EverQuest: The first themepark

I will say this upfront so we are all on the same page, the definition of a sandbox/themepark is more opinion than science. It’s more general approach than X+Y=Z. Its shades of gray, and themeparks can have sandbox features, just like a sandbox can have themepark features. Finally, a game being X or Y does not instantly make it ‘better’ than another.

Ok that last part is a lie, sandbox > themepark. The rest is true though.

In a previous post, I described why the original premise of Ultima Online was so exciting to me, being an RPG without the content coming to an end. To me, themeparks very much have an end, even if they don’t say it as directly as a single-player RPG does.

In EQ1, if you played enough, you eventually hit the level cap, had “Best in slot” items, and had slain the toughest big-bad. Until an expansion, you were basically done. That, to me, is the key difference of the sandbox vs themepark distinction.

In contrast, while you could easily hit the skill cap in UO, your character was only ‘done’ until you decided to switch up those 700 points, something that was done somewhat frequently. Likewise, while you might have a solid collection of the ‘best’ gear, the fact that gear not only broke but could also be lost meant you could never have enough. The same goes for gold. In most themeparks X amount of gold is ‘enough’, while in something like UO/EVE/DF, more is ALWAYS better.

Continuing the ‘never done’ theme, another key sandbox characteristic is how you view the world. In a sandbox, most regions of the world retain some value, and you end up going back for one thing or another. You are never ‘done’ with a city, zone, or dungeon. In a themepark, you out-level or out-gear content, and once you are done, that’s it (for that character).

On the other hand, difficulty is NOT a characteristic of either sub-genre. EQ1 was a difficult themepark, but it was still a themepark. That mobs could kill you, that you needed to group, and the fact that it took a considerable amount of time (as compared to themeparks of today) to reach the cap does not mean EQ1 is suddenly a sandbox. You still went from zone to zone, you still out-leveled content, and, again, you eventual maxed out in levels/items. Now the fact that it took so long and was difficult is another topic, but change all mobs in WoW to elites and add an death penalty, and how different is WoW from EQ1?

Another distinction between a themepark and a sandbox is how you approach goals. In a themepark, you have ‘hard’ goals, while most goals in a sandbox are ‘soft’ goals. In EQ1, you log in to go after item X, because item X is the best item for that slot for that level range. You do it, because, well, that’s what you do. In a sandbox, you go into a dungeon to farm to get more wealth (be it general farming for gold or specific item farming because that item has high value, either for you or for others), and you then use that wealth to further progress whatever over-arching goal you or your clan have.

This goes back to that finite vs infinite content thing; in a sandbox your goals evolve based not just on your actions, but the actions of those around you. You very much live in a virtual world, and when big events happen, they matter. In a themepark, what other players are doing really has little impact on your game. The big exception here were EQ1 rare spawns, which I would call a pretty sandbox feature (and is it any surprise that current-day themeparks have removed this feature?), but by and large the distinction holds.

In many ways, a themepark is ‘simpler’ to get into, because the ultimate goals are more readily available and controlled. The EQ1 devs knew exactly how long it would take the average player to hit the level cap, or how long it would take to gear up to advance through raid content. In a sandbox, the devs don’t control when a large war breaks out, or which areas the players deem high-value (they can attempt to influence this, but it’s never an exact science). The word ‘dynamic’ is overused, but here it applies.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, sandbox vs themepark is as much a player mindset as anything else. If you are not bothered that your content might end, if a certain amount of unpredictability is not required, if a hard-set path is an attractive feature, then you don’t view a themepark as ultimately flawed.

But I do. Those things ultimately go against what I want from an MMO, which is an endless world that entertains me rather than a set amount of content to share with others. Of course, themeparks have their time and place; they are good for bursts of contained content. Show up, view the shiny lights, sit and watch the show, leave. Very un-MMO, kinda shallow, but still entertaining.

Long term though, I’ll be in the sandbox, setting up my mines.

