The unfortunate reality that the EverQuest franchise — the most profitable enterprise in Sony history according to veteran MMORPG dev Jeff Butler — never fully developed and actualized its massive potential, remains one of the greatest mysteries in video game history.
EverQuest could have been as big if not bigger than World of Warcraft. EverQuest 2 should have been even bigger but it wasn’t. So what went wrong? Why did it happen? Who is responsible?
This is a complex problem and there are no easy answers. However, there are a number of people that are responsible for this franchise getting off track. I’d like to examine Brad McQuaid’s possible role in this missed opportunity.
Let me preface this article by saying that the Brad McQuaid I knew was a decent and generous human being. In our conversations, he treated me with kindness and respect. He was one of the few video game developers that openly professed his Christian faith and often quoted fellow Christian J.R.R. Tolkien in his essays about fantasy virtual worlds. I think his deep faith in God made him a better designer of worlds. It is my sincere hope that someday, all of Brad’s insightful writings about fantasy worlds will be published in a compendium for posterity.
To this day, I there has never been a more passionate advocate for MMORPGs and virtual worlds than Brad. Brad could opine for hours on the genre. After the monumental success of EverQuest, perhaps his unflinching vision was his greatest and lasting gift to the world of video games.
I also want to make it known that I believe Jeff Butler is probably one of the sharpest minds in the video game industry. I interviewed him for over an hour in Las Vegas in the summer of 2005 and found him to be very pleasant, articulate, and intelligent. His wealth of knowledge of video games and MMOs is incomparable. I hope someday Jeff will re-enter the fantasy virtual world genre because that is what I sincerely believe he was put on this planet to do.
In the Beginning
When EverQuest was released in April of 1999, it forever changed the video game industry with a persistent 3D fantasy virtual world where thousands of players could interact and band together to face shared adversity. There was nothing like it at the time. EverQuest went on to become a hobby and even a lifestyle. People got married who met while playing EverQuest.
The video game press was looking someone who could explain this new phenomenon. In short order, a mythology began to be created around the most visible and vocal of the EQ developers: Brad McQuaid.
Along with Brad, a young, ambitious Florida comic book store owner joined Verant named Jeff Butler. Due to his hard work and passion, he quickly rose to the ranks of producer of EverQuest.
I always wondered why Brad McQuaid and Jeff Butler abandoned EverQuest in 2001 and formed their own MMO company. Instead of leaving to create a new virtual world, why weren’t both of them personally in charge of EverQuest 2 which would be the natural spiritual successor to EverQuest?
Revered developers Brad and Jeff had massive success with EverQuest, why would Kelly Flock who was in charge of Verant/SOE allow them to leave and create their own MMO company?
None of this makes any sense at all.
The Anonymous Missive
I don’t believe that history should be whitewashed. If we are to learn from history, then we need to confront and evaluate it honestly and with an open mind.
Years ago, I recall reading an anonymous inside baseball revelation about the inner workings at Verant/SOE. It was very explosive at the time and rocked the EQ neckbeard world. Over the years, this anonymous account has faded into history. I thought about it a few weeks ago and tried to find it and read it once again, with the intent of shedding light on the perennial problem of EverQuest’s failure to actualize into a full-blown and robust IP.
Due to the secretive nature of the MMORPG industry and failure of people in high positions of power to tell the truth about what really happened, what follows are speculations, conjecture, and theories. Other than my time volunteering as a Senior Guide with SOE, and dealing with directly with low-level SOE staffers, GM admins and a conversation with George Scotto VP of Customer Service at the time, I have no personal knowledge of any thing other than what I have read on the Internet.
The Big Question: Why did Brad and Jeff leave Verant/SOE?
The decision of Brad McQuaid and Jeff Butler quit SOE to form their own MMO company was probably one of the most consequential and far reaching events to have ever happened in the history of EverQuest. If Brad and Jeff had stayed with SOE, the future of the EverQuest franchise would have turned out far different than what we see today.
