Brad McQuaid, known by many by his pseudonym Aradune, is one of the original producers and designers of Everquest. He went from founder and Vice President of Verant Interactive to Vice President of Premium Games and Chief Creative Officer of SOE, until he resigned recently to pursue other goals. He was nice enough to take the time to answer some questions with me about the background and design of Everquest, his reasons for leaving SOE and his plans for the future. Read on for the entire interview.
Thank you for taking the time to do this interview with me.
You’re very welcome.
You spent 5 plus years designing and developing the game EverQuest. Now that you are “just a player”, do you still play the game and enjoy it?
Absolutely – in fact, more so. I’ve a little more free time now than I had before, so I’ve been playing a lot of EQ on the Firiona Vie Role Playing Preferred server. I was very involved in coming up with the ruleset on that server, so my playing preferences fit in pretty well there.
As a player, what aspects of the game do you enjoy the most and what do you enjoy the least?
Honestly, playing the game as it is now, with my character and his group of friends in their mid-20s, I can’t really think of anything to complain about. I do think VI should remove the ‘must be anonymous’ aspect of the RP flag – it’s often too hard to find people of the class and level you need for a group on FV. Also, I’m sure as I climb towards the higher levels, where the gameplay changes significantly, I’ll probably find a few more irritants.
As for what I enjoy… well, pretty much all of it. I’m primarily an achiever, and secondarily both an explorer and socializer. EQ works very well for that type of player, with its focus on character development and item acquisition. Add to that great communication tools, a very immersive and HUGE world and you’ve got most all of the components I need in an MMORPG to have a great time.
As a designer, what are you most proud of when you look back at what you accomplished in developing EverQuest? Why?
Well, first I’m very proud of the team and the fact that we finished what we set out to do. EverQuest was in a sense an experiment and a gamble. We looked at what made text MUDs so compelling to a niche group of primarily college kids and said to ourselves, ‘if we take all of that and couple it with a more accessible 3D world and proper marketing and support, would such a game be commercially viable?’
And, thankfully, the answer turned out to be yes – in fact, a much bigger ‘yes’ than we’d ever dreamed. I think overall we did a great job adapting tried-and-true MUD mechanics to a commercial 3D game. I think we then added some great new features and refinements to the genre. I’m proud that we stayed focused on game balance and on challenge, not giving into the forces that constantly ask for a ‘Monty Haul’ game (but in reality, don’t want one). And then I think the content designers have done an amazing job building a vast, high fantasy world, full of interesting people, places, and things.
There’s really a lot to be collectively proud of and it’s an honor to have worked with everyone who is or was ever involved in developing EverQuest.
Looking back on the game with 20/20 hindsight, what (if anything) would you have designed differently? Why?
Oh, there’s still a lot that didn’t work out right, despite the game overall turning out fantastic. Let me list a few things that I’d go back and approach or implement differently had I a time machine handy.
Camping: Probably EQ’s biggest flaw, in my opinion. We should have approached dungeon spawning and encounter mechanics very differently. The most efficient (and fun) way to gain experience and seek out treasure should be DOING a dungeon, not sitting in one spot, waiting for a spawn, or pulling things to you.
Skill Advancement: This should have to do with choices more so than it does… reaching your skill caps on most of your important skills soon after you level, each and every time, isn’t really what we were looking for. Making decisions and deciding to focus on different skills was more in line with what we’d wanted.
Damage, AC, and HP: I don’t think these three turned out to be equally important, especially at higher levels. They should have been much more so. Same with stats and resistances: they should be more important.
Bottom Feeding: This is still an area that bothers me, although attempts to address it were not very popular. I think, however, that had it been addressed at launch players would be used to it and the game a better one.
Meditation and other Downtimes: There’s too much downtime, but I’d not advocate eliminating it as some others probably would; rather, I’d reduce it a bit and come up with more things to do during that ‘rest time’ in-between battles. Players need a break from the action… time to discuss what went wrong or right, time to use the restroom or grab a soda. The socialization that occurs during ‘downtime’ is extremely important and I don’t think non-stop Diablo-style combat is good for MMORPGs. That said, when you find out people are finishing Robert Jordan novels while playing EQ, you know things are a bit extreme.
Empty Cities/Zones: The world builders spent a lot of time creating interesting, detailed cities, yet many are ignored – there’s simply not enough gameplay oriented reasons to use them. Also, many of the older dungeons need to be revamped and made more popular again. I hate to see so many interesting and beautiful zones underpopulated and therefore under-enjoyed.
