Geoff Zatkin saw one of them. “It was asking for people who could program muds and were good at games and could build 3-D environments,” Zatkin says. He fired back an e-mail proclaiming, “I am exactly who you’re looking for.” A week or two later, McQuaid hired him as the seventh or eighth person to join the EverQuest development team.
A methodical and reflective young man, the 28-year-old Zatkin says when he entered Trinity College in Connecticut in 1991, somehow “it never clicked that there were actually people who sat down and made video games for a living.” Otherwise, he would have geared his studies with an eye to doing that. He’d been a lifelong gamer, he says. “I was playing Dungeons & Dragons from a young age and video games ever since Pac-Man and Pong came out. I’ve always just liked games. I’d buy everything from Monopoly to Risk and kind of take them apart and figure out how they worked. Why, for example, in Risk was it better to roll the dice attacking than it was defending? Those kinds of things.”
In college he got a degree in psychology, then he returned to San Diego. (He’d been born and raised in La Jolla.) He worked for a couple of Internet startups, became a Web-design consultant, and was tiring of that when he came across one of McQuaid’s notices. Once hired, Zatkin began creating some of the game’s numerous three-dimensional environments, but soon he was also helping to figure out how Norrath’s economy would work. When he did well at that, he was asked to invent a magic system.
How do you start a task like that? “I’d read a lot of fantasy books. I knew the genre well,” Zatkin reminded me. “And I’d played a lot of Dungeons & Dragons and other games of that ilk.” With that background, he brainstormed about what he could do with magic that might be “really fun.”
Zatkin says almost the first thing he did was to come up with a couple of themes. He knew the game would have 14 classes or professions of characters, 11 of which would be able to use magic. “Some were holy men, like priests or druids. They prayed to deities and got their magic from them. And some were magicians who read books and learned from runes.” With that principle established, he devised a long list of spells and began dividing them among the classes. “Some would be better at summoning big bolts of fire, and others would be good at healing people or summoning monsters or enchanting weapons or doing other things. I started building up a theme around each profession.”
Eventually, he says he created a library of 60 or 70 different magical things the characters could do, and from these, he teased out about 1300 variations. “If you can increase somebody’s strength, for example, you can decrease it.” For every spell he dreamed up, he worked with a programmer who devised ways to bring it to life on the computer.
Zatkin says he worked on much more than just the magic system; none of the designers had the luxury of specializing in one task. “We’d need to set up a town, so somebody would design the town, and then I’d go and put every single merchant in the town and decide what each one sold.” (Merchants, like the skeletons and giant wasps and dragons and many other fixtures of Norrath, are “nonplayer characters.” They move in certain ways and say certain things not because anyone is directing them but because a programmer has written a code that automates their actions.) Zatkin continues: “Another guy would come in and figure out where all the guards walked and what they said and how friendly they were to each other. For every single thing, you had to figure out how a character did it, who they liked, who they didn’t like. Creating a world is tricky.”
As EverQuest’s development progressed, McQuaid, Zatkin, and the other team members continued to fret that the game might flop. For one thing, they’d had to guess how fast personal computers would be running when their product finally reached the marketplace a couple of years after the start of its development. The alternative — designing it to run on what was available in 1996 — would ensure that it was less than state-of-the-art, since the speed and memory of personal computers were evolving so fast. But if they guessed wrong, potential customers wouldn’t be able to play.
There was also the question of whether people would pay a monthly fee to play just one game, something that had never been demonstrated. Then, in late 1997, a version of Ultima called Ultima Online beat EverQuest to become the first massively multiplayer online game on the market. Its commercial success proved that the new business model could work. In the summer of 1998, when McQuaid began sharing EverQuest with a small number of real-life gamers, their reaction also encouraged him.
“I remember going into the game my first day and just being in awe — of the art and the feeling that you got,” says Gordon Wrinn. Wrinn was one of the first 32 “beta testers” whose aid McQuaid enlisted. An employee of a Tucson software-development company, Wrinn was also a passionate computer-game player, and he often joined in the ardent discussions of various gaming developments with other players on the Internet. In January of 1998, McQuaid began letting this community know something about the ongoing work on EverQuest. Wrinn says McQuaid “spent a good deal of time out in the Web community and basically looked for people who appeared to have a good head on their shoulders, made good arguments, and seemed to understand how these things worked.” He asked the best candidates if they wanted to try out his nascent creation.
The first 32 people picked by McQuaid in late June 1998 were volunteering their insights in exchange for a sneak preview of what might be a computer-gaming phenomenon. “The game was growing at a substantial rate,” Wrinn says. “There were always new things coming in.” Over the succeeding months, the number of testers increased several times to include more and more players. They often surprised the developers, Zatkin says. “They’d do wild and crazy things that none of us had ever thought of.” As an example, he cites the spell he created that allowed players to float above the ground. He says it became very popular among the testers. Some of them invoked it while running, to speed their transit across uneven terrain. Some used it to avoid getting hurt when they were forced to jump off cliffs. All this made Zatkin happy, but he says some players also started “climbing up really tall objects, jumping off them, and then they’d start attacking monsters in midair. The monster would look up and not be able to reach them. And the players would sit there in complete safety and rain fire down on orcs or something.” Zatkin says this violated one of the fundamental precepts McQuaid had adopted for EverQuest: “We had a no-risk, no-reward mentality. Anytime you could gain something, you had to risk something too. Not necessarily your life. But maybe some money. Maybe some time.” To put an end to the floating monster-baiters’ fun, Zatkin says he made the levitation spell degrade over time. “You started sinking slowly. It was still good for falling off high buildings and getting you safely down. But it didn’t let you sit up there indefinitely. You’d do one or two mischievous things, and then you’d land where the monster was, and he’d hit you a couple of times, and you’d decide it wasn’t such a good idea.”