‘EverQuest’ is 20 years old this year. Twenty-five expansions later, multiple spinoffs, a full sequel, and two high profile cancelations after its March 1999 release, the landmark MMO is still a regular destination for its most stalwart players.
The tale of ‘EverQuest’s’ evolution is told in the original release’s technical requirements: Windows 95, 32 MB of RAM, a blazing 28.8 Mbps modem connection, and a mouse (explicitly called out on the back of the box). When it launched, players crowded raids with bosses that only respawned once per week. Each of the game’s different servers developed its own personality, with law imposed by the largest guilds.
Break the rules and kill-steal or loot someone else’s monster, and you’d earn server-wide infamy and shame. “Your name would be out there,” says franchise producer Holly Longdale. “You’d be mud. You might as well start a new character.”
From the beginning, ‘EverQuest’ was designed to push players into situations requiring cooperation. In-game documentation was sparse. Often, players would loot items with no obvious usage and have to ask peers for guidance.
These often led to quest lines and lore that was documented by fans outside the game. This, in turn, fostered a community ethos of “coopetition.”
Fan sites popped up to document the game, and the webmasters would gather community content. If you were the first person to loot an item, beat a raid, or explore a new region, your name might be immortalized alongside a screenshot.
“Before crowdsourcing was a thing, this was crowdsourcing,” Longdale explains.
The cooperative-meets-competitive play was baked into the experience. Loot drops weren’t plentiful, and there weren’t so many items that players were swimming in detritus. Instead, players would celebrate and brag about their drops. Longdale recounts her quest for a rare, time-limited item.
“I took three days off work,” she says. “There were, in total at one time, 120 people waiting. It was the last weekend this item was going to drop off a rare mob. They were called Journeyman Boots that let you run faster. It was a huge camp, and I maintained a list online… That was three days. I didn’t sleep. I finally got my boots.”
For those players that tried to cheat, Sony Online Entertainment had a special punishment. A prison server populated by other bad actors was created to give problem players their own special purgatory. This had a surprising, positive effect for the development team.
“These people that were legitimately exploiting the game for real money transactions, we put them onto a server called Drunder, which was the prison server,” Longdale explains. “‘You’re not allowed to play anywhere else, but you can hack the heck out of it.’ For us, it was a great benefit, because we would learn all these hacks. They would be actively doing this.”
Community is a core piece of the “EverQuest” experience, even 20 years on. The studio continues to revise the technology and provide updates, but the goal isn’t to bring in droves of new, uninitiated players. The original game is keeping the franchise alive by catering to its most loyal fans.
“We have a good complement of people who are in their 40s and into their 50s now who started in gaming when they were younger,” Longdale tells Variety. “But we also have another segment that is the kids who used to watch their parents play.”
There are no active acquisition efforts. Instead, Daybreak is playing off of nostalgia, finding most of its players are returning to the game. Those that are jumping in for the first time likely have an indirect connection.
“It’s all reacquisition,” Longdale explains. “That’s our play. It’s all reacquisition. We’re not trying to get new people, we’re trying to charm and get in touch with those people who played in the past or play with their families or saw a friend play in college.”
There is a challenge in fostering a community that is so steeped in nostalgia. “EverQuest” is surviving in its current form. In order for the franchise to thrive, it will need new entries catering to a contemporary audience.
Daybreak suffered a major blow in 2016, canceling the long-in-development “EverQuest Next.” The game was built around voxel technology, giving players the opportunity to dig and build around the world. A big piece of this was “EverQuest Landmark,” a building tool that Daybreak promised would be a conduit for user-generated content to appear in the new MMORPG.
The technology proved too much of a challenge for the genre, though.
“There was a real nugget of an idea there, but a technical hurdle the team just couldn’t get over,” Longdale says. “All the other stuff that EverQuest is kind of got lost because it was focused on voxels and a dynamically-generated changing world. There was not enough computational power. If people are digging holes, you have to update pathing for the entire world.”
Longdale calls the cancelation a “deep burn,” but a necessary one.
“Of the team that exists now, we spent two and a half years defining what the franchise really is, going to our archives and retconning some stuff to prepare it for a really strong future,” she says. “EverQuest Next is not a game I would have made. It doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt, but we’ve been evaluating what makes EverQuest EverQuest. In my opinion, that wasn’t where the game was going with EverQuest Next.”
Daybreak isn’t talking specifics about where the franchise is heading. However, Longdale knows what the game must be in order to be true to fans and the legacy: classic high fantasy and community dependency.
“Anything we talk about in the future, those are the two nuggets,” she says. “I would never say that there isn’t a world where I wouldn’t love to do another co-op or even a single-player experience that tells some of these amazing stories that we’ve fleshed out over 20 years, but the social dependency is who we are. It’s questing with other people. It is having a role on a team. I don’t think we’ll ever move away from that, even if it were a single-player game like ‘Dragon Age,’ that’s our special sauce and what our players would expect. You don’t think ‘EverQuest’ and think ‘single player game.’”
To that end, whatever is next for “EverQuest” will require players team up throughout the experience. Many contemporary MMOs support solo play, catering to a broader audience.
“That will never be us,” Longdale commits. “Whatever we do in the future, we’re going to embrace what we are. There’s 20 years of magic in there that’s sustaining. And we’ll mix something we think is the next evolution for EverQuest.”