Twinking: This is a tough one, and in my mind there’s still no ‘easy’ solution to the twinking problem. One wants a player driven economy and one wants to encourage replayability… but then one also doesn’t want to see a bunch of level 5 characters running around in level 60 gear. Some people advocate significant item decay or hard level limits, but these either don’t address the problem completely, or introduce other, worse problems. In any case, in 20/20 hindsight I’d have devoted a lot more time and energy into solving, or at least addressing, this problem.
Whew, I could probably (much to the surprise of those who think we believe we’re perfect) go on and on, but I’ll stop now.
Looking back at your initial plans when EverQuest was still being drawn up and looking at the still evolving product we all see now, how does this product differ from what you initially dreamed up, and has it lagged, met or exceeded your expectations?
In terms of gameplay, it’s pretty much met my expectations. As for the world and how detailed and vast it is, it’s exceeded my expectations. And certainly, in terms of popularity and commercial success, it’s far exceeded my expectations.
John Smedley once noted that EverQuest turned out to be more similar to its original design document that any other game he’d seen developed. I’m pretty proud of this – we set out to create EverQuest and we did, and then we went beyond it, adding a few more features than originally planned (for example, trade skills) and growing the amount of content to an amazing degree.
It’s funny… I never had the time to build multiple high level characters, or to play the game nearly as much as many others who eventually joined the development teams. But because of the time I’d invested before that, playing MUDs and such, and because of how closely the game turned out to be relative to the original vision, I could still participate in detailed design meetings and discussions about potential changes or problem issues. And as I play the game more now I really feel at home, thinking often to myself, ‘yep, what I’m experiencing is almost exactly what we set out to create.’
How much does the design of EverQuest owe to popular fantasy literature? What authors and novels did you draw inspiration from when developing the races and classes and characters that populate Norrath?
You know, it’s actually all the fantasy novels I read (and continue to read) that give me the inspiration and desire to make these games. When I sit down and read a great book I really enjoy it, but there’s something missing… I want to BE there. I don’t want to just read about the protagonist and his adventures – I want to actually be a person in that fantasy world, able to go where I want and encounter all that world has to offer.
I think MMORPGs are the closest means by which to accomplish that dream of actually being there… at least until a holodeck is invented. In fact, it’s my opinion that MMOGs in general will turn out to be the primitive ancestors of holodecks and other virtual reality experiences.
With EverQuest, Steve Clover and I from the very beginning set out to create a high fantasy world, drawing influence from all sorts of books and stories and settings. Bill Trost and others later came along and put all kinds of ideas into the world, adding all sorts of detail, and often drawing on campaigns they’d written earlier.
And you can clearly see the various influences, and I’m pretty sure we list a bunch of them in the special thanks sections of the credits. Name a popular author of fantasy or a great RPG, and I guarantee you somebody on the EQ team read it or played it, and that it inspired us… molded us into who we are creatively.
Aside from the graffiti in the Qeynos Aqueducts, is there any element of EQ that you’d like to take particular credit for?
Actually, I can’t take credit for the graffiti (that would be the work of those darn Irontoes), nor for the validity of their claims :)
I really had the privilege, as Producer, to be involved in all aspects of the game… I worked on the design, interacted with the programmers, brainstormed with the artists…
If I’m to take any particular credit, I think it would be for providing a lot of the willpower needed to see the game through, for co-authoring the original design document, for ensuring that we all stuck to the original vision of the game, and for doing most of the community support and PR before we actually had people to do those things.
Oh, and the iced-over river in EverFrost – that was my idea too :)
What race/class combinations have you played extensively (as a player, not a developer)? Which did you enjoy the most and why?
I’ve always been a ranger and paladin sort of person, ever since my MUDing days. I really enjoy hybrids, and I generally play good aligned races and classes. Humans and half-elfs are probably my favorite as well. I think it’s probably versatility that attracts me most… I like being in there, fighting it out as a melee class… but I also like to cast spells every once in a while too.
Do you have any favorite zones? If so, which ones and why?
From a visual standpoint, my current favorite is the Twilight Sea… when I wander around in that zone I simply can’t believe it’s EverQuest. Hats off to the Luclin art team for that zone and many others.
