EverQuest Next: I Want to Believe Again

EQ Next logo smallIt’s been a frustrating couple of years for the MMORPG genre and its devotees. The once mighty Blizzard Entertainment has had to suffer the embarrassment of years of declining subscriptions to their once bloated cash cow World of Warcraft. Even one of their former developers rightly blamed them for the demise of the genre. Perhaps the release of the first WoW children’s book will turn things around for them.

To add to the embarrassment, their upcoming MMO Project Titan — allegedly staffed with A-list talent — has been delayed until 2016; if it’s ever released it will be a MMO 8 long years in the making. Suddenly the smartest guys in the MMO room don’t seem that smart anymore. Perhaps they never really were that smart since they essentially just copied EverQuest, removed 50% of the mechanics and added in $60 million dollars worth of polish.

Then factor in those unfortunate companies that blindly imitated the WoW amusement park MMO formula: such as the tragic debacle of Curt Schilling’s 38 Studios Copernicus MMO and the ignominy of EA Bioware’s Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic disaster and you have a decline of epic proportions for the MMORPG industry. Even the ambitious and politically correct Guild Wars 2 was not the savior of the genre that they boldly proclaimed themselves to be.

After 9 years of being bludgeoned by the Blizzard formula of creating theme park style MMO’s, the online gaming public has finally had enough. After years of writing about MMO’s and feeling helpless and continually betrayed, I too had enough and stopped writing a once beloved genre.

Losing My MMO Religion

One of the most important elements in any kind of art whether it be a novel, a film or even a virtual world is the ability of the art to cause the viewer experience a suspension of disbelief. When that mystical process is firing on all cylinders you have art that transports and elevates you. Only then can you cross the threshold and become a believer. I lost my belief in MMORPGs. I sense that many more have too.

How did that happen?

We got to this point because developing MMOs became about making money by offering players cheap thrills. Design was replaced by metrics. Companies put short-term profits over principles and they lost sight of what virtual worlds were all about: community. Which brings us full circle to 2013 and back to EverQuest.

The original EverQuest was designed from the ground up by people who loved RPGs. There were no metrics involved or meetings about subscriber retention that shackle today’s MMO studios. EverQuest was created by developers who possessed a pure design ethos — they just wanted to make an amazing 3D fantasy MMORPG.

Since it was a massively multiplayer online role-playing game it was purposely built with player interdependence in mind. Almost every feature of EQ required some form of player interaction with other players. From grouping, to transportation and back then, players even were known to speak to each other: they called it chat. Sadly, that fundamental raison d’etre of virtual worlds was ignored by the new breed of hot shot MMO developers like Blizzard and their band of giddy sycophantic followers.

A strange thing happened as EverQuest became popular: communities formed and a social and cultural phenomenon was born.

Mesmerized by the success of WoW, not one fantasy MMORPG company had ever successfully carried the torch that EverQuest had bequeathed to them — that goes for EverQuest 2 as well. The promise and potential of fantasy virtual worlds was ignored and replaced by an amusement park design philosophy concocted to appeal to the lowest common denominator.

Will EQ Next make believers of us again?

Enter EverQuest Next

With the upcoming unveiling of EverQuest Next at the SOE Live Event in Las Vegas a spark of interest has reawakening in me like the memory of a long lost love. Even though my memories are tinged with nostalgia and rose colored glasses, I have to admit the EverQuest experience runs deep in my veins.

I’m starting to care and hope again that perhaps a return to the principles that made EverQuest great may actually materialize once again in SOE’s new take on the venerable EverQuest. I’ve even downloaded the exclusive Gabor EverQuest Next wallpaper and installed it on my desktop PC. I feel like the restless Bilbo Baggins now eager for adventure.

EverQuest Next wallpaper

What We Know So Far About EverQuest Next

Very little is known about EQ Next except that it will be free-to-play, sandbox MMORPG that promises to redefine the genre with a surprising emphasis on emergent gameplay and community. After years of being subjected to almost industry wide acceptance of  Blizzard’s flawed design mantra the fact that there is even a MMORPG studio that cares about both of those elements is refreshing and cause for jubilation.

The first mention of EQ Next was in the final pages of the beautiful retrospective book EverQuest: The 10th Anniversary Collector’s Edition released in June 2009.  Other than that we have had a few pieces of concept art released at various SOE Live (formerly Fan Faire) events and mention of SOE’s proprietary ForgeLight engine currently being used on Planetside 2.

Another tidbit recently revealed by a poster in a recent article is that EQ Next is currently in Friends and Family alpha.

In the past months as the official unveiling draws closer, John Smedley and company have been releasing various tidbits of information and even given us the names of the developers. Helming EQ Next is the enigmatic and jovial Executive Producer Dave Georgeson. This guy actually talks with passion and conviction about the EverQuest franchise and I want to believe in Norrath all over again.

(To view the EQ Next portion of the video go to 13:30)

Of particular interest to the veteran EQ fans is that both Brad McQuaid and Jeff Butler are working on the project. This time Jeff  is the Creative Director and Brad is a mere game designer. Almost 8 years ago to the day, I interviewed Jeff Butler in Las Vegas at Planet Hollywood about Vanguard: Saga of Heroes and I was thoroughly impressed with his vision and depth of understanding for what makes for a great fantasy MMORPGs. I always felt that Jeff was one of the unsung heroes of the original EverQuest dev team. Alas, due to leadership problems and tussles with Microsoft that MMO turned out to be a major fiasco.

