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Celebrate EQ's 12 years with a look back and an interview with John Smedley


Time grows many layers, and this is especially true in MMORPGs. After all, not only are new quests, stories and chunks of content added to a game as it goes along, but the players themselves add their own memories and experiences to the mix. MMOs truly are virtual worlds, and they change over time and become richer. EverQuest is no exception. After 12 years of adventure, danger, and story-telling, the game shows no signs of stopping.

What is planned for the game? How will the last 12 years affect the decisions for the next 12 years? EverQuest has been one of the flagships of the genre, but how does a game of its age maintain any type of market visibility? Massively sat down with SOE President John Smedley, EQ Assistant Lead Designer Alan VanCouvering, and Associate Producer Harvey Burgess to find out. We'll also be taking a look back at the long history of Norrath and will even throw in some nuggets about EverQuest Next.

Click past the cut and let's take a look!

The beginning

EverQuest launched on the 16th of March in 1999. Reading that now can almost send chills down a gamer's spine, especially when one considers how fickle the market can be. How can a game survive for so long, and how does it put out new content -- 17 expansions! -- and continue to attract new players?

If we look at popular music as a comparison, you will find bands that have outlived fads, chart-toppings, and musical trends. Normally, those bands have maintained a connection with their core audiences or have attempted to maintain a sort of consistency to their sounds. At the least, they tend to regroup and return to their original sounds after years of experimentation.

"Having a long-term community like EverQuest's can make things a lot more interesting. Players can be more vocal, more accurate when describing an issue, and much more passionate."

An MMO like EverQuest is a lot like a once very popular band. The world of Norrath has weathered the onslaught of dozens of other titles, including the obnoxious-drunk-guy-who-talks-during-the-ballad, World of Warcraft. Listening to your fans helps, according to Alan VanCouvering: "You have to understand more than just the vocal minority." Luckily, the development team makes use of its in-game polling system to get a real feel for what the majority of players think. Having a long-term community like EverQuest's can make things a lot more interesting. Players can be more vocal, more accurate when describing an issue, and much more passionate. After all, many of them have spent well over a decade building their characters.

According to John Smedley, the game has "a lot of players who might have started out when they were 20, and now they're 32 and have kids that they have introduced to the game. You really start to think about a lot of these people having social groups that they formed and guilds that they formed, and literally, they have personal friends -- it's a pretty amazing sight to see." Still, new players need to be designed for as well. "It's hard not to listen to the old players primarily," said Alan, "but we have to be aware that we have new players."

What about those older players? The modern-day EQ player is, according to Smed, "Seventy-nine, eighty percent, somewhere in there... male, average age of about 38, and someone who is well-educated, and who spends a lot of time in the game, somewhere around 20 hours a week. It might be a little higher than that. They're definitely really committed."

According to our esteemed panel, some of the best features of past development have been the additions of mercenaries, hireable minions who can fill out parties or just provide some of that much-needed companionship on a cold night of adventure. The panelists also mentioned the leadership AAs that helped players connect to groups or to work out targets more effectively.

Of course, this does not mean that EverQuest has been without controversy or drama over the last dozen years. "Evercrack" is still a popular term that refers to playing the game way more than is healthy. The game was even blamed (by some) for the suicide of a player named Shawn Wooley. MMO addiction is a hot-button issue, and EverQuest was there from nearly the beginning.

"Since players can tend to burn through new content relatively quickly, keeping the gameplay fresh and exciting is one of the hardest things for a developer, especially for one that has been working on the game for 12 years."

The relationship between SOE and its players has not always been wonderful, and to this day players bemoan the addition of "easier" methods of play, even wishing that the in-game map had never been invented. Corpse runs are even up for a vote on the Fippy Darkpaw server, the new progression server that promises a return to the "older" days of EverQuest. The developers learned from similar past experiences and went the extra mile this time to put in what players liked -- and to leave out what they didn't like -- for example, "old items that were connected to newer expansions, so that the stuff wouldn't show up until the new expansion comes out."

One of the greatest challenges over the last 12 years has been keeping the players happy on a consistent basis. Since players can tend to burn through new content, keeping the gameplay fresh and exciting is one of the hardest things for a developer, especially for one that has been working on the game for 12 years. "Giving them something new to do is probably the biggest challenge," Smedley admitted.

