It’s a near-given that in every MMORPG, players assume the roles of heroes who are sent out to vanquish the evil, dark, or at least annoying mobs that populate the game world. There’s us on one side, and all of the critters, undead, dragons, kobolds, gelatinous cubes, harpies, gnolls, and members of Congress on the other. That line’s been drawn in the sand since the beginning of MMOs, and it is almost never crossed.
Back in the day, Sony Online Entertainment started to entertain a rather intriguing idea for its always-experimental EverQuest. What if — now hear me out — what if players could jump into the virtual skin of mobs and become the temporary antagonists of the game? This idea took form in a couple of interesting, if long-forgotten, ways. The end result was a memorable experience that should serve as a prompt for future MMOs to consider.
Today, you become the rat
While EverQuest was a strong hit right out of the gate in 1999, SOE clearly had an urge to iterate and grow the MMORPG into something greater. Over the next several years, the studio would experiment with different features and rulesets.
One of these experiments came in November 2001, when SOE announced that there would be a live event unlike anything the game had featured up to that point. Called Project M or MvP (Mob vs. Player), the studio flipped the script on how combat normally worked.
“Tonight we have patched something to the PvP servers that many players have been waiting for: the ability to play that gnoll, orc, or the cute and fuzzy rat,” SOE said. “On your character select screen you will notice another button in the upper right part of your screen called ‘Monster.’ Clicking this button will randomly place you in a low-level NPC in a random zone. You will be given full control of the creature to do with it what you like. You may hunt and kill other creatures. You may even attack other players.”
There were several restrictions that came with piloting a monster. Players couldn’t speak to anyone, trade with anyone, or cross over into new zones. What was worse is that player monsters operated under permadeath rules: Once a player mob was killed, his or her corpse could be looted and the player would be sent back to the character select screen. And while player monsters were allowed to level up, they couldn’t loot anything else. In other words, you wouldn’t see a lowly gnoll running up to you with a giant sparkly Broadsword of +5 Deathkill.
Short-lived but brilliant
One veteran player later called it “ill-thought out, short-lived, but brilliant.” The player went on to say, “People obviously abused the shit out of it, but those first few days of pure innocent fun were just incredible.”
Looking back, I can see that this was a very cool idea with a whole lot of potential for griefing. In fact, the studio expected griefing to some degree — but perhaps not to the extent that actually happened. The event, while novel, apparently caused “significant crying and butthurt” (SOE’s words, not mine) and didn’t last long on the live servers due to PvP taking place in formerly safe PvE zones.
“As a player controlling a monster, you can attack when people are AFK, when people think they’re safe,” said designer Jonathan Caraker in 2015. “It definitely made a splash. The people who were monsters were having a whole lot of fun. But the people who were being ambushed were not having so much fun.”
With far too much griefing and disruption to the status quo, SOE yanked the event shortly thereafter — before it even implemented the rewards that it was planning to create.
“Project M didn’t fit into the immersive world of EverQuest as players were expertly choosing a random NPC at character select (such as a moss snake),” the studio later said. “In addition, a small majority of players used Project M as it was intended which introduced a PvP element on PvE servers. As you can imagine, the only people who typically had fun were the cool people and even then it was a short term play-style as players never earned rewards.”
A new approach
But what players might not have known at the time was that SOE didn’t throw the MvP system in just on a whim. In fact, the studio was testing the waters to see if a new faction could be added to the game made up of player-controlled mobs.
The developers kept this idea in the back of their heads for the next few years until it came time to create the MMO’s 10th expansion, Depths of Darkhollow. For whatever reason, this was deemed the moment to bring back player monsters — but in a more controlled and guided fashion.
Instead of allowing for unfettered PvP, Depths of Darkhollow’s monster system was more of an alternative questing path. Players would take on the roles of various high-level monster mobs and go on a number of quests that were a little different than your standard player character missions.
Additionally, players could use something called “spirit shrouds” to hop into a low-level monster mob to roam around and farm low-level zones. This effectively functioned as a sidekick system that allowed players to de-level themselves and hang out with lowbie friends without risking their own XP or loot. Players could choose what level of mob (from five to 65) they’d like to play as in order to match up with a friend.
SOE felt it handled this type of system much better with the expansion, saying, “Despite the original problems, having the ability to play as a monster can be extremely fun and is something that can add an entirely new dimension to the gameplay if done correctly. I think we’ve done it correctly with Depths of Darkhollow with both monster missions and spirit shrouds.”
This more sanitized approach to monster play may have been more orderly, but it wasn’t quite the smash hit — or memory maker — that SOE wanted it to be. One player noted that the system offered “too little power” as a lowbie group replacement and wasn’t rewarding enough to play. Since its release, the feature existed without much enthusiasm or growth.
Still, the concept of player-controlled monsters is worthy of revisiting, especially by studios looking to spice up their MMOs with the unexpected. What do you think of this kind of system, and would it work in your MMO? Sound off in the comments!
Special thanks to reader Flatline4400 for prompting me with specifics about these features!