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Chatting with EverQuest's lead designer for EQ's Ninth Anniversary

Michael Zenke

Sunday is EverQuest's ninth anniversary, and in honor of the event the development team is rolling out the annual 'Fabled' content! The Fabled event takes high level content from the days of yore and makes it once again relevant for today's players. It features great loot, full-on nostalgia, and a fantastic reason to celebrate almost a full decade of MMO greatness.

We have our own way of celebrating great events like this, and it lead us to speak with Mr. Travis McGeathy, the lead designer on SOE's classic title. We had the chance to talk with him about this year's addition to the Fabled event - the mighty Planes of Power. We look back over the last few expansions to EverQuest, and talk (a little bit) about the next expansion due to hit the world of Norrath. In his words, what they're work on right now "may shock people a little bit". Want to know more? Check out our full interview with the lead designer on this increasingly venerable game below the cut.

Gallery: EverQuest: Secrets of Faydwer | 23 Photos

Massively: Thank you for speaking with us today Mr. McGeathy. The ninth anniversary for EverQuest is actually this Sunday, the 16th – correct?

Travis McGeathy: That's correct, yes.

Broadly, we know that there are a few things that happen every year around the anniversary. Do you want to talk about that?

T: How much do you know about it?

Well, you're moving through the different expansions, turning the content into a 'Fabled' version for a limited amount of time, right?

T: That's right. We started with the 5th anniversary of EQ with the original EverQuest content, and we move through each expansion that follows every year. So we did Kunark after that, then Velious, Luclin, and now Planes of Power for this year. 'Fabled' is basically our term for what we think of as planned nostalgia in EverQuest. Basically we take the content from each expansion, in this case Planes of Power – which came out five years ago – and we are sort of upgrading them to be relative in difficulty now to what they were back then.

We want to challenge players, so they'll go back and experience this old content again. We want to remember them tackling epic difficulty level while getting rewards that are good for todays content as opposed to five years ago. PoP had a lot of really memorable raid encounters, a lot of stories that players are really looking forward to. Things like Rallos Zek, which took forever to beat. So we make them Fabled and now players will be able to go back and experience that with a raid guild today – to get a challenge out of it and some good rewards as well.

We were told that you folks were somewhat worried about Planes of Power, that there might have been some difficulty making that into fabled content?

T: Exactly. Planes of Power was when EverQuest introduced scripting – the first scripted encounters raised the complexity of raids, improving what was available through simple call and response mechanisms, which was all there was in the old game. We weren't sure if we were going to be able to do Fabled with that. Fabled is also a scripted method of upgrading the content. So we spent some time earlier this year evaluating the NPCs we thought we'd want to see with this, to see if it was feasible, and fortunately it turned out it was. It took a bit longer than it has for past events, but the end result is really good. We're really pleased with how it came out.

What's your favorite encounter in Planes of Power?

T: Rallos Zek, definitely. It was particularly memorable for me, it was just a huge event for my guild at the time. Just getting past him was pure elations. Having the chance to go back and encounter that again as an equivalent challenge for the guild now is going to be great. I know there are a lot of players really excited about Fabled Plane of Time. That's one we see coming up on the boards over and over again, but me personally I like Rallos Zek better.

The loot then, for the Fabled encounters – where in the current raid progression does that fall?

T: If you look at the upgraded stuff, we kind of examined where players are right now in the game, for Secrets of Faydwer. SoF has four different tiers of content, and so we kind of judged the difficulty between the encounters back then vs. the power of players back then and kind of mapped that onto the Secrets of Faydwer content. So Plane of Time back then was kind of the ultimate encounter; you had to get through everything else to get to it. That ends up being the highest end content, the tier four content. With Fabled we actually tend to go a little bit easier, since it is a once-a-year thing. In reality it ends up being a little bit easier than tier four content but it gives tier-four equivalent rewards. The same thing as you go down, Xanamech in the Plane of Innovation is more like a tier one or tier two encounter, with loot around that area.