Here are the 3 most plausible theories of why they left:
According to a recent video interview with Shawn Lord, it was revealed that Brad and Jeff were getting too much interference and not enough help from Kelly Flock and the bureaucracy at Verant/SOE. Flock demanded mounts be in the Shadows of Luclin expansion despite the players had never asked for mounts. Flock was not a game designer and the request seems more like a powerful man making a silly personal demand. Tired of corporate meddling, SOE’s growing bureaucracy, and SOE’s lack of help, they resigned and formed their own MMO company and took many employees with them which left the troubled MMO studio short-staffed which resulted in a buggy and unfinished expansion.
Since Verant/SOE were their own publisher just like Blizzard, they could afford to release Shadows of Luclin when it’s ready. But instead, they chose to release a buggy and unfinished expansion to meet an arbitrary release date. This faulty process where quality takes a backseat to artificial deadlines is all too common in the video game industry. Kelly Flock bears much of the blame if this is true. Whoever was responsible for staffing is also responsible. But McQuaid and Butler bear responsibility for allowing this to get out of hand and not insisting that they only release the expansion when it was ready. Perhaps they spoke out and Flock ignored them and welcomed their resignations.
Brad admitted in an interview that after was promoted to management, he didn’t have the time to do hands on work designing future EverQuest expansions which he loved. Tired of this, he eventually resigned so he could get back to his true love: hands on game design, and Jeff Butler and many other EQ developers followed him.
I don’t by this excuse from Brad. Brad had zero experience managing people. He should have known better. Instead of going off and “supervising” other SOE products like Star Wars Galaxies, he should have been focusing on EverQuest alone. Go with what you know; play to your strengths. As happens to so many people in corporate America, Brad was promoted to the level of his incompetence. I don’t think he was cut out to manage people or to be an executive as was demonstrated by his staff who were allegedly angry how he behaved and how he didn’t show up at the office of his own company Sigil. Since he was an executive, Brad had the juice to keep designing and could have still had a hand in the design at least on a supervisory level at SOE. All of Brad’s big picture hopes and dreams for virtual world could have been promoted and realized if he had just stayed at SOE and not quit.
Brad was over-rated and incompetent. He took much of the credit for the success of EverQuest. Brad’s ego got the better of him as he was declared a Gamer God by PC Gamer. His fellow developers knew this and despised him for taking the spotlight for their hard work. Brad’s lack of work product was finally exposed and Kelly Flock was only too happy to get rid of him first by promoting him off the EverQuest team into a featherbed management role and ultimately by accepting his resignation. This is all explained an explosive post on Slownewsday which reposted at The Safehouse forums from 2001 that provide the reader with intimate details of what allegedly went on at Verant/SOE.
This theory is the most plausible. Brad got high on his own supply and started believing he was a gamer god. Instead of doing the hard work of designing EverQuest expansions which he absolutely could and should have done, he spent more time talking about the MMO then working on it. After he got promoted to creative director of SOE, he started taking trips to promote EverQuest at conferences and became a video game celebrity. I know people who love the glamor of the industry they work in but hate doing the heavy lifting. They love to bask in the glory by attending conferences, giving interviews and delight in endlessly talking about themselves how important they are in the company. Unfortunately, this doesn’t pay the bills. Brad fell into this trap and lacked the discipline to focus on EverQuest. His ego angered the devs that were actually working on EverQuest live and it’s expansions.
Anonymous SOE Employee Tells All
What follows is an account of what someone was told by an anoymous SOE employee. This person posted it on Slownewsday and then Sam from The Safehouse posted it on their forums.
If true, the following missive (saved on the Wayback Machine), explodes the myth of Brad McQuaid as a gamer god and reveals lots of disturbing information about the dysfunction at Verant and Sony Online Entertainment. Both Sigil Games and Visionary Realms have experienced similar stories about Brad’s managerial incompetence and other shenanigans that took place on his watch.
