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This year the electronic-gaming industry expects to beat Hollywood at making money. It’s happened once before. In 1998, entranced with a new generation of gaming consoles that included the Sony PlayStation, Nintendo 64, and Sega Dreamcast, Americans spent more of their entertainment dollars on games than movies. As those consoles began to age, movie box office receipts took the lead again from 1999 through 2001. But yet another generation of consoles hit the market last year, one reason game sales again are booming. Another reason is the growing audience for what’s known as “massively multiplayer online gaming” — an activity for which San Diego is the current center of the universe.

Industry sources estimate that a million Americans are already immersed in massively multiplayer online gaming, an impressive number but still only a third of 1 percent of the U.S. population. A larger number of individuals has had fun over the years with arcade and console games or gotten caught up in Myst or Civilization or Sim City on their personal computers. But if these people play games online at all, they play with a few friends, rather than with thousands of strangers, and they pay no extra fee. Then there’s the mainstream — the masses of folks who still think of games as objects spread out on the dining room table or programs on TV.

The marketing team at Sony Online Entertainment thinks millions of people will join the hard-core gamers within the next year. Considering the recent growth of Sony Online Entertainment, this prediction has plausibility. In March 2000, the company had 105 employees. Today, it has almost 500, with more than four-fifths of them based here in San Diego. They operate out of three glass-and-concrete buildings located a few blocks north of Miramar Road, about two miles east of 805. It’s not an ostentatious place. Pale young men in jeans and T-shirts often cluster around the parking lot, smoking and talking. Inside, in many of the offices, the lighting is dim and the noise level low — optimal conditions for concentrating in front of a terminal. The premises contain one room filled with computers but neither monitors nor people — just processors stacked eight feet high, rows and rows of them, bristling with plugs and cables. This room held almost 1000 computers on the day I visited.

All the interconnected boxes constitute the “servers” for Sony Online Entertainment’s current blockbuster, a fantasy role-playing game called EverQuest. Anyone who buys EverQuest (for $29.99) gets a couple of CDs containing graphic images of a fictional world called Norrath. Players load the CDs onto their home computers, but to play the game, they have to connect (via the Internet) to Sony’s roomful of servers. They then select a character — a wood elf or a dwarf or a barbarian, for example — and use arrow keys to move it. As they do so, Sony’s computers tell the players’ computers which images to display, so players can see their alter egos carrying out their directives. On screen, it looks less realistic than a movie but more complex and lifelike than a cartoon.

The object of the game isn’t well defined. It’s less a purposeful activity than an experience. Players roam the world, exploring a vast array of outdoor and indoor environments. They fight enemies, starting out with bats and wasps and working up to dragons. They go on quests — collecting objects in the manner of a scavenger hunt. Players can undertake many of the early, simple activities on their own, but experienced players almost always team up with other people, with whom they communicate in real-time written exchanges. At the most advanced levels, they work in large groups. It might take 80 players to slay the most formidable monsters.

The computers in Sony’s server room keep track of all these players, and they tell each player’s computer what his or her fellow players are up to. At the moment, more than 430,000 people are paying Sony $12.95 a month in exchange for this service. In practice, the subscribers never all play at once. But it’s common for 30,000 to 80,000 to be in the game at one time.

The EverQuest server room made me think of a brain — undistinguished looking but harboring a crowded world of interactions, memories, and dreams. It’s a one-track mind, obsessed with Norrath’s spells and dragons and politics. But in the coming months, Sony will set up huge banks of computers in other rooms to serve different mind-sets. One of the upcoming games, Star Wars Galaxies, will allow players to explore and have adventures in the science-fictional universe of George Lucas’s popular movie series. Another (Planetside) will bring masses of players together to chase, evade, and shoot at each other. Yet another, called Sovereign, will be “kind of like playing Risk against hundreds of other people,” in the words of one of the game’s designers.

If there’s one father responsible for spawning these creations, a candidate for the paternity suit might be Brad McQuaid. A focused, intense 33-year-old, he arguably had the most to do with conceiving and bringing EverQuest to life. On the other hand, McQuaid is quick to point out that he was “in the right place at the right time with the right support to make that happen.”

