Mobhunter: What Does a Yearly Expansion Cycle Mean for Everquest?

On 30 April 2007, Everquest's current producer, Clint Worley, announced that SOE would begin a yearly development cycle for Everquest expansions beginning this November and taking place every November thereafter. Today we discuss the possible impact of this large strategic change in Everquest's development.

During the original Everquest Community Summit SOE stated that predictable population drops occurred between expansions. The population would also predictably rise every time a new expansion was released. SOE argued that six-month development cycles helped keep the population more steady than the peaks and valleys seen in yearly expansions. Now SOE moves back to the yearly expansions, a release cycle we haven't seen since the release of Planes of Power.

This recent change brings up many more questions than answers. For example, what will this do to the development team itself? Will SOE reduce the amount of money spent over the year? Will the same number of developers remain on the staff throughout the year-long development cycle? How does this affect the developer's salaries? If it lowers the amount of money they earn, will they be more likely to find other projects?

What will this do to the product itself? Will the cost increase? Some players speculate that the cost will likely go up to $40 per expansion. A yearly release of the entire Everquest collection including all previous expansions and one new expansion could be another strategy. With the strength of competing MMO expansions such as Blizzard's Burning Crusade expansion for World of Warcraft, SOE may have a hard time selling an Everquest expansion for the same cost.

What will happen to the in-game population over the year? Will the lands of Norrath become barren during the summer months? Video and computer game releases often relax during the summer months, hoping to focus attention closer to the holidays. The number of people playing Zelda: Twilight Princess during the summer matters very little to the overall health of any single player's experiences, but a reduced population in an MMO affects each player who wishes to play - especially in a game with a very clear focus on group and raid encounters.

What caused SOE to make this radical change? The quality of expansions released in the spring has always lagged behind the quality of expansions released in the fall. What happened recently to make them decide that a yearly release was a better idea? Was it the clear lack of quality in spring releases or some other decision based on player metrics and business trends?

What will SOE do with those extra months? Will we see larger expansions like Omens of War, The Serpent's Spine, or even Planes of Power? Will SOE return to a multi-tiered model where even high-end raiders need to progress through multiple sets of end-zones in order to complete all of the raids in a single expansion? Will SOE use the time to debug, tune, balance, and polish the release? We can certainly hope.

Why would SOE tell us this now? Perhaps they tell us to help quiet the voices that complain about the current twice-yearly release cycle or perhaps they are setting us up for future changes yet unheard.

It will be nearly nineteen months before we see the true result of this change. The November release this year gives SOE two more months to improve this fall's expansion but we won't see the full result of a yearly development cycle until fall 2008. That's a long way off and a lot can happen. With the recent release of Lord of the Rings Online and the upcoming Age of Conan, the competition for massive multiplayer online role playing games gets thick. Blizzard will no doubt release another expansion for World of Warcraft in that time. Rumors speak to a new Blizzard MMO release as well, possibly announced in May. This is also the first full year with consoles being able to fully support massive online games without any hardware modifications or additions. What will the population in Everquest be like when the MMO universe has many alternate worlds to explore and half a year before Norrath sees changes to its landscape?

The console market is ready for a good powerful console-based massive online game. All of these things may drastically change the landscape between now and the first full-year expansion release for Everquest since Planes of Power.

We will end this discussion with a few predictions and a few things to monitor over the next year.

First, I predict the next expansion will be a large one with a level increase, possibly even to 85, and multiple tiers of single-group and raid progression. The expansion will have to include a large amount of progressive encounters and rewards to keep people playing throughout most of 2008. It may also include a large amount of solo content, and may need to if the populations do begin to lower over the summer of 2008. I hope we begin seeing more regular releases of new player models. SOE cannot include new models in an expansion if they plan to change them for everyone, but it is clearly the most outdated feature of Everquest right now. Overall, I expect this year's expansion to be a big one, on the order of Omens of War, The Serpent's Spine, and maybe even Planes of Power.

Over the next year we should continue to watch the population of Everquest. I expect we may see a server merger in the spring of 2008 to off-set the reduced amounts of players over the summer. We should also keep an eye on the development staff itself. If we start to see some of the bigger names moving on to newer projects, that could bode poorly for the game overall. Eventually Everquest will make that transition from a fully developed and marketed product to one of maintenance and upkeep. This next year may be the time we see this switch.

At this time we have far more questions than answers. We can keep our fingers on the silk strands of our web, feeling for the vibrations that will tell us more of what may come to pass, but for now, the web remains still.

Loral Ciriclight
5 May 2007