If you love the original EverQuest then you’ve spent an exceedingly long time in the wilderness waiting for a comparable MMORPG to come out. For years we have been told that the experience that we had in early MMORPGs like EverQuest would never be possible again. I and others have been told to just “deal with it” and that the good old days can never come back. Some of us never fell under the spell of the pied piper and we resisted the allure of the herd mentality. Instead, we held firm to our convictions and refused to join the bandwagon of the mass market MMO paradigm.
From time to time I check my inbox and I receive emails from passionate MMO enthusiasts. My articles seem to resonate with them. I can honestly say that most feel the same way I do. They are frustrated and saddened at what has happened to the MMO industry. They feel disenfranchised and forgotten by the current MMO design paradigm that states that every MMO must be a mass market blockbuster.
An Unexpected Email
Last summer I received an unsolicited email from Brad McQuaid one of the creators of EverQuest. Years ago I had had pleasure of briefly meeting Brad at the Sigil fan event for Vanguard MMORPG called Fanguard in Las Vegas. I ran into Brad briefly one year later at E3 in Los Angeles in 2006. Over the years, I have taken a keen interest in Brad’s endeavors and have come to respect him as I believe he is one of the few people in the world along with luminaries like Richard Bartle who understands the potential of virtual worlds.
Brad was refreshingly frank and candid in his email. He started to explain what he was up to and how he and the team at Visionary Realms were avoiding publicity, hunkering down and working hard at updating and revamping their Pantheon: Rise of the Fallen MMORPG. He also hinted that Visionary Realms would be revealing a new public outreach program in the near future and sure enough a few months later, a brand new beautiful Pantheon website was launched chock full details that would whet the appetite of any red-blooded fantasy MMO gamer.
Pantheon: Rise of the Fallen is an apt title and perhaps a metaphor for the noble quest that Visionary Realms is on. This industry has indeed fallen and lost its way. The golden years of MMOs with 12 million subscribers are gone. The success of the great World of Warcraft is now seen as an outlier and the notion that any studio can make a WoW killer has finally been exorcised from the soul of the genre once and for all.
A Time of Possibilities
Despite the current state of the industry, there’s a new energy in the air right now. We seem to be in a unique time period that is not dominated by one particular consensus or trend. There’s a feeling that anything is possible. There’s a rare atmosphere of openness to new ideas and new ways of doing things that has been absent for many years due to the dominance of Blizzard’s WoW over the industry.
So here we are in 2016 and the MMO industry has completely changed from the days of 1999 when EverQuest was released and 2008 when WoW was at its zenith of popularity with their Wrath of the Lich King expansion. With development platforms like Unity, the democratization of MMO development may be about to begin as it is indeed possible for a small team of dedicated developers to create a MMORPG using a combination of store bought graphic assets, tools and more.
I have been extremely critical of Pantheon in past articles. I’ve had fans of Pantheon very upset with me too. Subsequently, while talking with Brad via email, he agreed with many of my criticisms. As we corresponded further, it became clear that both of us were on the same page as to what we wanted in a MMORPG: we both wanted a pulse pounding fantasy virtual world where danger was around every corner; we wanted a return to the synergistic values of challenge and consequences, balanced risk versus reward, and class interdependence that create deep social interactions and lasting friendships that were the hallmark of the original EverQuest.
While returning to the design philosophy that made EverQuest great is sorely needed, it’s just not enough. In a previous article about Pantheon I chided VR for not doing much of anything to move the genre forward with new features that complement the existing core features that made EverQuest so great. Richard Bartle essentially said the same thing in 2013 when he sounded the alarm in his paper entitled: The Decline of MMOs. He challenged the MMO industry’s complacency and stagnation urged them to move the genre forward.
In our email conversations Brad agreed with me and the result is that the design team has proposed a bevy of new features that they call the Pantheon Difference. I hope to analyze these features in a future article.
My Travels Through Terminus
After the launch of the Pantheon website and the announcement that VR has secured more funding, Brad contacted me again and offered me a dual glimpse into the world of Terminus and the development process. He wanted my honest, no holds barred feedback which I was happy to give and subsequently gave. This is not something I was ever seeking but I was honored to do nonetheless.
Since that time I have been able to create some characters, adventure and explore a few zones. I have witnessed majestic valleys and snowy highlands in Avendyr’s Pass. I have seen the towering city of Thronefast. I have visited small towns and rugged outposts occupied by hardy peasants and stoic crafters. I have dared to enter the haunted subterranean mines of Halnir’s Pass dungeon and lived to tell the tale.
The development of Pantheon is well on its way. There are now functioning class trainers, vendors and bankers in Pantheon. In my adventures I have encountered a worthy bestiary of NPCs and mobs that are perfect for a high fantasy MMORPG like Pantheon. Despite being in a pre-alpha state, VR has created a proof of concept around a few zones that represents a fully functioning and playable MMO. This is no small accomplishment when you consider the tiny size of the team and their current modest funding levels.
As someone who writes about MMORPG design, the team at VR has been enthusiastic and receptive to my feedback. In the few months that I have been able to log on occasionally I have noticed substantive progress each time. Slowly but surely there’s a sense of high fantasy magic that is starting to emerge. Tiny details like fireflies that hover near campfires or mist rising from a bog are materializing each day. The graphics have improved drastically. Thanks to talented artist and world builder John Diasparra the zone design is also improving with better flow, more points of interest and ample areas for the player to explore. Combat is starting to improve with more responsiveness, tuning and balancing. Named creatures are starting to show up as well.