The other EverQuests

Over the years, the game has sprouted a few offspring, Champions of Norrath and EverQuest Online Adventures for the PlayStation 2 and EverQuest II for PC. Many fans consider these disconnected projects, or at the least, something very different from the original. Smedley suggested during the interview that calling it EverQuest II was a "clear mistake" and something that the team would change if given the chance. Consider asking retailers to not only shelf one, but two titles with the same title, and you can see just a small portion of the issue. Also, EverQuest II didn't play or look much like classic EverQuest, and to this day, many players tend to think of EverQuest II as a World of Warcraft-clone (nevermind that EQII launched first!).

"We feel really really strongly about that. They are not going to see EverQuest 2.5 or a WoW-clone or anything like that. A concept of it being a world is the way to go."

SOE didn't really conceive of a game that would go on for 12 years, however. EverQuest II was thought of the natural next step in the company's lineup. After all, EverQuest would run for several years and then end, right? "We're sitting here talking about the 12th anniversary of an online game, and that,s amazing in and of itself," said Smedley. "We thought it was going to be like every other retail game, where after a few years, it would go away, and that hasn't happened. So if we could have one thing to do over again on that front, it would be to rename EverQuest II."

So, what's Next?

With all this talk about expansions, next steps, and the natural progression of the IP, we had to ask about EverQuest Next, SOE's top-secret project. At this point, so little is known that players are speculating about a game that is either SOE's answer to World of Warcraft or a return to the once-heralded "worldness" of original EverQuest. "Next is much truer to that vision," Smedley told us, adding that SOE feels "really really strongly about that. They are not going to see EverQuest 2.5 or a WoW-clone or anything like that. A concept of it being a world is the way to go."

"Even with the controversial moves that made EverQuest more accessible, the game is still no walk in the park."

Does this mean that we will no longer see the giant question marks and obvious hand-holding that is so prevalent in today's "AAA" market? Orignial EverQuest was (and still is) prized for its ability to make players work hard for their levels. Even with the controversial moves that made EverQuest more accessible, the game is still no walk in the park. One look at veteran players' "Return to Fippy" blog posts will show you how all of us have changed since the invention of the giant yellow question mark. Norrath is a large, open, and challenging world to live in.

"We're not trying to recreate the wheel," Smedley cautioned. "We're trying to do something revolutionary, not evolutionary. The game looks visually unbelievable; it has its own style. We're not trying to be super realistic with it. It's a very unique style that we're going with." Unfortunately, he wouldn't give us anything juicy: "The features are going to be shrouded in mystery for quite a while."

The future of EQ

So what do you do after 12 years of providing adventure and fun for hundreds of thousands of players? Do games like EverQuest ever have an "end"? One important note is that EverQuest has remained more or less the same game it's always been. That means graphically, as well. Some players boast running the game on original machines from the time when they first started playing. There have been a few graphical updates, most importantly to character models during the time of the Shadows of Luclin expansion, and the system has been tweaked to provide bells and whistles for players who might want them.

Still, the game can run on a basic laptop or a hand-me-down PC, something that remains important to the team. "Every couple of years we go through and see how other games look compared to EverQuest," Harvey Burgess told us. "One thing we keep in mind is that we do have a lot of players since the beginning, and we make sure they do not have to go out and buy a new system to play our game. It's been difficult to keep up, but EverQuest is where it's supposed to be." EverQuest is no slouch, though, and Alan agrees: "I would literally put our zone art up against any game right now and be pleased with the result."

There are a lot of plans for the near future, as well, like enabling past quests from years of development and releasing a new open area raid. This time around, though, the devs have taken lessons learned from past mistakes and have made it easier for multiple raid groups to participate. Expansions will also continue down their normal production cycles. Every year, the developers go through a three-year plan, and each year they assume the same thing: EverQuest will continue on for at least the next three years, with new expansions in tow. Does this mean expansion number 20 is in the realm of possibility? It would be exciting, to say the least!

Where does EverQuest go next? The panelists are confident about the game's prospects. "We're going to continue to put out awesome content, bigger and better in the future. We are not at a loss of ideas, and we constantly reevaluate the direction we are going. We're definitely still going strong. Until we find something we do not agree with, we will still provide that content that players have grown to love."

Here's hoping we see many, many more years of EverQuest adventures! We'd like to thank Alan, John, and Harvey for taking time out of their busy days to sit and talk with us. We'd also like to say congratulations to the team! Whether you are a long-time player or you have just recently considered diving into the world of Norrath, you will find a dozen years of stories, player interactions and adventure.

You just might get your butt kicked, too.

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