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On the Disintegration of Virtual Worlds

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I dinged 30 about a month ago and as the last few shreds of my youth slip away my thoughts have turned more and more to the past; to nostalgia and comforting symbols of the familiar – to nobody's surprise here this includes more than a few video games.

I was playing games even before I had the coordination necessary myself as I would sit in my dad's lap while he played the original rotoscoped Prince of Persia. When I was gradually and inevitably lulled to sleep I would be woken, in an instant, by any hint or suggestion that he was finished playing, to insist as only a toddler can that he continue, to my satisfaction, because I wasn't sleeping and I definitely wasn't tired.

In mentally cataloguing each game that has meant something significant to me I landed on a dust-covered half-memory of the first game I was ever uncontrollably addicted. A memory perhaps intentionally buried as the game is one I can never actually play or experience again – a game lost and disintegrated by time's pitiless march forward.

You might assume it's simply an old game – some vague amalgamation of shapes and sounds that is just so old it's been lost to the ceaseless accumulation of more , hidden among a sea data too large to sort, but the game I can't play because it no longer exists was released in the ancient bygone year of 2003.

In 2003 I was 13 and had a Playstation 2. The PS2 didn't release with built-in online functionality and network play on consoles wasn't really a thing yet but by 2002 you could purchase an adapter that slotted into the back of your console and connected to the Internet via ethernet (or a phone-line for those of us still cursed with a


connection). One of the games that not only took advantage of this functionality but in fact required it to play at all was Everquest Online Adventures, a console spin-off of the quintessential PC MMORPG from 1999 that had exploded in popularity and come to define a genre – a game that prompted mainstream discussion about its addictive and all-consuming nature.

For a prepubescent dweeb that didn't have a PC playing online was a revelation – it was something totally new and never experienced before – it was novel. The 'gameworld' wasn't just some static background, some illusion that vanished when you turned the game off, it was a real virtual space with permanence that actually existed despite you – people were standing in Freeport all day whether I was there or not and that wasn't just cool, it was mind-blowing – for a teenage turbonerd that had never even heard of an 'MMORPG' before it was genuinely unlike anything else I had ever experienced or really even thought was possible – the game was so much more than just a game, it was a game contained within a vast and expansive world, a world that felt dynamic and alive and was filled with real people and, most importantly, adventure.

Everquest was famously a fairly hardcore game – progress was generally glacially-paced and when you died (and you would die – often) you dropped all of your equipment, lost a portion of experience (you could even de-level) and had to run all the way back to your corpse from wherever your soul was 'bound' (sometimes 30+ minutes) to retrieve your stuff before everything despawned. There was no in-game map to speak of and quests, the initial few there were, weren't done by following any indicators or markers and could often only be discovered by 'hailing' and talking to each NPC individually. There were absolutely no floating exclamation marks pointing you towards progress, you had to read and pay attention to dialogue and discover the path to progess yourself – or by asking!

EQOA, while made slightly more 'casual' than its PC progenitor was still decidedly an 'old-school' MMORPG at heart – a game that required (and rewarded) a large time investment with very little guidance and a game that was supremely socially-oriented. While the death penalty in EQOA was made a little less punishing than EQ (no more 'corpse runs', now you only lost some money and accumulated XP 'debt' which had to be paid off before you could start to level unimpeded again) but for the most part EQOA was as similar to its namesake as possible given it had to be playable on a Playsation 2 with only a controller.

The game had fifteen classes split between ten races with many race/class combinations being limited. It maintained the 'trinity' dynamic of EQ with different classes serving distinct but fundamental roles in the success and efficacy of a group. 'Tanks' 'pulled' enemies individually, kept their focus ('aggro') and absorbed ('tanked') most of the damage – 'Healers' top priority was keeping everybody alive (especially the tank) while occasionally casting buffs or debuffs and resurrecting anybody if things went south – 'Damage Dealers' or 'DDs' were split between Magic and Physical damage-based classes focused generally on outputting a lot of damage quickly or serving some other secondary function like dealing with additional pulls ('crowd control').

Not every classs fit neatly within a single archetype and some were more versatile or focused than others – A Druid or Shaman could serve competently as a group's primary healer but a Cleric would perform that singular function more efficiently. This distinction and delineation between classes meant group composition mattered and felt important – playing in a group with 2 Mages, 1 Necromancer and 1 Wizard required a different strategy and approach than playing with the traditional trinity of Tank/Healer/DD.

EQOA also carried over the faction system where different groups and races reacted to you based on your own race and faction relationship. Trolls weren't welcome in Rivervale and likewise Halflings weren't welcome in Grobb. There was nothing that prevented 'unfriendly' races from grouping together but if you were an Ogre you wouldn't really be spending much time in Klick'Anon, the clockwork-city of the Gnomes. Every location in-game could be travelled between freely without a single loading screen – the world was totally open and felt vast which was quite the feat when you consider the limitations of the available hardware and the demands of an MMORPG.

