In person, Scott Hartsman is an enthusiastic gentleman, talking a mile a minute about his passion: Sony Online Entertainment's PC MMO EverQuest II
. Mr. Hartsman joined the team as producer three years, ago, in the wake of the title's somewhat slow launch.
Why the sluggish start? Up against the firestorm that is World of Warcraft
, and by Hartsman's own admission laboring under a flawed vision of who would be playing the game, EverQuest II
struggled in its first year of live service following its November 2004 launch. Since then, under the direction of Hartsman and people like now-departed lead designer Jason Roberts, the game has fundamentally changed in an effort to recapture the enthusiasm of past and current EverQuest
His enthusiasm was mixed with blunt honesty when Gamasutra spoke to him at the recent Sony Online Entertainment Gamers Day event. In a series of conversations over the course of the evening, he shared the reasons behind EQ2
's rocky start, the philosophy that turned the team around, and the results of having a longer development cycle for game expansions.
Restoring The Fun Factor?
At some point after EverQuest II
launched, the team looked up and said, "We are not having fun." The people on the team weren't playing the game and, according to Mr. Hartsman, "That's the kiss of death.".
For various reasons, the design standpoint when the game was first created was "we can't steal from EverQuest
". The game's goal was to move as far away from EQ
as they could, to attract new players while leaving the EQ
player base more-or-less intact. That resulted in, essentially, a generic fantasy MMOG with some very strange design decisions.
For example, there was a lot of interest in controlling the player's experience, making sure that everyone at X level was exactly the same in a number of ways. This resulted in a feeling of sameness, and not a lot of enthusiasm for grouping. That was a particularly bad cycle, as the game was also absolutely brutal about solo play. "I think when the game first came out I leveled a character up to about 13 or 14 before I threw my hands up and said 'done!'"
That's just one example of a design structure that promoted frustration. There were several elements that fed off of each other: the locked encounter system, the initial class system that had players choosing their final class quite a ways into the game. "When your designers aren't playing your game, that means something is deeply, deeply wrong", Hartsman said - but took pains to point out that no one person or group of persons was responsible for the game at launch.
Morphing Into Something To Be Proud Of?
He explained: "The understanding behind the product was perfectly valid... it just missed the mark. So the initiative became, 'let's make this into a game we want to play.' The result is a title that everyone on the team plays quite a bit, apparently. Mr. Hartsman noted that several of his colleagues run guilds, and two in particular are regularly leading raids and unlocking new content in-game. "That's the sign that you're doing things right."
Scott Hartsman is bullish on the title as it currently stands: "If I didn't think that EverQuest II
was worth working on, I wouldn't be working on the game, bluntly. I'm one of those people who needs to be truly into what it is that he's doing. I wouldn't be doing this if I wasn't. This game, when it launched, did not have a lot of things that would be required to pull in a sufficient EverQuest
-friendly audience. It has in the last three years become that game."
He continued: "Between our studio and the Taiwan studio we've probably had a hundred and fifty to a hundred and seventy five people work on this game. Every 'generation' of developers has gotten the game better and better and better. If it was just us saying it, it would be one thing. It's reflected in our better review scores. It's rare for review scores to go up over time, especially an MMO. Usually your game launches, you have a review score, and then all of your review scores kind of dance around, maybe go down. Ours actually trend upward for each new expansion... This franchise is improving in value. To us, that means that this game could go on for another ten years."
Free, Pay Content To Up The EQ2 Ante
When he wasn't discussing the game's past, last week Mr. Hartsman was explaining the new Neriak and Darklight Woods areas of EverQuest II
. These zones are free content created by the SOE-Taiwan, the Soga studio, and will be patched into the game at no cost to the player later this month. Along with the two new zones, the darkly 'emo' Arasai faerie race will be added to the roster of evil races.
Mr. Hartsman grinned widely as he described the collaboration process between SOE-San Diego and their foreign coworkers, navigating a floating Arasai though the Dark Elf city of Neriak. The visual style and audio environment were specifically designed to evoke the city from the original EverQuest
, and onlookers were treated to a number of examples of how the 'old is new again' in the upcoming publish.
While content from the upcoming expansion Rise of Kunark
wasn't available to see that evening, Mr. Hartsman was no less excited about that project. The culmination of a shift in thinking at Sony Online Entertainment, Rise of Kunark
will be the first EQ2
expansion given a full 12 months to gestate before being released.
's previous expansion, Echoes of Faydwer
, was the testbed for the company's policy change. Success both critically and with the player base sent a clear message to the company: take the time to do things right, and bring back the EverQuest
-ness to EQ2
. When the idea for the expansion was being bandied around, Mr. Hartsman was still reluctant to go directly for a 'spiritual sequel'. He consulted the game's staff on the matter, as several of them had worked on the original expansion for EverQuest
. The response was overwhelming: let's do this the way we wanted to do it back then.
Hartsman explained: "We have a fixed amount of time to do a thing, where a thing is the expansion. They set the amount of time, they set my staff levels. My team sets what it is that we can accomplish thats going to be fun and polished in that span of time. As long as we can control one variable, we can win the game. And so, what we really do is we plan to have as much fun and quality stuff as we can in there."
He continued: "In this case, we have enough time to do ten more levels of content, probably four or five hundred quests, we have enough time to do a full compliment of collection quests. That's a huge thing for EQ2
players, people love collections. And we have time to do a brand new race. So we're doing the Sarnak as a playable race. In there, we also have a little bit of time left over to do some R&D. And the nice thing about expansion cycles that last a whole year is that you get experimentation time. Whereas, if you have a six month cycle you have to go with what you know works. There is no tripping. If you trip, you miss your date."
But what's changing? "In our case, our big experimentation this time is the concept of having 'superzones'. I don't want to make them sound cheesy, but they're gigantic regions. You could place two, three, or four older EQ2
zones, outdoor zones, and make them as distinct areas inside this one all-encompassing zone. We're going to have a few of these regions out there, and then each of those regions will have a few zones inside them. What that lets us do is make an expansion where there is less zoning. We're going to have zone names that sound a little foreign to people. "The Jarsath Wastes", "The Kylon Plains" - that kind of thing. Inside of those areas, you'll see Skyfire Mountains, you'll see the Dread Lands, the Lake of Ill Omen. And so those will be full zone-sized areas inside these much larger areas. You can go back and forth and not have to be worrying about zoning the whole time."
Conclusion - More Care, More Of The Time
Indeed, in Gamasutra's recent interview with John Smedley
, the SOE president explained the major change in attitude affecting EverQuest II
: "The teams have their heads down, they're working hard, and we're learning from past mistakes. In the case of EverQuest II
, it's still a very very healthy business for us. In terms of getting it in the public eye, that's the purpose of the free updates; we're trying to target several large-scale free things to add to the world."
Smedley concluded: "We want people to know that we're not just slamming out expansion packs. I think that was a mistaken strategy that we had for a while. It decreased our quality level. The teams, and myself included, just get to the point where you want to be super proud of what you're releasing, and we wanted more time to polish things, and so we said 'the heck with it' and went with it that way." How will this considered approach pay off in terms of buzz and increased subscriptions? Only time will tell.