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.
VideoGamer.com: EverQuest is in an interesting place because it's doing well enough to exist. Is the goal to continue to expand so that it becomes more accessible? In my mind it still retains a hardcore flavour.
RB: Yeah we definitely do that all the time. We've done some things in the past where we changed the levelling curve so it wasn't quite as steep at the lower levels. We changed it so AA experience comes in faster when you have fewer of them. So we're definitely mindful of that. The primary reason for that is every time you add levels or content you're making it harder for anyone to get to the end of the game. And that's where 90 per cent of our players sit most of the time. So if you've got a new player or maybe a player who quit and decided to come back, it can be really hard to catch up to everybody who's been playing the whole time. So we've definitely tried to do as many things as possible to facilitate that kind of behaviour. At this point in the game's life cycle it can be very difficult for us to pick up new players. Not to say we're not trying to get them, but we're more focused on the players we have and maybe some of the players we lost and can get back. It's a little bit of a balancing act there too. We think that the most bang for the buck at this point is existing players and players who could potentially come back to the game.
VideoGamer.com: How do you get old players back into the world of EverQuest?
RB: We had a really big promotion last year called Living Legacy that did a great job of that. We basically reactivated everyone who had ever played and cancelled accounts for three months and let them all play. We had a number of special events going at that time. We had a few promo items that you get if you signed up at that time. It worked well. We picked up a bunch of players that had left and decided to come back. That was a big thing we did. Some of the smaller stuff we do, we're going to open a new server here in the next month or so. That always grabs a few people. It's hard to say. We try to do as much as possible to keep people interested and sometimes we get old players interested in coming back. Sometimes it's a good staying tool. We hope for both obviously with everything we do, but it doesn't always turn out that way.
VideoGamer.com: Looking to the future, what's next? EverQuest 3?
RB: There are obviously several different teams at the company making games. EQ2 is still doing expansions and they've got a strong player base as well. We're planning on continuing to do new content as well. But there's clearly other teams at the company that'll be making different games so it's a little bit of both in terms of the company level. But for us, on our team, we're just planning on continuing making EverQuest content and hoping people keep playing.
VideoGamer.com: I know you must get bored of the World of Warcraft thing, but I'm interested in what the team's reaction was to the game when it first came out and then blew everyone's expectations of the kind of subscription numbers that MMOs were capable of.
RB: I played it a little bit in the open beta at the end and I thought it was good, I thought it was fun, but I didn't think it was going to do nearly as well as it did. I don't think anyone did. I don't think Blizzard did either. It's pretty amazing. I think that shows that if you make a good game that can grab a larger spectrum of the demographic, you can really do well. I don't think we've even hit the roof in terms of what an MMO can do. I think there will be another Warcraft-like game that will come out, and I don't know where it'll come from or who's going to do it, that will blow away those numbers as well. I hope we'll do it, but we'll see.
VideoGamer.com: You think WoW's numbers will be dwarfed?
RB: At some point someone will dwarf those numbers with a game. While Warcraft is a great game there are several issues with it that at this point in the cycle. They're going to see the same thing we do, where new players are a lot harder to pick up, because of market saturation and the whole chasing the high-end stuff that goes on. It's a lot harder to catch up in Warcraft than it was when it first came out. They're doing stuff to mitigate that as well, just like we are. At some point it's just perception. Even if it is easier you think it's still hard and you won't do it anyway because you don't want to spend the time. But I think if we can get past some of the barriers that are keeping people from playing with their friends, just because their friends happened to start the game before they did, and maybe started on a different server or whatever, if we can start to get rid of some of those social blocks, I think it can get even better. For example, Facebook doesn't care how long you've been on Facebook. You're still going to go on and be just as much of a part of the community right away from day one and day 200. You might have a bit of a learning curve with apps. Things like that show us that there's a lot of people out there that are interested in being involved in an internet community, especially with all the apps on Facebook, in playing casual games. At some point someone's going to do an MMO that really caters to that group, and is going to have a billion subscribers or whatever. There's another ceiling somewhere that we haven't hit yet.
