20 Questions for EverQuest’s Lead Content Director Alan VanCouvering

One of most remarkable stories in the video game industry is the inexplicable longevity of Allan “Absor” VanCouvering’s illustrious career working on the venerable EverQuest MMORPG. Love him or hate him, we must give Alan credit for not getting fired or laid off after 21 years of continued employment.

In today’s fast-paced world, the average time a person spends at a company is 2-3 years. So Alan’s two decades long occupancy at SOE/Daybreak — a studio known for constant layoffs — is a modern day miracle worthy of investigation by the Vatican.

Somehow Alan managed to stay under the radar and evade the axe of the corporate hatchet man. Maybe he did it via skill, guile, via the seniority system, or a combination of all three. Like the stapler guy in Office Space, Alan is a Teflon coated bolted-down-to-the-ground fixture at Darkpaw and probably the only person left with vast and incalculable institutional knowledge of all things EverQuest. In our transient culture, that kind of person is an invaluable and often underappreciated asset in corporate America.

With all the recent departures of talent leaving Darkpaw Games for Blizzard, there can be no doubt that for all intents and purposes, Alan a former blogger and community manager, is now in charge of EverQuest. Ultimately, any change or suggestion for EverQuest must go through him.

Recently Alan was honored by Darkpaw Games with a Get To Your Your Dev: Episode 5 interview. Alan was presented with some typical softball questions which he dutifully hit out of the ballpark. Here they are:

How did you come to work on EverQuest?

How long have you been working on EQ?

What was the first project you worked on for EQ?

What is the favorite project that you’ve worked on for EQ?

What advice do you have for someone that wants to break into the game industry?

Who or what is your favorite character or item in EverQuest?

What do you know now that you wish you knew when you started?

Final question, what do you love most about working on EQ?

Missing from this litany of hard-hitting questions is:

What is your favorite color?

But let’s give the devil his due, Alan does manage to provide those poor souls who aspire to work in the video game industry with a few tidbits of sage advice about finding confidence in meetings. I too am shy in real life and I had similar problems finding the confidence to speak up in meeting rooms populated by a surpluses of ambitious alpha males who were always monopolizing the conversation in the video game industry. Introverts and analytical personalities don’t do well at company meetings, they need time to think things through, so they are at a great disadvantage when meeting are run by unsympathetic managers who don’t understand or appreciate them.

What concerns me, is not how clever Alan is or how he managed to stay employed all these years, but the depth of his current passion for EQ and how that translates into the state of this 22 year old MMORPG.

While I appreciate that it’s not easy to keep the fires of creative passion burning for 21 years, I am not aware of any treatises or essays that Alan has written that expresses his vision of what a fantasy virtual world could be or should be. By this stage in his career I would certainly hope that Alan is more than just a mere caretaker of Brad McQuaid’s vision of EverQuest and that he has come to believe in certain axioms about fantasy virtual worlds that he would have no trouble expounding at length to the community at large.

Maybe Alan’s reticence to share his vision — if he even has one — is the secret to his longevity. Perhaps it is better to be silent and thought a fool, than to speak and leave no doubt.

If we are really honest, we must admit that whoever leads the geriatric EverQuest in 2021 is like someone who runs an opium den. No matter how much developer negligence, laziness, lack of imagination, and the disgraceful paucity of resources allocated to EQ over the years, loyal addicts are their own worst enemies and always return for more. Like a battered wife, no matter how much they are abused by SOE/Daybreak/Darkpaw they continue to purchase Krono, pay to win potions, and various gimmicks purchasable via the DBG Cash Shop. EQ devs know this all to well which explains a lot about their current status quo mindset.

In the past few years, it has been revealed that EverQuest is a fat cash cow that takes in far more money for Daybreak than it costs to maintain and gets very little reinvested back into the MMO.

Not every EQ player is a drooling addict. Some of us have not forgotten the real EverQuest that existed before the addition of horrible character graphics, half-baked expansions, money grubbing cash shops with questionable pay to win mechanics, mercenaries, and ludicrous LGBTQ Pride Month pets. We still remember the golden age of EverQuest when talented developers had high standards actually cared about delivering a high quality immersive player experience. We remember a Norrath where danger lurked behind every corner and there was magic in the air and the the only agenda the devs cared about was creating a majestic fantasy virtual world.

