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Fun Zone | Game Design

'EverQuest' Captures an Ever-Growing Audience

February 15, 2001|SCOTT STEINBERG | steinbergs@hotmail.com

Here's a riddle: What's ultra-addictive, causes people to act and dress strangely and has increased the number of shut-ins since its inception? If your answer was America's current designer drug of choice, sit down, do not pass Go, do not collect $200. All those who said "EverQuest," Sony Online Entertainment's wildly popular massive multi-player fantasy role-playing game, can take a bow. Brad McQuaid, the series' original producer, discussed the creation of a phenomenon.

Q: How massive in scope is a development project of EQ's size?

A: Massively multi-player games require large teams and quite a bit of development time, due to their scope and scale. Entertaining thousands of players in one world for month after month, even year after year, necessitates a very large and detailed world, full of entertaining things to do. "EverQuest" took almost three years to develop before commercial release, and the team grew to almost 30 people. And now, over a year and a half after release, we still have a very large team and significant budget keeping the game updated and interesting.

Q: Why is the team so adept at churning out worlds based on medieval fantasy?

A: A world focused on fantasy seemed to be the most appropriate theme and setting for our first major push into massively multi-player gaming. So we built our development team around people who loved fantasy, whether they were fans of fantasy novels, single- player computer role-playing games, multi-user dungeons or old-fashioned paper-and-pencil role-playing games.

Q: In what ways do you design worlds as opposed to levels?

A: Levels are usually associated with single-player games, which are meant to be played from beginning until end. Massively multi-player persistent games don't really end and must provide content that entertains players long-term. A large world, lots of areas to explore and quests to complete, as well as something to fall back on (character development, socializing and adventure) do tend to make the game more of a world than a series of levels.

Q: Do you employ any unique approaches to creating products?

A: I don't know if the approaches are unique per se, but currently there aren't very many companies working on massively multi-player games. They are a very different animal, requiring not only large development teams and budgets but also significant amounts of network infrastructure as well as customer service. I guess that's the key: service.

Q: What makes "EverQuest" so compelling?

A: "EverQuest" has three primary areas of focus: character development, community building and an immersive world. Players build up their characters over time, acquiring experience, knowledge and possessions. And because of the social and interdependent nature of the game, players also develop relationships with other people. Both of these aspects create an ownership that compels players to keep playing over the long term, all the while exploring and experiencing a very immersive 3-D world.

Q: How much potential do you think the Internet has in terms of online gaming?

A: I think it's far larger than anyone yet realizes, and I believe we've really only scratched the surface. . . . My prediction is that within five to 10 years, the audience will be so large that we'll have blockbuster movie budgets allowing us to create amazing virtual worlds capable of entertaining millions of Internet users.

Q: What are the main challenges posed by bandwidth restrictions?

A: Bandwidth is indeed a restriction, but perhaps not in a way most people might assume. The actual bottleneck is not on the client side but rather the server side. For example, even were the majority of our players to have access to broadband (DSL, cable modems, etc.), we couldn't necessarily take complete advantage of it. In other words, until bandwidth costs come down on our side, we couldn't afford to send significantly more data to our hundreds of thousands of players. . . . We do a lot of extrapolation and prediction on the client side, which allows us to hide latency and other issues related to limited bandwidth.

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Scott Steinberg is a freelance writer specializing in video games.

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