About SynCaine

Former hardcore raider turned casual gamer.
This entry was posted in Darkfall Online, EQ2, EVE Online, MMO design, Ultima Online. Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to EverQuest: The first themepark

  1. Tipa says:

    EQ1 didn’t originally have any goals. Hitting the level cap wasn’t something the devs particularly expected anyone to do — after all, the content pretty much ran out in the late thirties/early forties until the planes were released (for levels 46+). It was fully designed to be a 3D MUD, a place for people to chat and socialize while killing stuff and collecting gear and exploring.

    EQ explicitly added the raid tool with the Planes of Power expansion — remember finally not having to use /ooc, /auc and /shout to coordinate raids? And the reason you had to do this was because people would be xping in raid zones. They’d stick big bad monsters in the same place lower levels were getting stuff done. Sometimes the raid bosses would just be roaming the zones, looking for players to eat. Not on the edges like WoW’s open world roamers (who, iirc, weren’t initially aggro and also you could run from), but like Gorenaire and others, actively making you regret damaging your dragon faction. Anyway, all raid bosses up to Gates of Discord, once killed, were killed for everyone. Talk about stuff to fight over.

    On the PvP servers, at least Tallon and Vallon Zek, factions could take control of whole zones. Trying to figure out which zones were safe to travel through TODAY was murder. Literally.

    UO, EQ, AC and arguably DAoC were MMOs developed before catagories existed. It’s only the next stage of MMOs that had the vantage point to look back and see, from all that had gone before, upon what philosophies to base their game. UO was based on little tile-based RPGs. EQ was based on MUDs. The only real way they were connected is they were both multiplayer and real-time. Neither intended from the start to provide anything more than a fun virtual world of adventure. So in that respect, in that philosophy, they are the same.

    Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s. WoW originated the theme park, and its popularity forced that model everywhere else. Including, ultimately, EQ.

    • SynCaine says:

      My knowledge of the details of EQ are limited to 3rd parties, but that said, the basic setup is still very… different from UO. I just can’t image that, pre-release, the UO and EQ1 devs had the same goals/ideas for their players. They just seem like totally different games.

      Granted, perhaps that’s because UO had natural PvP and did not feature zones/levels, but I’m having a tough time accepting those as the core differences.

      Good info though, thanks Tips!

      • bhagpuss says:

        Tipa has covered some of the things I wanted to say, and your reply explains a lot. I asked you in my comment on your earlier post if you’d ever actually played EQ back in the 1999-2004 Golden Age, because most of your commentary on it bears almost no resemblance to the game I was playing then.

        The rather aimless, rambling way that I describe playing MMOs even now was, at least among the friends I played with back then and in the guilds I was in for the first five years, pretty much the norm. We didn’t have any plans on where to go or what to do most days. We didn’t know what gear we should get or where we should get it.

        If we were in a theme park, it was one with no signs, no lines, no catering, no uniformed employees and no rides. Most sessions would begin with someone asking in guild or chat if anyone was doing anything that needed some help, and from there it would roll up into some kind of half-assed adventure where we all travelled through dangerous territory that none of us had maps for, trying to find places or things whose names or descriptions someone had vaguely heard of, for reasons that were ill-understood by any of us.

        We’d get lost, get into trouble, have to run away from enormously powerful creatures we bumped into while roaming areas where we’d thought we were quite powerful. Everything was about exploring, discovering and overcoming the inherent dangers of the very convincing virtual world in which our characters lived. There was no plot, no “right” or “wrong” way to play and there was a lot of humor and character-play (which is different from, and in my opinion far superior to, role-play).

        I’ve played a lot of MMOs now, but there’s never been one like pre-Planes of Power EQ for pure, unadulterated exploring gameplay. It may be a theme park now, but it was nothing like one then.

        • Beerhead says:

          Beautiful summary of EQ back in the day and makes me really sad that there will probably never be an experience like that again, for me at least.

      • Tipa says:

        Ah, you never played the original EQ. You just assumed it was WoW 0.5, because WoW was derived from it.

