Welcome to part six in the miniseries born from a panel held with EQHammer managing editor Karen Hertzberg, and Ten Ton Hammer editor in chief, Reuben Waters. If you’re new to this series, why not start at part one?
Over the course of this series, Karen and Reuben have talked at great length about what made EverQuest special at the turn of the millenium, and the sad decline of the genre since then. They have both expressed a disillusionment with the direction massively multiplayer online games have taken over the years that is reflective of the opinions of many other consumers of these games. They have expressed optimism and excitement about EverQuest Next, and the ways in which it may revitalize, even redeem, the genre. And then I asked them my last, major question. The one that takes a little air out of their balloons, that grounds a soaring conversation.
I asked, what happens if EverQuest Next is a failure?
EverQuest Next is the first case of a major studio betting big on a non-themepark MMO since the original Star Wars Galaxies. It has already cost SOE millions of dollars and multiple redesigns, and it isn’t even in an alpha state yet. The project is so vast, that they had to make a whole other game - Landmark - just to test the systems that would go into EQNext. They’ve sunken so much into this, and they’re not Blizzard - SOE does not have unlimited money. They’re betting the house on EverQuest Next. What if that bet doesn’t pay off? What if players don’t respond to it? What if, after years of playing themepark, WoW-style MMOs, the audience is no longer receptive to something else?
“I’m actually betting that it’s not going to fail on such a level,” Karen says. “I think fail is the wrong word. I hate to say this, that it’s unsinkable, but I just don’t see it failing on that level.” So I angle my question differently. Let’s say it manages to turn a profit, but it fails to take the kind of significant market share that SOE were hoping when they rebooted development three times. What would that mean? “If EQNext fails to be the game changer it purports to be, then it’s going to disappoint a lot of people.” She says. “They have to both impress the EQ crowd, their core people who have been playing this game for well over a decade, they have to keep that crowd impressed and entertained. But they also need to - because there just aren’t enough people who have played EQ to form a solid player base these days - they need to bring new people into the fold. So it’s going to be a challenge to see how they incorporate that. Because, if they do give death teeth, as Dave Georgeson has alluded to, there are going to be a lot of new players going, ‘I don’t like this!’ And trying to bridge that gap between the old school gaming generation and the new school players is going to be an interesting challenge.” We’re beginning to get a little off-track, but Karen brings it back. “What does it mean if they fail? That’s really hard to quantify, but I guess, back to the drawing board. We’ll need to find out what resonates with players, if not that very open-world experience, that sandbox experience, then what? And I don’t know. I guess I don’t really have the answer to that.”
“If you look at SOE as a company,” Reuben says, “they’re in kind of a unique position in the sense that they have a legacy - we wouldn’t be playing MMOs the way we play them without what they helped set in motion. I’m not going to say that they are the progenitor of all things MMO, people will debate you all the way back to MUDs in the 70s. But what they have done, is they’ve failed in the past. What we know so far is that they’ve actually come to that point where they’re learning from their failures. What we’ve seen time and time again is companies that have not failed, that are scared shitless of the potential for failure. Or we’ve seen it be catastrophic when something does fail.”
He proceeds to name names. “Bioware - they became kings in the RPG space, and a lot of people thought SWTOR jumped the shark. Because it wasn’t what they were expecting. They didn’t listen to the original message, they kept expecting this big, giant, social MMO, when Bioware basically kept telling them, ‘no, we’re basically making KOTOR 3-12’. That’s really what SWTOR is, and if people had listened to the original message, and they had done a better job of managing expectations, that game would have been better received. So you’ve got that, you’ve got Bethesda, with Elder Scrolls - they’re another studio that built up a reputation and a long track record of success. And they’re having a very difficult time dealing with negative backlash, about things that people don’t like with Elder Scrolls. Blizzard, they’ve done the same thing that Sony’s done and they’ve gone back to the drawing board at least three times on Titan. We had a former employee, Eric Campbell, who was working internally at Blizzard during one of those phases, and they had even gotten Titan to the point where they were doing internal all-calls. So, playtesting days in the studio. So he played a version of Titan that no longer exists and will never see the light of day. Because Blizzard is one of those companies that, they’re scared to even make a game outside of one of their own IPs at this point, let alone something new entirely. I don’t think they’re capable, personally. But Sony - The Agency was an awesome idea, ahead of its time. It never even saw the light of day. Star Wars Galaxies, obviously there were a lot of missteps made there. And they’ve also admitted to those defeats. And where they’ve made bad choices. EverQuest 2 should have been the king of that generation and they acknowledge they’ve made some fundamental mistakes with that game. And so I think that they’ve gotten to that point where they’re not scared of failure.”
That’s an impressive defense, but to me, it doesn’t directly address the issue. What are the real, non-ideological consequences of failure? What is at stake? What if it fails to recoup its development costs? It may not sink the studio, but it would definitely prevent SOE from making another long development push, the way they did with Next. And it would also risk sending a message to the rest of the industry that this won’t work.
Reuben didn’t answer the question directly. Instead, he began to talk about the general shape of the MMO industry, as it will look in the years to come. It is a difficult thing, to wrap one’s head around the failure of a project that both Reuben and Karen are so invested in, personally and professionally. I don’t think they were prepared for that question. I think the one thing that came out of my asking it, is that they had not seriously considered the possibility of EverQuest Next not being successful to at least some significant degree.
And that, in itself, is telling. Join us against next week for the next episode of The Game That Shaped a Genre. We’ll see you then.
Filip “I Don't Need No Alias” Nonkovic has been gaming since an early age. Coming into this land of colorful lights and sounds from the wrong side of the iron curtain, his parents got him an NES for his birthday. He makes his living as a writer. When he isn't writing plays and poems by the light of one fitful candle late at night, he's gaming. Filip favors hybrid, one-man-army classes in online games, which he has been playing since the late-90s. He is a staff writer for EQHammer, with a particular fondness for anything to do with voxels, and an interest in analyzing the ever-changing relationship between developer and gamer.
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