Lead designer Ryan Barker on the grandfather of MMO gaming.
Before World of Warcraft, there was EverQuest. Launched in 1999, Sony’s MMORPG was, at its height, the most popular MMO around. Now, of course, Blizzard’s Warcraft wears the crown, but that hasn’t put the skids on the EverQuest train. In fact, it’s just celebrated its ten-year anniversary. Here, in a mammoth interview, we chat with current lead designer Ryan Barker, who’s been on the EQ team since 2001, to mark the tenth birthday of one of the granddaddies of MMO gaming.
VideoGamer.com: EverQuest has proved popular enough to last ten years. What are its core qualities, its fundamental philosophies, if you will?
Ryan Barker: It’s hard to put that in a couple of sentences. Basically we’re just trying to make a game world where we think people can have fun, interact with each other, go out and have some challenges they can overcome and just have fun playing. We do a lot of content. We like to think we have as much or more content than any other game out there. Just giving players lots of stuff to do. It seems to have worked because they’ve stuck around for ten years.
VideoGamer.com: What’s keeping EverQuest popular when so many other MMORPGs are out there?
RB: A lot of it is the staying power of your characters. You get really attached to your characters and your friends that you’re playing with. You just have so much fun playing with them and the character you’re familiar with, that you’re going to be a lot less likely to jump to a new game where you have to start a new character, where you don’t really understand what’s going on, your friends maybe aren’t playing over there either. A lot of it is the social stickiness, and we’ve found that to be the strongest bond for people to stick with a game. Again we just try to keep putting out content so that people keep having stuff to do. We’re just trying to facilitate players having a place to play together with their friends.
VideoGamer.com: Is the goal to keep EverQuest running forever?
RB: I don’t think we’re looking quite to forever, but yeah, we’re definitely not planning on closing it down any time soon. We’re still making lots of new content. We’ve still got a lot of people playing and having fun, and we’re planning on continuing with that for quite some time.
VideoGamer.com: You’ve been working on the game for quite a while. Any personal highlights?
RB: There are a few things. The first couple of expansions I worked on were probably some of the highlights in terms of the experience doing it. It was just crazy when I first started working here that I was actually making games. I almost didn’t believe it. Those were pretty intense cycles too. We were staying up late nights; we were having meetings at midnight to discuss things. It was pretty intense, so that’s probably some of the most vivid memories I have. In terms of some of the stuff I’m proud of, I worked on the spell system for a long time. If there was a player spell between level 61 to about 70 or 75, I made it, most likely. I like to think that really helped players stick around too, having new and interesting abilities to play with is definitely a good reason to stick with your character so it doesn’t get boring. So I’m really proud of that. There are several raids I did that people bring up as their favourite content. One in The Planes of Power. More recently the Bloodmoon raid’s got a lot of good reviews. One of the expansions we did, Depths of Darkhollow, was loosely based on several of my friends. We had a D&D campaign we were playing. It was loosely based around some ideas that came from that. So that had a lot of personal investment from me, so that’s probably one of my highlights.
VideoGamer.com: What makes a good EverQuest spell?
RB: It’s really hard to say. Players sometimes grab stuff that you would not have thought would have been that interesting, or find new ways of doing things with it that you didn’t expect. You have to ride the fine line of power and usefulness. You don’t want it to be too powerful because it’ll upset the game balance, but you also want players to feel heroic when they’re using it, you want them to feel like they’ve got a spell that actually does something meaningful. So you’ve really got to find that fine line between overpowered and underpowered and hope you hit it. Most of the time that’s not going to come from anything you can do in a spreadsheet or whatever. You have to go in and mess with it and listen to player feedback, and come to a place where everybody’s comfortable with it. Clearly not all of the players are going to be happy with whatever you do, but you find the good middle ground and most people will be happy with that stuff. We just try to be as creative as possible and do new and interesting things and sometimes you hit, sometimes you miss. It’s really hard to predict up front how those are going to play out.
VideoGamer.com: As a spell guru, what’s your favourite EverQuest spell?
RB: Oh man! I don’t even know any more! I haven’t done it for quite a while, so I don’t know if I have a favourite.
VideoGamer.com: Do you have a favourite spell you had a hand in creating?
RB: I have a couple I wish I wouldn’t have done (laughs). But I don’t know that any one sticks out that I can think of right now. There were a couple that caused some balance problems that have been lingering with us for quite a while. I can thankfully say I wasn’t responsible for Complete Heal. That definitely affected our balance scheme well beyond what we were expecting. I think the one that sticks out in my mind that I really wish I would have done differently is the Bard’s Fading Memories ability. That ended up being quite the apple cart turner in terms of class balance. I probably could have handled that better. It’s worked out well down the road but we had to bend it a lot to get it to where we were happy with it. And bend the whole system, really, not just that one ability.
VideoGamer.com: It’s amazing that a single spell or ability can change the entire landscape of a game.
RB: Oh yeah, especially when you’re talking about a game that’s ten years old. There are so many issues. None of the people that were here on the first release in terms of designer code are still around. It’s fairly common for us to find something that no-one knew about and clearly didn’t understand how it worked. We find those on a semi-regular basis and have to work around them. So yeah, it’s always an interesting minefield so to speak.
VideoGamer.com: MMOs tend to have some of the more passionate fans. What’s the craziest or weirdest thing you’ve seen a player do in EverQuest?
RB: I heard some stories of people, before I got here, showing up at the door of the company wanting to talk to people and stuff because they’re mad about whatever.
VideoGamer.com: A spell perhaps?
RB: Something, that they nerfed a class or whatever, which always seems a little ridiculous to me. I understand players are passionate about a game and that’s the only reason they stick around and we love them for it, but there’s definitely a line there somewhere. You can’t really show up at the guy’s house and tell him he needs to change Necromancer spells. I had a pretty solid thread going one time about getting me fired on the boards because I nerfed a Shaman spell. That was probably the worst thing that happened to me personally. Obviously I didn’t get fired, but it was a pretty intense thread there for a while. Pretty much all the Shaman in the game wanted me out, or at least all of the ones that posted on the board. That has since calmed down a lot. The spells is a really hot topic because everyone cares how powerful their class is and the spells are the primary method for that to play out. You’re always sitting in the hot seat, and every little change you do can definitely have the community up in arms. But it’s good too. It’s an important seat to be in. You just have to be ready to take some criticism. I would not have done as well on the spells if I didn’t have all the players giving me feedback and helping me tune them along the way. It’s definitely a team effort. I just happen to be the one holding the keys.