Twenty Years of EQ

My career in games is based on a series of unplanned events. My story is hardly unique in that regard. But at the foundation of all of them all rests a single name: EverQuest. And on this twentieth anniversary of its release, it’s only right that I send it a birthday card.

Since high school, I was a diehard Ultima fan. It was the fourth installment in the franchise that changed my perspective on what video games could be, and once Ultima Online was released, I could not conceive of ever leaving it. But when my guildmates started disappearing to a newly launched rival that boasted 3D graphics, I thought I’d at least try out the game and give my new Voodoo graphics card something to do.

I never looked back.

Warrior was the first class I tried–a human, at that. Bread and butter of the fantasy RPG. But it left me a bit unsatisfied, so I bit the bullet (even earning a few levels in those days represented a major investment) and tried a Freeport monk. That was when the game truly sang to me. The name I chose was the one I’d been using since Ultima III: Moorgard.

From Freeport, the eastern of the two human cities, you could either head south towards the Desert of Ro or westward to the Commonlands. More often than not, I found myself headed west. There was a thriving economy out of the infamous tunnel. Death from above swooped down in the form of griffons. A few turn-in quests here and there allowed me to build an internal narrative that I was defending my home city while helping the Ashen Order thrive.

One day in North Freeport when I was around level 17, a level 40 monk ran up to me wearing armor more spectacular than I’d ever seen. He opened up a trade window and popped a black pearl in. I was confused, telling him he must have the wrong buyer for this exquisite treasure. This guy, who was named Splos, smiled at me and said it was a gift, that I should repay another the same kindness someday. Stunned, I accepted the trade and watched him run off. Making that black pearl into a ring was a milestone for me.

Months of leveling followed. Level 50 seemed impossibly far away. But logging in day after day, working my way deeper into the Commonlands, then Kithicor, then Highhold Pass, and finally Highkeep. Waiting in line for goblin groups, seeing one spawn that was wearing bronze armor… it felt glorious. I kept grinding and moving on to other zones until I was a monk in my upper 40s.

Povar was home. My real-life friends Marlo and Ben were regular groupmates, but advancing further in the game would require larger numbers. We landed in our first guild, called Aquilo Ferox, and made online friends. I’d learned about this thing called raiding, even finding my way into the occasional Nagafen and Vox fights. My guild was small, but we had alliances with other guilds, and we decided to try Plane of Fear. I’d built up a fairly good reputation as a monk puller in dungeons, but I was clearly out of my depth. Fortunately, there was an unguilded monk on Povar who was renowned for his PoF skills, and he offered to teach me the ropes.

That monk, of course, was Splos. I recalled him instantly, and recounted the tale of the black pearl. He didn’t remember me–it turned out he did things like that all the time for new players–but he appreciated my gratitude as he patiently taught me what buffs to ask for in what order, explaining which mobs would dispel them. He showed me where to run so as not to get hit, where to feign, where to feign again if the first one failed… on and on. Finally the raid could begin, and I went in to pull mobs away from the zone-entrance until we could get enough guildies in to start killing. We had a few minor setbacks, but we dug in our heels and began bringing down the denizens of Cazic-Thule.

Loot was dropping… loot such as I’d never seen. Of course I’d been a devoted reader of sites like EQ’lizer, so I had a list of Shiverback pieces that I was hoping to see. I won a roll on some bracers and felt like a god. Much later in the night, my mouth dropped open as a Shiverback-Hide Jerkin was called out. My heart raced. There were three monks in our raid–me, Splos, and a female monk. She rolled first, then Splos, who was higher. Everyone turned to me… but I refused to roll. After all, I had a debt to repay.

There were more raids to come, and I loved the thrill they offered. Though I loved my smaller guild, I felt like I wanted to move to a guild that raided more consistently. That was Altera Vita, and we competed against our server rivals in the new Kunark expansion. The overcrowded Povar split and we went to Xev. Those were good days.

My friends Ben and Marlo were coders, and they had the idea of building software that someone could use to host a news site. They needed a proof of concept, and since I could write a bit and we all loved EverQuest, the idea of creating our own EQ news site seemed like a no-brainer. was born.

