Eric Hayot

Eric Hayot is Associate Professor of Comparative Literature and Director of Asian Studies at the Pennsylvania State University. He is the author of Chinese Dreams (Michigan, 2004) and The Hypothetical Mandarin (Oxford, 2009), as well as essays on contemporary poetry, Asian American fiction, and alternative histories in such journals as PMLA, Representations, and Contemporary Literature. His work on virtual worlds, written with Edward Wesp, has appeared in Postmodern Culture and Comparative Literature Studies.

Edward Wesp

Edward Wesp is Associate Professor at Western New England University where he teaches and researches American literature and culture. His research interests include the art and culture of nineteenth-century America and the comparative analysis of digital games and other media.
Contact information:
ewesp at

Interview with Brad McQuaid and Kevin McPherson

by Eric Hayot, Edward Wesp

Brad McQuaid was the co-designer of EverQuest, managing the development team from the project's inception until its launch. He later became a founder of Verant Interactive and its Vice President. Kevin McPherson was one of the first EverQuest team members, working just under 3 years on the project on primarily the EverQuest client, and also writing the original background and setting for the Ruins of Kunark expansion.

This interview was conducted via email in late 2004 and 2005. In some cases, only one of the two interviewees had a response to the question. The order of the questions here is thematic rather than chronological.

Eric Hayot/Edward Wesp: Several of the essays in the book spend time trying to figure out what exactly EverQuest is--a game, a virtual world, a social space, an economic space, and so on. Which of those ways of thinking about EverQuest (or Vanguard) is most important to you, and why?

Kevin McPherson: To me, it is all these things, but a game first and foremost. If it was just a virtual world, a social space, an economic space, it wouldn’t be different enough from real life to be fun. The player’s avatar, the chance to grow more powerful, and have heroic adventures and powers beyond that of moral man and woman is what makes it a game for me, and what makes it fun. Take away any of the elements and EQ ceases to be EQ, but the game aspect is most important in my mind.

EH/EW: Over the course of EverQuest’s shelf life, it has changed a great deal: aesthetically, geographically, and in terms of the in-game mechanics. But the game is still EverQuest-not a sequel (yet, anyway), not a remake, but EverQuest. Is there a core set of values (structures, in-game mechanics, or guiding ideas), to your mind, that made EverQuest EverQuest, and that have remained the same through all the design changes?

Brad McQuaid: No longer working on EverQuest nor for Sony Online Entertainment, it wouldn’t be appropriate for me to comment on whether EQ is still the same EQ or not, or to what degree, or what exactly their goals are with the game now. But I can say that, while I was there, we did have a ‘vision’ and a set of goals. We wanted to create a challenging but also rewarding game that appealed to all sorts of people, but not to everyone - we didn’t want to fall into the ‘attempt to appeal to everyone but end up appealing to no one’ trap. We really set out to make the game we wanted to play, and we also had the goal of trying to re-create the fantastic experiences we had playing text MUDs in the early 90s, and AD&D before that.

With EverQuest, we set out to make the game we wanted to make, and were lucky enough to have enough freedom and trust to do just that. And then it turned out that at least 400,000+ other people out there liked the game too, and our retention rate was fantastic (at the time I left, for example, over half the people who’d ever tried EQ were still playing).

Kevin McPherson: If I had to identify the core elements of EQ, they would be:

  1. Big risk equals big reward. Low risk garners little reward.
  1. Hard work pays off; little or no work, does not.
  1. Actions have consequences, such as virtual death, failing in a timed event, etc. Without consequences, there is no risk, and without risk, rewards are hollow and meaningless.
  1. Players are distinct (profession, culture, equipment, skills). The greatest social group that can achieve access to more advanced content is that social group (guild, adventuring group, etc.) that is diverse, and complementary.

It follows from this that players tend to band together to achieve common goals, and character distinction lent itself well to re-playability, so that I can play EverQuest many times over, from start to finish, with equal fervor, with a totally different persona.