Back then, anything could happen in Norrath from an undead invasions to impromptu visits by the gods. The EverQuest of today is but a mere shadow of its former self thanks to a plague of greedy absentee owners, despicable management, and cadre of jaded “going through the motions” devs promoted to the level of their incompetence.

SOE and then Daybreak Games have a long history of betraying their loyal fans and missing the mark with the flawed EverQuest 2 and the infamous EverQuest Next debacle. No person bears more responsibility for the failure of the EverQuest franchise to reach its full potential than John Smedley who is now working for Amazon Games on an unannounced MMO. Smedley has the reverse King Midas touch. If that’s not bad enough, SOE and Daybreak Games have the worst record of cancelled projects in video game history under Smedley’s checkered tenure.

Only in a company founded by Japanese values where employees are married to the company for life in exchange for guaranteed lifetime employment, is it possible to build a career on cronyism and mediocrity. Therefore anyone hired by John Smedley and Sony Online Entertainment must be viewed with suspicion.

There are no modern day Furor’s or Tigole’s left to hold Daybreak Games accountable. The video game media staffed with woke millennials has become shills for the industry. Most serious players have moved on to other MMORPGs and other genres. EverQuest is as passé as fondue and legwarmers. Player activists have given up in frustration as a corporate culture of incompetence, deception, greed, and failure has won a long war of attrition. The broken promises of both EverQuest Next and Landmark drove a stake in the heart of thousands of loyal fans that gave their time and money to to “help build a new EverQuest.”

If a new EverQuest does get announced, I believe that as long as Daybreak Games has anything to do with it, it will be met with healthy skepticism and extreme prejudice.

Along with woeful upper management that exhibits all the usual flaws of incompetence and cronyism, a culture of secrecy, and brazen contempt for players is a big part of the problem at Daybreak Games over the years. This is exactly what happens when long time employees believe they are indispensable and untouchable. Just go down to your local post office and wait in line to see this kind of attitude from employees if you dare. If EQ devs would make more of an effort to show some humility and engage in respectful back and forth dialogue with players, EverQuest would be far better for it.

To be honest, I don’t really know anything about the reclusive Alan VanCouvering with the exception that he’s been working on EverQuest forever, he’s flippant, he’s sarcastic, tries too hard to be clever, and that he’s known to be grumpy. Regarding his MMO design acumen, it is my observation that over the years, he’s acquired a lot of bad habits with regard to the overuse of immunities for NPCs. Immunity to stun, snare, root, mesmerization, fear, etc. are crutches and are a product of a lazy game design ethos that started to creep into the cannon of the EverQuest design bible at round the time of the Shadows of Luclin expansion. Overpowered NPCs that can magically summon players to their location with for no appreciable rhyme or reason, is yet another example of terrible MMORPG game design and contempt for players that still exists to this very day in EverQuest.

I don’t get the feeling that Alan particularly cares about EverQuest or fantasy virtual worlds. Maybe that’s what 21 years of working on EverQuest does to you. But maybe I’m wrong and I’d like to give Alan a chance to change my mind by asking him the following 20 questions. If I was in charge of the Enad Global 7 (the parent company that owns Daybreak Games), these are the questions I would ask all applicants and existing employees to guage their passion and work ethic.

Here they are:

How many hours a week do you spend playing EverQuest in your free time while not on the clock?

If the answer is zero, please explain why you no longer play EverQuest and what DarkPaw Games could do to make you interested in playing EverQuest again?

Would you hire someone for a dev position who didn’t play EverQuest regularly?

When is the last time you played a character from level 1 to level 60? If so what races and classes did you play?

When the last time you’ve completed a class epic if ever? If so what epics have you completed?

Are Play to Win items for sale in cash shops, good for the integrity of fantasy virtual worlds, if yes, please amplify your answer? If no, then why do you put up with them in EverQuest?

