15 YEARS IN NORRATH: THE VIDEO GAME THAT ATE MY BRAIN.

Last Evening of Alpha, 2014.

I suppose I was always an explorer first.

In 1999 I packed up our things and moved my young family to Conyers, Georgia, chasing a career in Telecommunications. When I close my eyes and think of Georgia, the first thing I picture are the trees. Everywhere it seemed were small footholds of people, places and things, cut from an endless sea of green, leafy woodland. Here and there a road would deliver us from one end of town to the other down a winding, narrow sliver of asphalt and fence line. Always at the end lay a marker for the kind of civilization I knew as a child; homes, stores, gas stations, restaurants, churches and assorted places of business. But in between? Just trees, far as the eye can see.

I suppose I was suffering from a bit of culture shock, having arrived at this destination — all the way at the far end of the country from where I had been born and raised — where very little wild wood existed within the confines of city and suburb. Though much of Georgian culture remained foreign to me, I knew intuitively the true nature of trees in large numbers: This was a realm of shrouded mystery and secret history, just off the beaten trail, where a city kid might get lost in the woods, and never find his way back out again.

It was against this backdrop that I first discovered the original EverQuest, midwinter, 2001. I happened to be browsing the PC gaming aisle at Circuit City in town when the “Rise of Kunark” box caught my eye. The cover art — featuring a half-naked Elf princess and a Lizard Man – spoke to my inner 13 year old. I bought it so fast I never noticed the monthly subscription requirement. Though I had a good job, and a reasonable flow of excess income, I resisted the idea at first, but after a day or so – resolved to try it out for a month or so and go from there. It is not an exaggeration when I say that this decision forever altered my life.

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My first character was a Dark Elf Necromancer. I’m not sure why, but I rolled him on a Zek server. It took me more than an hour to find my way out of the starting city of Neriak. I was dead at the hands of another player within seconds of arriving in the Nekatulos forest beyond its front gate. I re-spawned on a hill, minus my robe and dagger, and died again to a cackling skeleton within 30 yards or so. Confused, I wandered for several minutes, died a third time, and then finally stumbled back through the outer gates into Neriak’s foreign quarter. I logged out and spent a day or so reading about the game before re-rolling on Druzzil Ro; a “blue” server named for Norrath’s goddess of magic. This time I rolled a Wizard, and I have been playing one ever since.

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Born on a blue server, my Wizard had it easy: the only thing trying to kill me were the monsters outside the city gates (and the guards would sometimes assist me there if I got into trouble!) and the environment itself. Like my Necromancer – my Wizard went sans robe and dagger for several real-life weeks, after an unfortunate drowning incident in a shallow pool outside the Wizard guild in Felwithe. Like a true n00b, I had put all my discretionary attribute points in Charisma — because I fancied my character a natural leader. I chose Tunare (nature, reversed) as my patron Deity, and crafted a complex backstory about my early life as a Paladin prior to my study of the elemental arts. I spent countless hours hunting giant wasps, snakes and skeletons within earshot of the gates of Felwithe. By my second full week of play I was level 6 and had recruited my wife and father to play along with me. Our little group was joined by friends met in game, and coworkers who played, and our numbers grew. We fell off the platforms at Kelethin, and held the high ground at Orc Hill. My dad sent me a plaintive /tell a few weeks in: “Buddy – lost all” when the group he joined ran inside the dungeon Crushbone, and were crushed by a “train” of high level orcs deep within.

Over the long year that followed we grew in power, formed and led guilds of dozens of players, and explored the world together. The magic of the game in those days was in the interactions between the players, in the long journeys between goals (levels and “camps”) and, in the simple joy of community forged by like-minded players on a mutual quest of exploration. That quest would take us in strange new directions soon enough, but – for a time – it was centered on a world shaped by player interaction as much as developer choice or creativity.

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EverQuest Landmark neatly captures some of that feeling: everything in-game — outside of the environment and its generous variety of raw materials — is built by other players, happily groping forward towards a new kind of game. Most of the ingredients are here: a kind of progression* in mining and foresting, which leads to the creation of better tools for gathering and building. These in turn unlock flags, crafting tables and props, which are used to build, create and dress our “claims.”++

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Some players build Inns and Taverns, hoping to draw others to explore their claim. Others build towers, castles, dungeons and mazes, designed to test the explorer or trap the unwary. Some build in homage to their favorite bits from the world of EverQuest, while others are inspired by non-EQ sources, or are content to explore the claims of other players, harvesting, crafting and trading in-game.