Born and raised in “the San Diego area” (he declined to be more specific or say where he went to high school), McQuaid attended “some college here,” then began working in the computer industry as a business programmer. But games were his passion so, along with a friend named Steve Clover, McQuaid started creating one in his spare time.

He wanted it to be a fantasy role-playing game, a genre that won widespread popularity following the 1974 introduction of Dungeons & Dragons. Dungeons & Dragons wasn’t a computer game, of course. It required three to nine players (a typical number) to gather together with dice, paper and pencil, and a couple of books of complex and arcane rules about spell-casting, monster-creation, and the like. Play sessions often took four to six hours. But the high school and college students who were Dungeons & Dragons’ natural audience had plenty of time. And the game provided rich social rewards while giving participants the chance to exercise their imaginative and storytelling abilities. Within ten years, it had become an international hit.

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.

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.”

Right before the game’s release, McQuaid and his team let anyone who was interested participate in one final three-week nonpaying trial. Some 25,000 players responded — an auspicious portent. Still the game’s actual launch “was a much bigger success than even the most optimistic of us would ever have imagined. We were blown away,” McQuaid claims. So many users tried to crowd into Norrath in its first two weeks that Internet traffic on the servers slowed to a crawl. “We knocked out Internet capability at Qualcomm and elsewhere,” one employee told me. Within a month, 60,000 players had signed up to pay the monthly fee. Within six months, the game boasted more than 150,000 subscribers.

Since then, that number has almost tripled; today it’s more than 430,000. Although a half-dozen competing products have since appeared, none has yet come close to challenging EverQuest’s commanding 40 percent estimated share of the U.S. massively multiplayer online gaming market. Even more startling than the number of subscribers are other statistics brandished by Scott McDaniel, Sony Online Entertainment’s vice president for marketing and public relations. He says, “The average time spent within our world right now is about 20 hours per week per player.” A sizable number spend even more time. McDaniel says players have subscribed on average for about ten months, but some have remained satisfied for far longer. More than 60 percent of the people who registered and played the game in March 1999 are still playing, the company claims.

Sony has retained their loyalty in part by having the San Diego design team pump out a steady stream of expansions and improvements. McDaniel boasts that the Norrathian realm is now more than 200 percent bigger than it was when EverQuest debuted. Most of this growth has come in the form of so-called expansion packs — additional CDs for which the company has charged $20 to $40. The first of these expansions, called the Ruins of Kunark, in April 2000 added more than 20 new “adventure areas” in which players could encounter numerous new nonplayer characters and play a new race of lizard-like creatures. The Scars of Velious, introduced eight months later, allowed players to travel to a “newly discovered frozen continent” filled with frost giants, ice dragons, snow orcs, cave bears, and the like. This past December, the Shadows of Luclin pushed the game’s boundaries still further, giving players the ability to teleport to Norrath’s moon, where the enticements included a new race of cat people and the ability to buy and ride horses. Yet another installment will be out this October.

Besides maintaining players’ interest, the expansions have served another purpose, according to McDaniel. He says without them the explosive growth of EverQuest’s subscriber population would have made Norrath too crowded. Even in cyberspace, the wilderness calls. “You want to be able to get out into the quote-unquote Great Outdoors and not see many other people,” McDaniel says. “It’s that human need to explore.”

The latest expansion added more than geography. In the three years since EverQuest was released, personal computers have continued their rapid evolution. This has crucial implications for their storytelling capacities. Like movies and animations, computers create the illusion of motion by displaying a series of images, each one slightly different from its predecessor. It takes 24 frames (images) per second to fool the human eye. That’s standard. But the complexity and detail of the images that a computer can display depends on the speed and power of the computer’s central processor. (More complexity and detail, after all, mean more information for the processor to manipulate.)

The speed and power of typical personal computers three years ago put considerable limits on the three-dimensional models that EverQuest’s art team could build and animate. Each model could consist of no more than 400 polygons (mostly triangles); otherwise the game would have worked so slowly on most players’ computers that it would have been intolerable. Compared to the bare text of the muds, a 400-polygon animated 3-D dwarf must have seemed a wondrous thing. But it was still primitive.