There were already several successful EQ news sites, as well as some popular guild pages like Fires of Heaven and Afterlife (featuring famed leaders Furor and Tigole, respectively). The latter pair had cornered the market on what the community called “rant sites”, so my friends and I decided to try something different. Sure, we had issues with things in EQ, but we loved the game. Loved it. Why not show that love by writing thoughtful articles that gave the developers the benefit of the doubt instead of berating them? Don’t get me wrong–we complained too. But our articles tried to suggest solutions as well.

Somewhere along the way, we heard that the devs at SOE actually read our site… and liked it! One day after posting about monk issues, I got an email from Scott Hartman, tech director of the game. I nearly fell out of my chair. Conversations with him–and lead designer Rich Waters–gave me a peek behind the curtain at how developers actually approached problems, and it helped me grow as a player and observer.

In 2002, I was invited to a community summit on site in San Diego. Seeing the offices where the game was made, being able to talk to the team and get a peek at upcoming content… it was magical. I was told that the guy who ran the studio, Rod Humble, wanted to chat with me. You could have knocked me over with a feather. Rod was super chill and polite, telling me how he appreciated Mobhunter. He asked if I’d checked out the newly launched EverQuest Online Adventures on the PlayStation 2. I said no, because I didn’t have the console. He turned to a PR guy in the room and told him to send me one, along with an online adapter and a copy of EQOA. It felt like Zeus had blessed me with a magic sword. I couldn’t believe that companies actually did stuff like this. Rod had something else he wanted to talk to me about. We all knew by this point that EverQuest II was in development. He said the game would be needing a community manager. Was that something I’d consider?

Was it something I’d… something I’d consider??? Yes, Rod. Yes, I would.

A few months later, they brought me back for an interview. I met the new team, got to see the new game. Two days after arriving back home, they called me with a job offer. And my life changed forever.

That was 2003. The development of EQ2 could be its own series of articles, and the founding and downfall of 38 Studios could be a novel. In my return to SOE, I worked on Vanguard, Landmark, and the ill-fated EQ Next. Now I’m at Blizzard, working on the MMO that grew to be many times more successful than the game that inspired it. But none of these things, including the job I have today, would have been possible without EverQuest.

I owe so much to so many. To Marlo and Ben, for sharing our passion in EQ and turning it into the website that started it all. To Smed, who was always kind and caring for the teams that worked for him. To Rod, who literally sparked my career in games. To Scott and Rich for giving me the first glimpses into a world I’d come to love. To Blakely, Andy, Bruce, and the EQ2 team for giving me a chance and helping me to learn. And to the many coworkers I’ve been in the trenches with over the years, sharing successes and failures, elation and heartbreak. I love what I do, and never take for granted how lucky I am to do it.

Happy birthday, EverQuest. Here’s to Norrath, and to all those who have called it home.

The Blog Graveyard

Finding myself with a little time to kill this weekend, I began clicking through various bookmark folders in my browser. The most cluttered of these was “Blogs”, a list of a few dozen gaming sites I used to check with some regularity.

This folder has stayed by my side for going on two decades. It has moved with me from computer to computer, hard drive to hard drive, browser to browser. A quiet, constant companion. Old. Reliable.

But when I started following the links, you can guess what happened.

My once vital list of go-to sites had become a graveyard.

I clicked. I pruned. Mercilessly, I clicked and pruned some more. And when I had finished, I was left with a skeleton of my formerly robust folder. But at least the branches which remained were alive.

It didn’t surprise me, of course. My own blog has doubtless been pruned from the folders of most of my former readers. And yes, the gaming landscape has changed a lot over the last couple decades. But it also speaks to how many of those who used to blog regularly have shifted to places like Reddit and Twitter. Myself included.

But slimmer though it is, my Blogs folder will continue to travel with me whenever my next computer comes along. So long as there are still living limbs within it, anyway.

A Seat at the Table

GDC is always a mixed bag of usefulness and frustration. There are great sessions to hear and participate in, but also disappointments and stinkers.