Easily the best EQ Next article I’ve read so far, John Smedley revealed to an October of 2012 interview with Massively’s Karen Bryan, that SOE scrapped the first version of EQ Next:

Massively: Let’s start with EQ Next. When did you make the call to scrap everything? What was it that made you choose to do so?

John Smedley: A year and a half ago, we made that decision. I didn’t get to cover this in the keynote, so I should mention it here. The engine and underlying technology has not changed. A lot of the guts and infrastructure are staying the same. What we’re really changing is what the game is all about, all the design elements. We made one fundamental shift to emergent gameplay.

Of course, one must always be cautious about such claims as we’ve all heard this hype many times before from various companies.

John Smedley is the elder statesmen of the MMORPG community. He’s somehow managed to survive and thrive in a MMO industry paved with empty rhetoric and colossal failures. It’s been a long and strange trip for Smed as he is known to the community. He’s been there all along through the highs of the original rise of EverQuest through to its lows as WoW dominated the MMORPG throne once occupied by SOE. Ultimately the success or failure of the EverQuest franchise rests upon his shoulders.

SOE, Smed and Me

Although I’ve never met or spoke with John Smedley, we go back a long way. Months before the release of WoW in 2004, during the Woody Ahearn led boycott of EverQuest, I penned An Open Letter to SEO and John Smedley that was widely circulated and praised in the EQ community. At the time I had spent many years as a loyal player and as a volunteer Senior Guide for EQ.  As a Senior Guide, in addition to my regular duties I created live quests for Guides and GMs that are still used to this day in EQ.

I invested a big chunk of my life into Norrath, so I felt compelled to speak out and do something to rally the troops and send a message to SOE that they had lost their way and that they needed to focus on what was truly important in MMORPGs: the community not just the uber-raiding guilds. SOE at the time had bungled the EQ franchise by releasing weak and untested expansions. I believe this was due to incompetent management which was creating a dysfunctional culture within SOE. As a volunteer Senior Guide, I got to experience first-hand the incompetence and dysfunction in my dealings with SOE employees and GMs.

EQ Next is Scrapped and Rebooted

One thing worth mentioning is that recently SOE scrapped the first version of EQ Next. I believe Dave Georgeson is a big reason for the pivot. However, for years I and others have been critiquing the WoW MMO model with thoughtful articles and analysis. I have been shouting from the rooftops that the WoW MMO model was ultimately unsustainable. It’s only until SOE saw other MMOs fail that they realized that making  another WoW clone would not cut it that they decided on a new course for EQ Next. Many of us knew that years earlier. Like the ill-fated Titanic heading toward that deadly iceberg, we saw it coming but our cries went upon deaf ears.

Vision is being able to see the future. Seeing the reality around you doesn’t take vision. Better late than never I suppose.

Thank you SOE for Finally Listening

Back in August of 2010, upon hearing the first news that SOE was developing EQ Next I penned an article entitled Reflections on the Upcoming EverQuest Next. While researching this current article I re-read that old article. What struck me is how accurately I predicted the current direction of EQ Next. In the article I mentioned how community was the most important thing they needed to bring back to MMORPGs and how emergent gameplay and allowing the player to be part of a dynamic world were paramount for the success of the upcoming EQ Next.

At the time, my article was one of the few articles on EQ Next and I know it got a lot of attention in the EQ community due to mentions and site traffic stats. If only SOE had actually read my article and taken my suggestions to heart, they could have easily saved themselves 2 years of development time and resources. Instead they went ahead and created EverQuest 2.5 which John Smedley admitted was uninspired and brought on Georgeson to completely reboot the MMO.

The Three Design Considerations for EQ Next Developers

Everything that needs to be said about what EQ Next needs, I said in my previous article. However, there are still some points that need to be re-emphasized given the wisdom gained from the passage of time.

For EQ Next to be successful, the devs will have to consider lessons learned in three time periods of MMORPG design and combine them into one cohesive experience. Inspired by Charles Dickens “A Christmas Carol” these lessons are:

  1. The Past – Leveraging the Vast Legacy of the EverQuest Franchise
  2. The Present – Learning the Lessons from the Current State of the Industry
  3. The Future – The Next in EQ Next — Re-imaging and Re-defining the MMORPG

Leveraging the Rich Legacy of EverQuest

There can be no doubt that EverQuest has a massive treasure trove of features, mechanics and lore from which to mine that would make Tolkien’s Smaug the dragon envious. No MMORPG has ever come close to replicating the sense of pulse-pounding danger that adventurers in Norrath once experienced.

Original EQ players had to survive in a harsh and unforgiving world that had the by-product of creating a tight knit community by bringing people together to face shared adversity. Nothing came easy. All that mattered was survival. Proving your worth and facing extreme challenges seasoned with a healthy balance of risk versus reward made for a compelling experience. Fun didn’t matter; the thrill of the experience was what mattered. Being a part of Norrath was an adrenaline rush that has never been equaled by a host of imitators.

Almost everyone that has ever played it, knows that unique EverQuest “feeling” that no other MMO has been able to duplicate is exactly what the EQ Next should be trying to recreate.

While it’s beyond the scope of this article to explain all of those classic EQ design features that when put together created the end result, here are some that stand out in importance:

1. Harsh Death Penalty and Corpse Runs

Death in a fantasy virtual world needs to have serious consequences. Without a tangible death penalty players will never respect your virtual world. Substantive loss such as experience and requiring players to retrieve their corpses is a basic requirement of bringing back that EverQuest magic. Without the possibility of loss, a virtual world becomes a safe amusement park. Let’s also not forget that a death penalty can be mitigated by player resurrections and corpse finding abilities given to special classes — both are class interdependence design elements that help to strengthen the community.