Interesting stuff…sniped this from flamevault, though in the thread do have some ppl from the “industry” even commenting on it
Here is what seems too descriptive to be fake….
OK, here’s the story I heard, from someone still working at SOE San Diego. I’ll start from a couple of years ago.
Kelly Flock spins off Redeye/Verant basically to give Smedley an object lesson — surrounding yourself with talentless friends leads to ruin. Brad McQuaid was, and is, one of Smedley’s talentless friends. Smedley is a stand-up guy. He’ll always protect his friends… especially when he thinks they’re directly responsible for making him a millionaire! Verant, the company, was just enough rope for Smed to hang himself. Kelly Flock assumed Verant would fail and Smed would learn his lesson. It didn’t.
Brad McQuaid got lucky.
Prior to 1996, he had developed a shareware RPG in his spare time, and he played the hell out of a popular DIKUmud set in D&D’s Forgotten Realms called Sojourn. In 1996, he was in the right place at the right time, and seized the opportunity to create a graphical version of his favorite MUD. After years of work with a huge team, with a huge budget, with a huge fanfare, EverQuest was released in 1998. It made a gazillion dollars and is still raking in the cash hand over fist this very day.
Things weren’t coming up roses at 989/redeye/verant. Brad himself had basically done no work whatsoever since Everquest’s release, and many (including Kelly Flock) think he didn’t do anything *before* its release. Brad thought of himself as infallible, and Everquest’s incredible success, his millions, and his ferrari were all proof of his greatness. Being crowned a “Game @#%$” by PC Gamer didn’t help either. His self-aggrandizement cannibalized Verant’s customer relations for its entire existance. He insisted on being the sole point of contact with the public to promote his own name, and he did a miserable job.
Just this past week, he released Luclin screenshots without authorization and got incredibly defensive when SOE PR got upset. He sent out an email with a smarmy “I’ve been doing this for years, and the fact is that the screenshots were fine, people just hate change.” His first hire for player relations, Gordon Wrinn, was, unbelievably enough, worse.
But people don’t, as a rule, get fired from Verant. They quit. Like the lead graphics programmer, who quit a week after Everquest shipped. And his replacement, Brian Hook, who quit in disgust mere months after being hired. Then another EQ programmer left. And another. Then many others asked to be moved off the team.
(edit: as of today, SOE is beginning a round of layoffs. SOE is losing money. This is probably due more to the advertising crash than the pushed-back release dates, though.)
Smedley thinks everybody’s happy because Verant had a low turnover. Even though everybody there is miserable, even the staff artists are making $125k/year and can’t find a better job elsewhere.
Some were “promoted” off the team. Like Brad McQuaid. He was moved because they were “borderline ready to revolt”. They “hated Brad so much they wanted to puke and constantly bitched about him.” Now the EQ Live team is “busy hating Jeff Butler with a passion”. Butler is a “major Brad lackey”. The factions are split “more like 90:10 on the hate Brad/Jeff vs. like Brad/Jeff side. It was BAD.” He is “so hated at Verant that out of a team of 60 people less than 10 would go with him. Probably closer to 5.”
Note the quotemarks.
So anyway, Everquest made money like crazy, and Flock admitted his mistake. SOE bought out Verant for a tidy sum and Flock accepted Brad because he thought he was “part of the magic”. Today he admitted his mistake. Sony Pictures (SOE’s parent company) looked at the balance sheet, and Brad’s salary, and the fact that titles kept getting pushed back. They essentially accused Smedley and Brad of lying to them about Verant’s condition before the purchase, mainly the ship dates for Sovereign, EQ2, SWG, and Planetside. None of these games will ship before 2003, mostly through gross mismanagement.