There are different play experiences to be had in any given play session, and the players may choose as they see fit. Perhaps today I feel like being a merchant, and selling and trading rare treasures I have earned; perhaps I feel like fighting alone in a dark wood, joining with others to cleanse the depths of a foul possessed crypt, or collecting resources and fashioning them into something I or others desire to use. Maybe I just want to explore a new vista, and talk with my friends about the events of the day.

These, for me, are the core elements that have made the product successful.

EH/EW: Is that core set of values substantially different for Vanguard, your current project?

BMQ: Not really, no. Our goals still stem back from before EverQuest and so in that sense Vanguard is a further (and hopefully better) realization of those pre-existing goals, and a chance to take all that we have learned and to create and implement a better ‘vision’. We are also, once again, lucky enough to have been given a lot of freedom and trust from our publisher, Microsoft, to make the game we want to make, and the game we think players who’ve enjoyed our previous games are eagerly waiting to play.

KMP: For myself, I feel that these core values are shared across game genres, and tend to distinguish a good product from a mediocre product. Balanced risk and reward, a feeling of self, and pride in one’s virtual entity/character, a variety of choices and play styles available for one to choose from: these are core elements any game should have in my opinion, and certainly Vanguard must have these elements.

EH/EW: How much thought was given in the original design of the game to the development of structures that are to some extent "outside" the game: message boards, guild websites, the entire Ebay economy, Fan Faires, and the like? That is, did you all anticipate the explosion of the game world into the “real” world in the ways that it happened? Did any of your design elements attempt to predict likely extra-game outcomes of EverQuest's release? How must games like EverQuest shift in response?

BMQ: I have to admit that most of that took us by surprise. The game turned out to be very successful, and because of the numbers of people playing, the ‘real world’ component sort of came out of that level of success. Our previous experience playing text MUDs involved much smaller communities where it was far easier to keep the buying and selling of in-game goods and characters pretty much non-existent. Those that ran and still do run MUDs, not only because of the size of their playerbase, but also because of the fact that they are generally non-profit, could be more draconian in the enforcement of such policies. Additionally, while the Internet certainly existed, the ease at which players could set up web sites and such in the early 90s just wasn’t there.

As for supporting the community, posting on web sites, etc., that came mostly from watching how well Raph Koster and others supported Ultima Online, as well as the fact that we had minimal marketing early on. Necessity, in a sense, drove me to reach out to the community and promote the game. Then, once we had that community, it only made sense to support it in all sorts of ways. I would also like to add that a great deal of credit should go to people like Cindy Bowens, who came along and organized Fan Faires (at first on her own, and then later as an employee). Many others also contributed to the community in a variety of ways including the guide program, etc.

In learning from all of this, Sigil has been very pro-community from the very beginning: supporting web sites, interacting with the community, etc. As of June 2004, we have already had our first community get together and are planning all sorts of neat ways to interact with Vanguard’s growing community. We also even launched message boards before we officially announced Vanguard, in order to start building and supporting that community early on, and I believe we grew to over 3,000 registered board members before actually announcing. This was not only unprecedented I believe, but also a clear and further indication of how important a role the community, and the act of community building, plays both before and after a massively multiplayer game goes live.

EH/EW: Now that you've seen what's happened with EverQuest, has your answer to that question changed with regards to Vanguard? In particular, what are your thoughts about the prospect of game companies offering in-game items for real-money sale? Is there a major distinction in your minds between buying equipment for money versus buying whole characters?

BMQ: This is a very controversial issue and there are all sorts of arguments and positions to be made. In my mind, I can certainly envision a game designed from the ground up to support both in-game and out-of-game transactions, although I think a number of legal issues need to be worked out first (and am confident they eventually will). For example, if someone truly owns their in-game character and/or their in-game items so that they have a right to sell them: how does that affect the developer’s ability to make changes to the game that might as a result alter the value of those characters or items?