Gameplay-wise, I think the Warrens turned out to be a great zone. I’ve recently spent quite a bit of time in there, and it’s well layed out and populated. It has decent treasure and experience, and it’s challenging but not too difficult either.
Do you have any favorite epic encounters? If so, which ones and why?
I’m still fond of the original Vox and Nagafen encounters, and I still remember being blown away watching those early battles. Trakanon is an amazing NPC and where he’s at and the entire layout of Sebilis is awesome. And that we were even able to make the Plane of Sky work at all is something I’m still very proud of.
The EverQuest players are fanatical about the game, which has led over the years to its share of criticism, fair and unfair, of both you and Sony. What is your reaction to the level of criticism you sometimes hear.
It varies, really, and you’re right – sometimes it’s fair and sometimes it’s unfair. We certainly made our fair share of mistakes during the learning process of developing, launching, and then maintaining and updating a massively multiplayer game.
There are several factors that make MMOGs unique, including the fact that these games can be patched. New content, new features, fixes, and adjustments can (and should) be made after the game launches. And while I think this is one of the greatest strengths MMOGs have, it has also led to some frustration amongst players when the status quo is changed on them. Overall, I think it’s just something that will take time for both players to get used to and for developers to get better at. Sometimes, in the attempt to balance or tweak something, developers can make a problem worse, or overreact to it. Likewise, players can sometimes lose sight of what’s really good for the game as a whole and instead get upset about a change they perceive adversely affects them personally.
Another issue is what I call ‘MMOG Burnout’. When you play a game for a few days or a few weeks, and then grow tired of it, it’s usually not a big deal. You shrug, put it back on the shelf, and grab the next game. With MMOGs, however, one typically plays them significantly longer. And this is where the Catch-22 arises: it seems that often, the longer a player plays a game, the more upset they are when they finally do become burnt out on that game. This is a bit ironic when you consider that, typically, the better the game the longer it keeps the player enthralled. What’s the solution? Well, that’s a tough one… hopefully it’s something players will begin to recognize more often, and that they’ll leave or take a break when they start becoming really irritated or upset. Also, hopefully developers will do a better job at recognizing irritants and addressing them while at the same time safeguarding the health of their game in its entirety.
Lastly, you have the fact that we’re still well within the first generation of MMOGs. There simply aren’t that many out there. I think you currently have a fairly large group of people that are interested in massively multiplayer online games in general, but have yet to find one that really fits their needs and tastes. Since there are so few MMOGs (and since many of the ones that have been released are rather similar), many players are forced to either not play or play the game that most closely fits their tastes. In a sense, they have no choice but to settle. When you combine that with natural burnout and the fact that these games change and are patched, then, over time, the features or other aspects of the game the player never really cared for become more and more annoying. The solution here is, of course, to let the genre mature and to support these games so more and more of them will be developed. That way the games will not only get better through natural competition and through developers learning what works and doesn’t work, but also there will be more choices. Players will be able to dial in more accurately to the MMOG that fits their tastes… are they more of a power gamer? A role-player? A casual gamer? Do they prefer PvP or PvE? Is fantasy their thing, or is it science fiction? Do they prefer a game more focused on item acquisition or skill development? Are they looking for alternate non-combat related advancement mechanisms?
Until these issues are addressed in the many ways they need to be, there will be criticisms. Gamers are vocal people, and online gamers have the wonderful avenue of expressing their likes and dislikes on the Internet, on various message boards and such. This is good – good for the player and good for the developer. The feedback is priceless. And while some of the criticisms take the form of flames and can be hurtful, I think the majority of it is very healthy. Developers need to continue to interact with their player base and to listen.
Amongst the variety of players of the game are people like Curt Schilling, R.A. Salvatore and Jacques Villeneuve. Have you run into or heard of other celebrities who play EverQuest? What do you think about having celebrities like that playing the game you designed?
I have indeed, although I’m hesitant to list any more because many of them prefer to remain anonymous. But it is incredible and very flattering to create something that attracts all sorts of people, famous and otherwise.
I can say I’ve especially enjoyed getting to know Jim Lee and being able to work with him on a comic book (it should come out late this month, btw). He’s a big fan of EverQuest and a great guy, as well as my favorite modern comic book artist.
Have you played Dark Age of Camelot and Anarchy Online? If so, how do you feel they compare and contrast to EverQuest?
I’ve played both, and I always try to play all of the MMOGs, professionally to see what they are doing and to look for new ideas, and personally because I love these games.