Today’s personal computers, being more powerful, can deliver much more visual sophistication. So for the most recent (Shadows of Luclin) expansion, the Sony Online Entertainment managers decided to have EverQuest’s art team create and animate new 3-D models for each of the game’s 28 characters. The new models were composed of up to 2500 polygons. Although those numbers might sound incomprehensible to anyone who doesn’t work with computer graphics, I got an instant lesson in their importance when I compared one of the new dwarves to his previous incarnation. The old dwarf looks as if he was built out of big, coarse blocks; he has a rough-hewn childlike body. The new one is sculpted. His hands curve, and you can see the knobs of his knuckles. He has thumbs and ears and bangs in which you can almost see the separate strands of hair.

I still felt clueless about how one builds an animated computer model of a fantasy character. So I sought out EverQuest’s current art director. This man happens to have the same name as the division’s marketing and public relations vice president (Scott McDaniel). They’re close to the same age. But no one would confuse the two in the flesh. Marketing McDaniel seems like a man who would be at home making PowerPoint presentations in one of Sony’s corporate boardrooms in New York or Tokyo or San Francisco. Art director McDaniel wears a long blond ponytail and jeans. You can imagine him making a living with his hands.

He says, in fact, he was digging holes for a local neon-sign company when he got his first break as a computer artist. He’d had no formal training, but he’d always drawn a lot, mostly fantasy subjects. One day his wife saw a newspaper ad that asked, “Do you want to draw dragons? Would you like to make spaceships?” McDaniel sent some of his work to the small computer-game startup company that had placed the ad, Software Sorcery, and he got a job. “That was back when anybody could walk into the industry,” he comments. He says the work taught him speed. “I was there for three years and we put out six games, whereas the norm is to do one game every two years.”

He went from there to Sony Interactive Studios, and in mid-1997 he joined the team working on EverQuest. “They had no world at that point. Just characters. So I started building the world.” McDaniel says Norrath is divided into “zones” that vary in their dimensions. I wondered how an imaginary place could have any dimensions at all, and McDaniel explained that it could have scale and that scale could be compared to the size of an average human. In those terms, a 4000- by 4000-foot Norrathian zone “would take you about 20 minutes to walk across,” he said.

To create a zone, “We start with a displacement map,” he said, calling up a featureless gray square on his computer monitor. McDaniel typed in a few numbers to select the size and strength of the virtual brush he wanted to work with. There are no real brushes here; instead, a computer artist wields a mouse or a stylus. For this demonstration, McDaniel gripped his mouse in his right hand, moving it with a motion so subtle it was almost undetectable. But on the screen, it looked as if something had plucked up from above or pushed up from below a line of hills. “Now, let’s say I like the nice roundness at the beginning, but I want to make them sharper in the middle.” McDaniel made another tiny adjustment with his mouse, and the hills acquired peaks. He rotated the image to show me two views: top down and from the side. “To finish it off, I’d probably use something to give it a little more roughness and reality.”

Computer artists usually don’t start with a blank conceptual slate, McDaniel says. First a game designer will have figured out, at least in rough terms, some of the things that will be happening in each game zone. The designer will then sketch a rough map on paper, noting where he wants big features to be: water here, a tower there, a gigantic cave over yonder. McDaniel says at that point an experienced artist “can usually take the rough map and run with it.” After developing the contours, the artist will apply grassy and rocky and watery textures to make the landscape start to look realistic. McDaniel hit a few more keystrokes, and suddenly we were zooming over one of the completed zones of Luclin. What we saw could not be mistaken for the view from a real helicopter: it lacked the detail, variety, and vivid colors of the earth. Yet with minimal effort, you could imagine you were flying over an alien landscape.

I asked McDaniel how the vegetation we were seeing got there. He replied that he would tell one of his artists what kind of flora he wanted in the zone. The artist would create three or four possibilities. McDaniel could then use a tool that planted the ones he liked best, placing them either where he specified or in a random pattern throughout the zone.

The creation of EverQuest’s characters is a more complex undertaking. To illuminate this process, McDaniel called up one of the Vah Shir, the catlike race that inhabits Norrath’s moon. Because the artists thought the pun would be hilarious, much of the armor and buildings and furniture of these creatures echo the art and architecture of Persia. I noted that the female example striding toward us on his screen had some wiggle in her walk. McDaniel agreed and told me that the male Vah Shir move with a macho cockiness. This is true of all the races of EverQuest. “We made the guys move as if they were badasses, and the women are sultry and very confident,” the art director said. “Everybody who plays our game wants to be a hero. So visually, I wanted to have everyone be very confident and up-front.” McDaniel acknowledged that the skimpy clothing on the huge-breasted females and brawny males who populate Norrath has drawn a certain amount of criticism over the years. (The game is rated “Teen” in part because of this.) But the straightforward attitude toward sexuality, he argued, reflected the theme of self-assured heroism.

