EverQuest is one of the most popular online games ever made--since it was first released in 1999, it has captivated players from all over the world with its huge, colorful environments and high-fantasy characters and monsters. To this day, thousands of devoted players spend hour after hour online, thanks in part to the continuous additions that Sony Online has made to its game, including three expansion packs, each with huge new areas to explore. EverQuest is an online role-playing game--the kind that lets you create a single character and then take that character out into the world to explore, fight monsters, acquire treasure, and meet with other players. And while many have enjoyed EverQuest's hack-and-slash battles and extensive quests, they've enjoyed meeting and adventuring with other players online even more--many players have formed regular player groups, or guilds, that they meet with regularly.
But things have changed in the three years since EverQuest first appeared on the scene. There are more massively multiplayer online games to choose from these days, and quite a few others in development--including a full-fledged sequel to EverQuest. That's right, in addition to the upcoming fourth expansion for the original game, The Planes of Power, Sony Online is now working on EverQuest II. We caught up lead designer Bill Trost to get the first details on the sequel.
GameSpot: It's exciting that a true EverQuest sequel is in the works. Will there be any compatibility between the games? Or will current EverQuest players be expected to discontinue playing the original for sake of the sequel?
Bill Trost: We fully intend on expanding and supporting the current EverQuest for as long as people want to play it. The two games will coexist and continue to grow and expand based on the strengths and potential that their different game systems and time periods offer.
GS: We're guessing that EverQuest II still takes place in the world of Norrath. How will the world be different? What are some of the old factions that will still populate the world, and what are some of the new ones? How much bigger (or smaller) will this new Norrath be compared with the existing one?
BT: EverQuest II takes place on Norrath during the Age of Destiny, which follows the Age of Turmoil that the current EverQuest is set in. To give too much away at this point might spoil some cool events we are planning for EverQuest, but it is fair to say that most of the major political players of Norrath will still be around, making players' lives more interesting in some fun and surprising ways. At this point, it appears that the EverQuest II reinterpretation of Norrath is going to be significantly larger than the Norrath of the current EverQuest, but we are not done with it yet.
GS: EverQuest II will undoubtedly feature a significant visual overhaul. What are some of the new graphical touches we can expect? What kind of a system will we need to run the game smoothly?
BT: We are very fortunate. Our programming team, headed up by Jon Davis, has engineered an unbelievable game engine, and our art team, lead by Stuart Compton, is pushing it to the limits. We are on the cutting edge of graphics technology and artistic achievement. That is a good place to be. Bump maps, shadows, specular highlights, and talented artists who know how to use them all add up to a beautiful world populated with the most incredible characters I have ever seen. We are ahead of the curve here, but we think that by the time our target release date rolls around people will have the systems they need to play.
GS: The original EverQuest has sometimes been criticized for its heavy focus on combat--most players spend the vast majority of their time in groups with other players, fighting monsters. Will this focus shift at all with EverQuest II?
BT: We think players expect a deep and challenging group-oriented adventure experience from any game that has the name EverQuest on it. That being said, we do plan on fully supporting several nonconfrontational forms of character advancement, as well as many interesting community-related and role-playing friendly features.
GS: Will there still be a character class system? How will character creation work, and how will players be able to customize their characters over the course of their lives?
BT: Yes. EverQuest II is a group-based game, and as we have learned from EverQuest, a class-based system supports that very well. Character creation is something we are really focusing a great deal of design effort on. We really want EverQuest II to be as accessible as possible. We feel that at character creation, most RPGs, both online and off, needlessly hammer their players with far too much information and ask them to make very complex decisions without full disclosure of the long reaching consequences of those decisions. This is intimidating and downright unfair to a player who has no idea what a "shadowknight" is or what it would be like to play one for the long haul of an extended online role-playing campaign. We want to present information at a more measured pace so that every time players are asked to make a meaningful decision, they are fully aware of and understand the options that are available to them and how it will impact their play style. We plan on supporting a staggering number of customization options, from purely aesthetic choices like skin tone to game-impacting choices such as skill specialization. One of our goals is that, at any given time, we are only asking players to contemplate five or so options, so they do not feel overwhelmed at any single decision point but end up with a very deep and highly personalized character.
GS: EverQuest has always been a very time-consuming game, which is part of what makes it very intimidating for a lot of new players. The sequel will undoubtedly try to appeal to hard-core EverQuest fans, but what will it do to make the online role-playing experience more accessible to new players?
BT: We are taking quite a few steps to minimize "downtime" and to ensure that however long players have, they are capable of jumping in the game and making measurable progress. I really do not want to get into the specifics of that at this time but players should rest assured that the design team has been paying attention for the last three years, and we think we have figured some things out. While time will still be the most measurable investment a player will be asked to make in EverQuest II, we feel it is not in anyone's best interest for the game systems to demand long consecutive hours of play.
GS: Will the game still feature discrete zones, or will its environments be seamless? Will the game still use discrete servers (or shards), or will all characters live on a single server?
