['MMOG Nation' is a regular bi-weekly column by Michael Zenke about current events in the world of Massively Multiplayer Games. This week's column is about the 'relaunch' of the game EverQuest.]

SS DungeonNot too long ago, my feelings about Sony Online's Everquest (EQ) were mostly frustration and disappointment. Despite its position as a genre-defining title, the release of EverQuest 2 signaled to me that Sony Online Entertainment (SOE) was no longer going to be focusing on the game. My assumption was that, with a shinier and more solo-friendly big brother around that the original would fall by the wayside. After a time I even began to become frustrated by the fact that Sony kept releasing expansions for the game. I felt that they were leading EQ players on, that they were short-changing EQ2, and that they were pouring effort into a no longer relevant title. I can now say categorically that I was wrong.

I recently had the opportunity to take a tour of the upcoming expansion, Serpent's Spine, with EQ Lead Designer Travis McGeathy. I've seen the light. Today I'm going to look at EverQuest's past, the reason for my reversal of opinion, and where the game is going. Finally, I'll talk about why I think the direction Everquest is headed (and the revamp of Ultima Online) signals nothing but good things for the future of Massive gaming.

(Click through to read the full column!)

It Worked Out Okay

From everything that I've heard, the creators of EverQuest were quite nervous when they began taking applications for the game's Beta. Ultima was fairly successful, but a 3D graphical online world was not yet a proven concept. There was some fear that people wouldn't 'get it', that their years of hard work would end in frustration and commercial failure. Seven years later, and on the cusp of the release of the twelfth expansion for the game, I thinkit's fair to say that EverQuest has done alright. It hasn't always been a smooth ride, to be sure. Conflicts between the designers and players over class balance, zone population and itemization, and high level encounters are legendary. There's been a lot of negative press about the MMOG genre in general, and a lot of that has focused on EQ because of its recognizable name. There's even some reality to that press, with EverQuest's level-focused gameplay leading to sites like EQWidows and the burgeoning RMT market.

Despite that, while UO and Meridian 59 can claim earlier launch dates Everquest is in many ways the template on which most modern fantasy MMOGs have been based. Looking at MMOGChart.com, though, it's easy to see that the age of Everquest's primacy is over. From a height of about 550,000 subscribers in the summer of 2004, the game now has less than half of that number logging in to play. Newer games have come along, learning from the lore of EverQuest. The globe-spanning phenomenon that is World of Warcraft would almost certainly not exist if many of its designers hadn't cut their teeth doing corpse runs, raiding Nagafen, or getting keyed for the Planes. EverQuest 2 is doing fairly respectably as well, with a 'spiritual' sequel also planned in the form of Brad McQuaid's Vanguard. As nice as it must be to know that your game spurred such creative works, SOE has to be disappointed with where EQ's numbers are now.

Hence my frustration and confusion: Why continue a service that is losing players? Why prop up a game world that seems to have offered its all? Today, I have the answers I was looking for last week. On Monday EQ's lead designer casually mentioned to me that over the last seven years something like five million people have played EQ. Just about the number of people living in my home state of Wisconsin have trod the earth in Norrath. That seemed like an impressive but mostly anecdotal figure at the start of my tour of the Serpent's Spine expansion; by the end of that experience I came to realize it meant far, far more.

EverQuest Redux

New Orc ModelYou see, Serpent's Spine is nothing less that a relaunch of EverQuest. Sony Online isn't couching it in those terms, but the players understand what's going on. Referring to it as 'EverQuest 1.5', there is a lot of excitement among current players and lapsed veterans about a new way to experience EQ. Looking at their falling subscription numbers, SOE isn't trying to 'take on' World of Warcraft. Instead, they've made an expansion that focuses on what EverQuest has always really been about: the players. Essentially, Serpent's Spine is a game within the game. The Serpent's Spine mountains enclose a huge swath of territory, and the expansion explores those zones for the first time. Though technically a home to the new player race (the Drakkin) all players creating a new character can make their way to Crescent Reach, the city zone in the new area. From there, characters can move out into the new adventuring zones. A player can level a character from 1 all the way to the new cap of 75 entirely within the zones including in Serpent's Spine. SOE hopes that, by providing a clear quest path incorporating all of the innovations and upgrades the game has received since launch, players will be able to experience the best of what EQ has to offer.

Though this may seem like they're short shrifting the mountains of content in the rest of Norrath, the goal is more to guide than force. McGeathy seemed to believe that older players will return for the new adventure path, but would stray at appropriate levels to revisit favorite zones and quests. Thus, they're making returning players the focus of the expansion. Even distanced from the game, this focus gives old players a very definite idea of what they should be doing at each level. "I'm level 20, so I should be adventuring on the Moors." Beyond that, a player can go exploring in the wider world of Norrath, always knowing the more focused content of the new expansion will be awaiting their return. Even within the 'focused' adventure path, there's some variation. At the higher levels there is a split between two totally disparate quest lines. You'll be able to follow clues to the home of the last intelligent giant race, or work against a crazed half-dragon and his mighty armies. Interesting stuff, in the grand tradition of EQ.

This focus on the players, rather than shiny new features or systems, is what sets Serpent's Spine apart. SOE seems finally to have come around to the idea that they should be spending time and effort on the players. Everything in this new expansion touches on or fleshes out what has come before. There was no wasted time developing new technologies that might look good on the back of a box, but that players might not enjoy. The goal, then, has always been about allowing the players to have a good time. Ie: what games are always supposed to be about.

It's Not Rocket Science

For me, it's frustrating that such a simple idea has to be something of a watershed. Most MMOG expansions are excuses to include new technology, prettier graphics, and increased difficulty. By putting boxes on the shelves people are reminded that your game exists, and you hopefully get some new players. By upping the difficulty at the high end, you hope to retain your current crop of end-game players. Serpent's Spine is a digital download -only love letter to the lapsed Everquest player, with no ulterior motives attached. That new commitment to the community they've created is incredibly refreshing. Ultima Online, too, appears to be looking to reintroduce old players by giving the game a fresh look. Both of these titles, pillars on which the modern MMOG industry is built, have finally come to a place where player satisfaction is #1 on their list of goals.

Perhaps this is a natural evolution of any Massive game, should it survive long enough. Once they're past the hype of features, graphics, and subscription numbers, designers and producers can finally focus on the people that make the hype worthwhile. If so, I think it says great things about the future of the Massive genre. Though there will be always games that fall out of favour and are shut down, some games can live on long after uninformed observers think they should be put out on the ice. More than just 'bread and circuses', by trying to reintroduce past players to Everquest SOE is recapturing great memories, reconnecting old friends, and perhaps rubbing some of the cynicism off of otherwise very jaded MMOG veterans.

Diamond SpringsAt the end of the day it's nice to see a product that reaffirms we we already know about Massive games. What makes them special isn't the technology, the graphics, the press, the number of people playing, or the number of hours you've played. What makes them special is the way that we play them: together. A reality where a 40 year old housewife and a 16 year old schoolkid hook up with a 30-something programmer to slay a dragon is unique. For ignoring market pressures and staying true to the ideals of the genre, I can't help but salute a company that's willing to make sure that reality stays fresh even for people that aren't paying it anymore.

[Michael Zenke is also known as 'Zonk', the current editor of Slashdot Games. He has had the pleasure of writing occasional pieces for sites like Gamasutra and The Escapist. You can read more of Michael's ramblings on Massive games at the MMOG Nation blog. ]