My name is Phil Kollar, and I had a weird weekend.
Let's start our story just over 11 years ago, on Nov. 9, 2004. That was the date that Sony Online Entertainment released EverQuest 2. I had spent a couple years in high school noodling around in the original EverQuest, a period that, despite my inability to make much progress in the game, helped me fall in love with the genre of massively multiplayer online role-playing games.
So I must have been excited for EverQuest 2, right?
Sadly, I didn't have a computer that could run it. I was a poor college freshman, and my three-year-old box didn't come close to meeting EverQuest 2's minimum specs. This is a notoriously unoptimized game, even now, and I wasn't about to take chances spending what little money I had on a game that was unlikely to work.
World of Warcraft was an even larger obstacle. Blizzard's first MMORPG was set to release just a few weeks after EverQuest 2 and, while Sony Online Entertainment had experience in the genre, Blizzard has much more personal history. I enjoyed my time with EverQuest, sure, but Warcraft 2? Warcraft 3? These are games, worlds and characters that I absolutely adored. I jumped ship, and I wasn't alone.
Jump cut to Jan. 8, 2016
It's been a decade since I made what most people would historically call the "right" choice by playing World of Warcraft. EverQuest 2 has long since gone free-to-play, with Daybreak Game Company (formerly Sony Online Entertainment) pumping out 11 expansions in the same timeframe that a still-subscription-based World of Warcraft has released five.
I've never got rid of the nagging sensation that maybe I missed something with EverQuest 2. This is how I came to spending my evening on Friday and most of my day on Saturday playing, talking about and reading about EverQuest 2, an 11-year-old free-to-play MMO that many people would consider irrelevant.
Here are some things that I discovered. To start with, I made a Storify of my tweets from the weekend that you can check out here if you'd like:
Free-to-play MMOs have fascinating, confusing DNA
There are plenty of ways that EverQuest 2 shows its age — the less-than-stellar visuals being an obvious example — but the most fascinating to me by far is the layer of reward programs and retention bonuses that have been piled onto the game since its first free-to-play iteration in 2010. I was bombarded by free items to claim within moments of logging in. From the second I stepped foot into its world, the game did everything it could to convince me that it would be worth my while to continue playing.
The most egregious example of this is the game's opening splash screen, where a breathless pop-up informed me that I could take a level 90 character for a free "test drive" or purchase one for unlimited play with real money. Being able to purchase high-level characters has become fairly common in MMOs — heck, even subscription-based games like World of Warcraft do it now. But there was something in the wording and presentation of this in EverQuest 2 that felt desperate for whatever it could get.
Clearly at least some of this had been successful, which makes looking at what doesn't work even more fascinating.
Systems get very confusing when piled on top of each other for 11 years
Many of EverQuest 2's menus are completely incomprehensible to newcomers.
¯\_(ツ)_/¯ pic.twitter.com/Zod4Htlm73— philko (@pkollar) January 9, 2016
The "Equipment Infusion and Deity Abilities" mechanics are a new system from Terrors of Thalumbra, EverQuest 2's latest (eleventh) expansion pack. If you own the new expansion, in addition to money, loot and experience points, (which are already split between two systems, leveling and alternate advancement), you get a new reward for killing enemies and completing quests: tithe.
Tithe is a special currency that allows you to purchase new single-use "miracle" abilities from gods of your same alignment. It can also be spent further buffing up your character.
Essentially, it's another timesink for end-game players, which is an important element of any MMO. But there's a strong and fascinating difference between how a game like World of Warcraft handles these systems versus a free-to-play MMO like EverQuest 2.
With World of Warcraft, Blizzard has the privilege of taking its time on expansions. Sure, numbers may dip a little, but the game is still successful on a level that's unheard of compared to other subscription-based games. Meanwhile, there's a reason Daybreak has stuck to one expansion a year for EverQuest 2 without fail. Free-to-play games (and MMOs that are struggling in general) need to pump out new and exciting content at a ridiculous rate, both to keep current players happy and hopefully entice new players into the game.
So what gets lost in the rush? The time needed to polish content along with the ability to go back and remove content that doesn't really matter anymore.
Blizzard is the master of this process. Look at the (admittedly controversial) Cataclysm expansion for World of Warcraft in 2010. Blizzard saw that its quest design had progressed significantly from where it was when the game launched and felt the earlier zones no longer matched the quality of the rest of the game. So what did Blizzard do? Destroyed everything and remade it.
Blizzard is constantly reworking talent trees, tweaking stats and generally making for a smoother, more streamlined experience.
Meanwhile, in EverQuest 2, systems have seemingly been stacked on top of each other until they reach the figurative, if not virtual, sky. The Alternate Advancements window is full of tabs of abilities, dozens of potential progression paths that are impossible to parse for the beginning player.
Daybreak can't take the time to go back and clean these up or remove ones that don't matter anymore, and it's not because the people working there are lazy; they're constantly pushing ahead toward whatever is next in hopes that it will keep players happy. There is no time to look back.
These games need to be preserved
EverQuest 2 is not a bad game, and I'm happy that it's still up and running.
This is a game with history. Real, human history. Over the course of 11 years, people have become friends, adventured together, even fallen in love. I might have made the choice to go with World of Warcraft 11 years ago, but plenty of people went in the other direction and chose to spend days, weeks, months and years of their lives in this virtual world.
Spending some time in this world and talking to various people about it this weekend reminded me how essential it is that this game and others like it be preserved in some way. Luckily, there are people much smarter than me who are devoted to this process.
Look at something like Project 1999. Yes, EverQuest 1 still exists, but it's a wildly different game now than it was at launch. Project 1999 is a developer-approved, fan-run server that seeks to emulate EverQuest exactly how it was in its early years. Am I ever going to play that? Probably not. Am I glad the option exists if I ever feel like exploring that history? Absolutely. That is vital.
Heck, even Daybreak itself has gotten into the act, with "time-locked expansion" servers for both EverQuest and EverQuest 2. These servers require a subscription to Daybreak All Access, but they allow you to relive the game at certain points in its life, with each new expansion being unlocked bit by bit, by player vote. I would love to see a system like that embraced in World of Warcraft.
I don't regret spending my weekend with this weird game. It's wonderful that we live in a time where there are hundreds of virtual worlds in which people spend their time and find meaning.
EverQuest 2 may not be my cup of tea, but I'm glad I got to take a sip.