Rare today are opportunities for gamers to step outside the prescribed outlines of a developer’s intended gaming experience, especially in MMORPGs. Back in the early 2000s, anarchic players eagerly hunted down the virtual unknown, where possibility and impossibility were deadlocked within some specter of the original game.
(Originally published 8/25/2016)
The other day, I heard a piece of virtual worlds lore that brought me back to those times: On EverQuest, in November of 2003, nearly 200 players came together to defeat the apparently invincible dragon Kerafyrm, known as “the Sleeper,” against Sony Online Entertainment’s designs. The story has everything: warring factions, a tomb, an invulnerable dragon, surprising partnerships and a panicked multinational corporation; and, as of a few days ago, it would have remained relatively unknown had I not received an encrypted PGP message from the moniker “Master Control Program.”
Rallos Zek, an EverQuest server, was named for a warlord whose religion was domination of the weak. It was a player-vs.-player server on which the dead were left for dead, their bodies looted by other players. The “game” on Rallos Zek was to defeat your enemies, anywhere, at any time, by all means necessary. Out of its anarchy emerged three warring guilds, constantly battling each other in a tribal rivalry.
“It’s harder to raid content when you’re constantly fighting other players,” Jon, a former halfling druid and champion of the Wudan guild told me. Rallos Zek trudged through the EverQuest story content belatedly compared to other servers since players were so focused on defeating each other. It was Jon, 42 and from Pittsburgh, who sent me the PGP message about the Sleeper. On an innocuous website, Jon has diligently chronicled Kerafyrm’s death on Rallos Zek, alongside low-fi screenshots and blurry chat logs.
In EverQuest lore, he explained, the crystal dragon Kerafyrm was imprisoned in “The Sleeper’s Tomb,” an icy cave, because he was the child of two dragons from warring families. As the developers’ script went, when players entered the Sleeper’s Tomb and killed the dragon’s four warders, Kerafyrm would awaken. Then, he would kill everyone in sight before rampaging across the world.
Waking “the Sleeper” Kerafyrm was a one-time-only event on each server, and Rallos Zek was the last one on which Kerafyrm still slept.
Players present for the Sleeper’s awakening on all others servers were immediately demolished in one or two fell swoops. As a result, the dragon was widely believed to be invincible across EverQuest’s 400,000 subscriber base. But by the time Rallos Zek decided to wake the Sleeper, the leading guilds were immeasurably stronger than other servers’ had been when they ventured into the Sleeper’s Tomb.
“Although the guilds were killing each other all the time, we had agreed not to wake the Sleeper,” Jon remembered. It was their one pact, and not one made out of mutual respect: Once the Sleeper went on his rampage, players couldn’t farm his four warders for loot—powerful armor that protected the guilds from each other.
Really, though, all it takes to start an avalanche is one loose rock. As the story goes, a lizardman monk named Stynkfyst left the mega-guild Ascending Dawn and, with evident malice, decided to wake the Sleeper. Word got out on Rallos Zek that he would attempt it with his new guild, a collection of trollish small-fry EverQuest players called “The Curse.” It was a dishonorable quest, even by Rallos Zek’s moral code. The Curse needed to be stopped.
“The top guilds did not assemble their forces until word of Stynkfyst’s intentions had spread,” an account by EverQuest player Riduiz reads, “and it became clear that he intended to wake the Sleeper, forever preventing future guilds from farming the old loot table.” That’s when the guilds decided that they had to work together to either kill those rogue players or, if all else failed, wake the Sleeper.
Worst case scenario: Everyone dies and no one farms the warders anymore. Best case: The Sleeper drops some insane loot and Rallos Zek is celebrated across EverQuest’s servers.
“The whole area was icy,” recalled Jon. “You have to fight through the entire zone before reaching the Sleeper.” For a while, Jon described to me the giant ice-blobs and mini-dragons scattered across the blizzard zone. To even access the Sleeper’s Tomb, players had to complete a months-long quest, camping a far-flung monster until it dropped rare key. On the day the three guilds first attempted the Sleeper, a few savvy mages fought their way to the heart of the tomb, where they could teleport other party members directly to the Sleeper’s bed.
Together, the guilds defeated the four warders and, with a screech, the crystalline dragon Kerafyrm awakened. Players immediately began showering him with arrows, fists, swords and spells. At the level 65 cap, as powerful as can be, they did about three damage per hit. The Sleeper, on the other hand, doled out many thousand damage per swipe.
“It was really boring and intense at the same time,” Jon said. “I died all the time. As a druid, I could barely do anything.” Every 72 minutes, Jon would bolt into the middle of the battle and cast a damage shield that reflected the Sleeper’s attacks back at him.
“We expected to die,” Jon remembered. After all, this was the beast considered invincible by every server who had encountered him. Kerafyrm’s area-of-effect attacks would wipe out swarms of players at once with just one blow. But, at equal pace, healers were casting “resurrect” on the dead. With each passing minute, it slowly dawned on the players that their attacks were, in fact, doing damage, as long as they stayed alive. The Sleeper, it appeared, was mortal. Greedy, players were expecting some damn good loot for their trouble.