In 1999, EverQuest had launched and continued for a few years with a serious commitment to creating a living breathing fantasy world, with dedicated GMs and volunteer guides and special organizations of guides called the Quest Troupe and the Norrathian Dramatic & Comedic Society that performed live quests and invasions that were incredibility popular with the players. Do you agree with this commitment and given your stature at DarkPaw Games, would would be willing to advocate for a return to this concept that has sadly fallen by the wayside?

How many hours a week do you spend time running live GM events such as invasions and appearances by Norrathian deities?

Do you believe that Gamemasters should be actual Gamemasters in the Dungeons & Dragon’s sense that take an active part in enhancing the gameplay for the players or are they simply virtual cops and customer service reps?

How many hours a week do other EQ devs spend time running live GM events such as invasions and appearances by Norrathian deities?

If the answer is zero to both questions, please explain why you and other devs don’t run live GM events for your players?

Do you think that Daybreak Games should set aside paid time every month for devs or paid staff to run live GM events that involve more than just passing out cookies to players?

List things you have done in your spare time that are examples of how you’ve given back to the loyal EverQuest community that has paid your salary for the last 21 years?

We just learned that after the purchase of Daybreak Games by EG7, the Lord of the Rings Online MMORPG is getting a graphical update to capitalize on the upcoming Amazon Middle-earth prequel TV series. Given that EQ has been around much longer, why has Daybreak Games and devs like yourself not enthusiastically supported giving EQ a similar graphical facelift?

Many items like rusty swords, tarnished swords, bronze swords, fine steel swords and even rare magical swords are using the same primitive unremarkable graphics created in between 1997-1999. Many NPCs guards are still using horribly rendered ugly round shields. These asset could be updated with minimal effort and most are already in the art database. Why are simple graphical updates that would make a big impact not been implemented over the years?

Do you think that real life political and social issues that are advocated by people with personal agendas in management and fellow developers should intrude upon sanctity of the fantasy realm of Norrath and ruin the immersive escapism that players are seeking?

Professional farmers who are slaver laborers in Chinese prisons and/or working for Chinese organized crime gangs and have continued to plague EverQuest by monopolization of rare NPC spawn points and sell these in-game items for real money. If you had active GMs they could be banned instantly. Does situation this concern you? Why has Daybreak Games consistently failed to properly address this criminality that negatively impacts the play experience of your paying customers?

What lessons did you learn and implement from the unparalleled success of Blizzard’s World of Warcraft MMORPG that used EverQuest as the basis for its design?

Describe in detail the design pillars of EverQuest?

Given unlimited resources and absolute control, what would be your vision for the future of the EverQuest franchise with a new EQ MMORPG?

To sweeten the pot, I’ll donate $100 to the Make a Wish Foundation and post my receipt online if Allan submits honest and reasonable answers to these questions. I have no expectation that I will receive any reply from him. He doesn’t owe me anything but I think he owes the EQ community some answers.

Nobody asks these questions of EQ devs because they don’t want to rock the boat and upset the apple cart or get banned from the forums and EQ. Why? Because the spice must flow! Hard-hitting questions like these are like Kryptonite to devs, so they avoided at all costs and they continue to bury their heads in the sand. Jaded developers don’t want to be held accountable and embarrassed by their creative sloth and chronic indifference.

These types of questions are also generally avoided by fanboy sites like Fires of Heaven (who by the way allow their users to continue to make fun of the untimely death of Brad McQuaid with impunity) and others who foolishly worship MMO developers because association with them are the closest they’ll ever get to rub shoulders with celebrities and it gives their lives of quiet desperation some semblance of meaning.

Conclusion

I’m worried about the future of EverQuest and the caliber of the people who work on it. Is anyone minding the shop (and I don’t mean the cash shop)? Who is really in charge? Does anyone at Daybreak Games care or is EverQuest being barely kept alive to be a cash cow to be relentlessly milked for their corporate masters with a future of more over-priced expansions and mounts?

I recall a talk given by ex-Blizzard VP Rob Pardo about the application of a former Blizzard dev who wanted to work on WoW again. In his cover letter, he explained that as a player he found so many bugs and problems with WoW, that he desperately wanted to rejoin the WoW team to fix them. Pardo hired him back immediately. That’s what you call honest to goodness passion. Unfortunately, that passion is missing from the current handful developers who are on the EverQuest team. Most are recent hires and know practically nothing about EverQuest and were hired because they check off the right diversity boxes.