        First time I played WoW, in beta, I thought it was 1000% better than EQ. I quit EQ immediately and just played WoW all through beta. When WoW beta was done and the game prepared to get released, I had burned out on it, went back to EQ, and didn’t touch WoW again for almost a year.

        When I returned, I played it about three months, long enough to raid Molten Core a few times, kill Onyxia, make a pass through all the high level dungeons, level a couple of alts, start a guild on the Alliance side and level another alt, got burned out and left. Yeah, WoW just pushed so much accomplishment at me at once, I had no time to appreciate anything.

        The continual overstimulation is one of the things I can’t take about WoW. WoW then and now is nothing like old EQ.

        • SynCaine says:

          Naw, I was talking to people who were playing EQ1 back in 99 (my best friend left UO to play it, and I would watch him play often), so the opinion is not formed post-WoW.

          And really, what you and other EQ1 people are talking about has little to do with the mechanics of the game back then, but rather the player culture. It’s kinda like UO in 97, most people playing were not min/maxing 7xGM builds, but that was mainly due to the fact that something like Dr. Twister was not nearly as popular as a site like EJ today. Same ruleset, just less knowledgeable players.

          Point is, just because people did not know about BiS items in 99, does not mean the core game design did not had them, along with a lvl cap and lvl-based zones. That EQ1 players were trying to play the game like a sandbox is interesting, but ultimately the mechanics are what they are.

        • Shadow says:

          I think you’re all spinning around a concensus here. The mechanics were what they were, because there was scant little to based them off of. Like Tipa said, EQ was heavily based off MUDs (especially the DIKU style, level game).

          To be fair, most MUDs would be considered sandboxes still, because of the scope and intent of the game. Players don’t jump into a games with the goal of “max-level-end-game-or-bust”, and that outlook probably came as a surprise to Verant as EQ1 progressed.

          So, while we look back now, and point to the design and say there were a lot of themepark elements, or the seeds of them that we know of today as themepark, there were also veins of the sandbox in it, which is in large part determined by the way the player-base approaches the game.

          Either way you slice it, I think it’s an interesting look at the interaction between developer intent and player consumption/behavior.

  2. Ben says:

    How is Rift holding your attention, given the above? I’m finding myself less inclined to login every day.

    • SynCaine says:

      When I’m online and with the guild, it’s entertaining-enough. When I’m not logged in, it feels terribly shallow and kinda pointless, but that’s how I feel about every themepark really, which is one of the major issues I have with them.

      Improving my character in Rift feels pointless, getting skill points in DarkFall has value.

  3. Y||B says:

    I remember camping rune drops in Shadowbane, and hunting for the best items, so I think the difference between themepark and sandbox on the item front is negligible … maybe the itemisation is a bit weaker and less diverse in a sandbox.

    And I soooo hated the EQ rare spawns … you could wait for literary days, sometimes weeks for them to spawn … they sucked and were awful. And yes, you needed them for some epics, so dozens of people camped them …. we had a freaking waiting list going for months in advance.

    Btw, the levelling speed in EQ1 actually increased to almost WoW levels with Lost Dungeons of Norrath, so you could be level 40 within a month. Powerleveling was also rampant, just to refresh peoples memories … people paid and begged for the high-level buffs that made them basically invulnerable and removed any resting from the game.

    • Rammstein says:

      I wouldn’t call Shadowbane a sandbox. Shadowbane was the short slide next to the sandbox, where you quickly realize the only fun thing to do is play king of the mountain and throw other kids off of it until someone gets a concussion. That’s why that game failed, see? too many concussions.

  4. Anonymous says:

    “Another distinction between a themepark and a sandbox is how you approach goals. In a themepark, you have ‘hard’ goals, while most goals in a sandbox are ‘soft’ goals. In EQ1, you log in to go after item X, because item X is the best item for that slot for that level range. You do it, because, well, that’s what you do. In a sandbox, you go into a dungeon to farm to get more wealth (be it general farming for gold or specific item farming because that item has high value, either for you or for others), and you then use that wealth to further progress whatever over-arching goal you or your clan have.”