After three hours, Kerafyrm’s health was depleted to about 26%. He was going to die. And, when did, he wouldn’t go on his rampage, as he had on every other server, and trigger the rest of the storyline.
It was completely off-script. What would happen to EverQuest’s precious story?
Players soon got an answer. With only a quarter of his health left, the Sleeper suddenly disappeared.
The three guilds stood there in awe. The Sleeper didn’t die, and he didn’t fly away. They had spent three hours on what was now an empty tomb. In the process, they lost multiple levels and thousands of experience points. It defied all known EverQuest precedent—all known MMORPG precedent, even. The Sleeper had despawned without a trace.
Enraged, players flocked to in-game Customer Support GMs. Jon still has a screenshot of his chat log with the GM Zaltaran, who told him something unfathomable at the time: that the despawning orders came from the top, Sony Online Entertainment.
“The word I have is that development didn’t want the Sleeper killed. . . so the zone was repopped on orders from management,” Zaltaran explained. “What I do know,” he continued, “is that the zone was designed where the Sleeper itself was not intended to be killed.” An uproar overcame Rallos Zek that echoed across the internet.
“We felt like we’d been robbed,” Brian, a member of the Ascending Dawn guild told me 13 years later. “I think they were surprised we were winning. There was a lot of speculation.”
A few days ago, I e-mailed Daybreak Games, who took over EverQuest’s stewardship from Sony Online Entertainment. A representative was keen to tell me that, yes, SOE did despawn the Sleeper. “The SOE CS [Sony Online Entertainment customer service] team believed that players were taking advantage of either a bug or an exploit during the November 15th, 2003 Rallos Zek Sleeper raid,” he said over e-mail. “Per the CS policy regarding exploits, a customer service representative despawned the boss.”
The representative also attached the original statement disseminated to EverQuest players on November 17th, 2003:
“Over the weekend several guilds gathered on Rallos to fight with the Sleeper. Unfortunately, their encounter was cut short due to an apparent bug. . . The bug concerned an NPC in the zone that appeared to have been causing the Sleeper to not focus on the player characters. The decision was made at the time to end the event. Further investigation has only served to make it unclear if this was a real issue or not.”
In posterity, the decision to despawn the Sleeper has been painted as a cruel power move on behalf of Sony Online Entertainment. Peter Ludlow’s book The Second Life Herald tears into SOE’s unilateral ruling about the fate of the Sleeper, calling the despawning a “Deus ex machina. . . [SOE]—the god in the machine—-had come forward to save its ‘unkillable’ beast. In effect, Sony saw it was losing the game and simply took its bat and ball and went home.” Compared to how any one of contemporary EverQuest players described that moment in MMO history, Ludlow went easy on SOE. Jon thinks that SOE straight-up lied about the buggy NPC and was intimidated by players’ strength.
Players, overwhelmingly, think SOE was covering up their fear of virtual anarchy. Daybreak, however, says that they did it not out of surprise, or vindictiveness, megalomania or even fear for the fate of Rallos Zek’s storyline. They thought there was a bug. So, they respawned the beast.
On November 17th, 2003, Rallos Zek’s three governing guilds reconvened to slay the Sleeper, which Sony respawned after an apology. They would do it for real this time. Nearly 200 players collected in the Sleeper’s tomb—enough to cause major zone lag, weighing heavily on SOE’s 2003 servers. Retired EverQuest players emerged from multi-year breaks to witness the fall of the Sleeper. To ease the burden on EverQuest’s engine, the guilds convened on MSN Messenger or AIM to talk strategy. Onlookers from every other servers eagerly lurked on these chatrooms.
But four hours in, a wizard named Trylun got the sought-after Sleeper killshot. The Sleeper, EverQuest’s allegedly unkillable mob, finally died. Over 400 players congratulated Trylun. SOE even jumped in to say their congratulations, although nobody can be sure whether they were sincere.
Across the internet, MMORPG players who had heard about SOE’s brutal despawning celebrated. A brief virtual democracy (or, anarchy) had allowed the three warring guilds to get their way against the designs of SOE. The Sleeper’s death is now described as one of the top five most memorable events in MMORPG history, as well as one of the top seven dick moves in online gaming.
The question remains: Did the Sleeper, after a four-hour battle, drop any loot?
“He died. And he didn’t have anything on him,” Jon recalled with malice. “I guess it’s understandable because they didn’t expect him to be killed.”
Thirteen years after the Sleeper’s death on Rallos Zek, the story struck me. It reminds me of a time in virtual worlds when the lines between developers and players were blurrier, the realm of possibility more expansive and less governable. The outrage of players when SOE took away their prized victory, the fellowship required to pull off the kill and the shared notion of doing something hard just because it’s possible, and not because it makes you stronger, are vestiges of a virtual world I once knew and loved.
The Sleeper, now, is still alive, and asleep. He’s been reinstated on the Lockjaw progression server, an EverQuest server purposefully frozen in the past. Players, however, won’t feel the same rush when, or if, they choose to best him. They will simply get the kill, if they choose to, fully knowing that a choice was possible in the first place.