. According to the weaver character creation screen, giant evil spiders in middle earth often have elven sounding names and are generally female. I suppose a male weaver couldn't really be expected to lay a hatchling egg . . .

Saturday, March 17, 2012

The future is bright for MMO enthusiasts...time for sunglasses?

At least among MMOs I follow, a lot of exciting stuff is coming down the pipe or has recently arrived. I am a bit sad that Everquest Online Adventures is closing down at the end of the month (I have a retrospective on it planned), it's where the namesake of this blog lived after all. However, given that I couldn't even log on the last time I tried, [Edit: I was able to get on for the last week, and the website has been fixed] he closing is not much of a loss to me personally. Apart from that, there has been a lot of good news. In no particular order, here are some of games I am currently following:

Everquest: EQ recently went free to play. Really long time readers (there must be at least none), might recall that I wasn't really a huge fan of EQ back in the day. EQ is not a game I'd ever consider subbing to. But would I log in for free to beat down some Kobolds in the Steamfront Mountains for old time's sake? Oh yeah, you bet. Although word on the street is that the newbie experience on Vox isn't quite ready for prime time yet, I do plan to stick my head in and see what's changed in EQ soon.

Lord of the Rings Online: a lot of neat new stuff has come to LoTRO as of the last patch. Monster play got some tweaks that I'm looking forward to trying out. Notably Weavers got some buffs. It's a class I've always been meaning to try. How many other MMOs let you play a giant spider? You can also now summon your skirmish soldiers nearly anywhere. It's a neat idea, but unless you happen to have spent enough time skirmishing to have a soldier near your level it's pretty useless (Syp has a great post about this issue).

However, far and away the biggest addition is the The Great River. It's a new adventuring area roughly the size of Mirkwood that all subscribers and lifers get for free. I have yet to set foot in it, but previews of it look fantastic. I intend to hit the level cap on my main there in the next few weeks.

Star Wars the Old Republic: I am still enjoying the heck out of it. I hit level 50 on a Bounty Hunter a couple of weeks ago. Without going into spoilers, his story ended on more of an "ok, cool I guess" than a bang (the real climax of the BH storyline comes roughly half way through, imo). But I've had a lot of fun finishing out the storylines of all of my companions since then.

As for the end game, I barely touched it. Instead I started over on a new server with a new class. Though the storyline isn't blowing my mind, the Sith Assassin is simply a joy to play. Stunning a NPC with lightning, to then step behind and backstab them with your double bladed lightsaber (often a deathblow) just doesn't get old. Being able to sneak around NPCs I don't feel like screwing with on the way to a quest objective is also awesome. Finally, the ability to switch between a tanking or DPS stance as the situation warrants is quite handy. It's rapidly closing on the LoTRO Hunter as one of the most fun classes I've played in a MMO.

Oh yeah, and 1.2 is coming in the next few weeks. There's a lot of stuff in there.

Guild Wars 2: with GW2, ArenaNet promises the sun, the moon, and the stars...and all some time this year. A full featured sub style MMO that has no sub fee! Also promised are innovations (compared to WoW/ LoTRO/ Rift/ SWToR) in almost every area from questing to character development. From all I have read, it looks to be a hopeful monster among modern MMOs. If the game delivers on only half of what ArenaNet plans, it will still be one of the best MMOs ever released. I can't wait to try it out.

Secret World: also coming out some time this year is Secret World. I know jack all about the gameplay, but holy cow that setting seems awesome. Hell, look at this video. That is one of the most boring presentations I've ever seen, and my big take home from it is still "Holy f-ing cow, I want to play that!" [Also "Holy f-ing cow, I want that cop to stop talking" at about five minutes in]. Funcom is known for craptastic launches. However, Funcom is also known for recovering well from crappy launches. My guess is that two or three months after it launches, Secret World will be one of the best MMOs on the market.

From where I stand, this is a great time to be a MMO enthusiast. I leave you with the obvious pop reference.*

*Geez, I really don't remember that video being so odd.