Reflections on the Upcoming EverQuest Next

Over the years, I’ve probably spent too much time obsessing about my obsession for one particular MMO: which of course is EverQuest. What is it about this enigmatic game/experience/world that keeps haunting me? Pondering EQ’s past, present and future has been somewhat of a fixation for me and many other MMO veterans who long to recreate those heady, magical days we ventured forth into an unknown and foreboding Norrath.

So the news of the announced development of EverQuest 3 or EverQuest Next has been a fascinating addition to this mental hobby of mine. The people that brought us the first 3D MMO, have a great opportunity to put into practice all of the lessons of successful MMO development that have come to light in the past 10 years.

Let me be blunt: as far as I’m concerned, this is SOE’s last chance to get it right.

I’ve been jotting down my thoughts about what I as a game designer would do if given the chance to recreate and reboot the world of EverQuest. It would probably take far too long to create a new series of polished articles on what made EQ great in the first place (search my website for previous articles on EQ for that) and I’m not naive to believe that simply recreating the original EQ would even work given today’s market. Rather I’d like to publish my thoughts in no particular order in a stream of consciousness format.

First let me recap how I feel about the original EverQuest.

How I Feel About EverQuest in 17 Words

Danger. Risk. Survival. Freedom. Mystery. Fantasy. Discovery. Camaraderie. Community. Escape. Defeat. Victory. Gain. Loss. Excellence. Skill. Excitement.

Great art makes you feel something. EQ made me feel many things. Contrast that to today’s heavily scripted MMOs that don’t make me feel anything except contempt. These new breed of slick MMOs are largely a cold, lifeless, predictable and repetitive series of scripted experiences dressed up with beautiful artwork and exquisitely detailed animations.

Like the movie Groundhog Day, today’s MMOs lack capacity to change. And the worst crime of all is that players are not allowed to impact the world as per the decree of the autocratic game designers. Instead of having your own experiences, you must experience their world, their way. Take it or leave it. Not much of a choice is it?

The Magic of EQ Explained

The initial attraction of MMOs for me was that they allowed you to experience many deep and visceral emotions while safely and vicariously playing via an avatar. EverQuest made all of that possible.

In a way MMO’s are akin to the experience of watching a horror movie at the cinema (except that you are a spectator). There you are scared out of your wits but in the back of your mind you know it’s not real and you can leave you seat and resume your safe and predictable life.

EverQuest’s Norrath was a fantastical and unforgiving world where fellow adventurers banded together to try to gain victories over enemies with impossible odds. Nothing was ever easy in Norrath and we liked it!

You had everything to lose and everything to gain. Player reputation actually counted for something.

Nobody would dare behave like an idiot in public because they knew word would get around and they’d be treated like a pariah and they’d be unable to find groups and advance. And unlike the MMOs today, levels actually meant something. Loot was actually earned not doled out like a welfare check.

Players also had the freedom to self-actualize and to create emergent gameplay. As noted previously, players created their own stories and memories. Contrast this with a tightly scripted and totalitarian philosophy of control that is exemplified by MMOs like Blizzard’s WoW.

If SOE can incorporate 20% of what the original EQ had then they will be on the right track.

Why did SOE Get it Wrong with EQ2?

Those who fail to learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them. SOE needs to take an honest post-mortem look at why EQ2 failed to generate the success of EQ and why it paled in comparison to WoW.

SOE needs to resist the temptation to create a sanitized, newbie friendly world where player freedom is so restricted that drama and conflict have been erased. Many of the features of EQ that gave us so many memories were unwittingly created by the competition that ensued as a result of a limited supply of mobs and scarce resources.

In their desire to create a MMO utopia, the naive EQ2 designers failed to realize the importance of conflict. Blizzard with it’s over-reliance on instancing, also has failed to appreciate the importance of creating a virtual world where there are struggles that need to be overcome. The best struggles of course are between players; after all, massively multi-player games are all about people. How tragic that today’s MMO’s have lost this focus.

The developers of EQ3 should see conflict not as a problem but as a good and noble thing; the glass is hall full if you design it right and have the courage to follow through.

Allow players to change the world. Player created trains were an act of desperation and a cry for help from players who wanted to find a way to impact the world and other players. Players today are frustrated that they don’t really have an impact on their worlds so they end up misbehaving in chat channels.