Failure is not bad; in fact it makes us better players. Pandering creates lazy and  inept players. Sure, some players will hate a MMO company that brings back a harsh death penalty but that is the price of leadership. You’re not here to be popular; you’re here to make the very best virtual world! Uneasy lies head that wears the crown. Better to be hated by many, loved by a few and respected by all.

2. Grouping Must be Encouraged and Soloing Must be Discouraged.

There is no way around the fundamental requirement that at it’s core a fantasy MMORPG should to encourage and promote that players form groups and experience the world together. SOE should reward groups of 2, 3, 4 and more players that band together and give them a synergistic advantage based on complementary class abilities. Grouping creates community. Soloing destroys community.

Needing to group also creates a much better community and better players. Players who behave like idiots soon find out that their reputation will precede them and they won’t get groups. Without groups, they can’t progress.  Little Johnny learns a lesson that he has to behave considerately or he will never get a group.

Allowing easy soloing to the level cap will simply not work and will trivialize the entire world. Players already have scores of MMOs and video games they can play if they are looking for a single player video game. Be bold SOE. Do not give in!

3. Stop the Hero Crap

I think at this point the MMO community is really sick and tired of being spoon fed false praise and constantly told we are HEROES. It’s insulting to our intelligence. EQ Next devs need to focus on the we instead of the me. WoW style quests are a big part of the problem here as they continually force feed players the hero self-esteem mantra. People already get enough bogus self-esteem from parents, teachers and politicians. Telling players they are special breeds self-centered players instead of community-centered players. True heroism is its own reward and a real hero doesn’t require a Flaming Sword of Doom for killing 10 rats.

4. Let Players Form their Own Memories and Make their Own Stories

With WoW, the story became the focal point. The quest designers and storytellers dictated how players should act. Players were herded into an episodic narrative that has no deviation and only one outcome. Players became puppets that blindly went from golden question mark to golden question mark doing the bidding of the quest designer.

Force feeding players stories and that are not their own and instead driving them into the box of contrived narratives is a recipe for disaster and erodes the cooperative spirit which is the bedrock of creating a good community. This is what Blizzard has been doing for years and they have the worst player community in MMO history to show for it.

Note to EQ Next writers: Remember this is not a single-player video game. Please respect the memories and stories of players. It’s not all about YOU lore and quest writers!

5. Quests Should Be Rare and Special

EverQuest had precious few quests and the ones that did exist actually meant something. Just surviving the harsh world was reward enough.  Rarely were there WoW style “to do lists” WoW that distracted players. Nothing will kill EQ Next faster than if SOE inundates players with endless tutorials and quests. Solo quests kill community! Quests have become their own form of transactional grinding in most MMOs that copied WoW.

If there have to be quests, then don’t make obtaining them easy; make players work hard for them by allowing extensive and meaningful two-way conversations with NPCs. With the integration of Storybricks technology hopefully there will be significant opportunity for this to happen.

Also, put expiry times on quests. Give special quests for groups only. Quests should make sense and have a legitimate reason for being completed. If Farmer Brown needs a bucket of water then don’t give thousands of other players the same quest. Make tasks applicable to the NPCs and to the immediate situation around them. If a dragon is burning down the village, don’t allow an NPC to give a quest that has the player going out to collect flowers in the fields.

6. No Instancing

If I were to blame one single feature for the devastation of the MMO genre it would be instancing. Instancing has been a cancer for MMOs. It’s a design cop out. Nothing has destroyed community and the sense of immersion more than the scourge of instancing. Instancing is an abomination to the notion of status. Instancing is a form of virtual world socialism where everyone is entitled to the same content. Instancing creates a sense of entitlement within players.

You can’t have Lord Nagafen — the famous Norrathian dragon — being simultaneously killed hundreds of times each night and thousands of times each week and expect that to not erode the sense of accomplishment for killing a dragon. Instancing is really a virtual world within a virtual world. Instancing is responsible for a host of evils in MMORPGs: it separates players from each other, it creates barriers, it impedes freedom, it devalues achievements and status, it encourages farming and creates a glut of loot. Community dungeons MUST be brought back into EQ Next!

7. Player Drama and Conflict is Good

Both Blizzard and SOE, with WoW and EQ2 fell into the philosophical trap that held that eliminating player conflict was a good thing in a virtual world. They foolishly believed that when players disagree and fight over various things like contested spawns and resources, kill stealing, and trains that it was a bad thing and the game needed to have built in anti-exploit/anti-conflict mechanics built in to stop it. This had the unintended consequences of sanitizing the MMO and treating players like prisoners by taking away their freedoms. As this MMO design malpractice continued, suddenly trains stopped as mobs were put on leashes. You could no longer attack a guard or member of your own faction.

How a MMO studio can promote a rich fantasy world full of drama and conflict on one hand but be against it within the ranks of your playerbase on the other hand is mind-boggling. Emergent gameplay is all about letting the players work it out on their own. Freedom should be promoted instead of curtailed. Players should be allowed to police themselves. Instead of banning griefers, turn them into outlaws. Prevent them from entering cities and banking. Put bounties on their heads that law abiding players can claim.

Allowing conflict will require more GMs but it’s worth it. I want to be part of a world where there is drama and intrigue going on with players. After all this is supposed to be a massively multiplayer online role-playing game not a supervised day care center.

