I was there at the start of EverQuest (EQ). Playing that game for the first time is probably what most people felt like playing WoW for the first time I imagine, although WoW also was for many people their first true video game ever, so that gave it a huge advantage over any given game too. Anyway, playing EQ for the first time… It was just above and beyond playing a normal video game by all regards up to that point in time. Now for reference, EQ came out in 1999 so besides top-down games like Ultima and text-based MUDs, there was no 3D first person/third person MMO up to this point in time.
EQ really did feel like an experience, not just a simple video game. It really felt like being in an alternate world, not just some temporary run-through-it-once-or-twice set of video game levels. In the beginning, everything was "player supported" and player run. So what I mean by that is stuff like trading, getting married, or fast-traveling didn't have any systems in the game, no prompts, menus, UI for any of that. So, for example, the players organically came together and decided together — for trading/marketplace demand — that the Ro tunnel that connected to West Commons, since it was so close to the biggest city, Freeport, would be the marketplace/bazaar. You'd run by the Ro tunnel and just see endless text messages with people looking for items to sell, items to buy, trades. Seeing hundreds of people all gathered in circles and running around was truly special, because it was all organic and not some impersonal menu system where you never interact with anyone. Was it less convenient? yes. Was it more immersive, knowing you had to get to that area during prime-time for your best chance at getting an item for a good price, and the feeling of reaching that tunnel safely through whatever treacherous journey it took for you to get there, running toward the torch lit tunnels and seeing all those people gathered and feeling a sense of safety? absolutely. Getting married in game was similar and all player organized. Fast Travel didn't exist, it was restricted to a couple player classes who could group teleport people to a set of locations. So you'd find a Wizard or Druid who could TP and pay him for his services. Much more interactive and immersive than simply double clicking a spot on your world map.
Then there was other stuff like corpse running, which gave weight and consequence behind dying, and it being 1998/1999, the internet was pre-google dominance so you couldn't just cheapen the game by looking up information about it easily, like with maps of the area. you had to be your own cartographer or ask anyone in the zone if they knew how to get from A to B to C . There was no in game map, or radar or cheesy waypoint system where you spend half your time following the glowing icon at the top of your magic compass. It had a sense of adventure, it had danger in its world. And on top of all that, the gear was cool and the systems were fun to play because it shared a lot with D&D in terms of combat.
I mean some people got so consumed by it that they were getting divorced or quitting their jobs to live on savings so they could play– well, really live in, not just play — and discover more about the world of Norrath. Not saying that is a good thing necessarily, but when is the last time you heard about people getting married or voluntarily quitting their job because of
I think the biggest difference between games today and games back then (for the most part), is that they felt more special/like experiences because
- they were the first to do something, which certainly is a giant help/advantage over games today
- didn't have to worry about a cheapened experience by being spoiled by the internet (eg: can't look-up maps, can't see what to min-max, look-up what vulnerabilities a boss has, etc.), and even if you did try to yahoo or askjeeves about the game, the information was spotty at best because it was one guy's blog and his best guess on stuff.
- were less hand-holdy and "harder", making progress and achievement feel more meaningful, as well making things seen as "easy" today (like navigating a map because you can just follow the waypoint on your compass/minimap) have a sense of achievement too because you had to navigate yourself.
I put "harder" in quotations because this doesn't necessarily mean what people thinks it means. I don't mean the difficulty in combat necessarily, or that you can die more if you weren't careful, although this was also frequently the case, but just everything in general took more thought/wasn't automatic. I already mentioned it before, but not having a mini-map or a magical map that knew your location and everything else on it made things harder, not being able to just appear in any city instantly made travel meaningful, and harder, not being able to watch TV or Netflix while you play because you'd lose character XP and have to find a way back to your body if you died, made things harder.
All of these things just come together to make a game memorable, less forgettable. I feel like you can play lots of run-of-the-mill RPGs, FPS games, whatever, and forget you even played them because they all seem so cookie-cutter from the last one. It makes me feel bad for studios today, more than anything. You have to do a lot to really stand-out and make a great game, even more so than 20 years ago I think. People have already seen juggling, now you have to juggle, play kazoo, and jump-up-and-down to stand out. Problem is, however, is its not just about juggling, kazoo, jump-up-and-down. Many games do implement all kinds of stuff and they still feel shallow. It's just an incredibly fine balance and probably something intangible that you can't quite put your finger on that elevates a game from a "play for 12 hours than forget it" to "I have lasting memories and years spent playing this game".
So, recalling my previous statement that I put in bold… EverQuest felt like an experience, not just a video game. I think that is what a lot of games are missing today, even the high-rated ones: being an experience. Hopefully we can have more devs trying to create an experience, and not just a game, and we can hopefully see more great titles (along with the ones that DO come out, not saying all games today are trash, I am not of that mindset) in the future.
EDIT: Just as further proof to my theory, look at the success of Valheim: 5 million people because the game contains that something-special and careful game crafting by its devs that makes it an experience, not just another survival crafting game.
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