This idea that struggle and conflict must be replaced by entitlement and convenience is misguided and has infected most MMOs today and made them dull and predictable. This design philosophy was meant to solve many customer service problems inherent with EQ but the result was that ended up discouraging cooperation among players.

Reinventing the MMO Wheel

SOE needs to forget the quest directed on-rails, theme park approach made popular by Blizzard; we already have enough of these paint by numbers MMOs in circulation. Enough is enough.

SOE needs to create a world that is fantastic and magical yet harsh and unforgiving. Players must again fear the unknown and respect the wilderness. Wild means wild. MMOs should not feel like a miniature golf course or a McDonald’s restaurant for kids. Those that want safety and guaranteed outcomes can play Farmville and Frontierville.

For SOE to succeed they are going to have to introduce enough new features to take MMOs to the next level. Simply making a WoW facsimile for Norrath is unacceptable. SOE needs to create shock-waves throughout the MMO world.

SOE needs to propel the MMO experience to the next level if they have any hope of taking the MMO by storm. SOE is going to have to do what Apple did for cell phones when they released the iPhone if they truly want to make an impact on the video game industry.

Analyzing the Competition

Everyone in the business world must do a thorough analysis of the competition. Success is based finding weaknesses in the current market or creating an entirely new market.

SOE should play to their strengths:

  • Respect the established EQ lore not enslaved to someone else’s intellectual property  (i.e. Lord of the Rings).
  • Adopt the original vision of a world where anything can happen — read the mind-blowing and inspirational original official EQ manifesto currently only available at my website.
  • Get off the rails and return to less linear, more open-ended gameplay.
  • Take advantage of the goodwill of your existing fan community – we have thousands of gamers that have played and loved EQ over the years.
  • Cater to adults and adult niche markets (mature adults, female gamers, family guilds, etc.) instead of focusing on pre-teens and teens like Blizzard does with WoW. Players who want a dumbed-down shallow MMO experience already have enough options.

Capitalize on the weaknesses of Blizzard’s WoW:

  • Offer player housing as WoW has no player housing.
  • Offer role-play support and mechanics. WoW has almost zero support and mechanics for role-players.
  • Offer live GM events as WoW has no Live GM events.
  • Provide more opportunities for player freedom and player impact contrasted with WoW’s reliance on heavily scripted quests and narratives — those MMOs will be dead soon anyways
  • Community is a commodity! Blizzard doesn’t understand this. Promote a good community by enforcing chat rule in contrast with Blizzard’s shameful and horrible mismanagement of WoW community which is a cesspool.
  • Implement the original EQ’s accelerated day/night schedule — WoW does this horribly and sentences players who play late at night to a lifetime of eternal darkness.
  • Have different NPCs and mobs spawn during the day and at night – WoW completely misses the boat here.
  • Resist the temptation to regurgitate the sophomoric pop culture references that WoW has in your MMO.

It’s also worth noting that by the time EQ3 is released Blizzard may be releasing their 2nd gen MMO. By the time SOE releases a MMO that can compete with WoW, Blizzard may well be advancing the genre even further into the stratosphere. Other MMOs by 38 Studios and ArenaNet will also be out by then as well. It’s anyone’s game to win.

More Features and Concepts I’d Like to See in EQ3

Here are some additional thoughts that I’ve put into bullet points regarding EQ3 that I’m too lazy to organize but I figured they might be worth putting out there (Warning: WoW forum posters, ADD and TLDR people skip ahead as this is a long list — you have been warned):