Sovereign, for example, is Smed’s baby. Smedley is Executive Producer on the project, and the producer is his lackey. The producer has absolutely no experience whatsoever in management. He’s a former QA tester, 22 years old. The lead programmer is talented but anal and non-decisive. They already sacked the former lead programmer and two designers. The problem is really Smed, but he’ll never admit it.
Anyway, Sony Pictures @#%$ itself, and Kelly Flock, who never liked Brad, feels the heat. In the meeting yesterday, Kelly says “Okay guys, this is @#%$, what the @#%$ are you doing?!” Brad and Smed get flustered, some words are thrown around, accusations are made of Brad being a no-talent weenie, and Brad decides on the spot to leave.
When SOE bought Verant, they gave both Smed and Brad three year contracts. Sony Pictures and Kelly Flock were *so* incensed at the cluster!$!% that is Verant that they basically said “@#%$ it guys, you wanna leave, fine, we need to clean up this mess and you’re not going to be much help.”
Verant as an entity, much like Origin, no longer exists. It’s been disassembled and absorbed into Sony Online Entertainment.
The EQ live and EQ2 teams are in shock. Nobody knew that Brad was going to leave. They heard about it the same time you did.
And that’s it.
Edited by: Glip the Gnome at: 10/15/01 4:03:30 pm
The Safehouse revelation paints a disturbing picture of a company riddled with bad management, big egos, and rife with dysfunction. In those days, Brad is seemingly the vortex of the problems at Verant/SOE. Ex-Sigil developer Vince Napoli shared similar horror stories about Brad’s bad behavior at Sigil Games. In a post Sigil interview, although Napoli praised Brad for his evangelism, he stated he would never work with him again on another project.
The most distressing story was when all of the Sigil employees were told to assemble in the company parking lot and were fired. Brad sent his lackey to do his dirty work and didn’t even have decency to show up and look them all in the eye.
If EverQuest was Brad’s baby, why on earth did he leave? Where was Brad’s loyalty to the thing — the masterpiece — that he created? It would be like Steve Jobs leaving Apple. It makes no sense.
If his contribution was marginal, his behavior disruptive, and he was subsequently was found out by Flock, then his quick departure makes perfect sense. Get out while you can before people figure out you’re incompetent and leverage your current position with other investors who still see you as as “gamer god.” Maybe Brad played his cards perfectly.
One of the biggest problems throughout EverQuest’s history is that with the exception of John Smedley, the people in charge of EverQuest kept changing. This was because of high turnover at Verant/SOE. So we must ask the question why was this happening? We find some answers in the anonymous missive reposted on The Safehouse. SOE started developing other projects like EverQuest 2 and Star Wars Galaxies and poached people from EverQuest live and EverQuest expansion dev teams. The amateurishly bad “new” character models in Shadows of Luclin expansions perfectly exemplifies this dysfunction as marginally talented devs ended up making these horrible models according to Jeff Butler.
Working at SOE was a hybrid of the American Dream and the Wild West. You could literally be a customer service rep one day and a game designer the next day. SOE to save money kept promoting from within and I think this really hurt them in the long run as it severely limited their access to talented people. When they hired outside talent like the prominent Brian Hook, it was to no avail as he soon realized the level of dysfunction and left SOE within a few months. The fact that they could not keep a rock star coder like Hook at SOE bolsters the narrative that it was a bad place to work.
Thanks to a high turnover rate, there was no continuity of leadership to enforce a consistent vision for the design of future expansions. Even the art team kept changing and each expansion had new art styles that lacked cohesion, continuity, and consistency with the original EverQuest. Even the philosophy of class design would change from expansion to expansion as new designers took over roles from people that had transferred to new projects and new companies.
It is clear that from all accounts, SOE was not a good place to work. If it was, then people would not have left in the numbers they did. Happy and content people stay where they are. Unhappy people leave. The Safehouse post alleges that Brad was a major reason why so many people were unhappy and that’s why they “promoted” him off the team and sent him away on press junkets in order to minimize his negative effect on the team.
