BILL COYLE RECOGNIZED the part luck played in his upbringing. His dad had begun working with computers in the late ‘70s, blessing the household with the gift of early PCs such as the Atari 800 when most people didn’t even have them in their offices yet. Coyle was one of the few kids in his neighborhood with a computer, and he soaked up everything it had to offer. Dialing into BBSes, he downloaded and spent hours in RPGs in the early ‘80s. From there, he moved on from virtual worlds to realms constructed from pen and paper.
“I think the AD&D Second Edition was when I really got into it. I got the Player's Handbook, and my friends and I would get together once a month to play a game. We didn't really follow the rules so much as we used the rules we liked. We made up a lot to make things more fun for us.”
Some years later, he’d been hired on at a comics and gaming shop in Tampa, owned by Jeff and Michelle Butler. The Butlers didn’t just sell fantasies. They indulged in them. “You’ve got to try this,” Jeff said to Coyle one afternoon, holding a shrink-wrapped CD-ROM. “It’s a beta for a game called EverQuest.”
“What is it?” Coyle asked, taking the disc and admiring the artwork.
“It’s like D&D, but online,” Jeff said.
Coyle needed no further motivation. “We're all checking it out, and Jeff got involved to the point where he was talking to Brad McQuaid and other developers online, asking about the game and what it was going to be like, where it was going.”
Jeff Butler eventually left for a job as a customer service rep on EverQuest. “I’m closing the shop,” he announced one afternoon, “and moving to California. Do you want to come with me?”
It turned out that McQuaid had extended an offer to Butler to bring trusted friends into the fold at 989 Studios (later Verant Interactive). Coyle took stock. He was 22 years old, had just broken up with his girlfriend, and apparently was out of a job.
“Hell,” he said, “let’s do it.”
In January 1999, two months before EverQuest left beta and shipped to retail stores, Butler, his wife, Coyle, and a few others packed up their possessions and drove cross-country from Tampa, Florida, to San Diego in a caravan.
Coyle traveled light. Everything he needed fit into a single suitcase. He was on top of the world. Arriving, he looked around at a bustling office occupied by a small but passionate team.
“Okay,” he said, “what do we do?”
McQuaid didn’t have an answer. No one at Verant had ever made a game the scope of EverQuest. Everyone, even experienced developers like John “Smed” Smedley, their manager, was making things up as they went along.
“Those really early days were quite adventurous. Anything you wanted to do, you could do,” Coyle remembered.
Coyle felt his way into his role as a customer service agent. Technical support guru was one hat he wore. Acting as a master in EverQuest’s world was another. “It was a tier system with the tickets. There were a lot of problems that players had only needed quick answers to questions. Well, the guides could tell them how to reset their modem or do something else simple on their PC. If they couldn't solve an issue, they would escalate the ticket to the next level, the senior guides. If they couldn't solve the ticket because it required GM powers, then it would come up to us.”
EverQuest’s launch was unprecedented. Between players trying to find their way around and numerous server crashes, Coyle and the rest of the team worked 10 to 12 hours a day. When the queue was low on tickets, the agents donned their storyteller caps. Some issues could be handled over the phone or on a Web forum, but others demanded their attention in-game, necessitating that agents assume the alter egos of their characters.
Coyle’s avatar was a wizard named Solist Kinslan, hailing from the Order of the Red Robes from the Dragonlance series of sword-and-sorcery novels by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman. One of his priorities when playing was to stay in character—in other words, to roleplay. When a player asked a question in the game, Coyle—Solist—might answer, “You must cast the spell of Reset on your modem to reconnect to the world.”
Problems that demanded the attention of Bill Coyle rather than Solist of the Red Robes could be handled with a simple text command. “If you did /ooc, it would change the color of the text to signify, ‘I'm speaking to you out of character.’ Occasionally I would have to do that, but I strived to stay in character. But all interactions happened in the game. We were all right in there.”
There were two branches of customer support: guides, and GMs, or game masters. Guides were volunteer players with lots of time and experience in the game, a forerunner of the modern-day role of community managers, except they solved most problems from within the game. “Our guides were given characters in the game that had demigod-like powers: teleport wherever they wanted to go, communicate with people over long distances, find people.”