    Agree with a lot of what Tipa and Bhag say, but wanted to specifically mention this re: your paragraph above: I spent far more time farming items in EQ than i ever did going after a specific item in a dungeon for myself. One of my favorite things about that game was the incredibly busy trading aspect because in the beginning nothing was bound. I loved just hanging out at times in the East Commons tunnel trading items i had accumulated in my travels but couldn’t use (or sometimes things i could use) for better items i could use.

    My favorite trade: A fungi tunic for a shattered emerald of corruption to finish of my epic quest and get the second ranger blade Earthcaller. (actually that SEOC was a “bound” item, but you could still multi-quest with someone who had one and end up getting the blade…a “work-around” i know but one that worked out pretty well ;)

    • Jason S says:

      On Veeshan we used NFP as our trading town, and I have got to say while my friends were off leveling, I found the majority of my fun bartering for gear. By level 20 I had a SSoY, Mithril BP, and much more on my bard. To me, buying and selling was the game within the game of EQ1 that never really got the credit it deserved. Once AH’s came to be in Luclin (even if you had to remain logged on) my gaming experience became dull and eventually led to the beginning of the end for my time in EQ1. All I had left to do was level up and eventually raid (which I reluctantly did) after the AH’s were introduced. While I still found enjoyment in the game, it felt as if a large portion of the games “soul” had been removed.

      It’s a bold claim but I tend to argue that the implementation of AH’s in MMOs was the start of a journey down a path to Themepark gaming. This is not to say I think AH’s are all bad, of course. However, without P2P interaction in our games, people became more goal (level) oriented and encouraged down Path A over everything else.

      Anyone remember betting the /roll or /die with someone? This type of player ingenuity seemingly died along with player interaction during Luclin.

  5. Adding on to some of the comments above.

    Day one EQ was a MUD (TorilMUD in many way, right down to equipment stats) with 3D graphics. The devs viewed it that way and people played it in very much the same way. A classic case of people making the game they wanted to play.

    There was no guiding you through, the zones had insane level ranges (West Karana is good for levels 4-35), no goals really except maybe level up, and you most certainly could lose your gear… all of it if you died and couldn’t recover your corpse. If that didn’t happen to you at least once, you were not really playing.

    EQ became a theme park. (DAoC actually influenced the easing of the hardcore nature of EQ.) It certainly is a theme park today, in something of the rickety traveling carnival sense. And your model fits, or starts to fit a few expansions into the life of the game. But DAoC might fight it for the “first” title at that point.

    But to apply to the day 1 game, your definition would have to apply to Diku based MUDs as well, and thus the first theme park would not be EQ.

  6. MMO Tomb says:

    I really never hit that cap in EverQuest where I’d go “Wow, I’ve done it all!” I challenge anyone who really made it to that point at anytime during EverQuest. Maybe there is someone out there who really finished all EQ’s content at some time for a short periods of days but the chances that he will read my comment is slim.

    Maybe that was possible in Vanilla EQ but definitely not possible during Kunark because Velious just was released in less than a year? and Kunark had the Veeshan Temple released in between expansions if I can recall correctly. Anyone with such spare time to get their epic quest + all hardcore loot from group dungeons or raid encounters + master all crafting skills + getting all clickies in the game that he can use …etc.

    Even if all that was done, the poor lifeless soul can always roll a new character.

    I don’t care for the game if it was labeled as Sandbox or Themepark as long as it’s done right. But to be honest I can’t stand the current “Themepark” games like WoW, Rift and the like. I just can’t digest the solo-quest-grind concept or the itemization sytem.

    Sandbox and Themepark is an illusion. An MMORPG is a mixture of game mechanics that all together would result in a unique experience. The question is how are you going to design your MMORPG? An extreme Sandbox is too empty and an extreme themepark is too restricting. But you don’t have to be Black or White or even Grey, there are an abundant other color options and too many shades of the same color that you can use all to paint your pictur and design a good MMORPG that we can enjoy.

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