Strangely, theres no heavy wooden club sitting next to my breakfast companion in the booth, and he isnt dressed in scraps of animal fur. The two of us are eating at the Oasis Diner in Burlington, but at least this morning, Andy the Barbarian looks perfectly normal. His tales of doing battle alongside shadowknights and deadly confrontations with giants make it clear that we spend our respective weekends with very different crowds. But today, for my benefit, he takes a moment to reflect on good and evil; on the addicts, lovers and hustlers; and on kicking ass along his journeys through the virtual world of Everquest.
Technology has coopted the Dungeons and Dragons role-playing ritual in the cyber fantasy computer game called Everquest. Known to industry savants by the awkward acronym MMPORPG, the massively multi-player online role-playing game has drawn more than 300,000 customers into a 3D realm of fantasy, according to Sony Interactive.
Likened to a virtual expedition through the pages of a Tolkien novel, EQ allows players to adopt the personae and mystical powers of its characters in a sort of make your own video game arena. Players explore a wide-open virtual world with settings ranging from dry deserts to frozen wastelands. Towering trolls, unsightly ogres with an unusual penchant for butt-scratching and the shortest of halflings and gnomes are just a few of the creatures inhabiting the planes of Everquest. Participants enter groups called guilds to use their complementary skills to kill baddies and find new territory. The focus of the game is power and advancement to new levels, and addicted aficionados spend countless hours socializing with virtual strangers.
Andy a multi-media developer for a Vermont company in his real life has put in two years at the game since its creation a few years ago. Probably about six hours a night, just about seven days a week, he says of his playing time, flashing a guilty grin. But, seriously, I would say that is not uncommon.
What compels people to spend a third or more of their waking hours at this game? Everquest offers a world of alter-ego possibilities. Just as Andy engages in limited barbaric acts in reality, EQ players can live vicariously in this fantasy world. As one online proponent puts it, Where else in the world could a handicapped man get to live the life of a fleet-footed warrior, or a shy woman become a witty and desirable enchantress, or a minimum-wage grunt play the role of a wealthy king?
EQ does have a strongly regulated code of conduct. Offensive behavior may result in a player being banned by the in-game support staff, called gamemasters, or GMs. Employed by Everquests original creators, Verant Interactive in San Diego, GMs take on in-game personalities to respond to petitions and other dilemmas. Players can be thrown out for disruptive behavior, cheating other players out of money, repetitive foul language and other acts, explains Andy.
The free-range fantasy offered by the Everquest portal has created a strong following. We thought, if we can just get 70,000 people to buy it, and we can just keep them playing for four months, well be marginally profitable, says Verant vice president Brad McQuaid. Its gone like crazy. Everquest players pay $39.95 for the CD-ROM game, in addition to a $9.89 monthly subscription fee. The success of Everquest attracted the giant Sony Interactive, which now publishes the game.
Speaking of crazy, some of Andys accounts help explain why the game has acquired the telling monikers Evercrack and Eversmack. Countless message board threads depict newbies drawn into the cyber fantasy like moths to a flame.
People get kicked out of school, lose their jobs because they are playing all the time, says Andy. There are some people that just dont have jobs and thats what they do. They sleep about six hours a night, maybe.
Working towards new levels of skill, building strong raiding guilds and cultivating powers keep players interested and constantly interacting with each other. This can even lead to misdoing, some claim. Its such an addictive environment; its like rats in an overcrowded maze they start attacking each other, says Scott Jennings, manager of Lum the Mad, a popular gaming-news Web site. Indeed, players seem to be focusing more on advancement at a relentless pace than on role-playing, as was originally intended, according to postings on the EQ message boards.
Anything that threatens them someone who threatens their guild standing, or something as trivial as someone killing a monster they have their eyes on - thats the kind of thing that spawns this vitriol and rage, explains Jennings. Its tunnel vision, really frightening.
The intrinsic social interaction that makes EQ an engaging experience also makes it a forum for some interpersonal oddities: people finding true love, invasive posers and all the other creepy encounters that breed in the social archipelagos known as Internet chat rooms. Within Everquest, players take online spouses despite real-life commitments even holding weddings and festivals within the cyber kingdom.
Of course, as in real life, virtual appearances can be deceiving. Consider the case of Sheyla Morrison, a 19-year-old player, member of the Companion of Light guild and volunteer guide for Everquest. Described by many co-players as a sad girl with a hard life, Morrison was fired by Sony Interactive from her guide post in November 2000. The next day she committed suicide. As news of the tragedy spread, so did speculation. Fellow players and online friends came together to mourn, some trying to contact family members.
It soon became clear that Morrison had not committed suicide. In fact, she never really existed. According to a report by Sandy Brundage of Gamers.com, Morrison and her family her sister, husband and foster mother were fabrications of a couple who shared an e-mail account and lived in Oklahoma City. Apparently, the husband faked the suicide as part of a twisted plan to gain custody of his actual daughter. The man had intended to take the story to court as proof of his wifes instability, according to the Gamers.com report.
This and other similar suicide hoaxes call into question Everquests effects on people, however unintended. For some people, it is the only viable form of social interaction that they have, muses Andy. And in that way, its kind of a good thing, in kind of a sad way.
Outsiders might question another aspect of the Everquest underworld: the selling of virtual weapons and characters for real money on eBay, the online auction site. Some players are entering the 3D realm with the specific intent of making money by hoarding product and skills. EQ players may hoard treasure by repeatedly killing monsters, with the assumption that a specific, rare monster will eventually appear in that area to yield rare, magical items, or spawn. Camping the spawn with such focus on material gains is known as farming in the EQ landscape lexicon. On a given playing day, players will encounter such monsters as trolls, goblins, dragons and other typical fantasy fare. While such selfish endeavors might sound silly to the uninformed, high-level characters have brought as much as $3000 on eBay auctions.
EQs recent association with faked suicides and online hustlers has caused a great deal of sobering dialogue among the virtual gaming community. These factors and lots of delays in game play have caused Andy the Barbarian to spend less time wandering the cyber fields of Everquest. But there will always be newcomers to replace the weary. As one EQ rookie put it recently on an Everquest message board: What are you doing this weekend? I was invited to my first raid!
You can get medieval with Lum the Mad and all the other Everaddicts below. But beware of the Giant.
www.gameznet.com/eq/ the place to find listings of the uber gear youve been dreaming of
www.castersrealm.com daily news and helpful listings of all the spells in the game, as well as info on items, spell research, class-specific play strategies and even the means to set up a public profile for your character
www.eqmaps.com one of the best sources for maps to help you find your way around the world and navigate the dungeons
www.lumthemad.net coverage of news relating to the current crop of MMORPGs (EQ, Asherons Call, Ultima Online), as well as the upcoming games
www.everquest.com the official EQ site
www.eqvault.ign.com news site with active server-specific message boards
www.everquest.allakhazam.com items listings, detailed quest info, even a fashion table for what the various equipment looks like on each race