IT SHOULD COME as little surprise that the Internet has conquered the world of computer gaming. Humans remain more challenging opponents than computers, and the Internet allows people to play together regardless of time or location. Network play is almost mandatory: From the lowliest card game to the most elaborate role-playing simulation, new games must include the means of meeting your friends around the world (or in the adjacent cubicle) on the field of battle. Many games allow for both solo and networked play, but an increasing number—including some of the most popular and eagerly awaited titles—are network-only.
And as that field of gaming grows, it evolves. The latest generation of networked games is taking a cue from one of the oldest, building massive living worlds where players get more out of cooperating than fighting each other. It's a change that has taken the industry by storm.
EverQuest, from Verant/989 Studios/Sony, is currently the best and most popular of the lot. The top-selling game since its release in late spring, EverQuest (EQ to its fans) is a Dungeons-and-Dragons style role-playing game, complete with elves, ogres, and wizards. Like Quake and other so-called "first-person shooters," EQ is played from a first-person perspective, using a PC's 3D-accelerated hardware to give the environment depth and lush detail. On a sufficiently large screen, the result is a virtual environment that is beautifully rendered and seductively immersive. Unlike first-person shooters, however, EQ emphasizes cooperative play, making players allies against the world and its denizens.
Playing EverQuest is like stepping into a J. R. R. Tolkien novel—a medieval life with better dental care. The player-character roams a world of monsters and magic, slaying foul beasts and collecting piles of gold. Although a player may pursue hundreds of quests, there is no linear story line; a player is also free to simply explore.
In many respects, EverQuest recalls the MUDs—multiuser dungeons—of the Internet's pre-Web, text-only dark ages. Massively multiplayer, they allowed thousands of people to "live" in the same gaming world simultaneously, exploring, fighting, and trading together. EQ adds a graphical sheen to the MUD experience, letting you see in animated detail the giant spider you're fighting, the town you're wandering through, and all of the other players around you.
The world of EverQuest is persistent, meaning that it continues to exist and grow regardless of which players are connected at the moment. Return to an EQ game after a couple of days away and you'll find that quests have been completed, people have grown more powerful, and new elements have been added to the world. The "planet" itself is huge, with four continents and an astounding variety of environments, from icy glaciers to swamps to undersea strongholds. The combination of persistence, detail, and lush animation gives EQ a strong identity as a real place.
But it's the cooperative play that keeps people coming back. The design of the game actively encourages group interaction, and many quests and battles can be successfully resolved only through the efforts of a diverse team. And still more compelling, knowing that the people you see around you in the game world actually are people makes your actions seem somehow more meaningful. When a player rushes in to save the neck of a beginner in over his or her head, that rescuer knows that—for that moment, for that person—he really is a hero.
This is fundamental to the game. The player-as-mythic-champion is a common meme in the world of computer gaming. For solo games, however, the concept is a thin veneer, a story that's typically discarded as the player settles down to play. In a multiplayer game, the heroic aspects are far more meaningful. Your actions are visible to others, and many players have long memories. A warrior who wades into a swarm of goblins, letting injured and weakened players escape, will find herself healed and assisted later on by player-characters who remember her as the person who saved their lives.
MANY PLAYERS BRING off-EverQuest friendships into the game. This is not uncommon in networked shooter games (such as Quake, Unreal, or Team Fortress), but it takes on a different dimension in a cooperative environment. Network Quake is a capture-the-flag game with laser rifles, a diversion akin to a pick-up game of basketball. A game like EQ is emotionally richer. Ron Hayden, a writer and Ever-Quest player, put it to me this way: "Only in a game like EQ can you do it in concert with others and really have group experiences. You get together with existing friends. . . . You get to meet strangers and get to know who they are. . . . The most interesting thing about EQ is that it is true group play. Not you and one other person, but you and a group. And that's a different dynamic than most people get in real life."
Not everyone who plays EverQuest is so enamored of the cooperative aspects. EQ can be set up so that characters can fight each other—a setting known as PvP ("Player vs. Player") mode. PvP characters can coexist with co-op players, but are unable to touch them—a fact that pleases the co-op players and frustrates the PvP gamers. 989 Studios is attempting to accommodate those players by adding new Player vs. Player features and setting up entire EQ servers (separate versions of the EQ world) dedicated to PvP play, including one dedicated to team combat. Across the main EverQuest servers, however, PvP characters are greatly outnumbered by cooperative characters.
EverQuest is currently the most popular of the networked role-playing computer games, with upwards of 20,000 players connected to game servers at peak hours. Its main competitor, Ultima Online, is considered by many to have inferior graphics and gameplay, and recently suffered a scandal in which an Ultima Online employee was found to be building up characters for sale on eBay. The game is a powerful proof of concept in business terms as well: Its popularity, the overall popularity of the genre, and the economic return—EverQuest costs around $50, plus an additional $10/month for server access—strongly suggest that we will see new competitors and even more compelling gaming worlds.
Good as the game itself is, its magic lies in the shared experience. Rafe Colburn, a North Carolina-based author and EQ player, said to me recently, "Being able to log in every day and share the experience of playing the game and exploring the world with other people, to me is just the best sort of game-playing experience there is. There's nostalgia, and camaraderie, and valor, and all that other great stuff that you just can't get out of a single-player game. That's what makes EverQuest fun."