Monday, August 19, 2019

Pay No Attention To The Man Behind The Curtain

According to Belghast's schedule for Blaugust, this is Developer Appreciation Week. It used to be a separate event, one I eyed with suspicion.

Who really "develops" MMORPGs, anyway? They're usually built by large teams, sometimes involving hundreds of people. The massive companies that fund them comprise numerous departments, some of which work almost independently, others which have to constantly negotiate and compromise just to get anything done.

Then there's the someone, or several someones, with the unenviable task of wrangling the disparate elements while keeping to a schedule and a budget in the hope of eventually bringing a finished product to market. That, infamously, was the role Sigil Games, makers of Vanguard, lacked.

It's all a bit vague, though, isn't it? In popular music you have the performers, the songwriters and the producer to consider. All their roles are relatively easy to assess. If you're particularly involved you might also look at the engineer or arranger. Literature is even more straightforward: the author and, maybe, very occasionally, the editor.

Movies are probably the closest analogy to video games; huge, collaborative endeavors involving hundreds of individuals. In the early days of cinema, responsibility for quality and success was generally assigned to the Studio, then to the Producer and, of course, the Star.

After Cahiers du Cinema promoted auteur theory, imprimatur shifted to the Director, where it somewhat shakily remained until the recent global trend towards megafranchises nudged focus back to the Studios once again.

For most of the decades I've played video games I couldn't have named anyone who worked on most of them. The exception would have been those idiosyncratic dog-and-pony shows so common in the 1980s, where one individual, coding in his (it was nearly always "his") bedroom, managed to cobble together something that made him a millionaire overnight.

Rather than admire those people I thought of them as bizarre. Rarely did any of them go on to make a second game anyone cared about. I can't remember any of their names and why would I? They were the equivalent of lottery winners.

I played EverQuest for quite a few years before I began to learn the names of the people who created it. The only reason it happened at all was because I was on the official forums all the time and some of the old guard would pop up and post there occasionally.

Also, players would rehash, with incredible lack of consistency, the origins of the game. After a while I got so confused and irritated by the contradictions and misinformation that I started doing some research of my own. From that I slowly began to understand that the games I was playing were created by individual human beings with agendas of their own.

Prior to that I really had never considered how the games came to exist, any more than I would waste mental energy on how my refrigerator was designed and brought to market. A game was a commercial product you bought in a store. It was either good or it wasn't. End of.

As the years went on and I became more and more deeply enmeshed in the culture surrounding MMORPGs, I came to recognize the names of many game developers, particularly the showmen (and they were nearly always men) with the big egos. I didn't think much of most of them.

More than that, I actively disapproved of the cult of personality many of them cultivated and of the fawning adoration expressed by their fans. In my book these people were, at best, technicians. They might be deserving of appreciation and praise by their peers, who could understand the skill sets, but I couldn't see any reason why any player should care, so long as they were competent at their jobs.

I think that attitude finally began to shift during the protracted and often disturbing collapse of Sigil Games. The detail that came out of that, particularly concerning Brad McQuaid, was both a soap opera and a tragedy. And I had to consider that, for all his very human faults and failings, Brad had made two of the best MMORPGs I had ever played and facilitated some of the most joyous and long-lasting memories of my life.

From then on I began to pay a lot more attention to who was behind the games I liked or didn't. I started to make decisions on what to follow or even buy based on the names behind it. I lost all faith in EQNext quite specifically because of the gurning, grinning, self-aggrandizing crew of supposedly charismatic developers SOE chose to front the PR push. Who could possibly take anything any of those people were doing seriously?

By complete contrast, the handover to DayBreak Games came as a glass of ice water on a burning hot day. The first few weeks and months were worrying but once everyone got their feet under the table and particularly when John Smedley departed, I started to get the strong feeling that the grown-ups were back in charge.

In the years since then I've had little cause to revise that opinion. There may be chaotic maneuvering going on at the corporate and financial levels but down in the engine room, where they make and maintain the games, everything has been humming sweetly.

Holly "Windstalker" Longdale, someone I never really paid much attention to when she was buried in the background of the Dave Georgeson circus, has come very much into her own as the ringmaster in charge of the EverQuest franchise. Under her stewardship there seems to be both clear direction and clear intent as well as the capacity to complete. I have confidence in her.

The nature of the MMORPG marketplace and the obfuscated and often concerning nature of Daybreak's corporate structure means no EQ player can ever feel truly relaxed about the future. Still, I feel better about it now than I did for many years in SOE's decline, when unforgivable debacles like the PSS1 scandal threatened to drive the entire operation onto the rocks.

I also have a modicum of faith in good old Brad McQuaid. There he is, plugging away at Pantheon, the game everyone once dismissed as a con or vaporware. Now, for quite a few, it's the Great Hope for The Future. I believe he really does mean to "make worlds, not games". Whether finances will allow him his dream is less certain but I trust him at least to try.

In the end the developers I appreciate are twofold: the visionaries and the caretakers. We need both if we're to have MMORPGS that delight and last. Here's to Brad and Holly, the past, present and future of the games I want to play. Long may they stick around, doing that thing they do.

*** Unusually, I have borrowed all the images here from the web. If anyone owns one and would rather it wasn't used, please let me know and I'll remove it.***


  1. I got nothing to add to that, great post!

  2. I agree with you that the 'interregnum' that involve the leadup and aftermath of that Shadowjumper chap was a dark period for EverQuest, but even though the adults do seem to be in charge in terms of comms and business decisions, I find myself utterly disenchanted with the modern day stable of Daybreak games. I am equally disinterested in whatever they are producing next - it's more likely to be a mobile game using EQ lore and assets than anything worth playing. A studio that solely deals in incremental expansion pack updates and rehashed progression servers doesn't, in my opinion, have to try particularly hard to appear like the 'adults' vs. a studio trying to revolutionise a genre (again).

    I agree with you though that there is a place for the visionaries and caretakers both. My view is probably coloured by my lack of interest in the modern version of EverQuest, and my inability to get into EverQuest II.

    Thanks for a counter-point, even if you didn't mean to do one!

    1. Hehe! If I had my choice for EQII I'd probably pick the period around the Kunark and Faydwer expansions, maybe going as far as Sentienel's Fate. I thought the game as it launched was dismal, even though I played it from beta, and it didn't really find it's feet until maybe a year after launch. Afteer Sentinel's Fate we seemed to hit the period when no-one had a clue what they were doing at SoE and it got very hit and miss.

      The current direction is far more on rils and theme park than I'd choose, but it's very well done for what it is and I find a lot to enjoy. With the limited resources they have I think they've made the right choice to focus on smaller, more manageable packages of content. Can't imagine ever seeing another sprawling expansion like Rise of Kunark - that was virtually a new game bolted onto the old one.

      As for EQ, I loved the original version and continued to love every version up until Planes of Power. My personal favorite period was probably Lost Dungeons of Norrath, but that's mostly because it was also my most intensely social time in the game. In terms of gameplay I probably liked Velious best but I did really like Luclin too.

      Modern EQ is an entirely different game. I enjoy it for what it is but I don't spend a lot of thime there these days. I just hope Brad McQuaid manages to nurse Pantheon as far as beta - I have a Kickstarter reward to get me in then!


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