Most of the standard MMO tropes are here, or are –“coming soon:” there is talk of PvP (player versus player) content, NPC’s (non-player characters) and “monsters.”. Underlying it all is the notion that gameplay will be emergent**, and that the players themselves will create worlds for each other to explore, interact with and shape. In some ways, Landmark is already pushing the envelope. The NDA for alpha-testers was dropped midway through the second day, and the developers have strived toward an unprecedented openness and transparency in their interactions with the players. The players themselves are creating new ways to use the tools in ways the developers never anticipated.

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As I write this the game is celebrating its last weekend of alpha, before the servers come down in preparation for the games closed-beta phase. My own claim is a sprawling dungeon, built beneath the ruin of an ancient Wizard Tower. I have saved templates of my pillars, arches and micro-voxels. I have made peace with the notion that my progression so far is about to be reset at zero.

In the years since I began my journey through Norrath and EverQuest I have come and gone many times. MMO’s have grown in size, scope and theme. Games inspired by EverQuest popped up and disappeared as quickly. There are exceptions, of course. World of Warcraft is still very popular, and games like The Secret World, Guild Wars 2 and others have carved their own niche and found stability. EverQuest 2 – by all accounts – is more successful than ever, thanks in part to its quick adoption of SOE’s “Free To Play, Your Way” model.

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The original EverQuest is still rockin’. I logged in tonight to play my brand new level 85 Wizard on the Vox Server and there were well over 200 characters in the Plane of Knowledge / Guild Hall area. There is more to do now, of course. 20 expansion packs worth of new zones, quests, missions, monsters, loot and lore has transformed the game we fell in love with 15 years ago, and mostly in good ways. EverQuest 2 is likewise celebrating its 10 year anniversary, and has recently released its thirteenth expansion pack: the Tears of Veeshan.

As a long time Norrathian and EverQuest devotee, I was an early adopter of EverQuest 2, and played briefly during its launch phase, until World of Warcraft released. Like many players, I loved the game, but couldn’t play it — even on low settings — consistently. My wife’s computer couldn’t play it at all. I still play here and there, and enjoy my time in EQ2. I freely admit to being casual in both games. I haven’t raided since “Omens of War,” and none of my characters in EQ or EQ2 are at (or even near) max level.

I began as an explorer in Norrath, dabbled in roleplaying, took up with power gamers, and fell in love with single group dungeons. I learned to negotiate woodlands and forests with ease, and have long since moved out into the trees, far beyond the city gates. One of the benefits of being a long term player disinterested in “the endgame” is that there is always plenty to do other than leveling. I’m still chasing the story in EverQuest, working my way through years of expansions, earning achievements even when I don’t earn XP. I chase achievements in EverQuest 2, and spend the majority of my time playing low level characters, socializing, visiting the homes of friends and other players and doing quests related to lore and achievements. I have betrayed Kelethin. I have abandoned Haven. My High Elf Wizard works for the Overlord now and worships Solusek Ro, which is a long way from his RP beginnings as a Paladin of Tunare.

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One of the stated long term goals of EverQuest: Landmark is the creation of a toolset which will allow players like me to build our own “games.” My goal is to dig my own dungeons, and fill them with challenges designed to test the mettle of my fellow explorers. This past weekend I ran several player dungeons in EverQuest 2, and I couldn’t help but notice similarities between the dungeon creator toolset and Landmark. Both games require you to collect resources to build and populate your dungeons, and the placement / positioning tooltips are almost identical. I find myself longing for the ability to dig my own dungeon in EverQuest 2 like I do in Landmark, and to have something to fight once it’s done – as I do in EverQuest 2. I hope the Landmark development team have played EverQuest 2. The system for boosting mob level, agro radius and spell casting power / ability is clever, and helps break up the monotony of an all “even-level” dungeon run.