8. No Easy Travel

Nothing makes a world smaller than providing fast means of travel. This is true for the real world as it is true for virtual worlds. Easy travel trivializes all of the hard work that environment artists and world builders and designers put into all of the zones.

Fast travel should only be made available to players via special classes such as wizard and druids. This has the wonderful side-effect of promoting class worth and class interdependence. Another benefit was that players would congregate around druid rings and wizard portals areas in hopes of getting ports. Travel buffs such as the Spirit of Wolf should only be available from select classes as well. Again this encourages class interdependence.

Absolutely no flying mounts for players either. Insta-portals such as the ones that the original EQ had in the Plane of Knowledge were a disaster and made Norrath into a joke. Mounts should only be available at the highest of levels.

Some Bad Things That Don’t Need to be Revived

Finally to be fair, not everything in EQ was perfect. EQ suffered a real lack of continuity of design philosophy, art and in lore that manifested itself as each expansion was released. EQ didn’t age well as the designers started copying WoW and started forsaking what made EQ great. I remember the day they made guards unattackable in Greater Faydark. I thought to myself, this is the beginning of the end.

Another feature that was particularly annoying and egregious was when high level mobs would summon players during battles. This s mechanic was a clear manifestation of bad game design.

Learning the Lessons from the Present

The most obvious lesson culled from the present day is that because of the success of Blizzard’s WoW, players now rightly expect a minimum level of polish in their MMOs.  One area that SOE has continually dropped the ball on this issue in their current line-up of MMOs is the creation of hideous character avatars and the failure to update them.

Another lesson I would emulate from Blizzard is that the world along with combat has to be visually exciting and interesting.

The last Blizzard related lesson is this: don’t remake WoW in any shape or form. According to Smed they have learned that lesson. We shall see.

SOE has also learned another important lesson: free-to-play is here to stay and is now the optimum method of MMO monetization. The problem remains: how can they implement it with integrity and without offending the players and cheapening accomplishments and avoiding the “pay to win” dilemma. I believe there is a way to do this and I’ll talk about at length it in a future article.

The Future: The “Next” in EQ Next

Finally we get to the big one: what is the “next” in EQ Next? Even if the SOE devs took the main design elements from the original EverQuest and added in Blizzard polish combined with updated mechanics it still would not be enough. For EQ Next to really succeed they need to create a seismic shift that is equivalent or greater than the impact the first EverQuest made when they were the first 3D fantasy MMORPG back in 1999.

The first thing the SOE devs need to do is ask WHY. Why have MMOs remained so stagnant and predictable over the years? Every feature and convention that people take for granted should be considered and evaluated. I believe the holy grail of fantasy worlds is the implementation of a living breathing dynamic world.

A Dynamic World with Dynamic NPCs

But a bigger question is WHY NOT? For example, why don’t we have a virtual world where there is true dynamic content instead of the scripted content we have today?

Why can’t we have dynamic content that responds to the actions or inactions of players? Content such as NPCs, structures found in towns and cities and even nature itself should all be dynamic — buildable and destructible. EQ Next should have landscapes that reflect the seasons as well. We have the technology today to pull this off.

Resources should play a big part in a dynamic world. Food and water should be leveraged as a basic commodity subject to supply and demand– you can build an entire fantasy virtual world around that alone! For example, players could engage in hunting and gathering to keep villagers fed and clothed.  If players can help the villagers achieve a certain level of prosperity then the villagers can send more recruits to the feudal lord. If the feudal lord has more soldiers, mages resources, they can protect the villagers actually expand the boundaries of the kingdom. Bring in the importance of other resources such as ore and wood and crafted goods. Of course all of this should fluctuate depending on the level of involvement by the players.

If players choose not to help, the town dies and the feudal lord’s kingdom goes into decline. Seeing weakness orcs and bandits rise from the shadows and dungeons and oppress the villagers and chaos runs through the countryside and to the very gates of the kingdom. Who would not want to be involved in a dynamic world where the contribution of every player was not valued and needed?

One final thought on a dynamic virtual world is that the players alone should control the destiny of their worlds. Stop with the fixed plot lines dictated from on high that every player must conform to. The best example of this is in MMOs like WoW where the story of each expansion is predetermined as the big bad boss of the expansion is destined to die about 2 years into the expansion. This is what happened in Wrath of the Lich King and Cataclysm. What if the players can’t or choose not to kill the uber boss? Why does every server have to have the same outcome?

It’s time to stop the on-rails mentality of current MMO design and allow emergent player behavior in a completely dynamic world.

A Final Warning

I’m fearful that as EQ Next progresses into the future, SOE will fall into the trap of pandering to the ultra-achiever types — you know them as the uber-guild types, the min-maxers, the theory crafters, the number crunchers. The very same thing happened to the original EverQuest. SOE made the mistake of turning EverQuest into a raiding loot fest and forgot about other types of players such as explorers, socializers, killers and role-players.

Ultra-achievers tend to make the most noise in any MMORPG and since they usually kill the most high level and prestige NPC’s they get an disproportionate amount of attention from the devs because these are the players that are defeating the premiere content they created. Devs should resist the temptation to behave like groupies, think about the fans in the audience, not the rock stars on the stage. In other words, make content for everybody!