With Vanguard specifically, we’ve designed a game more along the lines of ‘traditional’ massively multiplayer games. Vanguard is about escapism, about being able to enter a virtual world and to leave the real world behind to a degree. To that end, we feel that one’s real world financial status should have no bearing on who they are or what they have access to in-game. Indeed, one of the core principles in games like Vanguard is that if you see someone and the items they’ve acquired, you should ideally be able to assume that the person earned them in-game. This way, it really doesn’t matter who you are in real life - your financial status, your race, your gender, your age, your location, etc. should all be irrelevant. And I think this is very important. Virtual worlds of this sort break down all sorts of prejudices and preconceptions that exist in the real world, and I think this is not only a good thing, but an exciting thing. Online relationships have proven to often be as real as traditional relationships.

Now, clearly, this is an ideal - a goal. It is probably not completely achievable, and no matter how hard we fight to keep the world of Vanguard free from real world influence, that influence will still be present. But, as with many things in life, just because an ideal cannot be totally achievable doesn’t invalidate the ideal, nor mean we should just give up and accept ‘fate’ so to speak.

KMP: My answer to this question would be my answer to any product I work on. I would play the game myself, listen to player input and comments, and make informed decisions with the team based on our experiences and information presented by players.

“Items for money” is a business and design decision, and as a programmer I will defer to those departments on such decisions in all cases.

As for me personally, that which is not earned has no real value, so I myself would never purchase equipment or characters, because the entire point of a MMO for me is the Journey itself, the shared experiences with my fellows, the personal investment in my character and items, and knowing that every single coin, dagger, and leather strap was earned, and having memories of the saga of earning every single thing I have or am as a virtual persona.

EH/EW: Did you expect that EverQuest would become such a total experience for some players (playing 60 hours a week, quitting work, and so on)? How does the attempt to design the game for different kinds of players (weekend, regular, hardcore) structure the game-world?

BMQ: I wasn’t too terribly surprised, again due to my experience in playing text MUDs, the better of which were just as compelling. There were people who played casually, people who played every waking moment, and then all sorts of people in-between to varying degrees. In fact, I think it’s that compelling nature in massively multiplayer games in which very real relationships form and a very real pride in one’s in-game accomplishments develops that keep people playing month after month, year after year.

With Vanguard, however, we are making a significant effort to introduce mechanics and content that better entertain people with varying time commitments. There will be areas more geared towards the casual gamer, the traditional ‘group with your friends’ player, as well as the ‘hard core’ player who enjoys ‘raiding’ and playing for many hours at a time. We also want those different types of players to co-exist in an environment where they can interact better, and definitely don’t think these different play-styles are mutually exclusive in any way.

KMP: The goal was to make it very enticing, and we had some idea of how enticing when we ourselves wanted to play the game 24/7.

Varied play experiences, allowing each time slice of play to be different (whether casual, regular, hard-core, explore, achieve, craft, socialize, etc), drew players to play the game intensely regardless of their mood at any given time, because they could find a style of play to enjoy at any given time for any given mood.

EH/EW: One of the interesting things about EverQuest has been the possibility of producing recursive relationships between the game and its users. Many of the game’s changes over the years have been produced as a result of player petitions or requests, or in response to (sometimes unanticipated) player behavior in the game. Do you research how players actually play the game? Did you rely on external feedback via message boards or Fan Faires?

BMQ: All three and more. We would read the boards, read our email, talk to people at Fan Faires and elsewhere, and also (and this is very important) play the game ourselves quite a bit. Many of the EQ developers were part of various guilds (large, small, and ‘uber’), most of the time anonymously. We would then garner feedback about how the game was playing using not only our own experiences, but interacting with our guildmates and other friends online, which proved very valuable.