According to the VR devs, all of the pre-alpha Milestone 1 items have been now been accomplished. Milestone 2 will involve the addition of layered new features that are explained in more detail on the website.
A Fly on the Wall Observing the Visionary Realms Team
In our discussions, what impressed me about Brad was his humility and his candor about his history — both successes and failures — in the genre. What impressed me even more is his tenacity; Brad will not quit. His passion and leadership is infectious. Various members of this team have confided to me that these qualities in Brad are what drew them to work for VR and more important it’s what keeps them there. The enthusiasm I have felt from the team is so palpable that to them making a great MMO is not just a job, it’s more of a calling.
The MMO development process is always changing. What worked in 1999 and in 2008 will not work today. I was granted the opportunity to sit in on a few remote meetings with the Pantheon development team and as a person with game design experience in the industry, I can attest that they are conducting regular disciplined, professional meetings that one would expect from a video game company. The Pantheon team is unique in that they work remotely and they check in with regular weekly general meetings. After the general meetings are held specific breakout meetings such as design, art, production, technology and marketing are held to keep the team accountable. Since VR uses the Unity platform it is relatively easy for members to work remotely on the same project — something that would be almost impossible years ago.
It is important to note that VR is not all about Brad McQuaid, rather it’s a cohesive and complimentary team of talented, hardworking, gung ho, MMO loving gamers. These folks are committed to the principles behind Pantheon which is a return and reboot of the fundamentals of gameplay that made EverQuest great along with the additional innovations that compliment those design fundamentals. I know this because over the last few months I’ve had rare opportunity to chat with them one on one and see them interact with each other at meetings.
If you follow Pantheon at all, you soon will realize how enthusiastic the fans are. Seeing their love, their passion, their dedication to Pantheon is truly inspiring. I know these kinds of die-hard people very well because over the years they have sent me heartwarming emails. Sometimes I feel like the Dr. Phil of the classic MMO era. People know that I appreciate and understand their love of fantasy virtual worlds. Most of them are eager to find some kind of fantasy virtual world that they can call home once again. For my part, I just tell them to keep believing and that someday our prayers will be answered.
These intrepid fans have stood by Brad and VR through thick and thin from the EverQuest years to this present day. I don’t mean to be overly sentimental but rarely have I seen fans with this level of loyalty in a video game or a MMO. Often fans and MMO tourists will scatter and leave once a MMO has experienced some setbacks, not the Pantheon fans. They are here for the long haul. This is even more remarkable given that they have nothing to play and can only see the occasional video and screenshot.
The current state of MMO production is not so much a funding problem but a deficit of creativity and new ideas. The design ethos of MMOs has stagnated and atrophied and taken an unhealthy tangent as the industry has lurched toward an ethos of mass acceptance.
We have seen big expansions from some of the biggest MMOs out there flop and a few months later millions of players stop subscribing en masse. Creating a fantasy virtual world that is rewarding and challenging doesn’t necessarily come about by spending millions of dollars and hoping for the best. It’s more about having a purposeful, unswerving vision and a commitment to higher ideals and values and the discipline to apply them to all aspects of your virtual world. It’s about having the wisdom to know what features not to put in that can have the unintended consequences of eroding core gameplay and social interaction. It’s also about bringing together a development team that understands the big picture and realizes the importance of time tested design principles of creating a game world where challenge, consequences, and class interdependency creates the ambrosia of socialization that leads to loyal and passionate player communities.
This is why companies that are returning to the fundamentals of classic MMORPG design are on the right track. The bloated convenience based feature set of current market leading MMOs is just not resonating any more with the MMO public. Many in those communities are wishing they could return to playing earlier versions of their MMO when things were more challenging and there was more social interaction. Private servers of classic EverQuest and classic WoW are everywhere now which serves as more evidence that the MMO public are rebelling against the industry imposed status quo. Dissatisfaction with the current situation is so intense that many of uber raiding guilds have just decided to quit raiding entirely.
Often creating a great MMO is about the timing and being at the right place at the right time. It’s also about having the wisdom to fill a vacuum in the market by providing players with something unique that does not currently exist. Today we have a generation of millions of teens and young adults that grew up with the insanely popular trailblazing sandbox game called Minecraft. Many of the survival aspects of Minecraft’s gameplay were also found in MMORPGs like EverQuest which offered players a harsh and unforgiving world of unstructured adventure. These players are a perfect target audience for a MMORPG like Pantheon that hopes to be the spiritual successor to EverQuest.
Lastly, I didn’t want this article to be some kind of exclusive news scoop or some kind of sneak peak of Pantheon. I just wanted to share with the MMO public some of my experiences getting to know Brad and the various members of the VR team and relate some of my observations while playing Pantheon.
There are some in the MMO community that are skeptical of new MMO companies. They have every right to be as they may have been burned in the past by supporting companies that promised too much and under delivered. Yet, we should never become so jaded and cynical that we throw the baby out with the bathwater. We MMO enthusiasts have to keep believing that the industry can and will start making MMOs that we actually want to play again. This is one fan that believes that Pantheon: Rise of the Fallen can be that MMO.