The Game Archaeologist: The radically different design of early EverQuest II


Sometimes it’s all about timing — both good and bad — when it comes to MMORPG releases. EverQuest II may go down as the winner of the “worst timing ever” by coming out just two weeks before World of Warcraft.

As SOE’s aspiring sequel subsequently got steamrolled by its direct competition, the studio moved to make EQII much more like WoW and other contemporary MMORPGs. This meant abandoning a lot of its early design and focus, some of which would shock current players of the game who don’t have any idea how much different it used to be.

In today’s Game Archaeologist, we’ll take a look at ways EverQuest II in 2004 was a radically different beast than the title we have today.

Oh look, it's whatever.

EverQuest II was hard on computers

One overlooked factor why World of Warcraft easily grabbed so much market share is that Blizzard optimized the game to run on practically any computer players had. This stood in stark contrast to SOE’s approach, which required better machines and more modern graphics cards to really push the visuals.

EverQuest II may have boasted improved visuals over its predecessor, but the system requirements and bad optimization cut too many people off from diving into it. Some players remarked that even loading into a zone took several long minutes of waiting on a loading screen! (EverQuest II’s world wasn’t seamless but rather chunked up by zones.)

It was subscription-only

Like pretty much every other MMORPG back at the time, EverQuest II required a regular monthly subscription to access. In fact, the title held to that business model until 2011, when it switched over to a hybrid free-to-play option.

It didn’t immediately jump on board with expansions

Considering how many expansions that EverQuest II now sports, I’m gobsmacked at how SOE held back on the now-annual event. Rather, the studio initially tried to push “adventure packs” — basically, meaty paid DLC — that could be put out on a faster basis. Two of these came out in 2005, but the title soon switched over to the expansion model and largely abandoned adventure packs (it put out only two more in 2006 and 2015) from then on.

EverQuest II tried to one-up the original EverQuest

While SOE would never say so out loud, the studio definitely was banking on EverQuest II being the hot, desirable entry in the franchise that would take the popularity of EverQuest and go a lot further. A lot of its design was focused on making it more accessible and exciting than its predecessor while still drawing a lot of inspiration from 1999’s EverQuest. Ironically, its failing was not going far enough in this direction compared to the much more user-friendly WoW.

To help differentiate the game and give the team some leeway in its development, SOE marketed EQII as taking place in an alternate universe where a cataclysm caused a major change in Norrath’s history.

Unfortunately, SOE didn’t see the expected migration occur from the older to the newer MMO that it had hoped. In fact, the O.G. Norrath still remains more populated than its successor.

It tried to be more cinematic

With money being thrown at procuring big name voice actors like Christopher Lee and Heather Graham and a full-blown orchestral score, EverQuest II was crafted to be a work of impressive art. To offer a more cinematic feel, the game featured black bars at the top and bottom of the screens to simulate being in a movie and gave voice-overs to every single NPC.

The dungeons were diabolically old school

Unlike WoW’s relatively short and contained instances, EverQuest II’s dungeons built upon the older design of “bigger and more confusing is better!” Massive sprawling warrens and labyrinths awaited daring adventurers, many of whom never actually saw the end of these original dungeon spaces.

Yeah but WHY though

Advancement came slow and weird

Everybody in the game started on the Isle of Refuge, a sort of mutual jumping-off point to bigger and better things. There was the initial promise of getting so good that you’d be able to go do “pioneer quests” that would reward you with an in-game marker engraved with your name and date.

Very little was given to you for free in EverQuest II; you had to work for your content. Wanted to access certain areas? You’d have to go through long quest chains to unlock them. What about picking an advanced class? You’d have to first start with a basic archetype, hit level 10, go through quests to unlock your next class stage, then hit level 20, and finish up even more quests to finally evolve into your full profession.

And don’t get veterans started on experience debt — that death penalty that would artificially slow down your XP advancement for a certain amount of points until it was “paid off.” Better get back to grinding, son!

Another form of advancement, crafting, was insanely complex and constituted its own mini-class for players to figure out.

Grouping was still the name of the game

While EverQuest II certainly had a lot more leeway to solo, especially earlier in the game, the devs still expected players to graduate to group-centric activities by the end — including adventuring in certain zones. Happily, there was a mentoring system to allow players of different level ranges to group up.

“This is why the majority of the content in the game is centered around single-group activities that take about two hours to complete,” SOE said in a 2004 interview.┬áThere was also an odd “Heroic Opportunity” system that allowed players — particularly groups — to attempt to complete chains of attacks so that special abilities and extra buffs fired off.

Ultimately, it’s no surprise that EverQuest II didn’t quite become SOE’s biggest blockbuster; many of its tentpole features were already falling out of favor back in 2004. On the other hand, it’s still alive and still doing just fine for itself in 2022 with its 19th expansion, Renewal of Ro, on the way this fall.

Believe it or not, MMOs did exist prior to World of Warcraft! Every two weeks, The Game Archaeologist looks back at classic online games and their history to learn a thing or two about where the industry came from… and where it might be heading.
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