KMP: The ways I gathered feedback were: by playing the game intensely myself with other players, and experiencing firsthand player behavior, gripes, and desires (including my own, and those of other development team members). This was the most effective manner for me, personally, in order to make a fun and evolving product.

Ultimately one cannot make the product that pleases only oneself, but rather must strive for the product that meets the vision of the team and of the public.

EH/EW: One of the essays in the book argues that one of the ways players affected the nature of Norrath was by deciding where to locate impromptu markets, a decision that seemed pretty counterintuitive in relation to the geography of the game-world (e.g., Qeynos looked like a bustling city, but players didn’t actually go there to trade). Do you see benefits in these kinds of ad hoc player-located activities as opposed to the convenience offered by game-centralized sites like EverQuest’s Bazaar? In other words, do you see the move of trading from the East Commonlands Tunnel or Greater Faydark to the Bazaar as an advancement or the loss of something vital?

KMP: The Bazaar certainly seemed more convenient and more prone to hyperinflation (devaluation of currency and looted item value). I have a personal preference for player created markets, like those that formed in the Commonlands or in the Faydark. I felt there was a much more social and personal touch to those. Rather than purchasing good from a player “bot” so to speak, players would haggle, barter, and interact with each other in a more genuine fashion. I spent quite a bit of time buying, selling, haggling…it was like a mini-game unto itself…and I met a lot of folks by doing so.

Another aspect of the Nexus/Bazaar introduction was the reduction in the perceived size and scope of the world via the teleportation that was introduced. Travel was made exceptionally convenient, but this served to create a sense of smallness in a large world. Some of my greatest experiences in EverQuest were harrowing overland travels to arrive at an adventure site or a city, and while I may have cursed the travels at the time, they have made for some of my fondest recollections. Areas of content that existed to make travel exciting and dangerous then became dead after the introduction of fast teleportation travel for all.

EH/EW: How do you think about the relationship between what players say they want and what they seem to indicate they want with their in-game behavior?

BMQ: It really varies. What players would like to see changed or addressed in a massively multiplayer game can stem from a myriad of motivations. Some of it may be selfish, some of it might be naïve, but I also think a great deal of it can be very heartfelt and accurate. Massively multiplayer games are more than the sum of their parts, and the community plays a huge role. Game designers can implement all sorts of mechanics and content, and, despite their experience, be quite surprised as to results when players actually start to experience that content or those mechanics changes. So, it is very important to listen to the community and to consider things from their angle, and from every other possible angle. On any given issue, it is best to hear from different players with different backgrounds and perspectives, and it is also important to play the game yourself, as a developer, and to experience by yourself what the players’ issues are.

KMP: By playing the game oneself, by having the development team play the game and experience firsthand that which the players are experiencing, and using our experience in the creation and balancing of risk and reward, is, in my opinion, the best way of distinguishing between too hard and too easy, between what is fun, and what is insipid.

Those features in the game which are onerous, tedious, too difficult, or too easy for the players at large are also so for the developers who play the product as well.

EH/EW: Lots of player requests involve making the game easier...but if the game is too easy players might quit. In that case what players say they want and what they actually want are quite different.

BMQ: This can be true. Being responsible for the long term health of a massively multiplayer game, the stewards of that game have to consider the big picture. And they also have to remember that changes to the game can affect the whole of the game, and the whole of the community, not just the individual.

One of the tenets we try to adhere to at Sigil is as follows: The collective long term happiness of the playerbase and therefore the overall health of the game, is always right. This is in response to the assertion that the “customer is always right.” The assertion is correct, but since players are in a world shared by other players, the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one or the few; likewise, what is good for the game long term takes precedence over the short term, in that it's in both the developers and players interest that the game retains its long term viability.

EH/EW: How have you weighed the relationship between "practical" rewards for players--new abilities, better equipment, money--versus less practical rewards--things that might change appearance, items with mostly symbolic or sentimental value? Does efficiency drive players' desires overall?