Another warning I have for the EQ Next devs is they need to be vigilant about going too far in the opposite direction and avoid creating an entitlement culture that has saturated most MMOs these days. Being a part of a virtual world is a privilege, not a right. Too many developers in the past — such as Blizzard — have given away the farm in a misguided effort to appease players. In the process they have devalued their own creations by making them so accessible as to be utterly meaningless which is why subscribers are fleeing in droves worldwide. Think long-term, not short-term.

Developers are the sacred guardians of their virtual worlds. They need to be protective of what they have created and resist the temptation to give in to the short term benefits of pandering to players and fulfilling the desires of shareholders and accountants. It’s time to stop the Blizzard MMO design mindset of appeasing players by making everything easy for them.

With the adoption of the free-to-play model suddenly there are no more subscribers to be coddled and manipulated by gimmickry served up by scheming game developers. Free-to-play just might be the philosophy that saves the MMORPG industry.

Can SOE Pull it Off?

Now for some rain on the parade: you can have the best intentions in the world but without the proper management, culture and talent you are going to either fail or come out with a substandard product. In my previous article on EverQuest Next, I called out SOE for their woefully bad corporate culture and impervious management style.

While reading a very long EQ Next thread at the Rerolled.org forums, I came upon a link to damning and scathing appraisal of SOE by a former employee.

A few paragraphs from this review are especially spot on and worth quoting:

SOE games are not developed to be fun, creative, or rewarding experiences for the player. They are made to drain as much money from them as possible. The diction and vocabulary that dominates meetings is all about sales figures, user retention, exploring new ways to exploit the user, and destroying the competition. They motivate you with the promise of bloated bonuses, royalty checks (which I have never seen in my 5 years), raises, all with the successful launch of a new game. You simply can’t motivate creative people in this way. We didn’t go into games to make us rich, we did it because there we have an inherent passion to use this amazing medium to develop games that will inspire, enrich, and entertain the player. If you make games with the sole purpose to become rich, you’ll neither become rich, or make great games. I believe it’s this simple fundamental flaw in SOE’s leadership that continues to ruin any potential to make great games.

Advice to Senior Management – Gut the management. Find some new blood with a relevant, up to date understanding of the industry and restructure. You’re no longer qualified to make decisions at that level and every time you do you’re making things monumentally worse. Stop hiring temps, outsourcing, people from QA and properly invest in top tier talent. Finally, listen. Trust the people you bring in from the outside. They have great ideas, and are being paid to share the invaluable experience they’ve had working for other more successful developers.

After reading that brutally honest missive and others, it’s very hard to have any kind of enthusiasm or belief that SOE is even capable of producing another hit with John Smedley running the operation as he has been the common denominator throughout the history of EQ. According to the SOE employees, Smedley gets a very unimpressive 30% rating as SOE President. Contrast this with Mike Morhaime, the President and CEO of Blizzard Entertainment who has a very favorable 88% rating from employees and that’s cause for great concern.

Given the unique studio culture at Blizzard that produced the massive success of WoW, there is no excuse that John Smedley has not learned from the example of Blizzard and eliminated the stifling management culture at SOE. After all he’s had 9 years to do this.

One glimmer of hope is that Smedley had the good sense to isolate the EQ Next team in a black box restricted access area within SOE in San Diego. A black box is akin to a closed off petri dish where all of the members of a project can work in isolation free from the influence of the rest of the company. Maybe John has finally seen the light after all. I’m all for giving him the benefit of the doubt just one more time.

As I said in my previous article, this is the last chance for SOE to get it right. I hope that Smed and the management team have the honesty, humility and courage to change themselves from within to nurture a premiere studio culture that can resuscitate, reinvigorate and re-invent the EQ franchise and rescues the MMORPG industry in the process.

Conclusion

Over 8 years ago I started this blog with an article titled I Believe. I found myself still inspired by what virtual worlds could be but I was disillusioned what was happening to the MMORPG genre as a result of both the state EverQuest and the new kid on the block: the seductive World of Warcraft. I was torn between two extremes: EverQuest was too hardcore and WoW was too easy.

But it went beyond that. The negative effect of Blizzard was incalculable.  MMORPGs had been turned into single-player video games. Worlds became games. Players become gamers. The sense of serious adventure went away and was replaced with the notion of cheap fun. I knew from the beginning that WoW was going to dilute and destroy the legacy what fantasy virtual worlds had built up with EverQuest.

All the signs were they for anyone with eyes to see but sadly many MMO companies looked at the success of WoW and sold their souls trying to make replicas. I always championed a different way. I wanted the forgotten people such as casual players, role-players, crafters, PVPers and communities to be better represented in the content and feature set of MMOs.

So here we are in 2013. SOE has made some pretty tall promises with EQ Next. I hope they can live up to the expectations that are out here and really over-deliver. With regard to design philosophy, SOE needs to be bold, confident and unafraid. Changing the MMORPG landscape will encounter heavy resistance from a significant segment of player community that has been addicted to achievement driven gameplay for all these years. Some players might feel lost in a sandbox without the breadcrumbs of quests to show the way. But being lost was the fun of EverQuest!

With online gamers finally burned out by theme-park MMO’s like WoW, EverQuest Next seems like the right MMORPG for the right time.

On a personal note, I will be heading down to Las Vegas to attend SOE Live and will report my findings in a subsequent article. Hopefully I will be able to interview some of the devs and meet some of my friends in the EQ Guide Program. Additionally as the release of EQ Next gets closer, I will keep this blog updated more often as well.

EverQuest has a special place in my heart. Being a part of it for all those years was life-changing for me. Without EverQuest I would never have learned the skills and gained the social confidence to become a game designer and be at the place I am now — creating big things. EverQuest made me a better person and for that I’m grateful.