If genuine passion existed at Darkpaw Games, many existing bugs would be fixed. For example, Fire Beetle eyes are a reagent that druids and rangers absolutely must have in their inventory if they are to cast the Flame Lick spell a core and class defining spell is all but impossible for them to loot if they are wood elves. The problem is that Fire Beetle enemy NPCs are the only NPCs that drop these and Fire Beetles are only available on the continent of Antonica. Wood Elf druids and rangers have their home in Kelethin in Greater Faydark and have no way of acquiring Fire Beetle Eyes because there are no Fire Beetles on the continent of Faydwer. If a EQ dev had actually played a Wood Elf Druid or Ranger since 1999 they would know this and it would probably be fixed with the addition of Fire Beetle spawns in a certain location in Greater Faydark. (Note: this bug has been submitted many times by players and DBG returned the favor by deleting the entire bug database.)

Other MMORPG companies do not ignore the newbie experience. They realize that you only have 5 to 15 minutes to hook a new player and they iterate and polish the early levels until they are perfect. On the other hand, Daybreak has forgotten the newbie experience and treats it like an old photo album gathering dust in a drafty attic.

Why have they forgotten? Because they don’t play the MMORPG they are getting paid to work on.

It’s small but important things like this that drive me crazy. Yet, these very same insular devs have no problem finding the time to massively nerf classic quests that require players to turn in bone chips, Deathfist Belts and Crushbone belts because someone complained on Twitter.

Even the server MOTD (message of the day) which greets every player when they log into Norrath is a prime example of the endemic laziness and indifference of DarkPaw devs. It’s never updated and remains blank. This can be updated easily by any GM Admin but it never is. This one small omission speaks volumes about Daybreak Games. That fact that one single employee can not bother to log on once per month to every server and update that MOTD tells you all you need to know about their lack of enthusiasm for EverQuest and the players that play it every day.

Where is the sense of pride in your work Daybreak developers?

Nowhere to be found.

If you work at Daybreak Games and don’t feel any passion for EverQuest and are just there for a paycheck, maybe you are in the wrong line of work. Please resign immediately because there are thousands of more qualified and passionate people that would love to have your jobs who didn’t have the right progressive politics for Smedley to hire over the years, and would work very hard to contribute to EverQuest.

Many qualified people would love to get a chance to be the leader of the EverQuest franchise. Sadly, the EverQuest franchise is currently without a real leader. A genuine leader would focus more on the players and fixing EQ then they would worrying about intersectionality and LGBTQ Pride pets.

The future of the EverQuest franchise needs a well-defined vision for the future where the community is consulted and respected.

What we don’t need from the next leader of EverQuest franchise is more trite bromides and platitudes about how much they care about the community etc. Instead of talking about how much you care, SHOW US HOW MUCH YOU CARE! Show me, don’t tell me. But actions take work, while words take little effort.

Say what you will about wokester Holly Longdale, but at least she had a cogent and thoughtful vision for EverQuest. Holly was an articulate spokesperson for the franchise. But Ms. Longdale has left for the greener but frozen pastures of Irvine.

With the recent purchase of Daybreak Games by Enad Global 7, there’s a new sheriff in town named Robin Flodin who gives every indication that he will not suffer fools and slackers gladly. In the future, I may write an open letter to this gentleman to reveal to him the hard truth about how the EverQuest franchise has been chronically mismanaged over the past 22 years.

The days of absentee owners are gone and the remaining staff of Darkpaw Games would do well to acknowledge that. EG7 will be looking for a real leader who can put EverQuest back on track, if none are found within the studio, I suggest they look elsewhere.

If players have any hope of ever seeing an EverQuest 3, we’re going to need a serious person at the helm who can articulate and deliver a vision for a future incarnation of Norrath. I’ve been a bit hard on Alan in this article for a reason: I sincerely hope he’s got what it takes to do just that. I have faith in Alan. He can either man up and rise to the challenge and lead the EverQuest franchise into a glorious future or to take the safe route and continue to stay under the radar to keep dutifully milking the udders of their aging cash cow. Choose wisely.

― Wolfshead