McQuaid played Dungeons & Dragons as a boy, but as much as he loved it, he recognized that the need to gather for big chunks of time with three or more other people restricted the fun. Personal computers provided a way to get around this limitation. If you needed only your computer to work on enchantments or joust with monsters, your playing opportunities increased.
The first fantasy role-playing computer game, Akalabeth, appeared in 1979, and within a few years the genre was “huge,” according to McQuaid. He says his experiences in junior high school with an offering called Ultima inspired him to devote his life to producing games. His first attempt was completed by late 1994. McQuaid explains that in War Wizard, as he and Clover named their creation, the player assumed the persona of an inexperienced young hero who “had to go and reclaim all the armor and weapons of his predecessor, which was lost thousands of years in the past. So you had to travel throughout the world to gather all those items, and once you gathered them, then you were prepared to confront your nemesis. If you defeated the evil war wizard, you won the game.” This could take even the most diligent player three or four weeks, McQuaid says. “We put a lot of content in it.”
He and his partner sold the game as shareware, meaning that players could download it for free over the Internet. “But you only got a third of the world. So at a certain point, you couldn’t proceed any further along your quest.” Those who were hooked could then order the rest of the game and receive it on a floppy disk. “I think we charged $29.95 or something like that,” McQuaid says. “We made a little money from it — but not enough to quit our day jobs.”
By then, McQuaid and Clover had become entranced with another form of computer gaming, one that McQuaid refers to as “the mud scene.” (mud is an acronym that at some point took on a life of its own. While it once stood for a number of things, the most common meaning associated with it today is “multi-user dimension.”) muds were text-only games, McQuaid explains. You dialed them up over the Internet and played, in most cases, for free. Most of the computers on which they resided were located on college campuses. That’s because in the early 1990s, colleges had some of the best access to the Internet, often making it available in libraries or wiring up dorm rooms.
The early mud players saw no pictures on their terminals — only words describing what was going on. “Basically it was a chat room,” one veteran player told me. “You got a list of who was in there, and you could all type back and forth.” If you solved enough of the puzzles over time, you could even become one of the volunteer programmers who were continuing to expand the mud-y playing fields. Some muds confined themselves to certain themes, but others were more amorphous. “You could have somebody programming horror stuff next to fantasy next to sci-fi,” the veteran mudder explained. “And they all started mixing together.” The programmers used so-called “object-oriented” computer code, “which meant that instead of just putting a room together, you’d put a room together built out of little parts. So, say I ‘saw’ a fountain pen. I could pick that up and take it with me because it was an object in the room. Things could be moved around, people would pick them up, and they’d take on their own life as they started merging together. Somebody once programmed the spaceship Enterprise, and at a certain point, if you had a little communicator, you could get beamed up. So the dragon would charge you, followed by the ax murderer, who was helping him. And you’re, like, ‘Beam me up, Scotty.’ Very free-form.”
McQuaid was fascinated by this wacky interplay, and he says part of what intrigued him was why it was so addictive. “There were people who would be on there eight hours a day, some of these kids. It was a very, very compelling environment, a lot of fun, very social.” As he played, McQuaid asked himself, “What makes this work? What are the game mechanics?”
Clearly muds suffered from one big handicap: you had to experience them through the filter of written language. The interplay was immersive, but in the same way that reading a book can be. And as captivating and satisfying as that is, McQuaid felt certain that many readers of fantasy novels and participants in role-playing games were thinking the same thing: “I wish I were there. I wish I could see it.”
He says by then it was obvious to a lot of people that you could take this audience a giant step closer to being there if you combined the graphic images of single-player computer games (like War Wizard) with the extended cyber-communities and creative interactions of the muds. But in 1995 that promised to be a huge and expensive challenge. So, instead, McQuaid and Clover produced a demonstration disk for a sequel to War Wizard. They hoped to shop it around to computer-game publishers and get the funding to produce a finished product. Somehow the demo fell into the hands of a man named John Smedley.
Smedley was then director of development for a San Diego–based studio of Sony Computer Entertainment America. Its mission was to develop games for the Sony PlayStation. But Smedley had a further vision that McQuaid shared, namely “that online games were going to be huge” (in McQuaid’s words). Impressed with what McQuaid and Clover had accomplished in War Wizard, Smedley asked the duo if they would help him develop a massively multiplayer online role-playing game that would run on personal computers. “That was on a Saturday,” McQuaid recalls. Two days later, he and Clover resigned from their day jobs.
They started working at Sony Interactive Studios at the beginning of March 1996, and within a few months, McQuaid and Clover had come up with the original “design document” for EverQuest. Not long after, McQuaid was named producer, “meaning that I was responsible for the development team.” He hired two of the artists who had worked for him on War Wizard and the sequel demo, and in late 1996, he started posting notices on the Internet, seeking programmers to help bring his vision to life.