Years ago, after being burned out from the original EQ I swore I’d never play another MMO by SOE or have anything to do with SOE. I know I should be cautiously optimistic but here I am again, ready to do it all over again. Am I crazy? Probably.

I want to believe again.

-Wolfshead

40 thoughts on “EverQuest Next: I Want to Believe Again

  1. Amazing write up. I’m really, really hoping that they bring back some of that original EQ flavor. There’s a reason why I haven’t been an MMO player for all of these years and those points sum it up.

    Hurry up August 2nd!

  2. “Another feature that was particularly annoying and egregious was when high level mobs would summon players during battles. This s mechanic was a clear manifestation of bad game design. ” I actually thought this was a great game mechanic since it forced agro control on the overall group unless you are referring to just random summoning such as in plane of fear.

    • Hi Ched. I didn’t mind this being used by the gods of Norrath. However SOE used it for most high level mobs regardless of importance. I felt it was a unimaginative and a crutch.

      It got to the point that this mechanic ended up being used by any named mob and high level trash mobs when a player would get to to the top of the NPCs threat/hate list.

      It wasn’t very realistic and immersive to give mobs this ability. I think it would have been much better for the mob to start moving in the direction of the agro “offender” i.e. not the tank. The chaos that would result would be a far greater punishment to the offending player than the summon itself as it would screw up the positioning of all of the melee classes.

      As an aside, I recall as a Senior Guide for EQ, we had the ability to /summon players and the emote was “You have been summoned by the gods!” if I’m not mistaken. This kind of summoning was used for transportation during customer service problems that would come up like stuck players, etc.

  3. Well said, I really want to believe. So tired of the same old package in a different-but-potentially-shinier-wrapper.

  4. Great article. I completely understand where you are coming from. Out of interest, what are your thoughts of EVE Online? This game displays many of the characteristics you have outlined as being essential for good MMO design:

    1. Harsh Death Penalty/Corpse Runs – when you die in EVE you lose your ship, and must earn the ISK to replace it; furthermore, when you die you have to navigate your capsule back to safety before being able to jump in another ship (assuming you have another) and rejoining the fight.
    2. Grouping Encouraged/Soloing Discouraged – almost all significant EVE activity takes place in corporations, alliances and coalitions.
    3. Stop the Hero Crap – meaningful agency in EVE is measured at group level – solo heroes don’t get anywhere in this game, and they are accorded very little prestige for their achievements.
    4. Let Players Make Their Own Stories – EVE arguably has the best meta-game and emergent content out of any of the MMO out there, undiluted by multiple servers. Tons of player generated content attest to this fact. The persistent world is constantly being reshaped by the players.
    5. Quests Should Be Rare and Special – EVE fails this one, as all players have access to the missioning quests, and most of them can be done solo. Quests in EVE seem more an adjunct to the sandbox rather than a central core of the game.
    6. No Instancing – as far as I understand it, all zones including WH are accessible to the general player base, with the exception of special instances reserved for single player mission play.
    7. Player Drama and Conflict is Good – haha this EVE, of course there’s constant drama, and it is usually splashed all over the Internet. As for conflict, EVE just made MMO history by hosting the biggest fight online battle ever, with over 5000 players participating in the battle for Fountain.
    8. No Easy Travel – travel in EVE is tedious, and can be hazardous if it takes a player through low and null security zones.

    I’m not an EVE player myself, but it strikes me as curious that a 10 year old MMO with all the features consistent with the tenets enumerated in your article has a loyal but distinctly smaller membership compared to WoW, even taking into account the latest figures (7.7 million for WoW versus 500,000 for EVE). Do you think that perhaps MMOs as defined by your article are a niche market, and that for such an MMO to overtake WoW as the new paradigm of MMOs is unrealistic? After all, EVE has been around 2 years longer than WoW and while it has clearly built up a dedicated and loyal following, it has never captured a mass market the same way WoW has. Is it even desirable to try an push a new paradigm of MMOs (which is not really new, given that EVE and EQ have already displayed these features) to a mass market, but rather, like the developers of Camelot Unchained, accept that the target demographic is necessarily limited to a certain approach and play style and tailor their product to meet those expectations?

    • a) EVE is primarily a PVP MMO, which is why the subs are so low. Sure, it has a good chunk of PVE in it, but the advertised activity is blowing up other players’ ships.

      b) EVE is sci-fi, which also limits subs. People are just more interested in fantasy settings.

  5. I agree of most of what was stated in this post. I would still commend some caution when describing WoW as a themepark with regards to an early comparison of EQ and vanilla WoW in 2004/5 – at that point in time, it was more of a hybrid of both models, and perhaps that is what made it so successful. While there was lots of solo play, grouping was not discouraged – it was encouraged under certain conditions (dungeons, group quests, etc). To a demographic that could or would not be social 100% of the time as a requisite to play a game, it meant that they could do something during the downtime of their social activity. And even though it had instanced content, it also was worldly enough that PvP sprung up everywhere, and certain locations were considered warzones. Quests were not rare, but good quests that made you to some extent heroic were, and involved a lot of effort (Scepter of the Shifting Sands, the Missing Diplomat, etc). The other quests were mainly excuses to get you involved in killing or exploring an area, while some of them were actually pretty cool (the Wintergrasp mechanical yeti).