BMQ: They are both important - one is more of a way to express yourself or your character, and the other a way to show others your accomplishments. We have several ideas on how to allow for both - it is too early to go into details, but I can say they will most likely be separate to the degree that it is clear that one is for expression and the other earned.

KMP: Different things drive different players. Even the same player is driven by different reward metrics on different days, with different friends.

Rewards must vary as player styles and available game activities vary. What should remain constant, in my opinion, is the balancing of risk versus reward, and making rewards match with the time and effort invested.

All rewards in a virtual world are ethereal themselves. What makes them valuable and tangible to the player is the pride and joy they give to the player, in the form of recognition, memories, and personal aggrandisement.

EH/EW: As a designer, how much control do you see yourself having over the social experiences of the players? What are your most effective tools for shaping and/or promoting social interaction?

KMP: Designers can promote social interaction through geography, and the interdependence of their game systems. By placing adventure areas in key locations, in relation to towns and outposts, they are able to foster natural meeting places to form social bonds, as well as natural crafting and trading hubs.The more interdependent their game systems are, the more players must rely on cooperation, trade, and each other, to achieve personal or group goals. The most effective ways in which a designer can promote social interaction is to develop systems and adventuring mechanics with these points in mind, and to play the product intensely themselves to ensure that the design has been manifested in the manner they envision.

EH/EW: Some of the contributors to the collection have considered the ways that stories circulate through EverQuest - stories told by the players about their experiences alongside stories told by the game about it’s world. Do you see an important role for narrative as a way to break up the MMOG “grind” - e.g., world “events” that change zones - or is the storytelling best left to the players’ exploration?

KMP: I think a very solid story and background is necessary to give the game experience meaning and continuity. These online worlds do continue to evolve through expansions and in-game changes to reflect the ongoing story. I do not feel the storytelling is best left to the players’ exploration, but rather that it is our duty to ensure the world is enticing for the players and we must expand and evolve the world to entertain our customers.

EH/EW: What are the most effective ways to get players involved with game lore and story structures?

KMP: Some players care nothing for the lore or back-story, while others follow it with unbridled fervor. It is extremely important to some, and irrelevant to others, and the vast majority of players fall in the middle between these two levels.

I think the lore is absolutely necessary for a MMORPG world, for the developers and for the players. We are providing a backdrop, a canvas scene if you will, upon which the players will paint in their own epic.

Whether a player ignores the lore or follows it closely is irrelevant to me, as long as the player feels immersed in a living world, and is having fun.

EH/EW: How did you approach the game's recognizable real-world cultural connections or references? For instance, the Barbarians have a Braveheart-style Scottish feel and the Erudites have “black” skin (in a way that none of the Human models do). Were these primarily art design decisions? Were they a way to clue players into EverQuest lore by giving them a pre-understood point of reference? Was this important as you approached the attributes and available classes attached to the various races?

BMQ: Back when designing EverQuest and coming up with the various playable races, we looked at the more human-like races and decided purposely to make them in appearance similar to real world races. This is true also for the architecture, a lot of the background, etc. But the important point is that what we were trying achieve was familiarity. In other words, the Barbarians in EQ might have had a Scottish flavor to them, but they are not Scots; likewise the pyramids on Luclin might appear to be Egyptian in flavor or style to a degree, but there is no real relationship. This allows the game designer (or fantasy author, for that matter) to create races, cultures, architectures, etc. that draw on the richness of the real world in terms of depth, without actually being constrained by actual real life history or stories or, hopefully, if done right, too many preconceived stereotypes.

KMP: The cultures were primarily design decisions, as they derive from the lore. The cultures were certainly a way to give the player a sense of origin, of uniqueness and yet belonging.

The difference in attributes, in profession choices, and starting area of the world, was to set the cultures apart as distinct choices. MMORPG’s are all about choice. Write your story, your epic, they way you want to write it (with some uncertainty and mayhem brought to you by the developer).

