There are, I think, three sounds that I will remember with perfect clarity until the day I die; one joyous, one harrowing, and one a pure distillation of advancement and achievement — of the satisfaction that comes from hard work and a job well done.
The first is the first cry, or maybe the first word, of my future firstborn. (I’m assuming.)
The second I unfortunately heard more than once, a few years ago when my longtime girlfriend hurt her back. For days after, often in the middle of the night, an occasional shooting pain would cause her to let out a piercing wail that wouldn’t have been out of place on a battlefield or a trauma unit.
The third sound is this:
For the uninitiated: that is the sound that played every time you leveled up in the groundbreaking massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) EverQuest. Except that’s not quite right; at least not in that verb tense. Because nearly two decades after it launched, EQ is alive and kicking. I know, because I played it last night.
EverQuest wasn’t technically the first game of its kind, but for all intents and purposes it was the first one that mattered. It defined the genre, creating many of the gameplay conventions that remain at the core of MMORPGs to this day. Its graphics, laughably polygonal now, were downright impressive in 1999, or at least good enough to allow for a deeper sense of immersion than its few predecessors. Its popularity in those first few years — more than 400,000 subscribers, with up to 3,000 per server at peak times — allowed it to fulfill the promise of the genre’s double Ms and made EverQuest probably the finest social gaming experience of its time. (More on that later.) But you can read a more comprehensive account of EQ’s contributions to the video game industry elsewhere; that’s not why I returned to the game 18 years later.
Nor did I return purely for the sake of nostalgia, though it certainly plays a role. Again, much has been written elsewhere about the power of nostalgia across all artistic media, and one need only look at the often overwhelming number of sequels, prequels, remakes, and reboots for evidence. Though there is something to be said, and perhaps not enough has been, about the exponentially greater nostalgic potential of games on which we may have spent not just two hours as with a movie, but dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of hours. That may explain why there’s such an abundance of fan-made/maintained versions or servers of old games, often at a substantial cost of both time and money to these amateur developers who allow countless gamers to experience their favorite classics and make them truly timeless. (More on that later, too.)
No. I returned to EverQuest, well, because of that level-up sound.
Listen to it again. It’s fucking weird, right? Players came to know it as the “ding” (and leveling up as “dinging”) but it certainly doesn’t call to mind the gentle chime of a bell. It’s a harsh, borderline unpleasant, metallic screech that seems to last half a second longer than it should. And it’s inscrutable; if you asked me to guess what the sound is based on, inspired by, or how it was created, I wouldn’t know where to start. Which is all perfectly fitting, because EQ was a lot of those things too.
This is the part where one can’t help but sound like a crotchety, you-kids-today OG (Original Gamer), but here it is: EverQuest was hard. In combat, especially at the beginning, you were likely to miss more often than you hit. Spells would “fizzle” (meaning fail) at random. Health and mana took their time to refill. Outside of a few starter areas, zones usually combined lower- and higher-level enemies — most roaming, many aggressive, and a good amount of them bringing nearby friends along to gang up on you. Character death was costly: you’d lose experience, be transported back to a single bind point (that could only be changed by a player-character spell!), and need to trek back to your corpse, no matter how far away, in order to recover your equipment. There was, for the most part, no form of quick travel. As yet unclaimed corpses, literally, littered the landscape.
Quality equipment was rare, and the mob you might be hunting for that exciting armor piece might drop it, might not, and might take two hours to show up again. In-game currency was, until higher levels and even then, painstakingly slow to accumulate. Your run speed was even slower, and there were no mounts.
You’d think, then, that such a game would at least hold your hand a bit to start off. Nope. There was no tutorial; no training wheels. No detailed maps and markers. You got dropped into your starting city with a single weapon and a note to find your guildmaster, who might offer another basic piece of equipment and a low-level quest in or around your area. And… that’s it. There was no main quest line to guide your progression. In fact, the game’s title belied the fact that quests weren’t actually a significant part of the EverQuest experience. Quest-giving NPCs were not clearly marked as such; you kind of had to go up to random ones and basically ask. There was no quest journal to keep track of whatever you were supposed to be doing. Which, I guess, was the point: you weren’t supposed to be doing anything but playing, however the hell you wanted to play. Today’s developers, so desperate to create true “sandbox” games that simply let the player loose in a big open world, could do worse than looking back to EQ.
