Working as intended
After talking to the team members at the awards show, I realized that they were part of the vanguard when it came to tackling major MMO design issues. There was no well-organized, well-prepared community management team that's common in current MMO titles. There weren't many test servers or public test shards. And there was little opportunity to battle-test hardware against the influx of hundreds of thousands of players. The team had to rely on gut instinct and as much player-feedback as it could generate -- it wasn't an exact science.
Likewise, the players themselves were struggling to answer major game issues. Each night, players would run into all sorts of controversies, and each following day, they would hash out these little morality plays on server forums and in chat rooms. When the first dragon was taken down, with dozens of people participating and just a handful of items dropping, how do you dole out the loot? If five people are politely waiting their turn to kill a rare mob, and an outsider jumps in at the last minute to steal the kill, what recourse do you have? Which way should you run in order to not train players who are trying to enter a zone? Some of these questions led to design changes that are still common today.
You're in our world now
EverQuest fans joke about that slogan, but there's something to be said about the fact that EverQuest really was a world. At GDC Online, metrics and monetization dominated the discussion, but there was little talk about the notion of MMOs as being virtual worlds. It's as if the developers all lost their Bartle Bibles.
Traveling back home, even if it was just crossing the Greater Faydark newbie zone, was a real hero's journey. You went back to town, not to just deliver quest errands and run off to the next hub, but to actually go home. You wanted to take a breather from the danger all around you, visit the bank to take stock of your winnings and listen to players auction their wares. You might even decide to jump in line to do little crafting. When you heard the trumpets of the Felwithe gates, even before you saw them, they meant something, and you were happy to be home.
At GDC Online, a lot of the talks revolved around metrics -- measuring player behavior and gameplay with carefully parsed numbers. But that's in stark contrast to what the team described as its initial motivation: passion. Now, I'm sure that developers today still have that passion, but I have to wonder how much of MMO game design is still driven by it and how much is driven by metrics. With their desire to design for a mass-audience of hundreds of thousands, even millions, larger studios are almost forced to play it safe.
Having said all that, I doubt we'll ever see a game similar to EverQuest, and if we do, it probably won't reach the same level of commercial success. All of what made EverQuest special also made it very time-consuming. EQ fans love to reminisce about how the game forced you to slow down and about waiting for a boat ride or waiting for your turn at the brew barrel or waiting for your new best-friend Cleric to make his way through danger to rez your corpse. But all that waiting was a pain, and players bemoaned it from day one, so it was both a blessing and a curse.
MMOs have come a long way since EverQuest, and yet it's worth asking whether some of the original game issues that appeared early on deserve a second look. In the effort to remove some of the "bad" gameplay, like griefing, training, kill-stealing, ninja-looting, and all that waiting, some of the "good" gameplay was removed along with it. As MMO designers attempt to scrub out anti-social behavior, they sometimes unintentionally also remove the positive social behavior that is the best part of MMOs. As MMOs become more "fair," they also run the risk of becoming mundane. EverQuest certainly had its share of mistakes, but the risks it took at the time were admirable and definitely earned the game the Hall of Fame award it received.
From the snow-capped mountains of New Halas to the mysterious waters of the Vasty Deep, Karen Bryan explores the lands of Norrath to share her tales of adventure. Armed with just a scimitar, a quill, and a dented iron stein, she reports on all the latest news from EverQuest II in her weekly column, The Tattered Notebook. You can send feedback or elven spirits to firstname.lastname@example.org.