EH/EW: The structure of EverQuest (like most MMORPGs) basically promises each player that any character they design can eventually rise to the pinnacle of power if played effectively and extensively enough. That is, no one rolls an EverQuest character only to find that they're stuck with a particularly dumb, weak character. Nor do they discover that they've got a truly unique figure, either physically, a Michael Jordan, say, or narratively, a Frodo. Is this kind of equal footing inevitable to draw in players as paying customers? Or put another way, would you choose that such equality be built into your rules, or would you ideally prefer some other arrangement?

BMQ: I think what is being asked here is our approach to the “twitch vs. time invested” issue or debate. On one hand, you have a person’s real life skill which can not only be increased by practice, but is also based on who that person is (e.g. some people simply have superior agility or dexterity than others, and will therefore be better no matter what at an FPS, assuming both practiced the same). In a time-invested game, the idea is that if you do put enough time into it and do eventually gain a decent knowledge of how the game plays, you can advance your character and eventually see most if not all of the world. A real life advantage (or impediment), ultimately should not matter in most cases (or, at least, that’s the ideal).

Vanguard is still very much a traditional MMOG in the sense that time invested is the primary advancement mechanism. That said, we want combat and crafting to have a more visceral side, and for decisions, and the timing of those decisions in the thick of battle, to matter more. So we are a little closer to ‘twitch’ than most MMOGs, but at the same time still well within the traditional realm. Likewise, while better knowledge or social or logistical skills will undoubtedly help you advance more efficiently, which is important to many people, persistence and tenacity will still eventually pay off as well.

KMP: Variety is the spice of life, and as it would seem, virtual life as well. I believe that any character a player creates should be able to reach the pinnacle of development in the product (or pinnacles in one or more different aspects of the product), given hard work, but most importantly, that every character should be fun to play, and that the Journey along the way to any goal (be it short-term or meta in scope), should be fun.

Players need to feel valued among other players, among peers if you will, with a sense of relative equal footing and equality, while at the same time feeling unique. Equal footing in the meta sense, wed with distinction of profession, background, skill sets, or equipment, etc., seems to me to strike the correct balance in this regard.

EH/EW: Do you see benefits in game design that institutionalizes some form of player "rule" over the virtual world? An elected council, for instance, that would collaborate with designers about rule changes, determine the shape or goals of a new expansion? Clearly this happens through non-game channels like conventions and player summits, but would there be value to developing an in-game way of doing this? Or more generally, what's the future of player-designer or player-corporate collaboration in the construction of MMOGs?

KMP: I feel this is a natural evolution of the genre. In Shadowbane, for example, there were such kingdoms, and underneath them pledged kingdoms, and they would wage war for worldly control. Now, going a step further, and having player rule expand to affect world population, economies, resources, is a natural evolution in my mind. Having player interaction interweave with the overall story put forth by the designers would bring about the best result, allowing the developer to continue to evolve the story, but allowing player rule to affect many of the world nuances to make each “world” or “shard” unique.

In playing together with the players, through communication with them through the game, forums, at fan events, we are certainly influenced in how we evolve the world and in what we choose to place in a content expansion. I feel this collaborative process exists, and will only get stronger, as we request more and more sophisticated feedback from our players as to what they personally desire to see in an expansion of content.

EH/EW: Which game designers working today do you admire, and why? Are you inspired by people working on projects like Second Life or other virtual worlds?

KMP: I am most inspired by the designers on my current project, Vanguard, and by the designers on EverQuest. Both groups laid out a very vast world with a very rich story, and have concentrated their efforts to take game play to the next level of interactivity. I think that every designer I have worked with has been inspirational, because their creative ideas are really what make a game great. Without design, there is nothing but a very pretty tech demo.

It is one thing to write a story or throw out some high-level missive, it is another thing entirely to roll up your sleeves and dig in and populate a virtual world. That takes a lot of passion, a lot of long hours, and a lot of heart.

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