EverQuest’s Heroic Journey – 2

This last part simply cannot be underestimated. For all the derision that sometimes placed on the MMO’s fixation on “phat loot,” the reason the classic RPG “kill monster, take its stuff to go and kill bigger monster” is so cliched is that it works. It’s the classic hero’s journey boiled down to its simplest components and served up for a mass audience who all get to feel for the briefest moment like a hero. It’s the endlessly compelling illusion of achievement. Why else would players on MMO test servers derisively refer to their granted uber-item as “fake” and struggle through the same content on live servers in order to get “real gear?” That +7 glowing Sword of Sharpness is just as virtual and is functionally no different than “real gear,” but doesn’t has the benefit of context, history and story. It’s the knowledge that you went through this with your friends, you worked hard to master the challenge together and every “Where did you get that?” moment or /inspect from another player is validation of what you’ve achieved. It’s also why people hate gold farmers so much.

This tendency is very, very human. We are materialistic creatures (as James Twitchell points out, “There’s a reason that we call them ‘goods’ and not ‘bads.'”), and we’ve always created fetishized objects to denote status. There’s every reason to believe this tendency to do so began in our remote past as a way to sublimate more violent methods of status competition into a symbolic struggle that wouldn’t leave competitors dead. This was mirrored in a small way by EverQuest. springing from the disastrous first days of UO and the dynamic was so compelling that World of Warcraft (a project began by a group of EQ fanatics within Blizzard) smoothed off EverQuest’s rough edges and delivered an insanely compelling and addictive version of it that garnered success far beyond the dreams of the original EQ team.

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That’s also the problem. The very success of the EQ innovation as popularized by World of Warcraft has warped people’s perceptions of what an MMO is. When 12 million people’s entry into the genre is a game that’s fundamental gameplay dynamic is ever-increasing loot, it makes it enormously difficult for other MMOs that might explore a different paradigm. I think about some of the noble experiments of the past few years that I’ve really enjoyed — great games like Pirates of the Burning Sea and The Lord of the Rings Online — and shake my head at the common questions of new players. “What’s the level cap?” “What’s the end game like?” “Where do you get the best loot?” These are all questions that stem from a WoW mentality.

Pirates, for example, doesn’t actually have much in the way of “loot” as a WoW or EQ player would understand it. LotRO has no end-game and if you’re racing to max level to get to the “good stuff,” you’re very much missing the point of the game.

This certainly doesn’t reflect poorly on World of Warcraft. WoW is what it is. I love it, I played it for a long time and have tremendous admiration for the developers over at Blizzard that created it. I also acknowledge the harsh reality that gaming is a business that requires dollars to survive and it’s far easier to invest in something that’s proven to work than something bold and innovative that might not. Still, it behooves all of us as players to open our minds and wallets to new forms of gameplay and encourage MMO developers to experiment with the form. EverQuest was an important chapter in the history of gaming, but it’s important to not let it be the last chapter.

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