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The Making of a Classic

Adam Tingle Posted:
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Be sure to read our companion piece to this article, EverQuest: Making EQ - The Brad McQuaid Interview.

In 1999, I was just 8 years old. One day, my parents brought home a bag, nestled inside was a box, and etched upon its blue cover were the words "EverQuest" - a prettier sight I had yet to see. My heart skipped a beat as I hurried upstairs and waited for my Windows 95' machine to flicker into life; I gnawed at my fingers as the installation process sluggishly moved along, and finally the desktop shortcut appeared and I readied my fingers to click - suddenly two figures emerged into the room, one pointed to the clock and announced it was bed time. I suppose it was a school night.

When I did finally get to play EverQuest, it was as if someone had brought to life the essence of fantasy; like a portal into another realm had opened, you could find yourself living, breathing, and adventuring in a virtual world of wonderment. EverQuest defined the genre when it launched, and yet its beginnings were haphazard rather than masterful - a charmed mix of plucky newcomers and unaware bravery. Now more than ten years since its release, and with another batch of inspired-MMOs about to hit the market in 2012, MMORPG.com is looking back at the creation of EverQuest, and a landmark moment of the online world.

Internet Fees and Nursery Workers (1989-1996)

In 1989, three people made their start in the video gaming industry. John Smedley was a self-confessed D&D fanatic that began working at ATG, designing games for the Apple IIe, before moving on to form his own games company, Knight Technologies. In his spare time "Smed" would enjoy roleplaying games, as well as the new "online" distractions that were beginning to take shape; reputedly spending upwards of $600 on mech-shooter CyberStrike. So interested by these new experiences was John that he began to formulate ideas and ambitions to create his own web-bound game, but online-connectivity was still in its infancy and for the while this idea faded away as he took a job creating sports titles at Sony Imagesoft.

Elsewhere, Brad McQuaid and Steve Clover had decided that they too wanted to make games. Forming independent company Microgenesis, and with the help of Artist Milo D.Cooper and guidance from Roger Uzun, the pair set about creating their own RPG which would later become known as WarWizard. This title, distributed as Shareware, failed to kindle any major successes and the two fell back on their programming know-how, creating software at a plant nursery. Over the next few years, Brad and Steve began development on a follow-up to their initial title, this time recruiting the art-direction of Bill Trost and Kevin Burns. As with its predecessor, WarWizard 2 was created whenever the group had any spare time, and by 1995 enough work was completed so that Microgenesis could release a demo of their upcoming title - little realising then the impact of this decision.

Creating sports games was all well and good, but John Smedley was an RPG fan at heart, he crafted his gaming sensibilities in the forges of Ultima, and by 1995 ideas of online role-playing gaming were beginning to occupy his mind more and more, later recalling "the online industry was what I wanted to do, mostly because of CyberStrike's appeal". After watching MUD games (multi-user dungeons) build in popularity, Smed finally decided to take his ideas to his superiors at Imagesoft, now formed into Sony Interactive Studios America. Formulating a succinct pitch which captured his imaginings, ambitions, and designs for a 3D MUD, Smed was flatly rejected within minutes.

Only when a personal shift occurred, and new boss Kelly Flock entered the studio in late 95' did John Smedley's esoteric online-RPG idea finally get the go ahead with a micro budget and low expectations.  Now the project needed developers, and with such financial constraints, Smed decided to look through shareware games, hoping to find fresh and exciting designers that could help his vision along.

On a rainy Saturday night, Brad McQuaid received a phone call from John Smedley - he had seen WarWizard 2 and needed budding developers to help him with a 3D online project. Brad and Steve were familiar to MUDs of the time, being players of Sojourn and TorilMUD, and jumped at the chance to create their own evolutionary online experience - immediately quitting their jobs at the plant nursery and joining Sony in March 1996.

When the two developers signed on to EverQuest, they found they had a nameless blank slate to work with; the only direction came from John Smedley's three goals: the project had to be Internet-based, it had to accommodate hundreds of players playing at once, and it had to be 3D - the gaps between fell to the only two members of the team. Left with their imaginations, Brad and Steve worked on the 80-page EverQuest design document which detailed gameplay mechanics, online nuances, races and class systems, and early world design - what they were planning to achieve was largely new but both developers had an idea of what to expect, with Brad later recalling "I always think about the mechanics and what makes a game fun. In the early 90s I played a lot of MUDs and knew to look at issues from a developer's and player's standpoint".