Every guide operated under the purview of a GM. Guides started out with low-level abilities and simple assignments: go to this place, help this player, stand here and be available to answer questions from players who get lost or want to know about the world’s lore. “If you did that for long enough, you'd be promoted and get more powers,” Coyle said.
Game masters were paid staff from the studio. “We had the full god powers. We could do anything, from /kill, which would kill any player or NPC, to spawning NPCs. That's where the DMing aspect came in.”
A simple command, and players could be temporarily booted from a server. Occasionally a GM would have to reprimand a guide for stepping out of line. “Most of the time it was someone who didn't know what they were doing. I'd have to say, ‘Hey, you can't do that.’ But there were a couple cases of abuse of power, mostly in the form of feeding information to their friends.”
That, Coyle explained, was a serious offense. EverQuest was a story that unfolded in real-time, but there were characters and areas best kept secret so players could experience them without being spoiled.
Some offenses were more serious than others. Coyle had to fire a Verant staffer after he gathered proof that the employee had been creating currency and giving it to his friends free of charge. Another command, /snoop, was used with extreme caution. “What that would do was you put in a player's name, /snoop player-name, and any communication that player sends—to another player, anything they typed and sent—you could read. Obviously, privacy was a concern, and we kind of went back and forth on snooping, but it was the only way to substantiate certain claims that other players had made.”
Snooping was useful in cases such as one player accusing another of sexual harassment. “You'd have a player say, ‘This guy won't leave me alone. He keeps messaging me and saying this, and I block him, but he makes a new character and keeps saying suggestive things to me.’ You'd /snoop the person, wait until they said something out of line, and then, bam, you're out of here. You're suspended or banned to the cat room.”
One power Coyle and other GMs exercised was putting unruly players in timeout. EverQuest’s world was 3D, but still based on X, Y, and Z coordinates. One special zone was an empty skybox, a hollow cube decorated with wall-to-wall pictures of the cat owned by artist Kevin Burns. There was nothing to do in the room except stare at the repeated image of a cat and think about what you’d done to earn such an odd yet effective punishment.
“I very much remember summoning someone to the cat room and leaving them there for an hour to cool off because they were really pissed off about something in the game. I didn't want to suspend their account or ban them, so I'd put them there. I'd summon their character there and say, ‘You just need to chill out. I'm leaving your character here for an hour, then I'll put it back.’”
Coyle’s favorite activity was running live quests. “We could make up a story. We could spawn NPCs. We could do all this stuff. These turned into huge events in the early days that you didn't really see later on.”
The game took place on several severs, and each GM governed his or her server. Everyone on Coyle’s server knew Solist by reputation if not on sight. Most met him as they took their first tentative steps into a dungeon, only to be greeted by a red-robed wizard who shared with them the lore of the tomb they were about to enter. Much of that information could not be imparted any other way, so GMs delighted in coming up with inventive ways to share it.
“We had lore books and stuff in the game, but when you're creating an online world, there's no way to communicate all the intent behind things and what's going on. And honestly, a lot of that stuff hadn't even been written. Somebody made a cool monster or dungeon, but they didn't have a reason for it being there.”
Coyle’s masterpiece was a live quest in which Solist was killed. Players who signed on watched in awe and horror as Solist battled a fearsome monster and sacrificed himself, Gandalf the Grey-style, and sank into bubbling lava. Solist vanished for a month, only to resurrect—Gandalf the White-style—with new abilities.
“Looking back on it now, maybe that was a bit egotistical,” Coyle said with a laugh, “but the players loved it. You've got this real person who's playing a character in your world, and it's dynamic. Back then, you couldn't program an NPC to do stuff like that.”
SCOTT DALE AND his friends didn’t just play EverQuest a little. There was no such thing as playing EverQuest “a little.” They had heard about the game shortly before Dale planned to leave for a trip to Ireland, and told them to be ready to play when he returned.
“That was in 2000, about three years before I worked here. I played it very intensely for those three years, every chance I could get.”
The fun part was that when they weren’t playing together, he and his group would split up and go questing without telling one another exactly what they were up to. That way they’d have all sorts of exciting new stories to swap the next time they met up. Most of the time, however, they adventured together, experiencing everything from raids to corpse retrievals.
