There was a brief window in MMO history when game designers were pushing the envelope with difficulty. Everquest, this week enjoying its 20th anniversary, was symbolic of this time — before the genre’s reputation for unhealthy practices pushed it in a more accessible direction. A period when designers experimented with brutal difficulty without regard for a player’s time, and masochistic alliances accepted the challenge in the name of online fame.
MMOs have come a long way. From the text-based universes of MUDs, to 3D animations representing those text commands, to the full-on action mechanics of games like TERA Online. But even the most grindy, difficult MMOs of modern times don’t come close to this particular era of raid badassery.
We speak of the Planes — a series of endgame raids that Everquest would later change so players who didn’t fall into the category of the hardest of the hardcore could actually experience it.
Of course, after 25 expansions, the level cap is so high that the Planes are now soloable. But Everquest’s early days sported an endgame so brutal that players today can only shake their head and think, “I went through that crap before they made MMOs easy.”
The Plane of Hate
While other painfully hard Planes exist (Plane of War, Plane of Air, etc) we’re focusing on the Plane of Hate. It had the perfect mix of designed difficulty, technical challenges, and human stamina requirements.
Guilds starting to raid the Plane of Hate would need to prepare for marathon sessions, sometimes even preparing sleeping shifts. A 24-hour experience wasn’t unheard of.
Everquest chose this raid to give players a chance to fight one of the literal gods of its universe. Final boss Innoruuk, AKA the Prince of Hate, AKA the Father of Vengeance, AKA “Inny,” is the source of much scheming and misery throughout Norrath.
Getting Inside: The Main Challenge
The mark of a skilled guild at the time was whether or not it could establish a beachhead inside the Plane of Hate. While theoretically it took minutes to portal everyone inside, it could take hours to achieve a stable situation.
That’s because as soon as anyone entered, a horde of Innoruuk’s minions would come running as if someone had sounded the Horn of Gondor.
Everyone needed to have a special invisibility effect (only one of the game’s many invisibility effects would make a difference) just to avoid agroing everything in the Plane. There were also patrols walking through the Plane with dogs — having one of those near you while entering would alert everyone nearby, causing a certain wipe. It was just a matter of luck.
Guilds would send their crack team of entry parties full of crowd control to manage the agro while more players were portalled in, and handful at a time.
If the stars of luck and skill aligned and you managed to clear a safe space for everyone to portal in, the first main challenge was done. But you’d have a few more immediate priorities in terms of minibosses and patrols.
At this stage of the game – before harder challenges were introduced – merely getting in and taking on a couple of minibosses was a serious accomplishment. Needless to say, many guilds didn’t get that far — and failure in the Plane of Hate was costly…
A Word on Death
It’s worth taking a moment to remember that back in the day, dying majorly sucked. If World of Warcraft was your first MMO, you were spared a particularly punitive period in RPG-land when death held actual consequence.
The penalty for death changed a few times over the course of Everquest. In the heyday of the Plane of Hate, you could instantly lose a level on your character. It would also mean losing all of the gear and held items unless you could get back to your corpse within a certain amount of time.
Sort of like reaching your bloodstain in Dark Souls, except you’d be losing thousands of hours’ worth of gear collecting. And since you didn’t have your gear, you’d have to do the corpse run naked or with “backup” gear. Without the defence benefits of your main gear, you wouldn’t be able to tank hits on the way to your corpse.
That, plus the fact that you couldn’t enter the Plane of Hate without a wizard casting the Alter Plane: Hate spell for you, made failures on this raid very costly.
The Final Boss
Climbing the tower to reach Innoruuk had an additional level of difficulty which may or may not have been intentional. Throughout the whole raid, guilds would have to be careful and crafty with their pulls, often deploying combinations of tricky abilities to take one or two enemies on at a time.
But the dark elves in the Plane of Hate could actually see through walls and floors, even if players couldn’t. That meant being extremely careful of any possible patrol path that could have been on the other side of a wall or ceiling.
When climbing the tower, players would have to make sure they weren’t slightly standing on a ramp, else risk pulling the entire floor above.
The entire raid needed to be cleared before attacking the Father of Vengeance, otherwise they’d all come a-runnin’.
Once engaged, Innoruuk had a few nasty tricks up his sleeve. Most notable is his area-of-effect knockback which can negate the agro a tank or pet has been building on him.
After killing a level 70 Innoruuk, you learn that was the “fake” Innoruuk, and a level 75 version appears. He spawns more minions during the fight, and a miniboss-level Evangelist of Hate will join in.
Hopefully you cleared the area fast enough, because Innoruuk’s army will start respawning behind you otherwise. If you tried to pause the fight with the main boss to take care of smaller foes, you’d need to be aware that Inny can despawn after 10 minutes. A very relevant fact in the pre-nerf days, when it took some guilds around four and a half hours to finish just the boss fight.
It Won’t Be That Hard Again
If you were able to down Inny, you’d collect three new pieces of loot, which the guild would divide among its members however it sees fit.
At the time, it looked like this was the direction MMO endgame battles were heading. The Planes were as hard as it got, and things had been getting harder. Many of these guilds were the first to topple challenges of this kind. But later they’d find out they’d be the ONLY ones to topple them, due to the genre’s subsequent pivot towards accessibility.
World of Warcraft is given most of the credit for that accessibility, rightfully so. But even within the span of Everquest’s heyday, difficulty was dialled back so more people could enjoy these challenges.
The genre, and indeed gaming as a whole, will probably never be that hard again — for multiple reasons. Not only would most players not even see that content, but there was a certain amount of technical problems people were willing to endure because Everquest was a pioneer in this space.
Mostly, encounters designed for longer than a few hours are seen as not only bad game design, but unhealthy. The MMO space had acquired a reputation for encouraging unhealthy play sessions, and aside from some of the more grindy Korean MMOs, we’ve largely moved away from that.
But we still remember the Planes. And the Plane of Hate, with all its broken brutality, will be an example of a particular moment in time when MMOs were really, painfully hard.