When it comes to the ultra-competitive online games space, the number of failures far outweighs the number of success stories. The corpses of dead games litter the digital highway, long since forgotten. And these days, the explosion of free-to-play options has dramatically changed the playing field for all online games across all genres.
But there are some games that have survived the test of time and continue to thrive with “old school” gameplay despite facing competition from much bigger—and much newer—titles. We spoke to the developers of three legendary standbys to learn just how the franchises have managed to stay so beloved for so long: Quake, EverQuest, and Runescape.
Let’s dig in.
While John Carmack is busy developing mobile virtual reality for Oculus VR these days, one of the games he helped design–Quake–continues to captivate gamers after 18 years. Adam Pyle, producer of Quake Live at id Software, said the foundation of the online game was established with Quake III Arena, a game nearly 15 years old.
“Not many games have held an audience for over a decade, while also attracting new fans,” said Pyle. “Two key elements that still resonate with gamers today are its elegant balance between simple-to-play and hard-to-master and the speed in which you can decide to play, hop into a game, and begin having fun. Within seconds you can be in-game, and the quick movement and powerful weapons lead to some really adrenaline-pumping fights. The game rules are straightforward and simple to understand, frag or be fragged, but over time a real depth arises as you strive to improve your skills. If Quake has a skill ceiling, we haven’t found it yet.”
Quake Live, which launched in 2010 as a web-based title and evolved into a client-based download, has emerged as one of the most popular online shooters, thanks in part to its free-to-play gameplay. Publisher Bethesda Softworks makes it easy for new gamers to log into the action seamlessly. Like Valve’sCounter Strike: Counter Offensive, Quake Live has also benefited from the exploding popularity of e-sports.
“Quake tournaments have played an important role since its inception and continue to push our competitive players to focus and hone their skills,” said Pyle. “We’ve been proud to host a major Quake tournament at every QuakeCon since 1996, and over the past few years have really strived to improve the Quake e-sports scene at our annual event... To this day, many consider the Quake Live Duel mode to be unmatched as a game of skill.”
Pyle believes the recent Steam launch of Quake Live will further grow the game’s audience. His team also stays connected with gamers through Twitch livestreams and social media, which have allowed them to enhance the game based on real-time player feedback.
“Social media has obviously become a game changer in the past few years, but in many respects it has been even more to the benefit of players than developers,” said Pyle. “It was always fairly easy for developers to have a one way conversation with their players, and in that manner social media today replaces the .plan updates, forums, and IRC channels of the old days. But where it has played a major role is allowing us to hear from our players in new ways. Twitter and Twitch streams have really created a new avenue for players to become and stay connected to the games they love and the developers behind them.”
While Sony Online Entertainment (SOE has opened up its development process for new titles like EverQuest Next and H1Z1, the company’s original MMO game remains alive and kicking despite having a full-fledged sequel and a lot of big budget competition in the fantasy MMORPG genre.
Dave Georgeson, director of development on the EverQuest franchise at SOE, believes there are two major things that keep a warm spot in players’ hearts for the original EverQuest after all of these years.
“The first is that for many players, this was their first MMO,” said Georgeson. EverQuest launched in 1999. “Your first virtual world is special. It’s the first time you’ve been fully-immersed in a 3D world for long periods of time and it’s a singularly involving experience. But for many players, the second reason is that the world is just enormous. We’ve had over 15 years of constant expansion and dev team work on this game. There are thousands of playable zones in this world and you will NEVER run out of new things to do.”
Georgeson also said the fact that SOE owns the IP has helped with its longevity, while licensed MMO products it published like Star Wars Galaxies and Star Wars: Clone Wars Adventures were ultimately shut down. But even internally owned IPs like Free Realms, Wizardry Online and Vanguard: Saga of Heroes have recently been shuttered, while EverQuest lives on.
“EverQuest has stood up to time because there is no other flavor out there in gaming that’s like EQ,” said Georgeson. “Other games mostly tried to emulate World of Warcraft’s style and mechanisms. EQ was first and so it was not influenced by that game. Therefore, it feels completely different. Not being able to get the same taste elsewhere means that players keep coming back to EverQuest, and that helps its longevity.”
That doesn’t mean EverQuest hasn’t evolved with the times. In 2012, after 13 years of catering to paid subscribers alone, the game switched over to a free-to-play model—though plunking down cash will still get you extra goodies and content.
Whether gamers will stick around when EverQuest Next is released will be interesting to see, but developer Jagex recently found that not everyone wants the newest graphics and latest visual effects when it comes to gaming. The Cambridge, UK studio has improved its fantasy MMORPG RuneScape numerous times over the past 13 years, but last year, 440,000 nostalgia-deprived gamers voted to resurrect the 2007 version of the game. The retro redo launched in early 2013, months before the new RuneScape 3 took things in a much more modern direction.
“We call it Old School Runescape because we want to treat it differently from the main game,” said Phil Mansell, vice president of RuneScape at Jagex. “The main game has big weekly updates that the players help us decide. Old School is very much about a point in time. It’s the perfect nostalgic experience with a simpler, harsher gameplay. It has a different set of rules about how we, as the administrators of the game, update it. We only change anything about the game if there’s a 75 percent majority of players who support that change. That means you need a lot of consensus. That means not that much changes, but actually that’s what the players want. They want a very stable, reliable foundation that they can keep coming back to.”
Mark Ogilvie, the head content designer for RuneScape, said that nostalgia also has played a role in the main game.
“We introduced a Legacy mode to the main game, which is a way of playing the game using the old combat system,” said Ogilvie. “We made massive changes to our combat system a couple of years ago, which is called Evolution of Combat. It’s a much more tactical and more engaging experience for players. But some players didn’t want that; whether it was better or not, they didn’t care. They just wanted that experience that they had before, so now they can get the best of both worlds with all the shiny new content we create, and the Legacy combat.”
Just like in music, movies, and television, nostalgia plays a huge role in keeping old games relevant. But for these three titles, success has been a two-way street; it’s hard to imagine Everquest, Quake, and RuneScape being continued successes if not for the diehard communities of gamers that have sprung up around each game—and in turn, the loyalty and commitment that the developers of these games have shown back.
Here's to another 10 years!