McDaniel says each new character begins its life in the form of a brief written description from one of the game designers. “Three or four lines that say, for example: ‘Vah Shir: catlike race, Persian-based. The size of a barbarian [an existing EverQuest character].’ Then they’ll tell us things like: ‘They can land quickly. They can see very well at night,’ and so on.” From such information, McDaniel’s art team sketched various feline possibilities on paper and made some preliminary decisions. “We decided, for example, that rather than have the legs go backward the way those of a real cat would if a cat stood up, we would give them human-style legs. There were two reasons for doing that: one is that it gave them a more human aspect so our players could identify more closely with them, and it was one less skeleton that we had to build for animation.”

McDaniel says the next step was to build a “wire-frame” model based on the most promising sketches. Wire-frame models are aptly named. They’re assemblies of triangles that approximate the surfaces of three-dimensional objects. They look as if you can see right through them, until an artist applies colors and textures to the surfaces. Then they begin to have some verisimilitude.

After the artist constructs a wire-frame model, what he has at that point is still motionless, a statue, rather than a swaggering, questing, fighting actor. To make the statue move, McDaniel says his animators have to create for it a “skeleton” made of triangles and rectangles and squares. (They refer to the geometric shapes they work with as “bones.”) By connecting the bones to various vertices in the wire-frame model and then rotating the joints, the model can be captured in a series of different poses. When you run them together quickly, the statue comes to life.

McDaniel summoned the figure of a female barbarian who sprang forward, thrusting her sword out in front of her. She did it over and over (“because the loop is playing over and over,” the art director explained). This animation consisted of 30 frames. He added that each of the 28 characters in the Luclin expansion had 174 different animations. These included walking, combat moves, turning (“the hardest thing to animate”), spell-casting gestures (“where they flourish their arms and leap forward”), and a grab bag of motions that the animators refer to as “emotes,” meaning things like waving, nodding, shaking the head, smiling, blushing. It takes varying amounts of time to create each of these, the art director says. Something as simple as an “idle” (standing and turning the head to look around at random intervals) might take only five or ten minutes. “Whereas a special monk kick — where they jump up in the air and kick their legs out and come back down — with the robes on and all — often took a couple of days.” McDaniel says the hard part of creating the monk kick was keeping the legs from coming through the robes. In the end, right before the Luclin expansion was released, “We had six animators working furiously to get the robes done on all the characters.”

McDaniel says the minimum time worked by any member of his team during the yearlong Luclin expansion was 80 hours per week. “And we had two guys who worked about three years’ worth of time,” he says. “It wasn’t quite that, because that would have been 24 hours a day. But many, many, many times, I would leave here at midnight or so, come back in at six, and they’d still be here. Still working. They’d sleep in their cubes. They’d sleep on my couch.”

Gordon Wrinn, the early beta tester, later came to work for the San Diego Sony division. Today he’s a programmer. I asked him about the reaction of EverQuest’s subscribers to last fall’s renovations, and he responded, “For virtually anything we do in the game, there’s always a group that’s absolutely ecstatic. There’s a group that doesn’t like it, and another group that really doesn’t care.” In this case, Wrinn says a lot of players disliked the new model for the character that they themselves played but loved the rest of the changes. Wrinn thought this reaction could be explained by the large amount of time most people spend in the game. They develop an attachment to the way they look, however cartoonish. He predicted that as time went by, the player community would grow fond of the new models. “I can hardly stand to look at the old ones anymore,” he added.