VideoGamer.com: So it won't be a fantasy RPG in the traditional sense?
RB: I wouldn't really hazard to guess. The genre it takes may almost be an afterthought. It's mostly going to be how the social interactions work. There is still somewhat of a stigma with the fantasy genre. It's got a lot better over the last few years, with Lord of the Rings being more mainstream. I wouldn't even guess what the genre's going to be. It'll be some weird mix of something we haven't seen before. A lot of the standard video game genres I don't think will have the breadth of appeal that would be necessary for something like that. It might not even be a game world per se; it might be something totally different that we haven't even thought of yet. It's really hard to say. I wouldn't want to guess at the genre of the game that might do that.
VideoGamer.com: But you'd love to figure it out!
RB: Oh I'd love to. I'm constantly thinking about it!
VideoGamer.com: Is it only the interface that's holding EverQuest back from a console release?
RB: I think it's definitely an issue. Especially because the social interactions are really the reason people stick around for these games, and it's really hard to do that with a joypad. But a lot of the Halo type games that are doing a lot of voice chat, will break through that. The typing and stuff - I don't think you need a keyboard to play an MMO. You need a keyboard to communicate in an MMO. But even some of the stuff with Warcraft, if your guild is pretty serious, they'll probably have a Ventrillo server, or Team Speak, or even use the in-game chat. We've got an in-game voice chat system as well now. That'll help get by that interface crutch we have with consoles. The next big game will be able to be played on consoles. It'll probably be able to be played on things even smaller than consoles. If you could play it on your iPhone to some extent, that'd be a big deal too. I don't think it's a complete killer. It's just another hurdle to be leaped.
VideoGamer.com: So when will I be playing EverQuest on PSN then?
RB: I don't know if it'll be EverQuest but it'll be some game we do in the future. I'm pretty sure of that.
VideoGamer.com: A lot of recent new MMORPGs have struggled. Why is it proving so difficult to break into the fantasy MMO space?
RB: The fantasy MMO space is super saturated just because of the presence of Warcraft. Warcraft is a clean, well executed game that has a lot of social momentum at this point. That's a hard thing to counteract. Some of the games that have come out recently are good. I had a lot of fun playing Warhammer. I didn't play Conan. I heard it was fun though. I can't say why they haven't done better than they have. I would say they're just going up against a whole lot of social momentum, and you're going to have to be a lot better than the game that's already there to break that. You not only have to be as good as Warcraft, or whatever game anybody else happens to be playing, you have to be better than that, to make them abandon their character, abandon their several years of character development and all their friends may or may not come with them to the new game. It's a big wall to go up against. As we're seeing it's a lot more difficult than everyone anticipates.
VideoGamer.com: If I said to you there wouldn't be a World of Warcraft if there hadn't been EverQuest, how would you respond?
RB: Oh I think that's definitely true, and I think most of the guys at Blizzard would say that too. They had a comment at BlizzCon where somebody mentioned EverQuest and a few people in the crowd booed. I don't remember who was up there at the time, but they were like, hey you can't be knocking on the grandfathers there. I think it's definitely true. I don't know that Warcraft wouldn't have happened eventually but it definitely wouldn't have happened now if EverQuest hadn't been around. Perhaps it would have been a different game, not EverQuest, that was breaking that ground. But EverQuest did it and there's been a whole genre of games that leapt from that original spark there. So, completely true.
VideoGamer.com: Is there a feeling within the team of, I don't want to say jealousy, but a missed opportunity? Are you looking at Warcraft and thinking, god that could have been us?
RB: Yes and no. We definitely had our day. EverQuest was top of the heap for years and years and years. Yes that's true to an extent, but it's so easy to look back with hindsight and see what we could have done along the way. We took some gambles with some games. Some of them played out, some of them didn't, and here we are. But I think we're still looking forward and we're trying to make the next big game after Warcraft, and hopefully we will do that. But when you see those giant numbers, it's hard not to be a little bit!
EverQuest is currently available for PC from Station.com.