Playing on your own (soloing) wasn't totally impossible (it sort of was) but it was markedly more difficult (and slow) to make progress so people would naturally form groups to explore, quest, and level together. In EQOA quests weren't a main source of experience although they did reward it – more often quests provided class-specific spells or equipment and were available at certain levels. For most people, the bulk of levelling was done by grouping with 4-5 other players and then finding an appropriately levelled camp and then 'grinding' out XP at that single spot pulling mobs one by one for multiple hours at a time.

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Sounds monotonous, right? Well it was, but it also had the unintended consequence of facilitating socialization – you weren't only mindlessly grinding, you were probably chatting with your guild-mates or shooting the shit with your party while you waited for the Rogue that just joined the group to find somebody to cast SoW on them so they could make the trek to wherever you were camped. SoW or 'Spirit of the Wolf' was a low-mid level spell available to Druids and Shamans that significantly increased movement speed – if you had to travel anywhere you sure as hell didn't want to do it without somebody casting SoW on you.

Because the world was completely open and without instancing popular spots or 'camps' for quick experience or particular loot were highly contested – if you and your party wanted to level but your favourite spot was full you were put in a tough spot – you could either wait for a place to open up, find somewhere else to go, or, if you were a real asshole you would run around and intentionally aggro a bunch of mobs and then lead them towards a group with the hopes of overwhelming and wiping them so yours could take their spot – this was called a 'train' because the aggro'd mobs formed a line as they chased after the player and this kind of behaviour was super common at some of the more popular camps – I remember a zone called the Deathfist Citadel was infamous for overcrowding and constant train-ing.

End-game raiding and bosses are a whole separate beast – just imagine everything I said above but now factor in a single infrequent spawn that drops ultra-rare loot being fought over by large coordinated and competing guilds for hours at a time – I never made it to the end-game myself but I can still tell you it was super serious business.

Now, thinking back all of these distinguishing features sound sort of burdensome, like they might have slightly improved the atmosphere or sense of exploration and discovery but only at the expense of convenience and actually playing the game – as an example, a lot of time "playing" might have been spent doing literally nothing besides travelling, and that can seem kind of like content is being stretched out artificially and while this might be true it is at the same time true that this kind of non-consideration or passivity towards a player's time and/or convenience had the benefit of making the world feel large and making travel feel significant.

I think many of these period-specific examples of design standards and expectations embody the idea that the journey was the experience, not the destination. Progress in EQOA was, by todays standards, slooooooooooooooooooooooow – not just slow, glacial – it might take somebody up to a year (or more) to reach max level by playing fairly casually but MMORPG's of this era weren't yet standardized and moulded to make the experience as streamlined and accessible as possible or making sure every moment was filled some something – sometimes nothing can be something – the passive downtime of travelling can offer a kind of punctuation between the more engaging activities like running through a dungeon or grinding out levels – they valleys make the peaks all that more impressive, in other words.

EQOA was shut down in 2012 and is no longer playable. There is a fan project attempting to resurrect it but their progress is fairly slow as you would expect from a passion project requiring reverse-engineering that is only being worked on when free time allows. Since the servers were shut down recreating the game world as it once existed requires manually placing mobs and NPC's and rewriting their pathing and AI – as it stands now you can run around an empty world and I suppose that's something, but it's it EQOA.

Now, nearly everything I've said above is also a whole lot of bullshit influenced by my own fond memories – EQOA isn't just a game for me, it's a game and a specific span of time in my life – EQOA was being an awkward teenager with a life full of possibility and potential. EQOA could be recreated identically or copied mechanically today but the pangs in my heart aren't really for EQOA the game, they're for a forgotten time in my life where summer's stretched endlessly in front of me and I could spend 8+ hours playing video games without a care or concern about my other responsibilities.

I'm now 30 and have a (relatively) decent fulltime job, a supportive partner, a beautiful dog and a space to carve out a life, a space to call home. In spite of all of these wonderful things, sometimes I still want nothing more than to go back. I am unbelievably fortunate in so many aspects of life – I'm an adult and now I really can stay up all night playing video games if I wanted to, but I also can't really do that even if I wanted to – life at 30 just doesn't allow it the same way life did at 13. As far removed as 2003 is from 2020 so is the idea that a game could be reimagined and exist exactly as it once was. EQOA might be able to exist in 2020 but not without being poisoned and diminished by modern sensibilities, conventions, and expectations or manipulated by predatory monetization schemes.

Time speeds up as you get older – eventually the weeks just start flying by and the days blur together, indistinguishable – one weekend comes and goes in the blink of an eye and the rest of your time in-between is spent just justifying your right to exist through hours of mindless, exploitative labour and what little bit of free time you're afforded by a society ruled by capital is only enough to grant the shortest respite possible, enough that you won't off yourself because the cycle is just too fucking unbearable.

EQOA might be recreated but it will never be 2003 again. EQOA is dead and that's soul-crushing – EQOA is dead and that's okay – EQOA is dead and life goes on, its mere memory possessing infinitely more beauty than the tangible thing it was once – a time and place when responsibility was limited and free-time was abundant – a time and place most adults will never visit again except in brief flashes of recollection inspired by the familiar.

Remember kids, games aren't just games – they're unique points in space and time that capture a reflection of what is now but at some point will be what once was.

Nothing escapes entropy, not even fantasy.

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