Three months from starting out, Steve Clover christened the project "EverQuest" and conceptual and physical design had truly begun.

Norrath Rising (1996-1997)

At the time that EverQuest's development began, nobody had yet offered a truly-3D experience. The Doom Engine was still in use, and the BUILD engine the latest in technology, but no one had yet created a world with both 3D environments and 3D models - let alone on the massive scale that the EverQuest team were envisioning.

To aid the budding project, John "Dok" Whiston was brought into the team to create concept art including creating the iconic "EverQuest" logo, and a number of programmers also joined the team. Slowly the two man line-up of Brad and Steve grew to ex-WarWizard artists Bill Trost and Kevin Burns; Milo D.Cooper and Roger Uzun, who had left shareware for Sony, also joined, the latter writing the world and zone servers. To aid in the visual division Rosie Cosgrove  also bolstered the ranks of the budding art department after working on the project's product demo. In all the team through ‘96 grew to around 10 people, all working meticulously hard and 18 hour days on a project that by their own admissions seemed "impossible" from time to time.

These early stages of design adhered to the initial "vision" document laid out by Brad (who had now become producer) and Steve, and this is something that would carry-on throughout the project. Steve Clover along with Bill Trost came up with the geography, topography, and citizens of this new virtual world - the former coming up with the moniker "Norrath" along with "Qeynos" (Imaginatively Sony EQ backwards) and various other places. The developers decided that their fantasy landscape needed an extensive lore of its own, so Bill Trost brought in the expertise of Tony Garcia, and together using their old D&D campaigns the world was designed with their own teenage pen and paper avatars. Sir Lucan (D'lere) being Garcia's table-top knight.

The initial world designs describe Norrath as a place with 5 continents, boasting 50-60 zones, and a completely seamless land mass without loading screens: this was quickly adjusted. Although Kunark had been detailed in tandem with the Antonica, Faydwer, and Odus, it was shelved for the time being - deemed as unsuitable and unfitting with the rest of the content. Artists Rosie Cosgrove, designer Bill Trost, and Rick Schmitz also strove to populate the world with monsters and beasts, initially envisioning just 40 unique monsters, with variations, but eventually surpassing more than 100.

Taking influence from the MUDs that were out, the developer's began to imagine a world that closely mirrored their Dungeons & Dragons experiences, as well as the fantastical worlds of Tolkein. Norrath had started to take shape, piece by piece and little by little. Inspiration was coming from many directions, some from traditional fantasy, and even further afield such as Rosie Cosgrove's historical nods, later recalling that "Cazic Thule comes originally from ancient Mayan and Aztec Ruins". Everything was open, and when you are creating the rule book for a new, untested genre, everything was fair game.

It was from these text-based adventures that the infamous "corpse runs" found their genesis. As if to promote a sort of "help one another" mentality, Brad McQuaid was instrumental in imposing these harsh death penalties, later commenting "it was challenging, frustrating, but in the end the camaraderie and team-work made for the most fun I've had playing online games".

But towards the end of 1996, the small team at Sony were not the only ones busying themselves with the creation of an online-RPG, and in September 3DO published Merdian 95, a partially 3D, self titled "MMPRPG". Rather than feeling like they had been beaten to the punch however, the small EverQuest team felt vindicated. Their project could work, and something similar was working elsewhere. Rather than seeing Merdian 95 as competitor, it was viewed in terms of successes and failures - carefully picking out what worked, and most importantly of all, what didn't.

Other gaming "firsts" came and went, including Blizzard's release of Diablo: a hack 'n' slash game that came bundled with a multiplayer option using "battle.net". A roaring success of its time, Meridain 95, Subspace, and Diablo showed Sony that EverQuest was very much of the moment - except it was more ambitious, more detailed, and on another level of vastness.

But not everything was plain sailing within EverQuest's development, and by 1997 problems were starting to arise - namely that of the 3D engine. Software rendering was originally selected as the method of EverQuest's graphical workings, but quickly it became apparent that this wouldn't cut the Norrathian mustard; a new solution was needed, and quick. After much debate, John Smedley decided that hardware rendering was the way forward, and a gamble on the new Voodoo and GeForce cards of the time. John Buckley was brought on board to help the engine along, and the visual hiccups were overcome, for the moment.

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Adam Tingle