As an MMO historian, I have to applaud the work of former SOE developer Shawn Lord in his huge interview series with the people who worked on these titles. A recent three-hour beast of a video caught our attention as Lord interviewed Jeff Butler on a wide range of MMOs, including EverQuest, Vanguard, and EverQuest Next.
Butler was a producer on EverQuest, a co-founder of Vanguard’s Sigil Games, and a lead on EverQuest Next.
Because I know that not everyone has three hours to fully digest a video, I thought it might be beneficial if I took that hit and pulled out all of the relevant historical details to share in today’s Game Archaeologist. So let’s rip into this and learn a few new details about these projects!
- “For the amount of money that was invested in it, EverQuest is the most profitable venture Sony Corporation ever engaged in in its history. There is nothing that remotely compares to it.”
- “In the days before EverQuest’s launch, the team thought they’d have 75,000 customers. Seventy-five was the target. And there was more than that the very first day.” He went on to say that part of this reasoning was that the team assumed most gamers weren’t going to upgrade their hardware to handle it.
- Butler also said that back when he pitched Star Trek Online to Activision, the execs strongly felt that there was only a maximum of one million potential MMO players in the world — and definitely no more than that. “That’s how people acted in that time.”
- In the earliest days of EQ customer service, some of the machines that the studio used could barely handle the game itself so that GMs would log on to stare at a wall and only use the chat function and GM codes.
- “There was a period of time where I was the highest level player in the game. During the beta, I’d log in and play 14 to 16 hours a day […] I was one of the first 32 people into the beta.”
- One early issue was that Verant was getting a lot of guides to essentially work for the studio for free, which was a big no-no, legal-wise. This required a lot of careful rules to be drafted.
- Butler hired a lot of customers who came to his comic book store to become the early GMs and customer service. Because there really was only one MMO operating at the time, there were no experienced MMO devs in the field.
- Butler went from a beta tester to customer service management to being a producer over SOE Live and the Kunark expansion.
- Some of the EQ devs were living under their desks in sleeping bags for months before launch. Many burned out by launch. They then took the remaining devs and had former players and CS people apprentice under them. This formed the SOE Live team format.
- The GMs had to approve character names as they were entered, as there was no list of disapproved names or words.
- Lord said he petitioned the staff a few times for Jeff Kaplan’s character’s name, Tigole, to be renamed. The petitions were denied.
- Around the time of the Shadows of Luclin expansion, the new SOE president demanded that mounts be added to the game even though the team couldn’t figure out how to do it well.
- “There are no similarities between the start of Pantheon and the start of EverQuest. Crowdfunding and publisher-sourced money are two different things. I feel sorry for the guys working on Pantheon because it’s much, much more difficult to succeed.”
- Butler was asked to help out with pitches for Nancy Drew Online and Harry Potter Online (and he said that he was far more invested in the latter).
- The early team got royalty checks for game performance — some of which were significant. Like, $250,000 significant.
- “Very similar to Shadows of Luclin. Very ambitious.”
- One idea for the game was to have doors react to your guild tag.
- “It kills me that this game is not accessible. I’ve tried to find my old saved copies of the server-side code to see if I could cobble together my own server and log on to the game. I am a big proponent of games never sunsetting. At a minimum, there should be a subsidiary company that takes everybody’s MMOs and keeps them going. I’m tired of a group of executives who don’t play and know anything about the product saying, ‘Let’s just sunset this game.'”
- “This game could still be in development with volunteers.”
- “The amount of effort that it takes to sustain these games is minimal indeed.”
- What went wrong with Vanguard? The short answer is: a restricted budget. Butler said that it didn’t get a massive investment up front that it needed. Microsoft only gave them $12 million to develop the game. “You can’t field the talent to make everything easy unless you’re well-funded.” (The game’s budget would eventually grow to $28-$32M, which was still small compared to World of Warcraft’s or SWTOR’s.)
- “A $75 million Vanguard would have been much more polished at launch.”
- The dev team also struggled with Unreal Engine 2.5 without the talent to handle it.
- Between its ambitious scope and having to create everything from scratch, Vanguard simply needed more time, funding, talent, and resources than it got.
- The result was a title that wasn’t polished and was riddled with bugs.
- While the studio scaled up slowly, Vanguard grew to around 95 developers.
- Vanguard’s elevator pitch of three pillars — adventuring, crafting, and diplomacy — was very close to what was actually released in the game.
- The size and scope of the world quickly grew beyond what the team could support. They didn’t have time to hand-craft the world in the way it needed to feel populated and alive.
- The team “brute forced” fixes and challenges, sometimes by “sheer force of will” and staying overnight at the studio.
- Butler’s focus was to bring the modern MMORPG experience, while McQuaid was more driven to replicate a MUD-like experience that had never been done before.
- So what happened to EQN? Butler said that there was more to it than what Daybreak said in its press release. “My feeling is that when I left, there was no one left to push for EverQuest Next. No one at the highest level. Dave Georgeson was gone, I was gone, and the game left with us.”
- “Not a day goes by that I don’t regret seeing how successful that game could’ve been.”
- “We had some amazing things in progress. The tech was untest and untried. It was something completely unique. A completely destructable, editable, voxel-based world in a massively multiplayer game.”
- “Even today, no one has ever attempted to do something like it.”
- “EverQuest Next would’ve been a spectacular game.”
- “This iteration of EverQuest had only been worked on for a fairly short time. The previous iterations were almost impossible to count. There were seven subsets of what was going to be the ‘next’ EverQuest. They’d work on it for a little while, scrap it, and build it up again.”