To many players of current single-player games, even EverQuest’s new models still look crude. The best of the single-player games may not yet be indistinguishable from a movie, but they come closer to that ideal than any of the massively multiplayer options. When I asked Geoff Zatkin why EverQuest looks so much worse than cutting-edge single-player offerings like Medal of Honor or Max Payne, he indicated that it all came down to a matter of competition for scarce resources. “In a single-player game, you have yourself on the screen and maybe four to five other things you’re interacting with. In a massively multiplayer game, you might have 15 to 20 players on the screen, plus 5 to 10 monsters and horses and houses.” You’re putting a lot more up there, yet the single-player and massively multiplayer games have to run on the same computers, machines that today might be able to display 100,000 polygons at any given instant. That means the 5 things on the screen can each be made of 20,000 polygons apiece, Zatkin said. But if there are 50, they have to be limited to 2000.

The massively multiplayer online games differ from their single-player cousins in other ways. Many single-player games tell a strong, engaging story — one in which the player is the central character, moving the action along. In contrast, there’s no overall narrative to EverQuest. With hundreds of thousands of players participating, no one player can have much impact on the world.

Publishers also have to promote the two types of computer games in very different ways, marketing manager McDaniel told me. He said producers of the single-player games “develop a product, spend millions of dollars on a bunch of marketing, put it on the shelf, and move on to the next thing. It’s kind of like the movie business. The movie companies will spend umpteen million dollars promoting a film for three weeks, and then it’s out of the theaters and into its rental life.

“That’s different from how we [online game publishers] operate,” McDaniel asserted. “We devote a ton of time, money, and resources to maintaining [EverQuest] and keeping it alive and new and compelling. The other huge overhead we take on is the customer support. Most gaming companies will have a customer-support department of 8 or 12 people. We have more than 142 now.” When you run a virtual world that players can enter whenever they want, “You have to maintain it 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” McDaniel said.

He urged me to talk to Michelle Butler. Although her business card identified her as the EverQuest customer service manager, Butler pointed out that “customer service managers don’t exist in the world of Norrath — because the gods of the world don’t acknowledge that there’s a corporate America out there.” Her “in-game title” was thus Head Game Master.

Butler, 34, has long ash-blond hair, blue eyes, and a focused, forceful demeanor. She said, “Absolutely!” a lot when she talked about her job and what brought her to it. The daughter of a Pan Am 747 pilot, she grew up in Florida and early on developed a taste for science fiction and fantasy. She played Dungeons & Dragons, collected Star Wars figures, worshipped the movie The Neverending Story. For a while, her own career path seemed more mundane. After dropping out of high school, she went to work in a jewelry store. But when she was 19 or 20, she realized that the action figures she had collected as a child were worth a small fortune. “I’d kept them in really good shape in my trunk,” she said. So she opened a collectible toy store, stocking it “with all my old toys from Star Wars and Star Trek. I also did some G.I. Joe.”

The store prospered and over time expanded. When Michelle started dating a comic-book fan named Jeff Butler, she added comic books to her inventory. The two of them also installed a network of computers that customers could use in exchange for paying an hourly fee. “We played a lot of games — Ultima Online, Dagger Fall, Diablo, Warcraft — those types of things.” One day Jeff saw an online notice calling for EverQuest beta testers and he got accepted into the initial group of 32. “He did that for about six months,” Michelle said. Then Brad McQuaid offered him the opportunity to become the game’s first customer service manager. Michelle was also invited to work in the fledgling department, so she and Jeff moved to San Diego. (They married a year later.)

“When I came, we didn’t even have training manuals,” Michelle recalled. “There were just 12 of us.” Since then, elaborate protocols have developed. Players can communicate their needs in a number of ways, but the most common is to petition for help online. Six levels of customer service representatives can respond. The three lowest levels (who attend to the easiest problems) are volunteers who work out of their homes. This cadre of “guides” includes more than 1000 individuals. Sony recommends that they work at their guiding jobs at least six to eight hours per week.

I asked Michelle why on earth people would donate their labor to the Sony Corporation, and she replied that being a guide gives players a number of advantages. “First of all, you get your account for free. You also have the ability to become a lot more knowledgeable about the game and its workings — how customer support works; what our policies are. Many of those policies are not disclosed to the public.” So the volunteers enjoy the prestige and satisfaction that comes with being an insider. Also, “It’s a very tight-knit community. They’re very supportive of each other. I think if you called any guide, they would tell you they’ve made at least five friends who were guides.” Finally, Michelle added, “I guess it’s kind of like why anyone would volunteer at an animal shelter. To help the animals. It’s kind of similar. To people with a volunteer-type nature, this is attractive.”

