As co-creator of the classic role-playing game EverQuest, designer Brad McQuaid’s name may be legendary among massively multiplayer online gamers, but his passion was born in a basic junior high computer class and inspired by games of the era. This year, McQuaid has returned to his original obsession with Pantheon: Rise of the Fallen, a new MMORPG from startup studio Visionary Realms. Weeks before he’s scheduled to take the stage at the 2015 Gaming Insiders Summit alongside Visionary’s Creative Director Chris Perkins, we spoke with McQuaid about learning how to fail after great success, what a leader does when things don’t go as plan and how Pantheon will mix traditional ideals with modern methods to reinvigorate the MMO genre and inspire a new wave of game players.
Xav de Matos: Role-playing games seem to be at the core of everything you do in this industry. When did that obsession begin?
Brad McQuaid: I knew I wanted to make role-playing games ever since I saw Ultima 2 in a junior high computer class. From that point I started teaching myself about computers and how to program them. I finished my first game, WarWizard, in 1989. I wrote it in C on an Amiga, although my partner Steve Clover and I eventually ported it to MS-DOS. We began working on a sequel in the early 90s and eventually released a demo of it onto the net. John Smedley at Sony came across it and offered us both jobs to work on an online RPG – the game that would later become EverQuest.
This was in 1996 and was my official first project working in the industry. Before that we would work on games on our own in the evenings, doing business programming during the day to pay the bills.
Did co-creating a behemoth like EverQuest distort a reality about game development when you decided to walk away from that team?
EverQuest turned out to be a major success, so unlike most successful people who fail a few times before succeeding, my first commercial endeavor exceeded all expectations, including our own. The downside is I think it put some unrealistic expectations into my mind, one of which was that my second commercial game would be a success no matter what. So I started my own company, Sigil Games Online, in 2002 and began work on Vanguard: Saga of Heroes. We partnered with Microsoft and they were initially determined to do whatever it would take to make the next big massively multiplayer game, much the way we were. The team eventually grew to over 100 people. EverQuest only ever had 20 or so, so this was a much bigger team.
Vanguard’s design was likewise very ambitious. I believed we could accomplish anything and that we would continue to receive the support necessary to make that ambitious dream a reality. Unfortunately, when a regime change at Microsoft changed their priorities, we were in trouble. The commitment to complete such a massively ambitious game was no longer there and we didn’t have a reserve. We ended up having to dial back on features and content and, in the end, release the game at least six months early.
So in addition to a big dose of humility, I learned a lot about myself, about how to plan for team growth, and how to plan for a rainy day, among other lessons. Even though Pantheon’s team will never reach the size of Vanguard’s, I brought on a CEO and CFO fairly early on to keep us organized, to manage money, and to allow me to focus on the game itself. I’m also committed to taking all of my experiences, both good and bad, and making sure we don’t repeat mistakes I’ve made or seen in the past.
EverQuest was one of those unique ‘major industry success stories’, a game that had an impact on not only gaming culture but also popular culture. When envisioning the future, how does a game of that magnitude from your past – a game that helped an entire community grow and thrive for as long as it has – how does that help your vision for what comes next?
One of the most important goals we have with Pantheon is to build an MMO with a focus on building a long lasting community of players. With EverQuest the community ended up transcending the game itself.
People made real friends, even found spouses in the game. We also had people tell us about how, for example, that while a physical ailment made it impossible for them to get out into the real world, to run around, to explore, to make friendships, EverQuest allowed them to do all of that virtually.
These moving stories really touched me. I sincerely believe that if an MMO is built that fosters community and creates interdependence that leads people to make new friends and relationships, it can become a lot more than just a ‘game’. It can have real impact and indeed shape society for the better.
Focusing on Pantheon: Rise of the Fallen, popularity of MMOs isn’t where it was even five years ago. What’s the pitch for this MMO and how will Pantheon reignite the genre?
Pantheon: Rise of the Fallen is an MMORPG based on challenging gameplay and open world high fantasy, with a strong focus on group-oriented content. It takes place in a world called Terminus, where many other realms have collided – realms of differing races, cultures and deities. In this new world, these realms have begun to war and vie for power.
Pantheon primarily focuses on ideals and mechanics that were found in earlier MMOs but have been lost in many cases, like group-preferred gameplay and difficulty. There is an emphasis on building a thriving community, on interdependence between the different classes, and a strong belief that MMOs need to be more social. But that doesn’t mean we won’t be putting in some new ideas and spins on some features. We understand that the game space in general has evolved in the last nearly two decades. So as we examine the mechanics that made early MMOs more sticky and social, we’re also updating those mechanics, tweaking and modifying them, and bringing them into a modern setting.
Pantheon attempted to acquire at least some of its funding through Kickstarter, but it failed to reach its campaign goal. As a leader, what do you say to your team when that happens?
There were some elements we hadn’t planned on when we ran our Kickstarter. But it is important to note that despite that, we still reached over $400,000 in pledges — something very few others can claim. This is how we had to view it at that point. It was clear the interest was there so we weren’t about to stop. And, since then, we have had success from other funding initiatives.
Did the Kickstarter campaign outcome change the dynamic of your team?
The challenges were there, don’t get me wrong. We had to rebuild the team, finding first people who could work as volunteers or very little compensation. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise. We became a remote team, with members not only all over the country, but in other countries as well. The Pantheon team has become a combination of MMO developer veterans along with new, hungry members willing to pour their hearts and souls into the game to make it the best game possible. This re-assembled team has been able to put together a playable prototype of the game in very short order, and the initial vision of the game has remained intact throughout.
You’ve been really excited about speaking at the 2015 Gaming Insiders Summit; what compels you to talk and share your knowledge with other developers?
I’ve never been a ‘secret sauce’ kind of guy. Rich Vogel, then producer of Ultima Online, EverQuest’s biggest competitor at that point, reached out to me in friendship and shared what knowledge he had of the challenges of making a massively multiplayer game. That really put things in perspective for me. So I don’t want Pantheon to be the only MMO game to succeed–I want to see the entire MMO genre succeed. Anything I can do to help, to share knowledge and experiences, I hope can benefit us all. These games are tough to make, even with technology and tools being so much better now. In fact, I think we have a responsibility to share with others to help the genre, even the entire industry.
Your session at the 2015 Gaming Insiders Summit is titled: “Why the World Needs Another MMO”; what do you hope attendees learn from the talk?
We’re far enough along in the development of Pantheon now that we believe it’s really time to start talking about it a lot more. Earlier, we had to build a team, we had to get the game far enough along that people would take it seriously (people are naturally a bit skeptical about small start-ups).
Now that we have a playable prototype, it’s time to reach out and let people know in more detail what we’re up to. We want to share our philosophy and belief that smaller teams can create smaller, more focused games, targeting a particular audience and making the best MMO for them. And, of course, we want to show that there’s not only nothing wrong with targeting only segments of a larger audience, but that doing so can also be commercially successful.
For more on Pantheon: Rise of the Fallen, visit the official Visionary Realms website.
Xav de Matos is the Editorial Director of Gaming Insiders. Follow him on Twitter @xav.