This year, EverQuest reached the nearly unprecedented milestone of 20 years of active development. We have players who started in 1999 and are still going strong today. As a game designer, I’ve been able to study and analyze how EverQuest has achieved 20 years of retention.
If you’re familiar with the proposed principles of player motivation within game design, like those presented by Richard Bartle, Quantic Foundry, Nir Eyal’s “Hooked” model, and countless others, you can see the theories working within the design of EverQuest and we can observe their impact over two decades.
Lesson Learned #1: Timing is Everything
One of the most important things to keep in mind when looking into EverQuest is the time it was created. 1999 wasn’t like today when the phone in my pocket gives me immediate access to the internet and innumerable apps that let me play games with friends or jump on Reddit to share my Lord of the Rings fan fiction.
In 1999, I had a gigantic and very heavy CRT monitor plugged into a Voodoo 3 video card. I was on a trial version of AOL (America Online, to all you youngsters) to access the Internet. It got cut off every time my mom picked up the phone to make a call. On my desk was a stack of Q-tips to clean the dust off the rollerball contacts inside my mouse. When I’d log on to the Internet at 1 a.m., the dial-up sound would wake up my dad and he’d bust into my room and yell at me to go to bed (and get a job). Even with those struggles, I was lucky to be part of the 4.1% of people worldwide who even had Internet access.
Figure 1. Growth of worldwide internet access from 1999 to 2018 
EverQuest was an ambitious and genius game, but it also had superb timing, and I don’t just mean market timing. Yes, EverQuest beat Asheron’s Call and Dark Age of Camelot to market, but all those games benefited from the same timing that EverQuest did. The dawn of the Internet brought the shrinking of the world so that communication from anywhere was instant and always available. This fundamental change in the way people socialize is the catalyst that paved the way for EverQuest’s success. And its creators felt it.
For a generation of gamers, EverQuest became, and is, a solution for many people’s social needs. Large scale MMO adoption is cyclical, as new generations come online and take to MMOs for the first time, this moment is recreated. Look at World of Warcraft and Runescape. Each is the EverQuest for that generation. And that is the first lesson of EverQuest’s 20-year retention: Timing and purpose are everything. Find your novel vision that delights players by filling a need that isn’t be met.
Lesson Learned #2: Stay Focused on Player Motivations
This sense of community and belonging was exactly what I needed at the time and EverQuest’s game design provided it. I was (ok, still am) weird. Defined as a dork. I loved fantasy novels, video games, and making GeoCities webpages with obnoxious flashing text. I was a year out of high school, living at home, and didn’t have many friends or a solid life direction (or a job, sorry Dad). I was far from living as my authentic self, because like most 18-year old kids at the time I had no idea who that was, and Oprah had yet to explain it to me (she had not reached enlightenment yet).
One fateful night, I went over to a friend’s apartment (he had a job) where he was playing EverQuest and he explained the game to me. I did not believe for a second that all those characters were real people. So, he started a conversation with the classic “a/s/l” opening. His entire guild replied in bright green text and I was dumbfounded! Baffled!
I then did the next logical thing. I bought the game and started a Barbarian Shaman, got to level 22 to get my upgraded “Spirit of the Wolf” run-buff spell and started peddling it throughout the game for Platinum to fund my actual main, a Wood Elf Ranger who spent most of his time face down. I also joined a guild and even though I died all the time (Rangers, lol), I was the truest, happiest version of myself.
If you saw EverQuest’s 15th and 20th Anniversary videos or watched the EverQuest Show on YouTube, you will see my story of emotional connection to not just EverQuest, but its community, isn’t uncommon. EverQuest is a place where people can satisfy the top three needs in Maslow’s Hierarchy: Social Belonging, Self-Esteem, and Self-Actualization. More than that, it’s a comfortable home for thousands of people who don’t NEED to be in combat every moment. They relish the human/avatar connections as they “live” and evolve in the structure of EverQuest’s fantasy world.