Over the horizon lay EverQuest Next: a true MMO successor to the EverQuest legacy, built entirely with Landmark and its tools. I’m still playing MMO’s with some of the friends I met back in Greater Faydark. We have watched each other’s kids grow up, even as we drifted in and out of our shared hobbies and games. One friend in particular is still passionate about EverQuest – the brand, and Norrath – the experience. He and I have joined forces to document our experiences in Landmark (and beyond), in the creation of EQNExplorer.Com and LandmarkExplorer.Com. Like a sprawling claim in EverQuest Landmark – our site has a little bit of everything: how-to videos and articles, claim-tours, a twitch channel, and a pinch of opinion and commentary.

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When I picked up Ruins of Kunark in late 2001, I was looking for a temporary diversion. What I got instead was a second life. I spent way too much time in Norrath. At one point I figured out that I had spent more time in EQ than it would take to earn a college degree, so I went back to school to make myself feel better. I will probably never make up for the lost sleep, and I’m not sure it even matters. It’s a cliche now, but my experiences in EverQuest have made me a better leader, helped me understand project management, and my ability to manage personality conflicts in my family and workplace has increased substantially. My trip through Norrath hasn’t all been wine, roses and Lady Vox Brand Cigars, however. EverQuest nearly cost me my marriage on more than one occasion. One of the longest running jokes in our house concerning video games is the simple truism: “There is no such thing as a SHORT raid.”

I don’t sleep much, and I don’t watch much TV.

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Much of my private leisure time is spent playing a Wizard in Norrath, or building dungeons in Landmark. There is less of it now than there ever was before, and I have to prioritize teen-age kids who also love to game (among other things!), a wonderfully patient (and beautiful!) wife, my career, my music and my writing. I don’t mind paying for an all access pass. At $15 a month for all three EQ titles, it’s the best deal in gaming.

Join us in EverQuest Landmark and LandmarkExplorer.Com. Let’s make something great together.

 

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Sunday Night, first “week” of “closed beta.”

As I write this I am finishing up dinner for myself and the kids. It is Sunday Evening and I plan on logging back in to play with Mortok – a long time guildie and friend from the original EverQuest. It’s official now, and has been for a couple of days: EverQuest Next: Landmark is now just Landmark, and I’m glad for the change. It takes a lot of pressure off the game, frankly, and opens the door a crack to more interesting possibilities. In the meantime, I suspect that those who want to “win” the marketplace in Landmark will also likely be “contest winners,” and have their builds featured in-game when EverQuest Next arrives (alpha?) later this year. You have to strike while the iron is hot.

(*) Progression: I didn’t RTFM and lost my first claim from Wednesday night when I didn’t play until Late Friday evening. Instead I spent my playtime this weekend working on progression, while trying to supply Stac with plain wood for the group claim we are planning. Landmark is definitely better with friends, guys. Get talkative, invite people to join you at your location if you are finding an abundance of something they are looking for and they aren’t. I took a few big steps on the progression ladder this morning thanks to a friend’s generosity. I have learned to embrace the massively multiplayer again.

(++) Forget everything you have ever heard or even think you know about crafting. You can upgrade your gear, and your tables.

(**) Right now on the official boards, the most obvious example of emergent gameplay seems to be the use of pulverizes to “grief” those who go AFK by digging a giant hole underneath them. I know, right?

Here’s a couple of tips based on what I have observed this week in-game and on the official boards:

1)      Always be groupin’. Stay with a couple hundred yards of one another and focus on either trees or ore. Clear the entire area. You get everything else everyone else is getting’, and then some! I think the extra sum is about 10% efficiency, IIRC. Also – take care of one another. Use your teleport to friend button to gift them with an upgraded pick, or even some raws. You *can* shortcut a lot of progression grinding for others who follow you by gifting them with items and resources. Don’t worry, they still have to level up their own tables.

2)      Use SC cards to buy 100 packs of various resources. These purchases will persist through closed beta into open beta, through head-start into live. That means you will be able to shortcut your own progression grind considerably post launch, and that’s huge.

Finally – group up and organize your harvesting and crafting. Build to a plan and build modularly. Regardless of playtime, gaming style or motivation, you need to play socially. We are always looking for new friends with similar goals and interests. Look us up in game on any of the following characters:

Edwuard, Stac, Mortok, Lysandor, Sukiyoshi.

And don’t forget to check out our growing “group / guild” claim on Satisfaction (EU) Abyss, just east of the spire. You really can’t miss it, and I know you will appreciate the respite. Make sure you click “LIKE” why you are there, and thanks for reading!

–Lysandor

 

Bigfoot

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