    I do agree with you in that WoW, even in this hybrid state, did a lot of damage to the core of the MMO experience, especially with the subsequent expansions that cut out on grouping content and made the world ever more single-player. But at its onset WoW vanilla was merely a milder, more polished, and more casual-friendly experience for the EQ sandboxer. I believe that they could not have easily maintained that middle ground position without their playerbase asking for more in one direction or the other – and they did lean towards what was the wrong side, most noticeably with Wrath of the Looking for Group.

    @Duke of O:
    I believe EVE did not attract a larger fanbase because of several reasons: a) lack of a personal avatar (commanding a fleet is not the same as seeing your little person grow); b) sci-fi, outer space setting (not the same as sci-fi in-planet setting. Space can be beautiful, but it is too unfamiliar and ungraspable. People want to become attached to familiar terrains, not to flying rocks); c) inaccessibility and no effective level cap (it is impossible for the new player to catch up with those that had been there for years – why bother?), d) toxic community (from what I have read on their forums they do not seem like a very welcoming bunch. They seemed to act in the detached manner of elitist jerks or trolls). There are certainly more, and some of these may be disputed. This was a quick summary of my very fallible feelings on a topic that ought to be granted a large post.

  6. Perhaps, Mr. Wolfshead, instead of dreaming, hoping, and trying to believe that your utopian mmorpg world will come about through EQ Next, maybe you should gather some people in the biz and create your own game. I believe you could do it. Your ideas/ideals make perfect sense (even though I resisted some of them at first.) You have great insight into what makes a great sustainable game. Obviously, it takes great resources, the right connections, and a bit of luck to get the ball rolling, but dreams will always be dreams unless you pursue them. Do you truly believe?

    • Hi Daver, thanks for your kind words. I do believe! My ultimate dream is to make a fantasy world based on my own ideas that I’ve been formulating over the years. I don’t go into specifics on this blog because I don’t want my ideas stolen as MMO devs are notorious for stealing ideas and not bothering to give bloggers and essayists credit from my experience.

  7. Pingback: Projecting on to EverQuest Next | The Ancient Gaming Noob

  8. Pingback: I want to believe in EQ Next | Welcome to Spinksville!

  9. Like a few others have said, I can’t believe how similar your view is to my own. I mean almost word for word… its scary.

    These concepts seem to be so foreign to gamers today, including those who played Everquest. I’ve been arguing literally every point in this article for almost a decade across major (and minor) MMO forums, but never so extensively and inclusively as you did here.

    This should be a in a textbook for MMO game design and be absolute required reading in any accredited school with thorough testing for comprehension.

    Bravo sir. You have another devoted follower to this blog and my only regret is not finding it sooner.

    For the sake of MMO-kind, lets all hope SOE is well acquainted with your work.

  10. this article would hold more weight if it wasn’t a bash session on WoW. The wow model isn’t the end of mmorpgs nor is the fact its lost subscribers meaning it failed… the game is over a decade old, which is longer than EQ lasted and its a model that worked for them. the problem is that everyone tries to copy it and that’s why they all fail. I played EQ for over 7 years and even did some beta, it does require a lot more time and effort than wow’s log on and do stuff. and i agree once money and subscriptions isn’t the main goal of these games mmorpg are all just doomed to fail.

  11. Interesting read but attacking the current leader, flawed as it is , is just school yard antics. I agree with the assessment that WoW has simplified and dulled the MMORPG landscape, but the harder core offerings do not attract the numbers the easier stuff does. that in itself should be an indication of what the people want (majority, not all). EQ was and will always be the “game” , the one that will always be remembered well. But a quick jaunt back , even with its Wow like easier leveling and such it not a good game by today’s standards. Nice to revisit, like your old room at home, but you don’t want to move back. Everybody (myslef included) wants that feeling of playing EQ one.. but like your first crush, love, car, etc.. you cant relive it.. you need to move on and enjoy new things.. I think there is far to much “just like EQ” NOBODY (well hardly anybody) would play it.. EQ was great for its day, but its design shows massive aging and problems now days (even if they updated it graphically). here is to hoping EQ Next is NEW, and good.. but not just EQ with a new coat of paint.

    • If you guys think the point if the article was WoW, you missed out. All his points were fully validated and explained. The departure from the qualities that made MMOs challenging, competitive and thus, immersive, have been Blizzard’s MO from the start to cater to larger crowds and make more money. While that doesn’t make them inherently bad, it has led to the degeneration of the genre.

      WoW isn’t the point. The industries inability to get past their covetousness and start making quality MMOs again is.

  12. Awesome article. I hope this brings back the feel of original EQ for me. I am so amped for tomorrow to see what SOE unveils

    Cheers

  13. Great Article Seriously. I want to group with people in EQ god the community aspect was amazing! I’m going to share this article.

  14. Very well written and extremely articulate. Like many have said, you have described what we are thinking. I am currently at SOELive and have seen a lot re: EQNext and chatted with quite a few ppl here (incl a couple Sony Dev’s). I’m honestly not surprised at what I am seeing here.

  15. I was so stoked for this, especially after reading your fantastic article.
    Then I saw the reveal of Tony the Tiger wearing transformer armor and I felt a sinking sensation in my stomach, but I held out hope, afterall gameplay is more important than graphics anyway.

    Then I watched the Q&A panels where the devs said they are moving away from the Trinity system, 8 skills on the hotbar, and no set classes or levels…
    …I started drinking until I passed out.

    Now I’m here, barely holding onto the dream of greatness that this game can possibly still live up to?
    I need one of you guys to give me a pep talk and tell me it’s all going to be okay.
    Please.