We played EverQuest because every time we needed to connect with someone or share news or needed to be acknowledged for being good at something, the game and its players satisfied those needs.
In EverQuest we found connection and achievement. We found competition and mastery.
And those are still the primary player motivators the game is fundamentally designed around today. Over the 20 years that EverQuest has thrived, the team has added countless systems, mechanics, features, and an astounding amount of content. Were there missteps? Sure. But the team doesn’t add or remove anything that fundamentally changes the motivations to play the game or upend core mechanics that players have spent years learning. And that is the next lesson to retain players for 20 years: Stay true to the player’s core experience and motivations. Protect and double-down on what your game really is to those that are actively playing it. Gauge all your actions by theirs.
Lesson Learned #3: Change with Engaged Players
This isn’t to say that the game hasn’t changed. It has and in very significant ways. A good example is affectionately called “corpse runs.” If you ask someone who stopped playing EverQuest 15 years ago what they remember, inevitably someone will mention a memory of dying to some mob, losing their body and all their loot, with a dreamy smile on their face. Instinct would say, “Corpse runs must remain forever, untouched!” But memories are a tricky thing. Nostalgia paints a picture that is far different from the reality of the players who remained engaged.
The Planes of Power expansion for EverQuest introduced graveyards which started to make corpse runs less punishing as corpses would land in the graveyard locations in a zone. Eventually the item loss component was removed and replaced with XP loss that could be recovered by going to your corpse. There are several reasons the team removed the item loss component from death, and the primary reason is not because a bunch of “care bear” designers thought corpse runs were too mean.
In part, it was because as items with different rules and behaviors were added to the game, like teleportation items, and the total number of items a player could carry increased, there started to be significant technical issues. For example, when you’d loot your corpse with tons of items there would be tremendous client lag, making what was already a harsh experience exponentially less fun with each lost frame per second. And those teleportation items started to create edge cases around which items get left on your corpse and which don’t. And, in rare cases, all the engineering around items on corpses created situations where corpses could be duped or even worse, lost all together. (Bonus lesson: Stability is king, bugs kill retention and every other important KPI faster than anything else.)
Just as importantly though, lost items from death as a mechanic was no longer serving player’s motivations. At this point in the game’s lifecycle, zones were bigger, the number of items a player carried was much larger, and the overall time investment to get those items was incredibly high, skewing the risk-reward ratio all the way towards all risk, no reward. As EverQuest grew, the game no longer needed the additional risk of losing items for players to feel a sense of mastery and achievement. Lost time creates enough fear and focus and is more palatable than losing items you may have worked months for. Losing items made many give up and quit. Lost XP is measurable as time and playing. In a player poll several years later, players agreed with developers by voting against the return of items on corpses – a question raised by those who were nostalgic and not necessarily playing daily. And that is the next lesson: Acknowledge and change with your actively engaged players. Take stock and reset your view to match the players’ who are actively playing today.
Lesson #4: A Labor of Love
Understanding and respecting players’ motivations and expectations can only happen when you have a team that understands them. I’ve been a member and lead of multiple live development teams. Some were more successful than others at retaining players. The most successful team I’ve been lucky enough to be a part of is this EverQuest team.
Development of EverQuest is a labor of love from the Executive Producer to the newest Associate Programmer. Every member of this team has their own personal story about how EverQuest, as a game, has impacted their life. Many of the team members have worked on EverQuest for 10 or more years with most of the art team on the game since launch.
This intuitive understanding of what “feels EverQuest” in every aspect of the game is priceless. When some new team member comes along and throws out random ideas (yes, I mean me), the team can quickly filter them for what is good and bad through the lens of a current EverQuest player. Not only does this save time, but it keeps us on course. New skills can be taught and mentored, but a true love and understanding of the game is invaluable. That is the final lesson: Staff your live service team with developers who love the game.
In the end its simple. Respect your game. Respect your players.