It’s the year 2000. We’ve managed to avoid technical annihilation at the hands of the Y2K bug, Tina Fey and Seth Meyers are helping SNL stay funny, and somehow every mall has decided that we should all listen to Creed (quiver). But game developer Geoffrey “GZ” Zatkin wasn’t in the cinema watching Remember the Titans – he was standing in legendary San Diego game store Game Empire. (opens in a new tab) watching people play his team’s brand new MMO. That game was EverQuest.
But some people weren’t just playing Everquest, they were breaking it in half.
Why would a developer go to a game store to work on their game instead of staying at the studio? There were no gaming laptops. No one had wi-fi. Remote work as we know it certainly did not exist yet.
“Our development tools at the time were prehistoric!” laughs Zatkin today. EverQuest was the very first 3D MMO. Resources were limited, the team was small, and they were navigating uncharted waters without a map. With a custom game engine and no development time in sight to create reporting tools, if Zatkin wanted to observe players and see how his systems performed, he had to load up a GM character, cast a super invisibility spell on himself , teleport to the area and stand while they fight monsters.
EverQuest was an experimental game in every sense of the word, and everyone on the small team that worked on it wore many hats. One of the hats GZ wore was designing the magic system from top to bottom. “Brad [McQuaid, producer] came at one point and was like ‘hey Geoff how many spells are we doing?’ I said 450 and he just stopped. He was expecting about 50.” So, looking for a way to observe players, the use of the magic system came naturally. Most of Everquest’s GM powers ended up being spells designed by Zatkin.
He also liked to play with spells. One of the first popular websites with EQ information was Caster’s Realm (opens in a new tab), led by an Australian named Greg Short. One of the site’s biggest draws was a detailed list of spells in the game. They got much of that information by scraping the beta server patch notes, which wasn’t without risk. “A year, around April 1, I put out a beta patch where I nerfed the most popular spell of all but one class, whose signature spell I improved,” explains GZ. “I just put it up without notes as a friendly reminder that what went into beta was for testing. That’s the only time I got called at 1am by my boss. Brad told me called and said ‘the forums are on fire, what did you do?'”
With EverQuest upending expectations and becoming a worldwide phenomenon (so much so that they overcharged the service provider and blocked the internet across large swathes of San Diego (opens in a new tab) for a week), GZ needed a better way to understand how their players were playing. Game Empire provided such an opportunity. With computers set up to be rented by the hour and a wired connection, it was like a proto internet cafe. And the store was full of Pro Tour Magic players, Warhammer 40K tournament champions, and future game developers, many of whom were EQ-obsessed.
One of those players was David Fay. David was a Warhammer guy and former Ultima Online player who helped convince the store owner to install EverQuest on all of his machines. Fay was able to transfer her skills in finding the optimal army composition, Magic deck, or UO crafting strategy to a new game, with a lot more players.
At the time, hardly anyone had a home setup to run multiple characters at once. Computers were expensive, we still paid for internet On time, and the time it took to level a character in EverQuest was absurd. Information was also sparse: aside from a few fan sites (and an embarrassing player’s guide), no one knew what quests gave good experience, where to farm platinum coins, or what your spells did until you got them. buy from the seller.
All of this combines to make the Game Store the perfect location for gamers looking for an edge. With plenty of highly skilled players, eight (!) computers all within arm’s reach, and the ability to talk to each other in meat space (we’re a few years ahead of Teamspeak here, not to mention Discord), Fay and others like were able to find very good strategies for him. Strategies that, unbeknownst to them, were being watched over their shoulders by one of the guys who wrote them.
One involved a little-known quest that involved a thirsty dwarf and a liquor called Tumpy tonic. Going from the dwarven capital of Kaladim to the Ocean of Tears, you could buy Kiola Nuts from a friendly elf. Once you’ve waited for the boat again and returned to the dwarf farm (a round trip that took over an hour), you can give the nut and a flask of water to the man, the myth, the legend itself – Tumpy Irontoe – and receive a vial of his tonic. Then you took that brew back to the thirsty dwarf in Freeport (one more hour), returned it, and got some money and some experience.
Or you could do what David Fay did and start a union.
“I recruited all the members of the local guild – we had several master tailors making bags, six people running errands to the port to get fucked to avoid the boat ride, four master brewers standing at the brew stations and knew exactly when the guy was going to spawn so we could give it all back,” says Fay. To this day, he is still proud of the scheme. Their operation was so successful that they eventually started turning a profit additional and selling fully leveled characters on eBay.
At the time, it was the Wild West for digital objects: eBay and other sites hadn’t yet started monitoring digital transactions, and developers were far behind. An associate professor of economics at Cal State Fullerton wrote an article (opens in a new tab) in which he came to the conclusion that EverQuest’s GNP (gross national product) was somewhere between Russia and Bulgaria and that EverQuest’s platinum coin was worth more than Japanese yen or Turkish lira.
Fay’s operation was smooth, but it didn’t last long. A month or two of long days of growing tonics later, the word was out. Players on every server were racing beer across the ocean of tears, and the devs had grown wise, thanks in large part to GZ’s acknowledgment.
“GMs started popping up and bombing the quest guy!” Fay said sadly. He changed his sleep pattern to work while the service staff slept, but even that wasn’t enough. Eventually they shut down all the servers, and when they came back an hour later, the patch notes only had one line:
“The Tumpy Tonics quest has been removed.”
The game of cat and mouse will continue unabated for months. Bind a Shadow Knight in Kael’s Arena and kill Frost Giants with lethal damage hits (death in arena meant death in PvP meant no XP loss back in the day! ), maximizing people’s combat skills by exploiting duels with charmed animals, and no shortage of other shenanigans were patched up by the attentive developers.
Eventually, however, the schemer and the scheme blocker became friends. Bonding over a shared love for Warhammer 40K, EverQuest, and other geeky things, David and Geoff started spending more time together. And then Fay finally learned where Zatkin worked. “I remember it was months later and Geoff invited me to a LAN party at his work. We drove in and it was at SOE,” he says.
Fay’s love of gaming systems stayed with him even after his EverQuest plans dried up. When Geoff Zatkin broke from game development 10 years later and started a data company called EEDAR with Greg Short of fansite Caster’s Realm, he knew exactly who to bring to the team. “Because David was so good at dissecting EverQuest things, he was a very easy choice for our first recruit to analyze games,” GZ explains. EEDAR became the leading market research firm for video games and was later acquired by NPD in 2016.
Eventually, David found himself on the other side of the screen. In 2017, he joined Amazon Game Studios and worked on New World as Senior Game Designer and Head of Product Management until the MMO launched. More than 15 years after his Game Empire shenanigans, he needed to fortify his project against the kinds of attacks he was once famous for. Using the same mindset he applied to the Tumpy Tonics, he worked with alpha players to find weaknesses in the game’s systems and economy.
“It takes what you know as a player, what you’ve seen happen, what you’ve done before and what you’ve learned about running a business, leading teams and blending,” he said. A lot has changed since the heyday of EverQuest, but staying one step ahead of players remains an impossible challenge.