Back in the those days unlike today, most corporations had no idea what workplace culture was and if they did, they gave it little consideration.
My own experiences with SOE as a volunteer Senior Guide validated this. I never got the feeling that SOE cared about our contributions or bothered to groom the best of us as possible candiates for GM or design positions. I personally had many dealings with a few incompetent and toxic employees who were paid to manage the volunteer guides. These people had no experience or aptitude managing people, yet they were given the jobs anyways.
With Brad and Jeff gone, there was nobody left with the passion to enforce the vision of the original design document and evangelize it throughout the company. (Jeff made the same point when he talked to Shawn Lord about the failure of EverQuest Next). Of course, this is assuming that Brad and Jeff were competent at their jobs all along.
Eventually, the quality of EverQuest began to decline. Future expansions released after Planes of Power were horrifically buggy, bad, and uninspired. When a viable alternative like the majestic World of Warcraft came along, players were only too happy to flee the fabled land of Norrath in droves.
It’s worth noting that Kelly Flock resigned from Sony Online Entertainment in March 2002, just 3 months after the release of Shadows of Luclin expansion and 7 months before the release of The Planes of Power expansion. He left to pursue independent business opportunities. I can only speculate that this industry veteran was not happy at SOE. Maybe he was sick and tired of the nonsense. Maybe he realized he just drove two talented developers out and felt bad. We may never know why he left and under what circumstances.
I suspect something bad happened during the Luclin phase for so many people to end up leaving the company.
Was the late Brad McQuaid a charlatan like the fabled Wizard of Oz? All sizzle and no steak? All hat and no cattle? Or was he an underappreciated, misunderstood, eccentric genius, and virtual world visionary who needed to break free from the grip of an uncaring, meddling corporation?
Kelly Flock recently passed away, so the only people alive that really know the whole story are John Smedley and Jeff Butler and a maybe few others. Maybe someday the truth will come out for better or for worse.
It’s not fair to lay all the blame on Brad McQuaid as he was there for only a few years. John Smedley is the common thread in the entire history of EverQuest and he bears much of the responsibility for the failure of the EverQuest franchise to grow and thrive.
Whatever the truth, it is indisputable fact that the video game media allowed the legend of Brad McQuaid to flourish and grow. Thanks to a sensationalist media that loves to glamorize people, Brad quickly became the face of EverQuest. We all believed it and we all bought into the myth. Brad milked his celebrity status for all it was worth and then some. Somehow, the other developers who worked on the ground-breaking MMO never got the credit they deserved and remained in the shadows.
Whatever we think of Brad McQuaid, it needs to be said that he original EverQuest was a masterpiece and all of the members of the team deserve equal credit. It’s also worth mentioning that one of EverQuest’s most popular expansions: The Planes of Power was created when Brad and Jeff were no longer with SOE. So the magic was possible without them but that rarified magic soon evaporated due to mismanagement from the top.
Myths are powerful things. It’s hard to stop them once they take a life of their own.
It’s understandable that some of those folks that worked with Brad on the EverQuest franchise bought into the gamer god myth that was created around Brad. If that myth were ever to be exposed and debunked, it would be disastrous for the street cred and resumes of hundreds of people that currently use the EverQuest name as a magic incantation that can instantly open closed doors. There are a lot of ex-SOE and ex-Daybreak Games employees that have a lot to lose if the myth is shattered, so the spice must flow and the hagiography of Brad McQuaid remains intact.
Let’s be honest. Brad proved that he could not duplicate the magic with Sigil and that is why his most recent venture Pantheon could never secure proper funding. In the final analysis, the articulate and passionate MMORPG evangelist talked the talk, but he didn’t walk the walk.