BT: EverQuest II will still feature discrete regions, for that very reason. They are discrete. EverQuest II, like EverQuest before it, has an incredible diversity of locations and environments. The known quantity of a "region" also enables our designers to better tailor the environment when setting up encounters, ensuring that they are balanced and fun. That said, we are also well aware of all the technical and gameplay implications of a region-based architecture such as load times and "zone warrioring," and we are taking steps to ensure that the effects of these are minimized or eliminated entirely.
The game will also follow the EverQuest server model. This is a choice we made primarily based on the belief that many smaller, localized communities, where you can know everyone and earn a reputation, are stronger and more compelling than one "global" community where anonymity is the norm.
GS: Besides the improved graphics, what are some of the most exciting features of EverQuest II?
BT: A few of the things we are excited about most are new classes, new regions, new character advancement mechanics, new skill mechanics, new combat mechanics, new crafting mechanics, new spell mechanics, new items, new spells, new and more advanced non-player characters, a new quest system, a new vehicle system, and a new faction system. This is really the tip of the iceberg, though. I really don't want to talk about any specifics yet. We are still quite a ways out.
GS: Can you talk about some of the new types of items and equipment in the game, and how looting and banking will change in general?
BT: Our item system is completely new and designed to support both the cool and unique items that players have come to expect from EverQuest and the increased role of the player tradesman. We plan on having many new and powerful items, both magic and mundane, but it is too early to go into exactly what they are.
The specifics of looting is also not something I would like to talk about right now. Suffice it to say that we have some ideas that we plan on testing out. Banking is also something that is likely to shake out in testing. We have some interesting ideas, but it remains to be seen how much fun they are. If something isn't fun, we will change it.
GS: What will happen when a player character is killed? Corpse runs? Lost levels?
BT: Our goal with character death is to foster a respect for the environment and the dangers it holds. Players should never want their character to die. We have learned quite a bit about character death both from EverQuest and its competitors. Death does happen, quite often, and sometimes through no fault of the player. This should never be a devastating event or put players in a situation where they have to place their "real life" on hold. Death should not break up groups. Death should not make players wish they had not sat down to play the game this session. But, death should hurt and death should be feared. The EverQuest II death system attempts to address all these points. Corpse runs and experience loss we feel are not needed. Bind points are something that will be open to everyone at no cost and close by. Without going into too many specifics, our death system utilizes an "experience debt" coupled with resurrection or voluntary item sacrifice. Once again, this system, like many others, is only our initial plan, and it is likely to go through many changes throughout the development process until we find one that meets our goals in practice and on paper.
GS: How will player killing be incorporated into EverQuest II?
BT: EverQuest II will have separate player vs. player rule sets for specific servers. All servers will have new arena and duel systems that we are very excited about.
GS: How long has the game been in development? How many people are working on the project? Are you planning an open beta test of some sort, like the one you held for the original EverQuest?
BT: EverQuest II has been in the planning stages since just before The Ruins of Kunark shipped, but actual development started about two years ago. The team of 39 people has been fully staffed for the past year and a half. Our beta schedule is still too far out to comment on.
GS: What pricing options are you considering? Will EverQuest II use a pricing model similar to EverQuest's, with an up-front retail cost followed by a monthly subscription fee?
BT: I just make the games, I don't price 'em. It would be a safe bet that EverQuest II will follow a similar pricing model to other Sony Online Entertainment products.
GS: What are some of the biggest lessons you've learned from the original EverQuest that will be incorporated into the design of EverQuest II? Has the recent loss of key members of the original EverQuest team impacted the development of EverQuest II?
BT: There are many lessons, and we are learning new ones every day. Keep the game fun and challenging. Encourage and make it easy for people to socialize. Keep the setting familiar, diverse, and intriguing. It sounds a lot easier than it is.
EverQuest has always been a team project. The core EverQuest team is strong and still here at Sony Online Entertainment, working on EverQuest: Live, EverQuest: Planes of Power, EverQuest Online Adventure, and EverQuest II. We have been joined by an incredible group of extremely talented programmers, artists, and designers, and even a few producers who all share our passion for EverQuest. We wish nothing but the best for those who have left EverQuest to pursue other interests.
GS: As you know, the massively multiplayer role-playing genre is much more competitive than it used to be. With competing products such as Asheron's Call 2, World of Warcraft, and Star Wars Galaxies all slated for release within the same approximate time frame as EverQuest II, how well do you think your product will be able to compete?
BT: We believe this market is stronger and larger than most and that there is room in the marketplace for all those games and more. Every time another MMOG has been released, EverQuest subscriptions have spiked up. We have just reached yet another record high of subscriptions for EverQuest. As far as we can tell this is not at the expense of our competitors. It seems every new game grows the space and all boats rise. As for future competing products, we look forward to playing them.
GS: What will happen to EverQuest once EverQuest II is released?
BT: We fully intend on expanding and supporting the current EverQuest for as long as people want to play it.
GS: Thanks very much for your time.