The genre of MMOGs is still so new that each game is expanding the game space far more than they’re competing with each other. For example, despite DAoC’s excellent launch and immediate popularity, it only minimally impacted EverQuest.
This is a good thing, because in my opinion we’re still well within the first or maybe early second generation of these games. The genre has a LONG way to go, and every company who enters this arena is helping build something I’m very interested in -- so I’m very supportive of them all. Not only that, I’ve rarely met a developer working on an MMOG who isn’t a great person and also a person in love with MMOGs (as I am). For example, Jeff Butler and I hung out with several of the guys from AO at ECTS this year and had a blast.
As for publicly comparing and contrasting these games with EQ, I could, but I won’t… at VI/SOE it was against my own personal policy and it will stay that way. Right now with MMOGs I feel it’s the ‘more the merrier’ – each game is great, but could improve, and I know everyone involved wants to see that improvement for the game’s they’re working specifically and for the genre as a whole.
You recently left Sony to go out on your own. How hard was it for you to leave a game and company that you had obviously put so much into?
It was extremely difficult and painful, and I still get pretty emotional when I think about it. Not only did I help build EverQuest, I helped build Verant Interactive and also did my best to shape and positively influence the growth of Sony Online Entertainment. I worked with a lot of people, many of whom were my personal friends before EQ, and also many of whom became my friends during and after work on EQ.
I’m extremely proud to have been part of EQ and to have worked with such an amazing group of talented and passionate people. And while all good things do come to an end, it’s a small industry and I’m sure we’ll see each other around.
Can you tell us a little about what made you decide it was time to leave?
While I can’t reveal all the details, I am able to summarize some of what occurred.
Having risen from being the Producer on EverQuest to a founder and Vice President of Verant and then to Vice President of Premium Games and Chief Creative Officer of SOE, I was able to experience several different levels of management. I was also able to experience rapid company growth, as SOE expanded what was Verant into a full publisher and developer.
I think it occurred to me over time, despite the recognition, fame, and financial success that came from climbing the company ladder, that I was happiest producing EverQuest. At one time at SOE I was responsible for EverQuest, Star Wars: Galaxies, Sovereign, Planetside, and several other unannounced titles. Obviously there was no way to be ‘hands on’ with these projects because there were so many. And I’ve found that I need to be hands on and involved with the development and creative process… making MMOGs is what I really enjoy, but working on them indirectly and at a higher level just wasn’t as satisfying for me. I also realized that I personally prefer to be part of a smaller company or studio.
It occurred to me that many other well-known game developers have come to the same realization. When I consider several of them and what they’re doing, I don’t see many at high levels of management in large companies, but rather working on one or two projects at a time, able hopefully to focus and remain hands on. A good example I think would be John Carmack. I don’t know him personally, but my understanding is that he gets up in the morning, drives his F50 to work, and focuses on what he enjoys the most (programming). He keeps his company small and efficient, working on one game at a time, and launches hit after hit. I’m thinking this is pretty close to the ideal setup.
So I started to realize this about myself, what my preferences are, and what makes me happy and satisfied creatively and professionally. And over time, I’m sure this wasn’t invisible to SOE and in October they gave me the opportunity to be released from my contract. I took it.
Sure, there were other factors involved, but overall my departure was very amicable. Sony Online is poised to be the leader in online games for quite some time, is a great company, and I wish them nothing but the best. And people like John Smedley, Kelly Flock, and Yair Landau gave me tremendous opportunities to both excel and realize my dreams, for which I remain eternally grateful.
Do you have any plans for the future that you can share with us?
I do, and it’s something I’ve been thinking about quite a bit these last couple of months.
It’s my intent to start a small development studio and begin work on a third generation MMOG. I’ve recently begun to talk to various publishers and funders and am in search of the right partners with whom to begin this venture. I welcome any feedback, ideas or interest – please feel free to email me at email@example.com.
I just want to end by thanking you for developing a game that has kept hundreds of thousands of players like myself entertained for several years.
Thanks very much. Luckily for us, the game we all set out to make turned out to be something 400,000+ other people were interested in playing. Without all of you, the game would be an empty shell, the world of Norrath a desolate wasteland. I want to sincerely thank all the EverQuest players out there who stuck with us through thick and thin and continue to do so. I’ve met many of you at various trade shows and Fan Faires, read your emails and your posts, and a group of game developers couldn’t ask for a better player base than all of you :)