EverQuest Celebrates 12 Years! A Q&A with John Smedley, Alan VanCouvering, and Harvey Burgess

EverQuest is celebrating its twelfth anniversary, and Ten Ton Hammer is dancing in the streets of Freeport along with the other fans of all things EverQuest. Several members of the staff have taken to playing on the progression locked servers to recapture the magic of entering the world of Norrath for the first time once again, and they began to wonder about what lies ahead for the EverQuest franchise and of the journey taken over the last 12 years. To that end, our own Benjamin J. de la Durantaye sat down with other interest players at a roundtable discussion with EverQuest’s John Smedley (President of SOE), Alan VanCouvering (Assistant Lead Designer), and Harvey Burgess (Associate Producer).

Question: How is the Fippy Darkpaw server going with the recent wave of players that have joined it?

SOE: It has been going really well. Basically, what we wanted to do this time around was learn from the past server because we have been the progression server before. Last time, we didn’t enable all the same attributes that people had before as far as the slower experience, the corpse runs, etc. which we decided not to do this time. There’s a poll going on now where the players can actually see other people voting for or against corpse runs. Right now it’s losing.



Currently, we’ve been focusing on the forums seeing what players have liked and what they haven’t liked. We’ve gone the extra mile this time by incorporating all of these things this time in this progression server.

We’ve made sure this time that this was much closer to the original than the first time we did it. There’s a lot of effort making sure that all the stuff that we put in the old world zones as expansions were added were removed so that they don’t show up until that expansion is launched. Things are going really well.

Question: What’s the hardest thing that gave you issues as you developed the game over all the years?

SOE: From our perspective, the most challenging thing was keeping the players happy on a consistent basis. The players go through the new content pretty quickly so we have to constantly keep the game fresh in-between with live updates. Keeping the players happy and motivated and feeling that there is always something to do is probably the biggest challenge.

Question: When we take a look at the current state of MMOGs, we see a lot of online games coming out. In the original version of EverQuest, you spoke a lot about creating an online world versus an online game. Do you ever see the genre going back to that idea where the goal is to create a world as opposed to a game?

SOE: I would say, without giving away too much, is that EverQuest Next is much truer to that vision. We feel really, really strongly about that and I think players are going to be surprised. They’re not going to see EverQuest 2.5 or make a WoW-clone or something like that. We have an entirely new direction and we believe the concept of building a world is the way to go.



Question: What are your views on EverQuest and EverQuest II co-existing currently and in the past?

SOE: The politically correct answer to that is they’re doing great! The actual answer is that we probably made a mistake calling it EverQuest II. That was a clear mistake. We didn’t realize the lifespan of the original. We’re sitting here talking about the twelfth anniversary of an online game and that’s amazing in and of itself. Our original plan was that it was going to be like every other retail game where after every few years, it would go away and the next one would come out. That hasn’t happened. If we could redo one thing, it would be to rename EverQuest II.

The games are very different. They’re set in different times and they appeal to different audiences. It’s been an interesting ride trying to convince retailers that it’s a good idea to have both EverQuest and EverQuest II on the shelves at the same time.

Question: What feature has resonated most with the players over the 12 year history of the game?

SOE: Everyone is going to have a different opinion, but I think recently it is the mercenaries. It’s due to the fact that it helps people play by themselves and give them lots of backup. The game is built for groups. You can log in with a friend and fill out a group with mercenaries. For recent memory, that’s what comes to mind.

Throughout the years, we’ve added so many mechanics that really benefit the player base. When we added the leadership experience, players were better able to group with others by being able to select individual targets and seeing targets of targets. We have so many that it is difficult to narrow it down to just one.

Question: How much content do you have in EverQuest II until you feel the need that you have to bring out EverQuest Next?

SOE: I would say that we’re not bringing out EverQuest Next until it is done. Both EverQuest and EverQuest II are going to have lives independent of EverQuest Next. There’s no shortage of fresh ideas or great ideas, so I’m not worried about our ability to keep players entertained. That’s what we do for a living. As for EverQuest Next, it won’t come out until it’s ready and not before. I think that it’s going to surprise a lot of people from the direction that we are choosing. We’re hoping to bring our past players and a whole bunch of people who have never seen the world of Norrath into it.



Question: Are you going to continue releasing expansions for EverQuest I?

SOE: Yes. That’s a pretty simple answer.

Question: You don’t see an end game in sight for EQ?

SOE: I honestly say that I don’t have an answer for that. We just did a three year plan, which we do every year, and we assume that EverQuest is going to continue on for three more years without any problems. We also assume that we’re going to be making expansions during that time.

As long as we have a vibrant player community that wants content, we’re going to be there to provide it for them.

Question: Speaking of community, over the last 12 years it has changed quite a bit. How has it changed your approach to the design of the games?

SOE: Speaking for EverQuest specifically, there is a kind of trap that you can fall into when you listen to too few people, the vocal minority as it were. I think that as experienced designers, we understand that you have to understand more than the vocal minority. It’s nice that we have the polling system to allow us to get the pulse of the majority as opposed to the minority’s opinion. Other than that, having a community that has been with us for so long makes it much more interesting to work on a game like this. There’s a sense of people enjoying the game which you might not get on a new game. You know that what you’ve been doing has been enjoyed by these people for the last twelve years.

