Sunday, March 8, 2020

So Long And Thanks For All The Bears

The first I knew of Holly "Windstalker" Longdale's resignation was an email I got from Wilhelm at TAGN, linking the Producer's Letter in which she makes her farewell. It was Saturday morning and I barely had time to skim it before I was off to work.

By the time I got home, Wilhelm had posted a full account of the unexpected departure. I knocked out a lengthy comment but it wasn't until Sunday morning that I found time to put my considered thoughts together.

Such as they are. As usual, we virtual citizens of Norrath find ourselves in the unenviable position of amateur Kremlinologists, attempting to derive policy and intent from meagre sounds and movements glimpsed from afar.

The facts we know for certain are that Daybreak Games has been partitioned, divided like Gaul into three parts. The leader and figurehead of the entity known as Darkpaw Games has now departed, ceding her position and authority to her erstwhile deputy.

And that's about it for actual facts. Let the speculation begin.

Top of the list comes the possibility that whoever owns Daybreak is positioning the company for sale. This always seemed likely but I would say the recent segmentation into seperate asset groups makes it a racing certainty, even before Windstalker's dramatic exit.

When a top-level presence leaves in such circumstances, the two most inflamatory explanations are either that they were forced out or that they're fleeing the ship before it sinks. Looking at the former possibility, Holly Longdale seemed to have a clear vision for the future of the EverQuest franchise that involved growth. Perhaps that no longer jibed with the intent of her paymasters?

Nope, don't buy that. Whether Darkpaw was scheduled to go on the block or not, an optimistic, positive, future-driven outlook could only enhance the value, surely. If you're trying to sell something you want to talk its virtues up. And if you're running it as a going concern, even more so.

The jumping ship explanation has more merit. If you were the head of a subdivision of a company and you knew there were plans afoot to sell it off and you along with it, you might very well not want to hang around.

That's the bleakest interpretation, because it suggests Holly had no faith in the future she'd have under the new regime, whatever it might be. Although maybe it would only have been her own future that was in doubt. The longevity of in-post senior management after such a transition of ownership tends to be limited. Better to put yourself on the market right away, before you become tainted goods.

The third option, of course, is that what Holly says in her leaving message is the plain truth. She got an offer she didn't want to refuse. It happens. Perhaps her tenure as the face of the EverQuest franchise raised her albedo sufficiently to draw the attention of some even brighter star. Maybe she was headhunted, in short.

That's the easiest explanation to test. She says "I will be taking my leave from Darkpaw Games for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity". Unless she's going to work in a secret government facility in a nuclear bunker beneath a desert somewhere, we're soon going to know what that opportunity was. It's probably going to be on her LinkedIn if it doesn't come in a full-blown PR announcement.

Out with the old, in with the other old. Holly's replacement is already picked and in place. It's her "leadership partner...Franchise Technical Director and EQ veteran Jennifer Chan". I don't remember hearing Jennifer's name until now but that probably says more about my interest in the technical side of the games than it does about Ms Chan.

Wilhelm did some digging and came up with gold, a highly illuminating interview the new studio head gave to Shacknews almost exactly a year ago. I strongly recommend anyone with even a passing interest in the EverQuest franchise reads it.

There are half a dozen jump-off points for blog posts in there, at least. The one slight mis-step, where Jennifer Chan finds herself revealing a little more about Daybreak's relationship with Standing Stone Games than her employers would probably find comfortable and quickly retrenches to cover her mistake could generate a whole wild speculation post of its own.

Trying to stay on topic, I found the interview reassuring in what it might reveal about Darkpaw's possible future. Chan comes across as both technically competent, practically minded and deeply immersed in game culture. That's a feature set all too rarely seen in public-facing developers.

She also represents continuty. By handing the controls to the person who was already sitting in the co-pilot's seat, Daybreak would seem to be asking us to expect business as usual. Whatever was going to happen will still be happening. The ship is not going to change course, although if you believe it was already heading for the rocks that might not be such good news.

As Wilhelm observes, Jennifer Chan doesn't come across as much of a "vision" person. I find that to be a positive. I saw what "vision" led to under John Smedley and Dave Georgeson and I didn't like it. If we're in for a period of "boring" technocratic control that's fine with me.

The other side of the continuity coin, of course, is the question it raises over the speed and suddenness of Holly Longdale's departure. Sometimes, when the deputy steps into the boss's shoes, it means things happened so fast there was no time to make other arrangements.

Whether this is a planned transition or a panic promotion is something Norrath-watchers can only guess at. Everyone at Darkpaw will know, though, so we might not have to keep guessing for long. Especially if this turns out to be only the first in a wave of goodbyes.

Let's hope it's not. That really would be a harbinger of the end times. The teams at the two EQ games are small but of late they've seemed tight and focused. They make a big deal of the family feeling at the studio. It's something a lot of companies do and it's usually twaddle but here it has often felt more real than that.

But families sometimes break up when the parents aren't there to hold the center. Without Brad McQuaid, John Smedley and now Holly Longdale (not to mention the much-missed Domino and the much less-missed slew of veterans who left after the Daybreak's post-acquisition housecleaning) I do wonder just how much sense of  "family" still remains.

Coming full circle, back to the supposed sale of the franchise, I'm increasingly of the opinion it could be a good thing. I never thought it would, of necessity, be bad. I work for a company that has been sold twice in my time there and something like half a dozen times since it began in the early 1980s. It's still profitable, still growing and the current iteration is, from the persepective of both customers and employees, one of the best.

Changing owners is not necessarily a bad thing, not at all. There's a strong argument to be made that Sony, with all their huge resources, never made anything like the most of what they had with EverQuest, while what Daybreak wants from the franchise has never really come into focus. Who's to say a new owner might not have a clearer vision or treat the two games as jewels in their crown?

As usual, we'll just have to bide our time, wait, see how things turn out. It's not like we Norrathians aren't used to doing that, after all, now is it?.


  1. I think the strangest thing about the timing of this is it all coming just days before the EverQuest anniversary. That is probably just a coincidence, but it does cast a shadow after Holly was, just a week back, telling us about what was coming with the 21st birthday of the game.

    1. It very much makes me think it wasn't planned. Either something happened and Holly decided she wanted no part of it or she did genuinely get an exciting job offer she couldn't turn down. Either way, the reason should make itself clear in time. I guess our only real concern, other than satisfying curiosity, is the future of the games and I do think both the franchise and the games themselves, aging though they are, represent value for someone so I'm confident they'll be around for a while longer yet. Just not under the Daybreak logo I'd guess.

  2. This really came out of nowhere considering how much of an ambassador she's been for the franchise, especially recently.

    You never said what she did with those bears though.

    1. It wasn't what she did with the bear - it was more what she did to you if you dared touch them. I might do a post on it sometime. The short version is that in EQ Holly Windstalker and Cros Treewind were a ranger and a druid who patrolled Qeynos Hills. If they caught you killing bears or wolves they would attack you and since they were about Level 30 in a zone meant mainly for levels five to fifteen they would usually kill you. They were very, very unpopular with everyone except players who played druids and rangers, who tended to cheer them on. There was a lot of improv. theater in EQ in those days.

      In EQ2, it being set 500 years later, Holly is long dead (Cros died way, way back in an event) but her ghost still walks and, I think (but i'm not sure) still doesn't take kindly to people killing bears.

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