EverQuest has been running for quite some time, comparatively. How long have you been on the project?

T: I've been with the team for five years now.

When you began working with the team, did you think you'd be seeing the game up to this point?

T: I don't think I ever thought that far ahead. I was just very excited to work on EQ at the time. I came in halfway through the development of Lost Dungeons of Norrath. I was just a designer, really excited to be working on the product at the time. I didn't become lead until three years ago, and at that point it was obvious that EQ would be going strong for a very long time. It's not too surprising to be here.

And you were a player before you began working with SOE, right?

T: Yeah, I've been playing since the launch of the game.

Looking back across the game's lifetime, how do you think the game is doing right now? A lot of people sort of have 'rose colored glasses' when they look back at the early days of EQ. How healthy do you see it being compared to how it was in the past?

T: I don't think EQ would do very well if it was released in its original state today; our challenge is to keep it modern, while maintaining the EverQuest 'feel'. That's a really fine line to walk and sometimes we end up on the wrong side of that line. It's something very important in order to keep the game going strong. The game is very much still going strong, with many thousands of players. Being one of the top games at SOE nine years after launch – it's a testament to our ability to keep the world up to date.

When you talk about 'stepping over the line', can you give us an example of something that didn't quite go the way you were looking for?

T: Recent past is pretty good, the one example that really jumps out, one where we went a little bit over the line but we were able to pull ourselves back; a few years ago we decided to overhaul the melee system, and introduce a more dynamic method of combat. EQ features auto-attack and skills, and modern games tend to get you more involved in the combat. We started to go down that road, and we introduced a system where NPCs had 'openings', where you had to time your attacks properly. The system itself was fine, but it just wasn't what the players were expecting from EQ. We got too far away from what EQ is. Players are used to auto-attacking and using skills, they're attached to that style of gameplay, and the new melee style was very negatively received. We pulled it before it went live. There was a lot of work wasted on that, from our standpoint. It never went out, there was no harm done by it, but that's what I'm talking about. We ended up on the wrong side of the line on that one. In trying to modernize the game we sort of lost what players liked about it.

So one of the lessons you've been having to learn is what makes up the core EQ experience, and what can be added or subtracted to change the feel, the flavor of the game?

T: Exactly. It's not always obvious. People like to sit there with auto-attack on, and they want to chat with their friends, or watch TV. As a game designer that wasn't incredibly obvious at the start. We thought "hey, we want to make them more engaged in the combat." Make it more interesting, make it more challenging, and when you get that kind of backlash you have to step back. The design element is sound, but since this is EQ we're messing with there are a lot of legacy components we have to keep in mind.

One of the more successful ones we added was the out-of-combat changes we made. Last year, the year before, we took at look at the amount of downtime. As it's grown, the amount of time you'd spend out of combat was getting ridiculous. It was to the point where to regenerate endurance from zero to full was taking upwards of half an hour. That's just not fun. The gameplay is the encounters themselves, and the downtime is just making time between them. Half an hour of downtime between encounters is just really unhealthy. We had to find a way to reduce that, so we decided to develop a concept of out-of-combat. A lot of these encounters were based around the idea of you go and use this ability so often and then you have to regenerate. We ended up throwing an entire system into the game just to determine if you were in or out of combat – something EQ didn't have any concept of before. Based off of that and the encounters you've just been in we move you to a heightened regeneration state as time passes. It was tricky, but we were able to pull it off. We've gotten a lot of great feedback for the game from that.

Looking at the last few expansions, Serpent's Spine jumps out as being sort of a different animal than other expansions you've done. Did you want to talk for a moment about lessons learned with that expansion, and what you took away from that moving forward?

T: Well, Serpent's Spine was pretty much my baby. I absolutely love that expansion. In a way we started working on that project in a way different from all the other expansions. We were looking at the newbie experience for EQ, and we decided that we needed a revamp of that entire process. Serpent's Spine was our way of doing that, of putting our best foot forward. Content that's been designed with the new graphics engine uses these systems that are really engaging, that keep them on a track as long as they want to ... we really made it as enticing to new players as we could. Looking back at the old game we didn't have the tools in place at the time to do anything like that. When you look back at the old world, at that kind of experience, it's a lot more difficult to do than putting out a regular expansion. So we focused Serpent's Spine on that idea.

