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GDC Online 2011: A nostalgia trip with the original EverQuest team

Karen Bryan

This year, GDC Online presented the Hall of Fame award to SOE's classic EverQuest. The game is currently 12 years old, and as legendary presenter Richard Garriott put it, "It perfected the commercial genre" of MMO games. Several members of the original team attended the awards ceremony, and Massively was honored to have a chance to sit and speak with them. Even if you aren't an old school vet, you'll enjoy this trip down memory lane with Brad McQuaid, John Smedley, and the rest of the team. Read on for highlights from the interview.

Massively: First of all, congratulations on EverQuest being inducted into the GDC Online Awards Hall of Fame! When you first set out to make the game, I'm sure you weren't expecting this. What were your initial hopes for EverQuest?

Brad McQuaid: Six months. Please let it run six months.

John Smedley: We had a two-year plan to maybe get over 100,000. We thought that would be the extent of the game, but it's done a little better than that.

What do you think made EverQuest such a well-loved and long-enduring game?

Bill Trost: The passion of the team. It was much more than a game; it was part of our lives. People took stuff that they worked on as kids and came up with storylines and put it into the game. It was like a piece of everybody inside the game. There were a lot of us who got together to play Dungeons and Dragons. We could only play once a week, but we thought, "Wouldn't it be cool to make a game where all of us could get together no matter who went where and play at the same time." That was really awesome to pull that off.

Geoffrey Zatkin: We were building a game we wanted to play. We didn't know any better that it couldn't exist.

Russell Shanks: The game was so infused with humor. That's why it captures people's imaginations, because it blew your mind not only in terms of the scale and the visual quality but also just the crazy sense of humor the game had. I remember Fippy, and falling out of trees.

They say a picture's worth a thousand words...

What's your reaction to this scene (of the Monks protesting in Freeport early in the game's life, and Smedley appearing as a giant Gnome)?

Smedley: That's actually before I learned how to do the name change! Here's what I would say: These guys hated it when I used GM commands (and I used them all the time). It was a lot of fun. At that time, it was very special, the idea that a bunch of Monks would do a feign death to protest the game change that we made -- a nerf, or as we called it, balancing. It was really amazing to us. It's commonplace stuff now, but this was early in the online gaming days, so it was pretty amazing to do that, and we wanted to be a part of it. We'd sit around monitors watching what the players were doing, and it was so much fun. In this particular case, it was simply to have some fun and interact with the players -- it was a blast.

At the time, were you nervous and concerned, or more enjoying the moment?

McQuaid: We were fascinated by it. That people would come together and do a protest, that they cared that much -- it really was fascinating. It blew us away that people cared so much.

Some of my memories include things like the player bazaars in the EC tunnel, calendars and rotations for raid mobs and zones, and even camp lists for rare mobs in dungeons. When you saw these types of things, what was your take on it?

Roger Uzun: I was responsible for a lot of the game balance issues that came up during early gameplay. We watched that closely, and if you look at how the game was changed and how subsequent games were designed, a lot of that was taken into account. So we seriously considered the camp lists and people restricting people from certain mobs. This was a common thing in MUDS. Content was content. If there was a froglok king or ghoul lord, it was there, and if someone killed it, it's not there for a while because it's a rare mob. But in subsequent redesigns and subsequent changes in newer games, we got rid of those things because they were more annoyances to players when you have such a large audience.

In the old school MUDS that many of us came from and were used to playing, people tolerated a lot. When you're paying $10 a month, you don't want to be restricted from content to that degree, so we took those sorts of things seriously, and if it was indeed a problem, we would change it on the fly, and a lot of times, just as the game evolved, we got rid of things that players found annoying. A lot of the Monk protests and Ranger complaints we took very seriously, and a lot of the stuff we did was because there were imbalances between classes.

Zatkin: Many times we'd sit on Roger's couch late at night and we'd learn from our players. They taught us how to make better games by what they were asking for and looking for and doing even without us.

Uzun: Almost all of the changes, particularly early on, to class balance and mob balance were directly a result of observing players and what they did and trying to keep the game fair and balanced for all people because that was what kept the content compelling. You may have thought it's great that this ability allows me to accomplish these things that other classes can't accomplish, but a lot of times it wasn't something that was sustainable.

McQuaid: I think one of the very first was when you were meditating and you couldn't see anything. That was one of the first ones where we thought, "This is a commercial game, and people don't want to do that." We had taken that idea from playing muds, and there it's fine because you can't see anything anway -- it's text. That was one of the first lessons we learned.

Ryan Palacio: Early on, we were dealing with the community and getting their feedback, dealing with a lot of the characters who were in the game quite often, and making sure that we got their feedback. Having that one-to-one relationship with them, having that feedback immediately, and being able to sit there and say, "Hey guys, we're going to move you to the test server and have you bang on this for us," having them be another set of brains for us, gave us an exposure to concepts that internally we didn't even think of. The first guys to level 50 were a Rogue and Cleric who ended up using something that we hadn't thought of, but they were players always out there, trying to one-up the developers, so being able to have that in a friendly manner was excellent for the development of the game, especially one as innovative and encompasing that EQ was.

Zatkin: Every zero of people we added completly changed the game. We had 10 in beta, and when we went to 100, the whole game changed. Between 1,000 and 10,000 and 100,000... every time there was a zero, someone would figure out something that no one had thought of and emergent gameplay had changed. It was hard keeping up with them.

I have another picture to show you: the framed EverQuest design document.

EQ Design Doc McQuaid: There's actually an older one. It's somewhere. The very first design doc, titled "Online RPG."

Are there things in the design document that are still relevant today?

Smedley: All of them. There's things that I would say are revised, like, corpse runs are a point of contention. Some of the people at this table still like them; the mainstream doesn't. But the amazing thing to me -- and I've been making games for 22 years -- is that this is the one and only game that I've ever seen that actually resembles the design doc. And it was still to this day a pretty amazing feat to me.

Have you ever considered revealing the contents to the general public?

Smedley: That's actually... you know what? The answer is yes. We can do that.

McQuaid: We can probably find it in different versions and you can see how it evolves.

Lastly, what was your favorite memory from EverQuest?

Zatkin: Putting out Brad McQuaid's flaming sword by accident by pushing him back with a spell.

Brian Canary: Being the first person killed by Lockjaw.

McQuaid: When you dueled somebody, it would say, "So-and-so beat so-and-so in a duel to the death." In beta we went in there and created a character called EverQuest and a character called Ultima Online. And then we would do a /kill on UO, so it would broadcast to everybody that EverQuest killed Ultima Online.

Smedley: Breaking 100,000 concurrent. I remember staring at the monitor and it was amazing.

Thank you to the EverQuest team, and congratulations again on the GDC Online Hall of Fame Induction.

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