EverQuest II is a blockbuster MMO with hundreds of thousands of subscribers. It’s the crown jewel of a company that has more MMOs than any other company on the planet. Yet, to many, it is also the other MMO to launch in late 2004. We recently interviewed Executive Producer Scott Hartsman about the lessons they’ve learned and where they’re going with this project.

EverQuest II Learns and Evolves
Based on interview with Scott Hartsman (Exec. Producer, EQII)
Written by Dana Massey

EverQuest II Executive Producer Scott Hartsman has been with the project since its inception and learned a lot in the process. This franchise has become famous for its expansions, especially the original game, and the sequel shows no signs of letting up. Hartsman mentioned how they are in early production on a new expansion, something that is always the case. To get them out on time, the development cycles always overlap from one to the next. However, the team has slowed down somewhat. They’ve opted to concentrate more on live events and smaller themed updates – like the Unrest zone early this year – than full epic expansions. Why? Polish, which seems to be the number one thing Hartsman and his team have learned with EverQuest II.

All the clichés and matras apply. “Polish, polish, polish,” Hartsman repeats. Later he spits out the fabled “quality of quantity”. They all point to the same trend. Gamers will no longer accept a hacked together game just because it’s an MMO. World of Warcraft changed that dynamic forever.

“Polish means we live or we die,” Hartsman admitted candidly. He talked about the time before that fateful Christmas season of 2004 when developers routinely published their “first draft” MMOs. He pointed out that budgets and marketing often directed development cycles and betas were all too often about a last gasp before launch, when in reality, a team should have finished the game before it hits beta so that they’re free to iterate and react to feedback. He pointed out that they did this with Unrest.

So as the Executive Producer of a guy whose game launched right beside the king of polish, is he bitter? Not at all. Hartsman told us that WoW was a godsend for developers who had always known they released games too early, but couldn’t do it any differently. Now there is an industry wide recognition and emphasis on quality that simply didn’t exist before. Everyone, from testers to designers to business executives know that to make a truly successful MMORPG, it needs to be finished. Mind you, he told us this as a representative of Sony Online Entertainment, who had just published Vanguard, a game that reminded many of the state in which games were released before WoW.

Thus, besides new content, the EQII team’s focus is on polish, iteration and constant balance and bug fixing. They’ve gone through their classes one by one to make sure each is fairly balanced in all aspects of gameplay. They’ve also put a huge revamp into tradeskills. He noted that in nearly each update they identify and redo something old to bring it up to standard.

Hartsman also touted his teams recent shift towards increased community feedback. Players like to be asked and designers at SOE have become increasingly comfortable with asking them. It’s a dangerous game – Hartsman was especially uncomfortable with the idea that something pitched on the boards may be perceived as a promise rather than an idea – but one worth playing. It’s valuable, if not the only source of feedback for the team that they have begun to use more and more often.

Moving forward, Hartsman told us what he sees as the true strength of EverQuest II. It is a solo friendly game, very much in contrast to its predecessor. The emphasis on solo play has been intentional and he adds necessary for the game. Hartsman went so far as to say that EverQuest II is actually geared towards solo players.

“Primarily, there needs to be something to do when you’re all by yourself,” he explained.

As the interview had hit a wide range of topics, Hartsman also addressed his personal thoughts on the idea of MMOs on consoles. Sony obviously has a stake in the Playstation 3. Does that mean EQII will get ported over? Maybe, but Hartsman doesn’t believe direct ports can or ever will work. Anyone who does want to try a console MMO really needs to figure out a way to effectively reach that audience through that medium.

Scott Hartsman is clearly a developer who’s learned a lot in these last three years. EverQuest II, while by no means a poor game at launch, had its flaws and its head-to-head competition with World of Warcraft definitely didn’t help. Since then, he and his team have shown the ability to see what mistakes they’ve made and improve upon them. That can only mean positive things for the future of EverQuest II.

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