In massively multiplayer online games (MMOGs) player actions seldom matter. Although developers and publishers tout the persistent aspect of their online worlds, in reality, these worlds rarely change in any meaningful way. Enemies respawn; territories get reclaimed. It makes for a homogeneous experience, but at the same time it betrays the futility of any in-game action; why slay the monsters if they’re going to show up again tomorrow? On the rare occasion that something does change permanently, it’s usually a tightly managed affair run at the discretion of the developers.
However, once in a blue moon, a player will make a lasting mark on a game and influence the social consciousness of the entire industry. Fansy the Famous Bard is one of those people, and this is the story about how a server with no rules made an exception for one person.
You’re In Our World Now
The tale begins in EverQuest (EQ), Sony Online Entertainment’s (SOE’s) first entry into the MMOG field. EQ was the first MMOG to flirt with mass-market success, drawing in half a million subscribers when Western competitors struggled to bring in even one-fifth that.
EQ was a great experience for Fansy. For him, EQ was an opportunity to embrace the roleplaying potential of a virtual environment. He had discovered EQ through an advertisement in PC Gamer. “The picture had a bunch of characters, and one of them was a suave elf. When I saw his moustache, I knew I had to become him.” Of course, that was just the beginning of his EverQuest experience. Like many other players, he started out as a roleplayer. “I played as Blart on Rallos Zek and made some little stories called ‘Swamp Defense.’ I liked playing my troll to protect my bridge. It was a very fun time, probably the most fun I had in a game. I giggled the entire time.”
Stranger in a Strange Land
Of course, EverQuest‘s success depended on keeping players happy. Specifically, this meant finding ways to discourage unwanted behavior and isolate disruptive players. To this end, SOE created the Sullon Zek server. “It was billed as a big hardcore player-vs.-player (PvP) server, so all the trolls, cheaters and jerks from every other server came to Sullon Zek and made evil characters, because they were evil at heart! On every other server, good-aligned characters dominated.”
On Sullon Zek, players were divided into teams based on their chosen alignment: good, neutral or evil. People mostly joined the evil faction, which seemed only natural for a server with only one rule: Players were invulnerable in PvP until they reached level six. This was a carryover from the standard PvP servers, where new characters were given an opportunity to learn their way around before diving into the PvP experience. Otherwise, Sullon Zek was an anything goes, no-holds-barred experiment in unregulated gameplay, earning it a reputation as EverQuest‘s “penal colony.”
“I was kind of angry about Sullon Zek actually,” Fansy says. “All my friends on my old PvP server decided to leave and join it. I thought it was a bad idea to have ‘teams’ like Good and Evil and thought the entire server was silly. … I joined the team nobody played, with the intention of showing my friends how bad this server was. They wanted to go Evil, but when they saw what I was doing, they all joined Good. But that wasn’t my intention.”
Fansy the Famous Bard
When you throw out the rulebook, the world opens up. Blart the troll became Fansy the Bard, “because [Bards] were the best class for training, a tactic where a monster follows you and kills other people in your path.”
Of course, Fansy wasn’t just a Bard; he was a level five Bard. According to the hard-coded game mechanics, he wasn’t yet eligible for PvP combat, but monsters didn’t care about player level. In fact, the tactic of training monsters worked even better than even Fansy could have imagined. “I thought up the invulnerable exploit and planned to train low-level monsters. I didn’t know I’d be able to train a sand giant [a particularly high-level monster], until I tried it! It was glorious. I was invulnerable and could kill anyone. It was a great feeling. I giggled the entire time and rolled around in my underwear. That’s how God must feel when he kills people.”
Individually formidable, a collection of sand giants made short work of any opponents Fansy might happen upon as he sprinted across the realm. His efforts were quickly noticed. “It was all over every message board, so the highest-level guy in the game came to try and stop Fansy, but I was invulnerable, so it was just his giant train vs. mine.”
I Fought the Law and the Law Won
People began complaining to the game masters (GMs) about their inability to retaliate, but the GMs were split on the issue. “The GMs were instructed to let me do what I want. A friend who worked as a GM later told me they had lots of discussions about Fansy, and if what he’s doing is going too far against the ‘no rules’ policy. They tried to get me to stop several ways. Sometimes I’d be kiting a giant, and I’d suddenly be unable to move, or they’d spawn the giants on top of me.”
After all, Sullon Zek was supposed to be the server with no rules. The players there might have been the hardest of the hardcore, but they were still subscribers. “It was a new idea they had, the no rules. And it lasted three days.”
That’s when the rules kicked in. “They made a ‘zone disruption’ rule for me. And then they hard-coded a new rule to stop “that level five bard in Oasis.” Sullon Zek, the server with no rules, had become that much less unique. After all, rules were rules, and not everything could be hard-coded. “Regular PvP servers always had rules, tons of rules. They wouldn’t let you kill the same person more than once per day, and training anything is against the rules on any server, even the PvP ones. But those rules were nearly impossible to enforce, so I’m sure they saw Sullon Zek as a testing ground of sorts – if they could just be hands-off about PvP.”
The More Things Change …
Certainly, modern MMOG developers like Blizzard have learned a thing or two about how to manage the PvP issue. “They are very careful to not let players negatively affect other players in WoW. You can kill someone, but a death just means a couple minutes’ walk. In EQ, a PvP death could put you back anywhere from an hour to a month.” When it comes to PvP and player death, times have changed, mostly for the better. “I only PvP in WoW now – that’s the game I mostly play. Oh yeah, they get me sometimes; it’s not like EQ where I could go months without dying. People don’t get it now, because they play WoW and other games where it means nothing, but people used to get very upset about PvP. Like they’d write down names of people that killed them. It was more of a rare occurrence; you’d get killed maybe once a week on average.”
Unfortunately, SOE’s grand experiment in self-policing servers was a bust. “The server ended up a failure, at least in the eyes of the average player. It was the least-played PvP server, and unless you were on the evil team, the endgame content wasn’t to be seen.”
Despite its failure, the Sullon Zek server was an interesting experiment in separating out the hardcore PvP crowd from the regular players, a concept modern MMOG developers have embraced. “In WoW they kind of put the PvP off in a corner, like they make little instances. It’s like the bad kids’ corner. They didn’t want us mingling with the normal people, so they put us elsewhere.” On the one hand, it seems only natural to make sure everyone can have fun without interfering with each other. Then again, it’s just another example of how tightly-controlled modern MMOGs have become.
As for Fansy, he’s still at it. Sort of. “I logged in a few weeks ago; my account is still active. The bad guys must have won because everybody just kills each other! But no, I don’t play regularly anymore. If you are an old player and try to go back, everyone says, ‘lol ur old and out of touch.'”
Alan Au is a freelance writer, academic, and games industry advocate.
He is currently exploring the connection between games, education, and health. More importantly, he’s having a good time doing it.