EverQuest has just seen its tenth birthday, and to honor the occasion we spoke with SOE's Ed Hardin, a longtime player turned Game Designer who has actually been playing EQ for more than ten years, having first picked up the game in Beta 4.
Ed shares a few of his own EQ memories before sharing a little of what the EQ Live Team has been up to in the months since October 2008's Seeds of Destruction expansion (EQ's fifteenth) and tackling a few of the hottest topics in the official forums. That and more awaits you in this exclusive chat with EverQuest Game Designer Ed Hardin, only at Ten Ton Hammer!
Jeff Woleslagle, Ten Ton Hammer: I understand you’ve been playing since beta 4, so you’re definitely a long term EQ player. Could you talk a little bit about how you got into the game and your history with the game?
Ed Hardin, Game Designer, EverQuest: When I was in college I started playing MUDs, just text-based stuff, and actually got really involved and started writing some areas for one of them that I played.
Ten Ton Hammer: So you were a designer before you joined the SOE team?
Ed: Yea, I wasn’t a very good one (laughter), but right after I got out of college, there was a gap there. I was looking around for a game. I’d played Ultima Online, but it didn’t really grab me. I found out about the EverQuest beta and signed up and ended up in beta 4. It was 3D, it was amazing, and it really hooked me right off the bat.
Firiona née Marilyn wasn't available for comment
Ten Ton Hammer: Do you have a favorite class?
Ed: I’m kind of hesitant to say what class I play because I actually get really good feedback that way - no one knows that I’m actually a designer. I’ve played just about every class. I’ve got a cleric I like, I’ve been playing a necro alt a lot lately. My first ever character was a troll shadowknight, and had no idea about the XP penalties - I just wondered why I couldn’t keep up with my friends. (laughter) I have an alt problem; I just keep starting new ones and playing them up to about level 20.
Ten Ton Hammer: Going back to the troll shadowknight experience penalty, that brings up one thing I really wanted to ask you about. EQ was and is harsh by today’s standards. Being a long term player and designer, are you sad about the direction that the industry is taking - being more about casual appeal than hardcore dedication?
Ed: I think so. Original EQ, back when I first started playing it, I didn’t have a job. I’d finished college and I was taking night classes learning networking, so my only time commitment was about 12 hours a week for classes and the rest was EverQuest. It really worked well for me then. But as I’ve grown older and have more responsibilities, the industry’s matured with that as well. I don’t have 8 hours a day to play, and most games don’t require that anymore. Yea, it loses something, but I can’t go back to that, and I think that it’s important that the industry keeps up with its audience.
Ten Ton Hammer: One thing that I personally believe that EQ did a great job with was the downtime, and it was good downtime. I remember riding the boat back and forth from Butcherblock to Freeport and talking to people onboard, and nowadays you don’t have that. No one talks to each other on the zeppelin because there’s really no time. Now that you’re in with the nuts and bolts of the game, was that downtime intentional and important to the experience? Or was it just a remnant of the slower paced dikuMUD way of gaming?
Ed: In a lot of ways it was. The MUD that I worked on, we actually had to slow combat down to save load on the server. But I know that the original designers thought that building in downtime was what helped the community grow because you were forced to talk because, otherwise, there wasn’t anything to do. And I agree. I was certainly more likely to talk to random people then than I am now.
So yea, it was intentional at the time, but the industry has moved away from it. We have in some respects, as well. We’re still slower, we’re not as frenetic. There’s time to know people, but you still have to work at it.
Ten Ton Hammer: From your long-term perspective on EQ, in what other ways has the game fundamentally changed since you started playing?
Ed: Certainly the newbie experience is the easiest thing to notice. When I started, it was, ‘Here’s the world, and we’ve dropped you in it.’ You don’t know what your spells do, you’ve probably got a sword or something that you might be able to autoattack your trainer if you forget the slash on ‘hail’ or something. (laughter) [Ed. note - ‘a’ was mapped to autoattack by default and NPCs could be attacked by players of all levels - which was the immediate undoing of many a new player]. Everything is trying to kill you, and you’re probably going to lose your way because there’s no maps; you’ve just got to go figure it out. There was a lot of mystery there.
Now we tell you how to play our game before you start playing it. We have directed content that’ll teach you things like here’s how to do combat, here’s how you do tradeskills, here’s how to talk to people, here’s how you buy skills and use them. All that stuff that most people would try and say ‘This game’s dumb’ just because they couldn’t figure out how to swim. I actually had a friend who’s only experience with EverQuest was backing up from where he spawned, falling in water, and drowning. (laughter) He never picked it up again. So that happens less, which is a good thing, I think.
The original EverQuest box art by the late Keith Parkinson, from back when men were men and box art was box art.
Ten Ton Hammer: The concept of large-scale, high reward PvE encounters - raids - was one solid innovation that EverQuest gave to every MMO that followed. Alternate advancement (AAs) grew into the talent tree system which is now a staple in just about every MMORPG. Is it painful or does it inspire pride to see these EQ concepts become mainstay MMO concepts?
Ed: I don’t know about painful. There is kind of a ‘Hey, look, that’s something else we did’ when we see our stuff show up in another game. There’s also a certain pride in trying to find a way to do new things, and that’s something we have a good amount of freedom to do: trying something crazy just to see if it’ll work.
Ten Ton Hammer: Your toolset for working on the game is probably pretty established by this point.