While writing in video games is kind of my thing, I don’t typically find value in attending the narrative roundtables. The useful bits and helpful advice tend to get overshadowed, at least for me, by frustration. There’s always some amount of  complaining from writers who feel slighted by the development process, or who lament the lack of narrative gigs in the business. It’s not that I don’t sympathize with these points of view, but the roundtables can devolve into venting sessions rather than outlets for creative collaboration. Others may disagree. Your mileage may very.

So it was with trepidation that I attended a narrative roundtable at this year’s GDC. And whether my fears proved true or I simply turned it into a self-fulfilling prophecy, the talk became what I expected. I seethed in sullen silence, wanting to speak out but electing to remain quiet so as not to  come across as the jerk in the room.

(To be clear, I have nothing against the participants or organizers of this session. I’m sure many others found it both useful and delightful, and I’m just being a jackass. I apologize to my industry colleagues and promise to have a better attitude next time. Maybe.)

There was one memorable moment that transcended my grumpiness. I sat down at the main table a few minutes early, near another developer I knew. As we talked, a smiling, fresh-faced young man nearby introduced himself. He was the GDC prototype of an eager student in the midst of several indie projects, graduating soon and trying to make connections. Curmudgeon that I am,  I’m not so cynical that I want to discourage up-and-comers trying to make it in this often thankless business. My colleague and I both chatted with him about his projects and schoolwork.

As the session was about to begin, the student looked around at some of the people filling in chairs at the back of the room. Somewhat guiltily, he said he was going to go sit with them so that someone more experienced could have his seat at the front. As he stood up to move, I pointed to him and said in a stern voice, “Sit down, kid.” I told him never to give up his seat at the table. He put the work in. He claimed the spot. In this business you don’t give up your position to anyone. Make the most of every opportunity.

With eyes wide, he nodded and sat down.

When the session ended, I got up to leave. The student came up and thanked me for what I told him. He said no one had encouraged him to stand up for himself like that before, and it was a lesson he was going to remember. I shook his hand and offered one last bit of advice: companies come and go, but his career is his alone. No one else is going to look out for it the way he will, so he should keep hustling and making connections. Even with grumpy old shits like me.

Maybe it wasn’t the most conventional way to pass along knowledge at GDC, but I felt, for that day at least, that I had done my part.

I Am Not Alone in My Slothiness

I happened to look through a folder of old bookmarks I had tucked away, and stumbled upon a plethora of blogs I used to follow back in the day. Clicking through the links, I found a number of old favorites still active, but also noted that many of the writers I avidly followed haven’t posted anything new in some time.

This made me both sad and relieved.

Sad because many of the old-timers I admired have gone silent, or at least moved on to other sorts of media (the blog is a kind of outdated construct, I suppose).

Relieved because I’m not the only one who sucks at posting.

I imagine that many, just like me, might love to post more, but find themselves busy with work, busy with life, or in the throes of all the good TV available these days. Seriously people, when I was a kid, I had four channels to choose from. FOUR. And most of them had nothing I really wanted to see outside of Saturday mornings and late nights on weekends.

Right now I don’t have the bandwidth to watch all the shows I would like to see. It’s an embarrassment of riches, and it shows no sign of slowing down.

Unlike my writing. Which is sloooooowwwwwwww.

What’s the Point of This?

I went to the trouble of fiddling with a new blog look, so I might as well do something with it. But what?

Were I to focus this blog on game design, as Mobhunter (sort of) was, I’d never publish anything–the last several years are evidence of this.

Why? In part because I don’t have a lot to say on the subject. I used to enjoy pontificating on MMOs, but the community already does that with far more fervor and volume than I could hope to muster.

Perhaps more to the point, I’d rather be known for the things I create than the things I talk about creating. Theories are cool and discussing them can be useful, but my preference is to focus on the work itself. The craft rather than the theory of the craft.

So where does that leave this site? I don’t know, exactly. I like to write, and I currently use Twitter to share thoughts from time to time. But 140 characters often isn’t enough to get a point across—so maybe that’s where comes in. I guess we’ll see.

Maybe if I view the site as a place to jam out a quick 10-minute brain dump of what’s in my head at the moment instead of some long, thoughtful piece, I’ll actually be able to post here with some regularity.

At least it worked the one time. It’s a start.