Dale was rooming with someone with an eye on the games industry. When his roomie landed an interview at Verant but had to cancel due to another commitment, he asked Dale if he’d like to take his place.
“I didn’t realize they were local,” Dale said, amazed. “Yeah, I’ll totally do that.”
Dale was hired to provide customer support. He drew on his background helping friends, family, and coworkers fix their computers, which prepared him for all sorts of weird errors working on online games such as EverQuest, EverQuest II, and Final Fantasy XI, the support for which was outsourced by Square Enix.
“A lot of what we do, nobody sees. Weird billing issues, weird account issues that we can't fix and need somebody to troubleshoot,” he said.
One day, certain people logged in to EQ II couldn’t communicate with members of their guild.
“I think it was a database concern somewhere. We could see it happening, but sometimes it takes multiple teams. If there's a particular server or region that has a problem, like a new server—maybe people on the east coast are having trouble connecting—if a problem is regional, that's a case where the tech support team can say, ‘Okay, let's start looking at ISPs to find out why people in this area are having trouble.’ The players will say, ‘How come your servers are broken?’ Well, the servers aren't broken, except everybody in your town can't connect because of some other reason.”
Variables complicated the role of customer support. Most players didn’t submit support tickets, perhaps because they didn’t know how. The most passionate players kept two, three, even half a dozen accounts for all their characters.
“They're invested. The friendships you've had for that long are a big deal.”
Still, Dale was impressed by the level of emotional investment, loyalty, and trust players demonstrated toward one another. “Back in the day, people would say, ‘I can't play right now, but you need my character, so, here, you can log him in.’ That's part of what was built into EverQuest [culture]. Now, I don't like that because when people start fighting over the account, it makes it difficult for us to resolve because many items are shared.”
Dale had regulars. One of his was a blind player who would call in and explain what he needed to do. Dale or one of the other GMs was happy to walk him through step by literal step. “One of my guys on my team told him, ‘You know, Windows has a feature you can turn on so it reads to you what it says.’ He said, ‘Really?’ That helped walk him through different features to understand them.”
Dale’s chief goal in customer service was to smooth over common stumbling blocks. No one, he believed, should be frustrated from something that shouldn’t have been an issue in the first place. “We've been working on anchors for a while: If a server crashes, people lose this thing they need to teleport. Instead of having them submit a ticket to have us help, why not make something in-game so they can do it themselves for free? You shouldn't have to put in a ticket to have me explain something that you should have been able to figure out on your own, but weren't able to because it wasn't clear enough or the buttons are confusing or something.”
Customer support agents play different but no less important roles in the days and hours leading up to the launch of a product, be it a brand-new game or an expansion pack. Veterans help managers staff up to ensure there are enough guides to handle the volume of new or returning players bound to have questions or technical issues. Afterwards, the agents will get together with leads and conduct a postmortem to go over minor and major issues in an effort to make sure they’re dealt with prior to the next product rollout.
When they’re not preparing for a launch or talking after the dust settles, they’re in the game ready and willing to tackle big, game-breaking problems. “Servers crashing is a big issue, and needs to be taken care of right away. A quest that's not working right, maybe we'll say to the engineers or designers, ‘Hey, can you guys figure this out and maybe squeeze a fix into next week's patch?’”
Other problems are known quantities, such as veteran guilds rushing to stake their claim on new servers. The more players swarm a new server, the more players are going to squabble over things like spawns, enemies, or items that only appear at certain intervals but are necessary for completion of a quest.
“They're all going to kill, steal, and train other groups to ticket about this, and say terrible things to each other in chat. We have to do the adult thing in those cases. People get very upset in those cases, because EverQuest players are very passionate. The Ignore button is underused.”
Another of Scott’s favorite issues to solve is also one of the rarest, in that it only happens when EverQuest makes gaming news before a major event such as a new piece of content.
“Every now and then someone will contact us saying, ‘Hey, I used to play this game but haven't played in 12, 15 years.’ We're like, ‘Wow, that's a long time. I'm surprised you still remember the account info, but here you go.’ Maybe they played all the way through grade school and now they're 30. It's a big deal. They have fond memories of their characters, and unless something happened to them, they will still be there.”