As we continue to grow and gain experience, we’ve gone down different avenues of talking with players. It’s either via the forums or the community leaders from the players that help us allow us to ping ideas off of in order to move forward. There’s just a lot of avenues that we’ve started to explore over the years to get the best content and best features to the players.



Question: Has the community changed? Is it the same group of players for the last 12 years or are there lots of new players added to the mix?

SOE: It’s been a combination of both, but one aspect of a game that’s been running for 12 years that we didn’t think about then, but do now, is the life cycle. We have players who started the game back in their 20s who are now in their 30s and have introduced their kids to the game. You really start to think that these people have formed social groups and have become real-life friends with people they have known for over a decade.

We want to listen to those long-term players primarily, but we do realize that there are new players that want to play the game. We see the new players speaking their mind in the forums and in the game, and it’s refreshing to hear their voices as well.

Question: With all the content and new systems added over 12 years, can a new player compete with a long-term player? What advice would you give a new player?

SOE: That’s something that we’re definitely looking at. With 12 years of content, features, and mechanics, it can get a little overwhelming to a new player. We do have methods in to help those players along, such as the fellowships. With fellowships, you can group with more than the typical six people. It helps coordinate getting people out to you. We also have NPCs in the Plane of Knowledge that explain a lot of the newer mechanics as well as telling players where they can get their spells for x, y, and z levels. As we continue on throughout the game, we don’t want to lose focus that with new players, we need to have some kind of bridge to help them over what they might have missed over the 12 years of the game. We focused a lot of that in the introductory content to the Plane of Knowledge so there’s a central place for all that information.

Question: The success of EverQuest set the expectations of what a traditional MMOG would be like for the next few years. Then, World of Warcraft came out and changed the way things are these days. How does EverQuest fit into that space now? Are you trying to adapt the game into a post-WoW world or is it going to continue going its own way?

SOE: I would say that it would be a mistake for us to follow what WoW is doing. It’s a great game and we’ve learned some things from them, but EverQuest is pretty much its own entity with its own feel and way of playing. To try and change that to follow a game that came out afterward would be a mistake. We want to make EverQuest even more EverQuest, if at all possible rather than less. We’re definitely learning from what other people are doing, but changing the feel of the game would be a mistake.



Question: What will Everquest Next have that nobody else will have?

SOE: That would be telling! (laughs) I would say this; we’re not trying to recreate the wheel. We’re trying to do something revolutionary, not evolutionary. That’s a broad statement and a bold one, but that’s how we approached it from the day we started development on it. The game looks unbelievable visually; it has its own style. We’re not trying to be super-realistic with it. We have our own very unique style going with it that we think people are going to like. That’s about all I can say.

Question: Are the time-lock progression servers popular enough right now that you’ll imagine adding more as the game progresses to future expansions?

SOE: It is definitely an idea that we’ve tossed around. Just making sure that 1) the players want it and 2) that we have the ability to support it fully and as functional as the servers we have now. It’ll be interesting to see how the two servers play out against each other, since Fippy did get a six hour head start. (laughs)

Question: EQ1 has a unique graphical style and that you’ve done some minor, and major, improvements over the years. How concerned are you about system requirements and keeping them similar to what they are now or are you planning on doing any more major graphical upgrades?

SOE: Every couple of years, we definitely go through and see how the other games look in comparison to EQ. We did this again this year. One thing that we keep in mind is that we have lots of players that have been with us since the beginning, and we want to make sure that they don’t have to go out and buy new systems in order to play the game. Yes, it has been very difficult trying to keep up, technology wise, but I think that our team has done a great job of visually keeping EQ what it’s supposed to be as well as well as making it good enough for the masses to still want to play.



Question: Where does EverQuest go from here? Where do you see it in the next few years?

SOE: That’s a tough question. It’s funny that I want to say, “More of the same.” I would like to say that we’re going to continue to put out awesome content with innovative new ideas in them. I don’t see why we won’t be doing that. That’s where I expect us to be in ten years: bigger and better.

Just to add, we’re not at a loss of ideas. We constantly re-evaluate the direction we’re going and what we want to see in the game for years to come. We’re definitely still going strong. Until we find something we don’t agree with, we’ll be providing the content that players seem to love.

Question: What is your profile of the modern day EverQuest 1 player? Is it the same people buying all the expansions or has the player base evolved in the last 12 years?

SOE: It’s evolved. It’s about 79-80% male with an average age of 38. It’s somebody who’s well-educated and a person who spends a lot of time in the game. I think the current average is still over 20 hours a week. It’s definitely somebody who’s very committed.

Question: Do you tailor the expansions to please those players?

SOE: We’re definitely aware of who’s playing our game with all our expansions. Tailored? No. But we definitely want to provide content for as many as our players as we can, including knowing where the bulk of our players are. So…yes and no.



Question: Going back to the time locked progression servers, as they progress they get closer to live servers. The question is do you feel that you’ve tapped into the full potential with it or are you planning on pushing it harder while the window is still there?

SOE: I’m not sure how much harder we can push. From a design perspective, there are things that we could have caught that we missed. We’ll catch them next time if there is a next time. Design wise, with going back to the basics, there is only so far that you can go. There either is or there isn’t a way back to the way it used to be.

Our thanks to John Smedley, Alan VanCouvering, and Harvey Burgess for this discussion.

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