Ed: Yes, Excel is pretty good. (laughter) What’s actually really good that isn’t that common in MMOs is that we have almost entirely unfettered script access. So if I need an AI, I can write an AI. It may take a little longer, but I can do it. That’s really freeing and in a lot of ways it’s actually kind of paralyzing because if you don’t have a plan going in, you can literally make anything do anything. So you’ve got to learn how to keep yourself focused and just pick two or three fun things to provide.
Ten Ton Hammer: Looking back at the last expansion, Seeds of Destruction, from October 2008, the mercenary system was the most touted innovation. How has it held up to its billing?
Ed: It was definitely the biggest innovation in that product; in a lot of ways it’s what let us keep EQ EQ. One of our basic platforms is class dependency. At the time, the low level game was fairly impossible to play unless you were a class that could solo. So mercenaries let us make those class-dependent classes - tanks and pure healers - be able to play our low-level game without being dependent on finding someone else. So that was huge, it really was. Honestly, I like it - I like having a merc.
Ten Ton Hammer: But is a merc better than a real person? (laughter)
Ed: They’re dumber than a real person.
Ten Ton Hammer: That can be a good thing!
Ed: On the other hand, they don’t mind if I go afk to do laundry. So that’s pretty nice.
Ten Ton Hammer: In the months since SoD launched, what has the team been up to?
Ed: We’ve been working on a lot of stuff, unfortunately I can’t talk about any of it.
Ten Ton Hammer: It’s good to hear that there’s something in the works though.
Taina Rodriguez, Sony Online Entertainment: We’re just between expansion cycles, you know...
Ten Ton Hammer: So you can confirm an upcoming EQ expansion?
Taina: You can “dot dot dot” that one. (laughter) We can confirm SOE FanFaire, which will be June 25th through the 28th in Vegas at Bally’s Hotel and Casino. There’ll be lot of fun announcements, the third annual community address, we’ll be celebrating the past, present, and future of the franchise... and it won’t be as hot.
Ed: One of the things we’ve been working on is the tenth anniversary stuff that’s coming up soon, and unfortunately that’s all I can say. I can tell you that we had a lot of fun putting this stuff in. It was a chance to do some really special things that I’m hoping will be very enjoyable.
Smed accepts the SOE Day Proclamation.
Ten Ton Hammer: Is the team doing anything special? Going out to dinner, anything?
Ed: We’re having a cookout.
Ten Ton Hammer: I love SOE cookouts, the Block Party is my favorite thing about San Diego ComicCon, ignoble glutton that I am.
Taina: So, much like the Block Party [at ComicCon each year], we’re doing it in the parking lot. It’s SOE Day in the city of San Diego, so we’re celebrating that.
Ten Ton Hammer: And will John Smedley get the key to the city?
Taina: He’s already accepted the proclamation, so all we have to do is get to that day, celebrate, play EQ.
Ed: We actually had that ceremony last Monday [March 9th, 2009].
Ten Ton Hammer: Shifting topics, just from a very cursory look at the official EQ forums, it seems like fans are concerned about the amount of bugs and exploits in the game. Is there anything you can say to help allay those concerns?
Ed: It’s really kind of tough to deal with exploits that get brought up on our forums. Our internal policy is obviously to find them, find the cause, and fix them as soon as we can. But when people start bringing it up on the forums, there’s kind of a catch-22: if we acknowledge it, we’re obviously encouraging people to mess with it until we can get it fixed. If we ignore it, people say that we’re ignoring them or worse, we’re encouraging it due to favoritism to guilds, all that fun conspiracy theory stuff. So it’s really a tough kind of thing to deal with. The important thing is that we find them and fix them as fast as we can, but it’s never fast enough and there’s always something else that we could fix.
Ten Ton Hammer: There’s a lot more players than there are developers.
Ed: Yea, that too. Dave Rickey, one of the developers on Dark Age of Camelot, had a great line: “The first hour something is released, it will be played more man hours that were put into developing it.” There’s a lot of stuff that we don’t really anticipate, it happens. So for now, /bugs and private messages are the best way to go. And please be detailed - telling us that “x is broken” doesn’t really give us anything to go on. Be as detailed as you can, do it in a private way, and we can fix it a lot faster when that happens.
Ten Ton Hammer: There was another point of confusion in the forums about the extent of the EQ team’s involvement with Free Realms, can you speak to that at all?
Ed: I don’t believe I’m able to.
A Firiona Photomosaic? We say, "Why not?"
Taina: I can say that many of our developers have been a part of a bunch of the different games that we’ve developed. People that were on the EQ team might have gone to the Free Realms team and vice versa. I myself came from the San Diego studio and now I’m in the Seattle studio. There’s definitely that cross-pollination between the development teams and beyond that- even today, we’re doing the Free Realms play test. Every single studio, every single department - development, finance, sales, marketing - we’re all playing Free Realms right now. We’re all encouraged highly to submit feedback, bugs, etc.
Ten Ton Hammer: It’d be silly of you not to take advantage of your many studios and personnel. Finally, though we’re all looking forward to the upcoming announcements, is there anything else that you wanted to share with the community at this point?
Ed: It’s amazing to think of where I was ten years ago, when I knew people made games, but I didn’t really think of it as a career option. I got my dream job. No one that I’ve met at this company would rather be doing anything else - this is something that we all love. If we won the lottery, we’d make our own company to make games. It’s a great job. Even on the worst days, when people are on the forums calling us morons, it’s still a great job and it’s still fun to come in and make cool stuff for people to do.
Ten Ton Hammer: It’s always a pleasure to talk to you guys, thanks for taking time for us!
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