I think Brad’s failures may have hurt the EverQuest franchise by repelling future investors who would think twice before giving a new MMO studio tens of millions of dollars. If the so-called gamer god could not replicate his success with EverQuest in future endeavors, than maybe he was not really a gamer god in the first place and Norrath was just a happy accident. Failure is a great teacher and it forces us to confront reality of our limitations. In retrospect, that pompous PC Gamer bestowed in their November 2001 magazine “gamer god” title was probably the worst thing that ever happened to Brad. It was overblown hype that he and most of his fellow gamer gods could never live up to.
In a recent video interview, it was revealed that Brad McQuaid and Jeff Butler were not on speaking terms for many years. Although I have no personal knowledge of this, I can only speculate that Brad’s behavior and mismanagement at Sigil Games was probably responsible for this acrimony. Many developers like Jeff put their blood, sweat and tears on the line for Vanguard and I don’t blame him for being bitter for Brad’s direct role in the systemic dysfunction at Sigil. This dysfunction was corroborated by former Sigil designer Vince Napoli and others.
It’s very telling that Brad was not asked to be involved in the design of EverQuest Next. I’m sure the powers that be wanted to keep Brad as far away as possible. Brad could never really let go of the original design of EverQuest and used both subsequent ventures to essentially replicate it. Go with what you know. Like an aging hippy still lives in the 1960s, Brad was a prisoner of EverQuest. I honestly don’t think he wanted to improve on EverQuest or move it forward to explore the possibilities of fantasy virtual worlds. Instead, he was comfortable with what he knew and liked. Investors and the press love novelty, if you aren’t offering enough improvements or innovations, you’re going to face an uphill climb with any new product.
With EverQuest Next, it was Jeff’s turn to shine and emerge from Brad’s shadow. If only someone had the courage to stand up to Dave Georgeson and John Smedley and told them that a voxel based version of EverQuest was not going to work, maybe EverQuest Next would be a reality and unambitious corporate parasites like Enad Global 7 would not be in charge of the franchise now. Instead they chased after fool’s gold by hoping that a mixture of EverQuest and Minecraft was going set the world on fire and make them rich. Since he was fired, Georgeson has left the video game industry.
In final analysis, I think that EverQuest was miracle and a fluke that came out at the right time when the Internet was becoming ubiquitous and 3D graphic cards were gaining popularity. SOE was a one hit wonder and could never recapture the magic that was EverQuest in EverQuest 2, or the failed EverQuest Next. Blizzard stole the crown from SOE (and stole most of their ideas too) and released World of Warcraft and the rest is history. Ideas are worthless if you cannot execute them properly. Verant/SOE lacked the amazing talent and rugged pro-gamer studio culture that Blizzard had and as a result, they squandered the legacy of EverQuest.
Maybe it was enough for Brad to have the initial idea to create a 3D version of DikuMUD that changed the world and for John Smedley to have been there to have the tenacity and juice to make it all happen. Better to be a one-hit wonder, than have no hits at all. For that I am truly grateful. He was a gamer god — whatever that means — for a short period of time and then as his overpowered buffs wore off, he became a mere mortal like the rest of us.
At the end of the day, it’s important to acknowledge that the world of EverQuest’s Norrath is bigger than the persona of Brad McQuaid, just as the fantasy world of Middle-earth became bigger than J.R.R. Tolkien and the Harry Potter universe is bigger than J.K. Rowling. All three of these worlds have taken on a life of their own and have transcended the limitations of their respective creators in the minds of the public.
One of Brad’s most important and lasting observations about the MMO industry is that as the rise of mass market MMOs like World of Warcraft became dominant, the kind of gamers that loved EverQuest have been orphaned with no place to call home. This was a very powerful and inspiration message of hope that resonated with me and still does to this day.
Norrath is a special and beloved place for millions of dedicated fans over the years. Whatever Brad’s role is in this, I am eternally grateful. It certainly deserves better than soulless, rapacious, absentee owners like Enad Global 7 and empty suits like Jason Epstein and Ji Ham, who have squandered the potential of the EverQuest IP and done absolutely nothing to nurture and build up this worthy franchise.