  • Death should mean something. Players won’t respect your world if death is meaningless. Failure without loss or penalty not only makes bad players it removes a sense of risk and excitement from your world. The fear of death is a time-tested way to create community and player interdependency. It brings people together in the real world and it does the same in the virtual world. Death penalties can be gradually introduced into the game.
  • EQ promoted group interdependency — give players reasons to band together. Give all classes castable buffs and unique skills that make every feel valued and wanted.
  • Allow for more freedom and chaos as that creates drama, tension and conflict which are essential to give a world meaning and immediacy. Don’t fall into the WoW trap of limited player freedom.
  • Allow soloing but don’t promote it. Promote grouping and player interdependence but don’t penalize soloing.
  • Do not blindly accept the notion that your MMO needs to have instancing in order to be a success. Instancing is bad and lazy game design.
  • If you are going to capitulate to instancing at the very least dungeons should have a communal and competitive aspect.
  • The idea of quests as done by Blizzard WoW needs to be completely avoided as the prime focus of gameplay.
  • Quests should be rare and special. No player should be able to have 25 quests running at once.
  • NPC’s need to be vastly improved with regard to interactivity with players.
  • Raids in MMOs are akin to learning how to do a complex dance routine. This is a MMO, not Riverdance. Give mobs better AI which will keep players on their toes and make them think.
  • Stop leashing NPCs. No more Stepford Wives NPC behavior.
  • Don’t allow addons to do the players thinking for them. If  your MMO is too complicated that it needs addons then reduce the complexity. Points at Blizzard.
  • Resist the temptation to shower players with too much loot. Loot should be earned, not bestowed.
  • Possibly a browser MMO? Free Realms engine proves it can be done.
  • Planning a MMO these days is an advantage based on the past 10 years of successes and failures.
  • Bring back a need to socialize and to build up community — good community not chaotic community. Good communities don’t happen by accident. Besides, a good community is a great selling point.
  • Ensure that volunteer guides have a place in the world — empower the kind players in the community.
  • Bring back the warmth and magic of Milo Cooper’s stylized original character artwork that was a big part of the magic of EQ.
  • Hire real GMs (gamemasters) that actual proactively police the server and watch out for gold spammers, hackers and player harassment.
  • EQ was largely a work in progress with very little planning ahead for expansions. Also many decisions were made at the beginning which affected how the game would evolve such as zone borders, trains, camping, open dungeons
  • One thing is certain the graphics have to be outstanding. The days of ugly avatars that look like androids are over.
  • Confuse and befuddle the powergamers and min-maxers — they are the angels of death of your MMO. By creating new paradigms for EQ3 everyone will be equal at the start.
  • Figure out a way to make spoiler sites irrelevant. Perhaps procedurally created quests/tasks and loot.
  • Bring back live events, random events and unique event experiences.
  • Keep Station Money out of the game as much as possible. Not only is begging for your customers money shameful, it also destroys immersion. Remember immersion?
  • SOE you need to figure out: who directs the player experience? The game designers or the players? Questing vs. player freedom? Hopefully you answered correctly.
  • Slow down the speed of player advancement. Advancement is not a right, it is a privilege. Players will grind to the level cap and then complain that they are bored and this creates a top heavy world and a ghost-town in the lower levels.
  • Resist the temptation to create disposable content that lacks replayability. The problem with many new MMOs like WoW is that when you are in a new zone, you feel like you are just passing through as you’re there briefly much like a tourist; you complete a few quests then it’s on to the next zone. Let players live and settle in a zone; make them feel like they belong. Let them get involved in the local culture and delve into factional disputes.

It’s Time to Change the Rules of the Game

More importantly EQ3 has to be a game changer. It should challenge and revolutionize everything we know about MMOs. That’s the only way to get the magic back. Magic after all is no longer magic once you know how the trick works. But in a risk averse world can SOE come up with something as compelling as the DIKU MUD in 3D formula that the original EQ had? It may take a miracle.

We need to be truthful and honest about the state of MMOs in 2010 and it’s this: MMOs are predictable and lifeless. This has led to the state of affairs where they have become completely deconstructed and demystified by most players. A symptom of this is that the practice of Theorycrafting has become the prime MMO player preoccupation. Players agonize over stats. Mathematics is not exciting. We are supposed to be adventurers not accountants!

SOE needs to create a sense of mystery all over and completely redefine and bury the equations and formulae from the curious eyes of the power gamers. As Raph Koster has said and I’m paraphrasing: when we learn, we have fun. Discovering and learning a new code needs to be part of the new EQ3. That’s going to take a lot of bold thinking in a MMO world dominated by the success Blizzard’s WoW.

Reflections from the Evercracked Documentary

After watching the entire Evercracked documentary I could not help feeling that SOE got lucky with EverQuest. It was a unique MMO that came out at the right time with many converging trends in technology such as graphic cards capable of 3D (remember 3DFX video cards?) and the ascendancy of the Internet and online gaming itself.

