Everquest, it appears, still has a thing or two to teach us about online worlds. It has begun the process of, if not dying, then at least no longer growing. New games such as EQ2, World of Warcraft, and others have taken significant chunks of the player-base away from Norrath. New technologies make EQ1 look tired, and dated. Even with the new graphic updates, people’s avatars still look old, the community is tired, and somewhat jaded, compared to the original sense of wonder that I remember on my first run from Freeport to Qeynos (the name of which is an inside joke from the original development at 989 studios, the likes of which don’t seem to appear anymore).
So with all that, you get the sense that perhaps people aren’t as invested in their digital personas as they once were. But then something happens that awakens the tiger, that releases the pent up angst of people that have long since seemed to lie still.
Sony is merging the servers together, and the social lessons are.. shall we say, unexpected in their intensity…
For every 2 commercial servers in production, the player-base of one will be moved to the other. So people have more other people to play with. Seems like a good thing, no? You cannot possibly imagine the bru-ha-ha. As an officer in a major guild, I’ve gotten emails and IMs from people I haven’t seen in years. Years. “How can they do this?” “I paid my accounts, what the hell is going on?!?” “Hey, can you talk to Sony, get to a FanFaire, something, make them stop this sh*t!”
And, upon reflection, I realize that I have been going through some classic depression the last couple of days. I certainly don’t play EQ with near the regularity or intensity that I once did, but I have a toon and I love her. My server is being merged with another and we (my server) will take the name of the other server (or, to my mind, “the enemy”). So why am I thinking of them as an enemy? That Sony is destroying something? The servers are all identical – a copy of the world is, after all, a perfect digital copy. You bring all your toons, your gear, your guild, etc.
Well allow me to break it down:
1) My server had history. We had events that mattered to us, that happened on OUR server. That server began on Day 1 of commercial release. And when we move, despite taking our entire guild and all of our artifacts with us, it will not be OUR server. It will have a different NAME. Events that happened on OUR server will be unknown on this new server by its other inhabitants. We lose our collective memory. While we won’t be n00bs, the culture will shift – possibly radically – from what we have grown ourselves.
2) I have history. I know everyone on my server that plays on Eastern Standard Time. Everyone. I’ve been there for five years, after all. They all know me. I have reputation, they have history, we have a shared collective experience such that I am very in tune with the entire social fabric of that world. That all goes out the window – we will now be surrounded not by a slow stream of new people as players pick up the game or travel from server to server, but by a hoarde of players that are experience the same sense of fear and isolationism that folks from my world are. In the immortal words of one poster on a message board “They didn’t ask for this. We didn’t ask for this. I suppose we could make this work, socially, but really a bunch of people are just going to quit instead.” How telling, perhaps, that a game that was once based on creating a social network has evolved to a closed-end system, where new faces are no longer welcomed.
4) They Get the Name. MY server is LOSING its name, we are moving onto THEIR server. This is probably the easiest to fix of all of them, why they kept any of the original names is beyond me. What this means, socially, to the players, is that we are entering THEIR world – we aren’t merging, it is we who are ‘moving’. As someone put it on a different message board: “Welcome to OUR sandbox, hope you like it, but if you don’t, then too bad for you.” Think upon what your reaction would be to that, after working hard as leadership on the first, now decimated, server.
3) Limited Resources Make for Bad Neighbors. There are a set number of encounters in the world of EQ. Worse, there are a set number of encounters at any given level. By merging the populations for these servers, guilds will once again be in competition for certain encounters that are bottlenecks to game progression. When one guild is doing the encounter, another cannot. Sony has tried to alleviate some of this by instancing the encounter per-guild, but it has never totally worked. Guilds on my server haven’t faced competition for targets for years, and most other servers work the same way. But when you start sticking us together, without more targets, it’s a recipe for disaster. It is, in fact, a classic definition for war: two or more groups that are socially alienated (and already exhibit slightly hostile tendencies towards one another) that are placed in competition for the same limited resource. Do the math.
So the old-timers are pouring out of the woodwork, to bleed upon message boards and guild IRC channels, logging in for that “last look around” their once-beloved home. We’re planning ‘last hurrah’ events and parties in a fatalistic atmosphere, for tomorrow we march to war against the unknown. We’ve already started creating spies and moles on the new server, trolling their message systems, monitoring their targets and raid times. A guild has been reduced, as it was during the EQ2 launch, to a single self-defining goal: survival. The social fabric of the game, in contrast to the intention of getting more people together, is suddenly driving people very far apart.
In no uncertain terms, we have been reminded that our virtual characters are, at one level, merely records in a database, to be merged with others when the number of records can be contained within a single machine. It feels cheap, to have the totality of the EQ experience reduced to a single record. As a lesson to future game designers: players do not enjoy a reminder that their characters aren’t real.
So as the email rolls in today, as the message boards breathe with a life they have not felt in years, and as I see people I have not seen in ages stand up and take stock of Norrath one final time, crying virtual tears on virtual faces, I come here, to comment on the oddity that is social interaction in gaming, and perhaps on how games can still teach us so very much about ourselves.