Contemporary MMORPG players will know just how much things have changed. Any one of the features (or lack thereof) I mentioned would now be considered a cardinal sin that renders a game either unplayable or attractive to just a small number of hardcore enthusiasts. EQ’s own developers got the memo — particularly after the much “friendlier” World of Warcraft launched in 2004 and took over as the genre’s dominant title — and changed nearly every aspect of the game I mentioned above. Indeed, EverQuest as it exists now may have more in common with WoW than with itself as it originally existed. And that’s too bad, because the rough-around-the-edges, unforgiving game I described — that’s the one worth coming back to.
In a nutshell, EverQuest was great for two reasons, and both are the natural byproduct of those same “negative” aspects of the game I just outlined. First, because as in real life, the harder something is, the more satisfying it is to accomplish it. Is there really a sense of fulfillment, outside of complex endgame content, in today’s MMOs? Does anyone feel even the barest hint of pride at reaching level 28 a few hours after 27, and acquiring the next iteration of incrementally superior pants?
In EverQuest, when you completed a complex, multi-part quest, without the detailed tracking and step-by-step instructions that would guide you in contemporary games, it felt like a real achievement. Same when you finally killed the elusive mob you’d been hunting for hours, or managed to save enough money to buy that staff or breastplate. And of course when you leveled up, which was an infamous grind, so that when you heard the objectively awful chime it sounded like music to your ears.
But the second reason for EQ’s greatness is even more powerful: because you played EverQuest with other people in a deeper, more all-encompassing way than in any other video game I know.
Just as they say baseball is really an individual sport played on a team, most multiplayer games are in essence individual games played with others. That’s certainly true of most online shooters, but even in MMORPGs players are mostly doing their own thing, interacting with others only when necessary to achieve some defined, mutually beneficial objective and parting ways soon after. And with the advent of automatic systems for finding a group, dividing loot, marking enemies, and more, it is now entirely possible and not uncommon to group with a handful of people for hours and never say a word to each other.
Not so in EverQuest. First, teaming up was closer to a necessity than a luxury; it provided much sought-after safety, speed, and strength in numbers. Because you might be hunting level-15 crocodiles in an area frequented by level-35 sand giants (classic EQ players will be feeling a twinge of remembrance right about now) everyone served as everyone else’s lookout, calling out threats and, if necessary, uniting to combat them so the area could remain clear. In fact, because death was so punishing, and we all dreaded it, there was a a palpable never-leave-a-man-behind ethos, with players often risking their own lives to try to save a perfect stranger from suffering that tragic fate.
I’ve played other MMORPGs for years, maxing out characters without once trading directly with another player. That would have been unthinkable in EQ; both items and cash were simply too valuable, and the prices offered by NPC vendors were seemingly intentionally depressed. And because there was no fancy automated auction house, the chat was a veritable bazaar — haggling, bartering, and all — and you might travel to another (in-game) continent simply to see a guy about a sword.
The informal “service” economy was just as lively, which again had everything to do with some of the game’s least player-friendly features. Because every advantage mattered to avoid that next death, buffs from other players were in high demand, and while some casters were generous enough to bestow them gratis, others charged a small fee. Because running was annoyingly snail-like (and running was pretty much all one could do), players who could cast the speed-increasing spell Spirit of Wolf would make a pretty penny. And the few classes whose high-level teleport spells could transport them and others around the game world practically ran the EQ version of Uber.
Whatever lack of guidance the game itself provided, the players more than made up for. At a time before nearly every game had a detailed wiki (after all, Wikipedia itself wouldn’t launch until two years after EverQuest), players graciously shared their tips, tricks, and general knowledge of the game. Because there were no daily quests to complete or achievements to unlock; few moments in which you were “in the middle of something” that couldn’t simply be done at another time or place, there was ample room for spontaneity and serendipity. A player you just met might enlist you to accompany him eight zones away to search for a little brown bag at the foot of an unmarked tree in a dark forest. And you’d say yes, even if you had nothing in particular to gain from it. Because why not? You get to kill some stuff — which is what you’d be doing anyway — he’s happy, and chances are one day you’ll run across him with your own quest that needs doing, and he’ll have the opportunity to return that favor.
Each of these meetings and moments, team-ups and transactions, added up to an environment of connectivity and social engagement that went beyond whatever individual bonds and friendships may have formed. They served as a reminder that you were one among many in a rich, inhabited world. And I don’t mean to suggest EQ was some sort of collaborative utopia; it had its share of trolls and malcontents like any other online community. But at least it was a community, in a way that may be familiar to players in longtime guilds or other limited in-game groups, but which I dare say is absent if not impossible on a game-wide scale in today’s MMOs.