Most of the guides end up working far more than the number of recommended hours, said Michelle. “Some people pour their entire life into it. I have some seniors who are on the server 30, 40, 50 hours a week. Or you’ll have a housewife. Her husband’s at work. She’ll guide for three or four hours, then make the children their lunch, do the laundry, guide for another two or three hours. And suddenly she’s put in eight hours.” During that time, she’s interacted with other adults. “It’s people to talk to when you’re home all day and have a three-year-old.”

The interaction might cover any number of subjects, Michelle said. Players can “marry” each other within the game, and when they do, the guides can help them change their last name to that of their spouse. At times the guides participate in activities designed to enliven Norrathian life. Last Halloween, for example, some of them played the part of tiny skeletons and pumpkin people who ran around the world, handing out virtual candy.

They also can respond when someone reports a nonplayer character (npc) whose behavior seems odd. “npcs are free to walk the world, just like the players,” Michelle noted. They have some artificial intelligence. “They do communicate. They respond to specific words.” And if they make the wrong series of choices, they can get off track. “Sometimes there are larger npcs, like some of our dragons, that obviously don’t fit through doorways, and they may not realize they’re a little too big to fit through, and they’ll get stuck. Or a banker will mysteriously decide that he doesn’t want to be open for business. Things like that. We go in and solve some of these things.”

More complicated activities are handled by the paid staff (including three grades of “game masters”). These employees sometimes have to deal with misbehaving humans. Each server often accommodates between 1500 and 2500 people, Michelle said, “and when you get that many people together, not everyone’s going to get along. So we sometimes have to play the mediator. Maybe two brothers have gotten into a fight because their mother grounded one and won’t let him play EverQuest, and now he’s guessed his brother’s password, which was their cat’s name, and he’s handing out all his brother’s equipment. Lots of things like that.”

Whenever the game masters catch a player spewing profanity, they step in, Michelle said. Even though players can turn on a filter that transforms most obscene language into gobbledygook, the game masters still chastise and even eject anyone who’s engaging in “zone disruptions.” (“It’s like a restaurant,” says Scott McDaniel, the marketing manager. “You’re not going to go into a restaurant, stand atop a table, and scream at the top of your lungs, ‘Screw the world!’ without the restaurant saying, ‘Thank you very much, have a nice day, we don’t need your business.’ ”)

The game masters also play censor when asked to review the names players have chosen for their characters or guilds (formal associations of players). “We don’t want Mickey Mouse running around in Norrath,” Michelle said. “We don’t want Hitler running around.” The guides don’t tolerate the use of copyrights or trademarks as names for obvious reasons — but they also reject normal human nomenclature. “In Norrath, you don’t name your child Ben,” Michelle said. You name him Mennix Fuzzknuckle or Lyra Furry-Toe or something similar. “It’s assumed that when someone enters EverQuest, they don’t want the stress of everyday life. And if we keep [reminders of it] out of the game, the players can stay more focused on what the world of Norrath is.”

Michelle explained that players can expect only limited assistance if they ask for help with solving the game’s challenges. “Occasionally, we’ll have a player fall off a boat. They’ll be dropped into the middle of our equivalent of the Pacific Ocean and have no idea which way to swim.” In such a case, “We’ll try to give them directions. But when it would be giving away some of the mystery of the game, we advise them to talk to other players. Because the object of the quest is to really kind of learn it all. That’s half the exploration! Christopher Columbus thought the world was flat before he got here. It probably would have defeated a lot of his exploration had he known differently. So we try very hard not to get into that.”

I asked Michelle if her department ever fielded queries from players struggling with the deleterious consequences of spending too much time on the game (which has been dubbed “EverCrack”). She couldn’t think of an instance when that had happened. But Geoff Zatkin has been asked about the topic. Zatkin says press reports have even suggested that he was hired, with his psychology degree, to make the game more addictive. He says that’s nonsense. “We just set out to make the best game we possibly could.”