  16. I just got back from SOE Live and my head is spinning. It’s been quite a rollercoaster ride. Regarding EQ Next and the possibility it may be great: one moment I’m happy, the next sad.

    I’ve been furiously working on writing my SOE Live report article. I hope to have it ready in a few days as time permits.

    For EQ veterans that want a return to the days of a world where status is hard worn and community is forged by adversity and to those that have found the WoW MMO shallow and tiresome, there is hope to found in EQ Next. I’ll share that with you soon!

  17. Can’t wait for your blog Wolfshead. I’ve been hitting the refresh key once to many on your site, hoping for an update :)

    I’m not scared for the graphics and I’m all for the designed style instead of going for as real as possible, which haven’t worked for an MMO so far for me.

    Skills over levels will have the advantage of not having to up max level at every expansion and therefore make lots of content around the world useless. As long as its done properly ofcourse.

    I’m definitely positive, but far from hyping it. I’ve seen way to little to hype anything yet.

  18. Once I got past your “I told them to do this” and “I came up with this first” rhetoric, I found your article to be quite enjoyable. As a 6-year vet of WoW (and more recently, SWTOR survivor) I find the themepark world they provide to be barren of life and character. I have zero investment in any of it.

    But when I watched the EQNext presentation … I got it. I understood what the old MMOers in my guild talked about when we brought up EQ. I completely understand and I sincerely hope that EQNext is the answer.

    Goddamn, I want to believe. Excellent article.

  19. Like Wolfshead said, I’m so conflicted because I love the fact that the genre is progressing with more dynamic content, but question its feasibility when they try to remove intelligent role based combat and the true player interdependence that made Everquest hard and caused us all to become so involved in the world.

    The panels were filled with straw dummy arguments about how players were “so restricted” by having to rely on certain classes in games of the past (EQ1), but then, instead of making the rational adjustments in EQ Next by offering a variety of classes to fulfill those roles, they throw the baby out with the bathwater and go with the chaos combat system where everyone becomes a dps class. I mean, they’re already allowing class switching AND multi-classing, and their conclusion was to go one step further and toss out role based combat as well!? Don’t kid me, I heard that they said there would be “some healing” or some support classes, but its more than obvious that they’ve come to the conclusion that they must tear down every convention in order to innovate.

    On the other hand, I’m hugely excited about so much of EQN. Everything from the lore, to the destruction and crafting potential. Dynamic events, AI that allows npcs to work together, build camps and even ambush players, has been long awaited.

    I guess I’m just afraid that all those great new features will never make up for the loss of crucial MMORPG elements that they seem to be hellbent on removing.

  20. Pingback: Everquest Next and MMOs. | The Noisy Rogue

  21. Wow what an article! Holy hoot was that one of the best articles on MMORPGs I’ve ever read.

    I love the way you push for permanent death or harsher death penalties. The thing about games and real life is that if you don’t have a losing condition, you don’t have a winning condition.

    And if you remove the death penalty, you create a linear game in which all players eventually hit the end of progression and thus you end up with a top-heavy game with a lot of wasted content.

    Also, death penalty opens so many interesting doors for new and relatively unexplored concepts such as necromancy, resurrection (oh god the possibilities).

    But onwards to the grouping thing. I’m all for the MMO to be structured in a way that you need to communicate with people to get what you want. In fact, I think the goal all virtual worlds should strive to is to eventually replace all the NPCs that are gateways to progression with players.

    But forced grouping is something I never enjoyed, no matter what the reward for that is. In fact, it’s actually the thing I’m escaping from, not the thing I want to escape to. I was fully satisfied running in few crafted epics, greens and blues through the whole Classic WoW as long as I did not have to put up with the group think and the group activities.

    But I do understand that players like me are thought as disease in MMO communities, but it’s only because the games are designed in such a way that there are no ways for us to support the community or be a part of the world while enjoying the comfort of being an outsider. It’s such an unexplored area in game design and there are plenty of ways to do it.

  22. I think the most basic design decision any new MMORPG design must face is whether you want to the point of the game to be about players striving to get ahead and succeed, or is the point for them to have a fun ride. The latter is the more “traditional” role for all games throughout history, and many traditional games like chess or even Sudoku have survived because they are so difficult to master. However, I think what Blizzard figured out is there are a lot more people, who don’t really play games (they would never play chess or Sudoku) that could be hooked in by a game that just offered a fun ride. Maybe we are just now entering an age where people are willing to recognize there’s more than one type of player looking for more than one type of experience and the future of MMORPGs is to figure out who you want to appeal to and optimize for that player, not try to be all things to all players.

  23. Great article. EQN (and EQNL) do not give me any hope. They are trying to cash in on the popularity of MOBAs and Minecraft. That’s all EQN/EQNL are. They should have never been based on the Everquest franchise or used that name since they bear no resemblance to that franchise other than forced reimagination of Everquest lore into that cartoony world to give them a plausible excuse for calling it Everquest. The real reason it’s called Everquest is just for the hype purposes – it gets people interested in a project they probably otherwise wouldn’t be.

    My hope is that Brad McQuaid comes up with the next great sandbox MMO that plays like EQ1 and contains EQ1’s level of challenge and immersion (as well as class distinction, a return to vertical rather than horizontal advancement, etc.).

    I’m also following Camelot Unchained, which although it’s PVP-only, is being made by another great game maker who doesn’t believe in trivializing everything just to keep short-term MMO players happy and blissfully unaware that the game is playing them rather than vice versa.

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