When Everquest released in 1999, it ushered in a new era of video game play. Previous online games (most notably Neverwinter Nights) built on foundations of tabletop roleplaying games like Dungeons & Dragons, which itself built on a rich tradition of heroic fantasy literature: powerful warriors, loveable rogues, enigmatic wizards, and wise sages able to heal wounds and answer the mysteries of the universe.
As a fan of all of the above, I’ve spent a lot of years playing games, reading books, and really looking at what makes them all work. Once we stop playing “pretend” as children, most of us leave behind unstructured, free-form play in favor of games with strict rules. Whether it’s roll twice on doubles or bishops only move diagonally, games with rules give us two very important evolutions in fun: First they define themselves as “the game that does X.” Second, they allow the players to distinguish themselves by their achievements and, more importantly, to win.
Which brings us back to Everquest (no, really, it does!). There is really no way to win a roleplaying game, but there are many small victories one can enjoy like hitting max level, having the best items, or even being the first person to complete a difficult quest or encounter. But a side benefit is “having the best character.” And this is where Everquest really took the ball and ran with it.
Tabletop roleplaying gamers are obsessed with their characters. I certainly am, and I’ve transferred that passion to all the video games I’ve ever played. Squeezing out one more percentage point of advantage regardless of the cost is a victory non-gamers can never understand (unless they are professional athletes). Everquest shipped with fourteen different ways to obsess, and also re-introduced the concept of “the Trinity.”
Groups that had a strong front-line fighter, a dedicated healer, and efficient damage dealers were more successful than those that did not. In EQ, players had several classes to choose from in each role, all with different abilities and ways to “win.”
Fast forward a decade to the introduction of World of Warcraft’s dungeon finder. The “unofficial” roles gamers had known throughout five years of playing WOW were now “real,” and in fact required to use the system. Not every class can queue up as a tank, but those that can have near unlimited access to group content. Healers are in even more demand, and just like that, builds that were impossible to level up became viable playstyles.