And that’s what I’m nostalgic for. Because again, as in real life, the moments we remember most are the ones we shared with other people, even after we’ve forgotten the people we shared them with. So I don’t remember the sand giants in Oasis because anything about them per se was particularly memorable. What I remember are the regular in-chat shouts of “SG incoming to the docks!” and the sudden stampede to the edge of the zone. There’s nothing especially nostalgia-inducing about a randomly located platform among the desert sands in North Ro, except for the memory of resting there with others in between fights, trading war stories of our recent brushes with death while knowing if some roaming mob came upon us we’d have each other’s back. There’d be absolutely no reason for me to remember my Shiny Brass Halberd or Skull-shaped Barbute if it weren’t for the expectation, the excitement, and the satisfaction exclusive to a type of in-person, peer-to-peer commerce that in contemporary games is nearly nonexistent.
And it’s not really the level-up sound that I remember and miss, but the feeling that the accomplishment wasn’t solely my own. It belonged in part to the girl who told me about a good hunting spot, the guy who grouped with me four days before, the player who sold me that high-AC shield which surely helped keep me alive when I had a couple of close calls, and the ones I was grouping with when I that XP bar finally filled. And I’d announce that I “dinged” to them, because that’s what you did. And they’d said “grats,” because that’s what you did.
I first played EverQuest, for just over a year, shortly after it launched in 1999. I think I quit soon after the first expansion came out — an MMO trend pioneered by EQ that I’m not thankful for — having correctly foreseen that it would soon become a matter of constantly forking over more money just to keep up.
Starting in 2007, for about two years, I played on an EQ emulated server called Shards of Dalaya. Emulated servers are basically versions of the game maintained and, in most cases, modified from the original version by third parties. This one is a small but dedicated community that offers a new EQ experience by creating 100% new content (different quests, lore, mobs, repurposed zones, etc.) using existing game assets. I’d recommend it.
Last week, in May 2017, I started playing the current, free-to-play, 18-years-and-still-going version of EverQuest. It partially scratches that nostalgic itch but, having long ago “fixed” nearly all the fantastic “problems” I identified earlier, introduced NPC companions to make “soloing” easier, and expanded into an ungodly mess of 500 zones and endless fetch quests, it paradoxically has too much to offer to have much to offer. Still, it occurred to me that EverQuest was now mostly likely the only game I’ever ever played, in one form or another, in three different decades.
And then, as that curious thought blossomed into the idea for this essay and I did some idle searching to refresh my memory about the early days of EQ, I came across Project 1999. As the name implies, it’s an emulated server that, in essence, turns back the clock in order to offer the original EverQuest experience, in all its shamelessly retro and unforgiving glory.
I knew it could never be the same, of course. P1999 has a respectable player base (frequently 1,000+ online) but by now most would be high level, not hanging around low- and mid-level zones, shooting the shit and bravely battling common enemies. And most of them would likely be EQ veterans looking to scratch that same itch, not new players learning and growing together, approaching the game with that old mix of spontaneity and wonder. But still. It would be EverQuest.
I made my paladin, picked my god, and quickly found myself in the middle of nighttime Freeport, as confused as I must’ve been the first time I ever logged on all those years ago. OK, where was everything again? I instinctively hit M to open my map. Nope. I remembered sense heading. (Sense heading!) I opened my inventory; destroyed my Tome of Order and Discord; equipped my sword. And then, before I had even moved, a player came around the corner of the stone-walled alleyway where I stood, and stopped right in front of me. I knew exactly what was going to happen. I heard that other unmistakable sound, the building hum that crescendos into what sounds like an angel’s sigh, and suddenly I had a buff on me. Then, he offered me a summoned sword that would be much more effective than my starting weapon.
Seconds after the start of my second foray into the purest version of the most consequential online RPG of all time, a complete stranger had put a weapon in my hand and a mystical shield around my body, making it a little easier for me to hear that terrible, wonderful, meaningful, non-ding ding sooner rather than later, and reminding me of what I had loved about EQ in the first place. And as MMOs, and games in general, trend further away from the things that made EverQuest great, I hope P1999 and others continue to pay tribute to the first part of the game’s name so that players old and new can enjoy their own decades-long experience with the game.
May we ever quest, together.
(But seriously five hours later I was still level 3 and I think I’m going to start over with a caster anyway so I can bind myself at will but Jesus am I not looking forward to sitting down like a idiot after every kill while my mana fills back up. Fucking EverQuest, man.)