Zatkin acknowledges having mixed feelings about the amount of time many people devote to the online fantasy realm. “I believe in doing everything in healthy amounts,” Zatkin says. “If you have a lifestyle that gives you 20 hours of free time and still allows you to do other things, then play EverQuest. I think that’s good.” Plenty of people spend 20 hours a week watching television, he notes, but online gaming offers more rewards. “It’s much more social than television. You’re thinking, you’re planning, you’re making new friends.” On the other hand, “If all you’re doing is playing EverQuest, I think that’s unhealthy,” he says.

I asked McDaniel, Sony’s marketing manager, if he thought EverQuest would still be around, demanding 20 hours a week from people’s lives, 20 years from now. “I can look at that question in two ways,” he reflected. “One is: will this specific product be alive — or will this style of game?” McDaniel thinks the answer to the second is an unequivocal yes. “Everybody who’s anybody in the gaming business is trying to get into this space. And that’s quite simply because they’ve seen the success of a game like EverQuest. Three years, 400,000 people, $10 a month. You do the math.”

McDaniel says Sony Online Entertainment hopes to retain its dominion by doing a number of things. “Not everybody wants to take on the role of a knight in shining armor. So one of our strong growth strategies is expanding the genres we cover.” He sounds most excited about the Star Wars Galaxies game that’s being developed at a Sony Online Entertainment satellite in Austin, Texas. “That’s a title that has the potential to knock the doors wide open, as far as the audience goes,” the marketing manager predicts. More than 250,000 people have already registered on its website. But McDaniel says his division also is actively working on a half dozen other new products.

As for the second question — whether EverQuest itself will still be around in 20 years — McDaniel says, “We certainly hope so. I can’t say we have a 20-year game plan, but we definitely have a 5-year one.” Sony has made a commitment to fund a number of further expansions of Norrath, and it’s also taking steps to draw in more people outside America (who so far have made up less than 20 percent of the game’s audience). Last fall the company announced plans to begin using “real-time machine translation of in-game player chat” so that players will be able to talk to each other even if they don’t share a common language.

When I asked Brad McQuaid, EverQuest’s spiritual father, where he thought EverQuest would be in 5, or 15, years, he dodged the question, citing the fact that he no longer works for Sony Online Entertainment. By last fall, McQuaid says, he had risen within the division to where he no longer was doing any hands-on game development. “I learned about myself that I was much happier when I was the producer of EverQuest, working on one game and putting my heart and soul into it,” he explains. So last October, he and Sony came to an amicable parting.

Since then McQuaid has formed Sigil Games Online, a small new company, and taken Jeff Butler with him to be his vice president. The two are not yet saying much about their plans for their first product. But McQuaid was happy to make some predictions about the gaming arena overall.

“You’re going to see a lot more types of games,” he said, echoing the words of McDaniel. Star Wars Galaxies will “explode the game space,” he agreed, bringing in “all sorts of new eyes and players,” as would the Sims Online, another product scheduled to appear this year. Developed by Maxis, it will extend the well-respected Bay Area company’s hugely popular line of “simulation” games into the online realm. (“Picture a world where you can be whoever you want,” the website for it reads. “Own a piece of land and create a house, dance club, coffee shop… Build networks of friends that decide your wealth, power, and popularity.”)

“The whole industry will learn a lot from that game,” McQuaid predicts. Beyond that, he thinks continuing technological advances will allow all the virtual worlds “to become more and more immersive in nature. More compelling and more dynamic.” McQuaid thinks people who play online computer games like the idea of making their mark on the world — even if it’s just a virtual one. “They want something they did, something heroic, to be known or communicated to the other players.” For that reason, McQuaid expects that players will be able to affect the worlds in the games of the future to a greater and greater degree.

Among the fantasy and science fiction that McQuaid devoured as a youngster was the Star Trek: Next Generation television series. It popularized the concept of the Holodeck — an amusement chamber on the Enterprise where computers conjured up lifelike three-dimensional replicas of a wide range of real and fictional places. On the Holodeck, a crew member could become Sherlock Holmes or a Japanese samurai or a Roman emperor, rewriting the history, reshaping the stories, touching, tasting, smelling the details of the experience. McQuaid is convinced that Holodecks will one day be a reality. They won’t be invented. Rather, they’ll evolve from the likes of EverQuest. We may all be dead long before any true Holodeck technology exists, McQuaid told me. But he didn’t sound downcast. He sounded happy to be working on the Holodecks of today.

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