Being a course of 20 years, rare is the developer who was there for the whole ride. They all came in at different times, and left at different times. But it the experience seemed to stay with each of them — so much so that even the ones who’ve moved on are still willing to take time out of their schedules to celebrate Everquest‘s 20th birthday.
The developers we spoke to all new it was a special project. They described the late nights and crunch sessions that we hear about all too typically — but there was no demand for it. To hear them tell it, the office was exactly where they wanted to be.
“I got involved when Everquest was just a glimmer in a select few people’s eyes,” said lead artist Kevin Lydy. “That was probably in 1998. The one thing I contributed with any lasting significance was the Everquest logo. All these years later, whenever I see it, I’m reminded of how hard it was raining when I worked on it.”
“From a very first glance at the game script document back in 1998, it was pretty clear that Everquest had the potential to be something really special.”
After finding out one of her guildmates was a developer, and subsequently joining the team, Holly Langdale – executive producer on the franchise – was surprised and delighted to learn that just about everyone on in the studio was also an avid player.
“Honestly, everybody on the team in every discipline was a fan and a player,” she told us. “What surprised me was just we were all in uncharted territory that required creativity and problem-solving, and social design was obviously a big part of what we did. While it was very creative it was also academic — everybody in the team was trying to make the smartest decision they could. And it’s not to say that I’ve not been around smart people before, but because they knew the game so well and were so passionate about it, it was very measured.”
Langdale recalls how different it was working on an MMO in those days versus 2019.
“20 years ago nobody knew what to make of gamers. They thought they were all addicts and games were bad and nobody appreciated the social benefits, that people were bonding online who maybe didn’t bond as often in their personal lives, which we saw over and over again. Marriages. People have had kids named after Everquest characters.
“So, we were just sort of plodding our way through monitoring the behaviour and keeping the pulse on it. And now of course people are trying to break it down into what’s the emotional intelligence when you apply it to gamers, and player architects, et cetera, which nobody did… I mean we knew a raider is a raider, a casual is a casual, and they develop these social behaviours that we only really dig into now.”
While covering the 20th anniversary of Everquest, a recurring theme has been its difficulty. It came from a time when developers were pushing the envelope with MMOs, before WoW came along and prioritised accessibility.
“Even in Age of Camelot which I highly respect and it was one of my favourites, it didn’t have the same bonding quality and role reliance and social reliance and dependency that Everquest had and still has.
“And we constantly discuss it, and as gamers, we don’t want to correct our special sauce; we’re constantly reminding ourselves making things easy is not necessarily the right way to go. We have to retain the social dependency that is our bread and butter and our special sauce and what our gamers expect.
“And then psychologically I can tell you the number of design meetings where we’re constantly riding that line between content that is punishing enough and not too punishing. It’s a constant, and we still do it now. Those conversations are fun because our player base is driven by the aspiration of the people that do things first and the people that want to do things first, so we always need to make sure that we’re satisfying that need for the player.”
But when it came to the move to free-to-play, difficulty took on a new context…
“So, we spent a lot of time, like the first year or so, starting to pull back on what felt like really punishing for the play experience. There was no way to get a good deal for either game in free-to-play without forking out money, and not in the way that made you happy.
“So, we started pulling back a lot on that, and that’s sort of where we are now. They may want to pay some money to get a faster experience, et cetera. They don’t have to. The game isn’t so punishing that the time investment won’t get you there.
We asked Holly what her favourite moments developing the game were…
“I remember, there’s a guy still in the team, he was known as Absor and he’s been around since 2000, Alan VanCouvering, and at the time he was focused mostly on the trade skill system. So, he would name all these items. That was my early days on the team, and I would edit his item names.
“And I remember being in tears laughing so hard because he had obviously been delirious naming this stuff, and there were just some terrible, the worst possible names that could be misconstrued as other things. I was in tears and then someone came and asked me what my problem was and I showed them and then they were in tears. That was a weird one because it was one of those infectious laughter things that overflowed to the whole team. it was pretty great.
“And we’ve had some really touching moments, like memorialising people who have passed on, players in the game. Players let us know when some of their friends and guildmates have passed and we do our best to memorialise them when we can. And the other side, we’ve sold I think almost 3,000 wedding chapels, and people get married in-game all the time. Yeah, it’s less weird, more like really emotive.”
Lead designer Johnathan Caraker’s fondest memories were designing some of the more unique raid encounters in the game.
“That’s the fun part of the job. That’s creating a puzzle,” he told us.”For the 2017 expansion I did a clue event. There were four potential suspects and four motives and four objects, and you were able over the course of the raid. If you were paying attention, you could rule out three of each and at the end of the raid you’d have to make the right call, accuse the right suspect, and indicate the correct object and motive to successfully complete the raid. It was pretty cool.
“Those things tend to take more time. That raid took me more time than the other raids I worked on put together, but I feel like it was interesting and fun and it’s something that players had not really seen before.”
Given the tools available to a scenario designer, it wasn’t possible to make just anything happen. But Caraker would remix certain mechanics and think of innovative ways to use old systems.
“At the end of the Plane of War there’s a chessboard you have to fight on, and everybody in the raid is either a random white piece of black piece. And if you’re the white piece you’re immune to the white pieces but the black pieces will kill you, and vice versa.
“The chess pieces start spawning at the edge of the board and moving across in ways that would make sense for that kind of chess piece, and you have to avoid the opposite colour to you.
“It’s a relatively simple raid mechanic: just don’t touch the piece of the opposite colour while fighting. But I think it created a really unique event. Everyone knows how chess works: you see the bishop spawn and you know they’re going to cross the board diagonally. You see the pawn spawn and they’re moving slowly forward one step at a time. That was pretty cool.”