Luck aside, I do believe it was the backgrounds and experience of the people who created EQ who really made the difference. They were people who played MUDS, they played pen and paper games like Dungeons & Dragons. They really seemed to understand and appreciate the importance of role-playing and immersion. Contrast this with the people who are presently creating WoW and there is a universe of difference. There seems to be a generational shift and it shows.

Many of the older RPG’s used classic fantasy archetypes and of course character classes. These were well defined elements that were perfected over the period of many years. EQ needs to get back to the basics of what works. As one person at the Fanfaire EQ Next panel said:

With the original EQ I had 7 spell buttons, with EQ2 I had 52 buttons.

Today the average class in a MMO is swamped with too many abilities and buttons to press. Less is more. Simplify.

Lessons from Blizzard

There’s a big difference in simply copying WoW and making a clone and copying the Blizzard development philosophy. Here are things that Blizzard does well that any MMO company including SOE should copy:

  • Easy to Learn Hard to Master – This mantra is a given in the industry. Failure to design your MMO this way means certain failure. (Note: this design philosophy was in fact coined by Atari founder Nolan Bushnell (not Blizzard) the father of video games many years ago which self-appointed custodians of all knowledge Wikipedia completely fails to mention.
  • Do Not Release It Until It’s Ready – This is another standard that needs to be adhered to. The days of releasing barely tested, buggy garbage are over. SOE has been guilty of violating this rule on many occasions. In the past they emphasized quantity of expansions over quality and it was the cause for the demise of the original EQ.
  • Stylized Art Direction – Realism is not a substitute for art direction in MMOs — especially for fantasy MMOs (Vanguard MMO screwed up here). SOE seems to have learned this lesson as evidenced with Free Realms and the exhortations of SOE employees at the recent Fanfaire EQ3 Panel.

Is SOE’s Corporate Culture Up to the Task?

With SOE over the years I’ve never gotten the feeling that it was a company that wanted to take gaming to the next level — something that Blizzard did with a culture of polish and development. Rather, SOE has seemed content to play it safe and “stay the course” so to speak.

I’m also very concerned about the corporate culture at SOE. I’ve heard horror stories from former employees over the years of overly aggressive and arbitrary managers. I’ve experienced direct outright incompetence, misconduct, favoritism back when I was a Senior Guide for EverQuest and heard of stories of cronyism perpetrated by certain SOE employees from impeccable sources.

The old boys club corporate culture at SOE where office politics and brown nosing is rewarded and people rise to the level of their incompetence hardly seems conducive to fostering the kind of environment where great video games are created.

Another requirement for EQ3 to succeed is that SOE will have to abandon the old ways of thinking that put all of their resources into placating established hardcore players with content and forgetting newbie players. This is the tragic mistake that characterized most of the expansions of the original EverQuest. The days of creating content that requires you to raid for 4-6 hours every night are over if they ever hope to entice a bigger demographic to play their new MMO.

Concluding Thoughts

Ten years ago the MMO universe was completely dominated by EverQuest. EQ was practically the only game in town. As EQ matured it developed some serious problems along the way which I chronicled in my 2004 Open Letter to SOE. Little by little what made EQ a masterpiece has been gutted in favor of appealing to the lowest common denominator.

SOE needs to reclaim EQ’s past greatness and legacy — only if they show courage and fortitude to stop relying on the focus groups, the bean counters, the metrics and the demographics to design their MMO.

Despite the odds being stacked against them, I’m very bullish on SOE and EQ3. I want them to succeed because we need serious alternatives to the Blizzard stranglehold of this industry.

EQ3 is SOE’s last chance to finally get it right and put SOE once again in the forefront of MMO development. For SOE to once again make magic they’re going to have to be able to compete with Blizzard Entertainment dominance of the MMO genre. This means that at the very least, SOE’s development philosophy (see Blizzard lessons above) will have to match and exceed Blizzard’s if they have any chance of succeeding.

Not only does the MMO need to be invented, SOE needs to be reinvented and EverQuest3 is a good chance to do it. There is no going back to the old ways of releasing buggy, unfinished, lackluster content. SOE will have to substantively change the way they make MMOs if they ever hope to dominate the market once again and produce a MMO worthy of the EverQuest name.

It’s time to lead, not follow. The ball is in your court Mr. Smedley.

-Wolfshead

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