Dream come true

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Dream come true

Dream come true

By Kathryn Balint

Copley News Service

Before it had lush forests, icy tundras and bustling cities populated by menacing trolls, evil elves and spell-weaving gnomes, EverQuest was but a wild dream.

The year was 1996, and the Dungeons & Dragons theme had long been thriving on the Internet in primitive text-only, dial-up chat rooms. As Internet connections got faster, and home computers got more powerful, the potential for these online fantasy games was not lost on John Smedley, then-director of development for Sony's 989 Studios.

He set out to create a virtual world filled with adventure, robust characters and intensive graphics. The project turned out to be far more ambitious than anyone could have imagined. The virtual world had to be big enough, and exciting enough, to keep the attention of even the most avid gamer.

EverQuest's team of developers came up with 24,000 computer-generated characters, from guards who can help save a player's life to Minotaurs who attack everyone who comes near.

Early on, the developers decided to take a chance by creating such realistic three-dimensional graphics that it would require a computer with a 3-D graphics accelerator card to run the game. Their competitors at the time had two-dimensional games in the works. Development costs climbed. Smedley had to persuade Sony to plunge more money into the project.

QUESTIONABLE START

The EverQuest project was spun off into its own company, Verant Interactive, and the team moved into its own quarters. All the while, there was the constant worry that maybe this project would just be a big bust, that maybe people simply wouldn't be willing to fork over a monthly subscription fee to play, or maybe there weren't enough consumers who had computers powerful enough to play the game.

"We were saying to ourselves, 'Boy, if we could just get 70,000 people to play for four months, we'll break even. We hope we can do that,'" recalled Brad McQuaid, EverQuest's executive producer and a co-founder of Verant Interactive.

He got a hint of the game's future success at a computer game developer's conference in April 1998. Verant had a booth at the trade show and connected eight computers so that, for the first time, people outside of the company could give the game a try.

"These people just played it and played it and played it," McQuaid said. "They just didn't leave. A few people switched terminals so that we wouldn't notice that they were there for hours."

After three years in the making, before the game was released, EverQuest was already breaking records. It became the No. 1 pre-sold computer game ever at the Web site of online retailer EBWorld.com.

QUICK SUCCESS

Within a week of EverQuest's launch in March 1999, 40,000 people had signed up. But initially, that success was overshadowed by technical problems.

Thousands of players either couldn't log on, got kicked off the game in mid-play, or couldn't play because the connection was so sluggish. Turned out, McQuaid said, the Internet service providers - which were experienced with handling Web surfers, not game players - didn't have big enough pipelines to handle all of EverQuest's traffic. They rushed to install new Internet lines.

"We were victims of our own success," McQuaid said. "We were terrified that the people who were excited by the game would log in, have a bad experience and never come back to play again."

The fear was unfounded. Six months after its release, 225,000 EverQuest games had been sold, and 150,000 players were active subscribers, making it the best-selling online role-playing game ever made, with the biggest subscriber base of any online game. So far, more than a million copies of the software have been sold worldwide. The game now boasts 330,000 subscribers.

NEW RECORDS

When Verant Interactive released a $20 expansion pack called The Scars of Velious last month, 100,000 sold in the first five days. The expansion pack allows EverQuest players to explore a whole new, all-frozen continent.

Last month, the game also set another record: 74,000 people playing at once, which goes way beyond its creators' wildest dreams.

"EverQuest has been one of the biggest success stories," said David Cole, president of DFC Intelligence, a video-game market research firm.

"People said, 'You'll never get customers to pay to subscribe to online games.' EverQuest came along and proved that customers would pay a fairly substantial amount."

In the last year and a half, Verant was acquired by Sony Online Entertainment and the staff ballooned from 70 employees to more than 300. Part of that expansion was to run Sony's gaming Web site, The Station (www.station.com). Much of the rest was to handle EverQuest's growing number of subscribers.

Visit Copley News Service at www.copleynews.com.

(c) Copley News Service

Liz Woolley