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.