In fact, before WoW came on the scene in 2004, EverQuest was the gold standard of MMOs for a half-decade -- it was insanely popular, perfectly addictive, and absolutely revolutionary. It was a giant that roamed the virtual lands of those days, a giant that continues to forge new grounds well over a decade from its inception.
It was 1995 when John Smedley realized the potential for online gaming and roped in Brad McQuaid and Steve Clover to start putting together an online RPG for SOE. What began as a small project ballooned into a crazy endeavor as the growing team created a monster RPG the likes the world had never seen before -- a game that would forever shape the MMO genre.
This month, the Game Archaeologist is going after one of the biggest treasures of recorded history as we unearth the secrets to EverQuest's popularity, legacy, and longevity. The first step on our journey is to look at some of the highlights that made EQ what it is today.
1. EverQuest proved that MMOs could go beyond niche
If you have a spare hour or so and a passing interest in EQ, then I recommend checking out IGN's Evercracked! The Phenomenon of EverQuest documentary. Ignore the annoying editing and hyper-playful Jace Hall, and you'll hear a success story that was far from assured back in the mid-'90s. Really, all of the MMO dev teams in the '90s were basically forging games out of their own visions and blind faith that it would somehow work out.
It came as a boon to all of these other projects when Ultima Online released in 1997 to high acclaim, and the EQ team could finally point to an established MMO as a way to justify the project to SOE's higher-ups.
At best, the team hoped that EQ would pull in 70,000 players when it launched. The team was stunned, then, to see the subscription numbers shoot well into the six digits by the third month, climbing to 450,000 subs by 2004. Although EQ took a hit with WoW and is certainly dwindling in population over time, the fact that it's still running, still expanding, and still preferred by some over EverQuest II is a testament to the titan status it once held. I know that many recent MMO releases wish they could crack those numbers and yet fall far short of what EQ did a decade ago.
OK, I'm not here to step on Meridian 59's toes, but the truth is that EverQuest's claim of being the first true 3-D MMO is backed up by its full 3-D models and landscapes (Meridian 59 used sprites, making it a 2.5-D title in the vein of DOOM and Duke Nukem 3D). What's more important than who was first at what is that EverQuest (and Asheron's Call) showed the world just how immersive and glorious 3-D MMOs could be. It was one thing to look down on the world from an isometric perspective (Ultima Online, Lineage) and quite another thing entirely to be at eye-level with the NPCs and monsters you encountered.
The EQ team's commitment to a huge array of 3-D graphics and effects meant that players would be required to purchase graphics cards for their systems (if they hadn't already), something that wasn't as commonplace in 1999 as it is today. Even though the developers risked alienating some players because of this, they felt the trade-off was worth it -- and they were right.
3. EverQuest solidified the MMO format we (mostly) enjoy today
Depending on your level of RPG knowledge, you may or may not be aware of the term "DikuMUD," a type of multi-user dungeon that featured a class-based hack-and-slash MMO that became more popular and widespread than other MUDs. EverQuest and subsequent MMOs were founded on a DikuMUD-type platform (although the team swore that it did not use Diku code), which made them popular at the expense of squeezing out other, more niche types of MMORPGs.
As Raph Koster wrote on his blog, "Of the early MMORPGs, UO played the least like a Diku, whereas the line of inheritance from Diku to EQ and thence to WoW is completely undeniable."
We'll go more into MUDs in a later series, but it's important to realize how much EQ owes to this format, how far the DikuMUD influence extended into MMOs because of EQ, and why some older players use "DikuMUD" as a swear word as they cry out for originality in the genre.
Here's a bizarre thought: Without EverQuest, World of Warcraft -- at least as we know it -- might not have happened.
It's hard to overstate just how profound of an impact that EverQuest had on the burgeoning MMO industry, but its level-based PvE gameplay caught on like wildfire, particularly with up-and-coming devs working on their own titles. 38 Studios' Curt Schilling admits to spending two days straight playing EQ after a baseball game, while several WoW devs came straight from EQ's own dev team as well as the player community, including Jeff Kaplan, Alex Afrasiabi and Rob Pardo.
While everything gets called a "WoW clone" today, back in 2004 a few folks were calling WoW an "EQ clone" (or close enough) -- something Blizzard doesn't outright deny. "Certainly, I think WoW took a lot of great ideas from EverQuest. EverQuest is the big foundation for WoW," said J. Allen Brack to CVG.
5. EverQuest propelled SOE to empire status
What began as an internal side project for Sony eventually became the cornerstone of an empire. Due to EverQuest's success, Verant Interactive -- which was folded into Sony Online Entertainment -- showed its parent company that there was gold in them thar virtual hill, and Sony started to dig. One MMO became two, and two became several. Before long, SOE encompassed a host of MMOs: EverQuest, EverQuest II, Star Wars Galaxies, Vanguard, Pirates of the Burning Sea, Planetside, Free Realms, Clone Wars Adventures, The Matrix Online, DC Universe Online and many, many more.
I see SOE's diversity as the most defining factor for the company's success, because as the sum of all these parts, SOE easily rivals or exceeds other MMO publishers in terms of players and popularity. With its willingness to experiment with payment models (such as EverQuest II Extended or SOE's Station Access), take in struggling titles (Vanguard), and continually expand each MMO, the publisher has become a many-headed hydra that can survive the downfall of one or two games -- and it owes EQ for its mighty beginning.
Wrap your head around that, particularly if your MMO experience is outside of SOE's sphere of influence. We think that games with three or four expansions under their belts are seasoned and huge, but EverQuest's been expanding once or twice a year like clockwork ever since 2000's The Ruins of Kunark.
Each expansion added to the game in one or more of the following ways: additional zones (over 375 so far), new features (like Shadows of Luclin's Alternative Advancement or Underfoot's Achievement System), a higher level cap (which is now at 90) and new classes. The most recent expansion was October 2010's House of Thule, which added player housing in addition to more zones and raids.
7. EverQuest defined many genre terms
Have you ever heard "Ding!" from a guildmate? Does your raid use DKP, or "dragon kill points" for loot distribution? What about the words "rez," "mezz" or "nerf?" Are you hoping your weapon will "proc" while you're "farming" mobs hoping for a sweet drop? If so, then you probably have EverQuest to thank for it.
While all MMOs have their own jargon and abbreviations, EQ's popularity meant that the unique vocabulary players used in the game was then passed on to future titles as those gamers migrated.
What's your EverQuest tale?
As always, I'd love to hear from all the veterans out there. So tell me, what's your favorite EQ memory? Email it to firstname.lastname@example.org -- 100 words maximum, please! -- and I'll include it in a future column!
When not clawing his eyes out at the atrocious state of general chat channels, Justin "Syp" Olivetti pulls out his history textbook for a lecture or two on the good ol' days of MMOs in The Game Archaeologist. You can contact him via email at email@example.com or through his gaming blog, Bio Break.