I spent a good chunk of Friday night staring at my screen in EverQuest II expecting to see a racial slur, a homophobic remark, or players manipulating their avatars into sexual positions. Such things aren't unknown in other massively multiplayer online games (MMOs), but I was on EverQuest II's new "prison server," where developer Daybreak Game Company is experimenting with permanently exiling its most disruptive players rather than continuing the game's decade-long practice of outright banning them.
I expected tireless debauchery in such conditions, but I saw nothing of the sort. In fact, I saw no signs of life at all. Daybreak may speak of "Drunder," as it calls the server, as a "grand experiment," but two months in, its experience amounts to little more than solitary confinement for its unwilling test subjects. That's the worst part about being banished to Drunder. The beauty of MMOs is that they represent the whole human spectrum crammed into a virtual world, and right now, Drunder robs that from its players. Sometimes the genre doles out the good stuff, that leads to lifelong friendships and even marriages. Sometimes you stumble over the bad stuff, with avatar sex pantomimes and racist jokes about President Obama. Here, though, there's nothing but the dull pangs of repetition and empty exploration. Sartre may have been on to something when he said that hell is other people, but in an MMO, it's their absence that burns the most.
In short, Drunder is a server for assholes
I hadn't expected this, or at least the numbing extremity of it. At least on paper, Drunder doesn't sound like too bad a place. Brad Wilcox, Daybreak's vice president of player experience, tells me it's intended as a server for "odd ducks who don't get along well with others or want to stretch the rules" and a place where banished players can "play how they want to play without being intimidated or otherwise impacted by players who don't want to play that way." All of which is a pretty way of saying it's a server for assholes. In theory, prisoners sent there could build the infrastructure for a new society on their own.
"We get fewer people protesting being sent there than we get people protesting being outright banned," he says.
"Oblivion" might have been a better name for the server, though, as EverQuest II's game masters (developer controlled, cop-like characters in the game) have to exile you there for you to see it. They only do so if you've been particularly naughty. It's unlisted on the main login screen. Your whole account is stuck there once you get in. You're unable to access customer support. Daybreak's team then virtually ignores you.
On the bright side, that lack of attention also mean's it's free of any need to pay for anything and you're allowed to do anything you wish without fear of reprisal. Drunder is young, but it's not that young, and I'd gone there seeking evidence that the eternally banished were already forming guilds and making a thriving but rough community of their own without the tyranny of The Man's rules. A digital Port Royal, you might say.
Wilcox tells me Drunder "definitely doesn't have as many players as some of our other servers," but that's a bit of an understatement. I logged in no less than 20 times last week on a special account with a level 100 wizard in the hopes to chatting up one of the exiles, and never once did I find anyone to talk to in the global or high level chat channels.
What gets you there? It's a little open to interpretation on the part of the game masters, but Wilcox told me some players were banished to Drunder for abusing an exploit that essentially broke the in-game economy.
"You have the players that are just going to try it once and say, 'Ah, this is an exploit. We probably shouldn't do this.' And then you have players who'll literally do it a thousand times and really jack up the economy. Now, instead of banning the last group, we can put them on Drunder and they'll still have a good experience."
The fear of being sent to Drunder is keeping players in line. Holly Longdale, EverQuest and EverQuest II's executive producer, tells me that normal EverQuest II players now "narc on each other" and sometimes host informal votes in chat to send "some of the jerks to Drunder" as a threat. Recently, a lot of players even paid to change their in-game names, she said, because they worry their past reputations might lead to banishment on Drunder. And while she claims some people willingly ask to go there, either to help find exploits or just for the freedom to be assholes, not everyone who makes the cut takes pleasure in it. Longdale said she heard stories of players wildly protesting the "loss" of characters they spent a decade on. Others send Daybreak death threats or claim they emailed the California State Attorney General.
So where is everyone? Wilcox readily acknowledges that Daybreak is sending problematic people there—"mostly" players at or near the level cap—but he only says "more than a breadbox and less than an elephant" when I ask for numbers. I get the impression from Longdale and Wilcox that most of the players currently exiled there tend to be either botters (players who use software that automatically levels them up and farms gold), or players who abuse various loot exploits. People, in other words, who likely feel little attachment to their accounts and will readily start another. Sometimes, though, the botters reportedly stick around, doing their illicit thing with third-party programs, which Longdale and Wilcox say gives the team a chance to "reverse engineer what they're doing and try to create a fix for it."
I also can't help but feel that Drunder was empty partly because it's not hard to get back to EverQuest II proper with a new account. As Longdale herself points out, EverQuest II's "heroic" packages, which grant instant level 90 characters for around $35, even let banished users instantly rebuild their characters on new accounts.
I suspect many do, based on my lonely romps through Drunder. That, or they quit entirely. The botters may use Drunder as a practice ground, but there's no profit in it. The bullies may shy from their kin, and still other Drunderians may quit out of spite. But that's all speculation. As for me, I'll stop playing on Drunder because no other MMO experience has made me quite so aware of how spectacularly the genre fails as entertainment without the social element.
It's a world where loot goes unadmired; where the trade channels are silent. It's a world where you can easily achieve be the first player on the server to take down notorious bosses, but there's no one around to care. Without people, it's a world without purpose.