Even that said, new players coming in weren't really the target of that expansion – it was the current players. We looked at the static content, at what we had there, and at the instanced stuff. That's one of the interesting things about the low-end content, most of it is static stuff. That was also before our new expansion cycle. At that point we were doing two expansions a year, one on a seven month cycle one on a five-month cycle. Serpent's Spine was a long-cycle one, followed by the Buried Sea; short-cycle expansions were always content focused on just our high-end players. The focus is different there.

Moving on to Secrets of Faydwer- that was when you moved to the longer cycles yet for expansions. You're doing just one expansion a year now, correct?

T: That one wasn't a full year quite, we had about nine months. The focus on that one was a little different. With a longer expansion cycle we had the freedom to do upgrades for players. It's something we have to think about with items. If we upgrade equipment every expansion cycle we feel like we're just on a treadmill. Every time an expansion comes out instead of it being elated about it, they view it as "oh now we have to get every item all over again." Instead of being forced to upgrade all the time we were staggering it, but still keeping some incentive there. Unfortunately the small upgrades weren't that rewarding. So with Faydwer it was going to be the first expansion where there was going to be a year until the next big content update.

With Secrets of Faydwer we divided up the high end content into four tiers, each of them being a good level of difficulty above the one before it. Rewards are scaled for that difficulty. Through these tiers players are seeing significant advancement, and it allows them to have sort of four expansions in one. You're going through tiers to get to the next tier, gearing to fight the guys on the next tier, to get to the end. That was the focus we had on Secrets of Faydwer.

Serpent's Spine, we think, has sort of taken care of the low-end content. At the very least they're not really the ones that are looking to buy expansions, that's more the high-end player looking for something to do. So Serpent's Spine has covered (pretty well, I think) new players coming in. Faydwer was all about giving to the high-end guys and the people looking for new content, new things to do, exciting rewards, things like that.

Obviously you can't talk about the next expansion in specifics, but would you be willing to talk about some of the high-level concepts you've taken from the last three expansions? What are you thinking about in general terms for the fifteenth expansion?

T: I'm trying to think about what I can talk about. We've been working on it for quite a while, and we're about halfway through creation of content already at this point. I think people are going to be a little shocked by this one, it's pretty interesting. We're doing some stuff that we've been kind of talking about for a while but haven't really been able to do because we haven't had the time. This is the first expansion where we've had a full year to create content for players. It's tough to really discuss it without getting into details.

Looking ahead to the future, past this expansion, what's one thing that players are always going to be able to rely on from their EQ experience?

T: The camaraderie. That's something that's also sort of a challenge for us. A lot of the newer games are very easy to pick up, play for a while, and put down. They're easy to solo, but EQ wasn't built that way. It's actually sort of a sticking point for a lot of us on the dev team. A lot of what really makes EQ great is the camaraderie you get with your friends. It is a hard game, in order to succeed you need to work with other players, which forces community bonds – you end up with a lot of social ties in there. When you talk about EQ, people have a lot of fond memories of spending time with their friends. Whereas if you play another game it's more like "Yeah, I played for half an hour and then I was done." Stories from EQ tend to be focused on hanging out with your friends, overcoming challenges as a group.

That's something that's a hard to grasp onto, it's a fine line to walk. You want to encourage that but you don't want to make someone end up discouraged if they can't find a group. That's something I'm trying to tackle in the near future; this kind of ties into the expansion so I can't get into it too much. There are some features we're working on that I personally find to be very exciting. Things we've been trying to do for several years now and was nothing we could do on a short cycle. I think it's really going to help out in that regard. I think it's going to help players that can't group succeed more without detracting from the social aspects of the game.

We really appreciate your time, sir. Thanks for speaking with us.

T: Thank you.

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