Game companies don’t often get to play a happy trick on their customers.

EverQuest II‘s designers got an idea early in June: They would release two new servers for their free-to-play massively multiplayer online RPG that would only have the original game on them, circa 2004. Players would vote for when the company should open up the game’s expansion packs on those servers.

One piece of the game would be missing, presumed lost forever: The starting zone, which consisted of an island and boat ride, could not be recovered. Players were irate, saying this wasn’t nostalgia, this was just two new servers.

Then one designer made it his mission to get them back. And that’s when the games really began.

The day after the servers launched, we gathered together Holly Longdale, executive producer of EverQuest and EverQuest II; Kyle Vallée, lead designer; and Carlos Mora, senior game designer, to tell us the story of what happened.

EverQuest II time-locked starter areas

Above: The Isle of Refuge. Wait, is that looking better than in 2008?

Image Credit: Daybreak

The original EverQuest II servers, but not the original starting zones

Holly Longdale: Early in June, we announced that we were going to do a couple of new servers. We called them at the time, for lack of a better … uh, because it’s the best name ever: time-locked expansion servers.

Once we established that we were going to do this thing, the player base was saying, if you don’t do the original tutorial island, which was known as Isle of Refuge, why would I bother coming back.

We’ve said for many, many years, because of how we understood things were, that original tutorial island, and an experience that went with it, which we called the boat zone… the dev team was told that it was destroyed, [that] the code was gone long ago. Devs told devs that story, and then as devs, we told the players that, because we honestly believed it.

The dev team was sad and frustrated because they like to do what the players want. We loved the original tutorial zone too.

Kyle Vallée: At one time a designer tried to load it, and it was crashing, and they couldn’t get it to load. I think we had a couple of instances where basically we just thought that there was a bunch of stuff that got deleted. We told players that.

The hunt begins

Vallée: Then Carlos came and begged to look at it. We’re working every day, we don’t have down time. I said OK, if you can figure it out in three hours, we’ll go forward, but if not … we’re just not doing it, because in our business, three hours is three weeks.

Carlos Mora: I was around at the very beginning [of EverQuest II.] I was a player at first, and I remembered all those things. I empathized with the players that were really begging for this. It would be really nice and really nostalgic to have this back.

I had heard the exact same things Kyle was talking about, how it was all broken, and I think I even tried to log into it once or twice before and got the crashes. I really wanted to make sure we had given it a thorough try.

I loaded it up after Kyle had said fine, you have three hours. And it wasn’t three hours to fix it, it was three hours to get a good time estimate on how long it would take me … [They laugh.] It took a lot longer than three hours.

I was able to jump in and diagnose some of the crash problems. It turned out to not be as big a deal to get it fixed as we originally thought.

Longdale: Wasn’t it the same day when you came to my office and were like, uh, it’s all there?

Mora: Oh yeah. We had that meeting in the morning and I think it was like 2 or 3 in the afternoon and I walked in and I was like, “I, uh, got it working… ?”

[They all laugh.]

“It’s not perfect, but I can get it there… ?”

Longdale: I was like, “Wuuuuuut?”

Vallée: The cool thing is, once we figured out we could get it running, it just started snowballing. Everyone got really enthusiastic, and we got really excited.

Carlos was all, [does imitation in funny voice] “Well, if I got tutorial island up, I’m going to fix the boat, too!”

Mora: And that wasn’t broken in quite the same way.

Vallée: So I’m over here tearing my hair out, going oh god, how much time is this going to take. But it turned out to be really awesome, and there wasn’t that big of a problem, and Carlos busted his butt for like a week and got it all working perfectly.

EverQuest II time-locked starter areas

Above: Carlos Mora: The reason EverQuest II players are once again on a boat.

Image Credit: Daybreak

The tutorial turns out to be the problem

Mora: There were a few problems, but the biggest one, the one that was causing the crashes, was that probably about a year after we disabled the islands, we redid the entire tutorial system, the part that pops up and tells you, “Press WASD to move left and right” and all that.

We revamped that completely. But because these zones were brought down and they weren’t being used any more, we didn’t go back and retrofit the tutorial system into there. So when it was trying to call the original tutorial system, it didn’t exist, so it would try to call it, and the zone would just throw up, basically.

Going in and finding all of those calls in the script of pretty much everything in the island and removing them got it working again. There were some quests odds and ends, and there were a few things that got deleted that we had to recover. But that was the big piece that was making it look like it was unworkable.

There’s very little difference. We were able to recover all the tasks. [Those are] the scripts that run behind that make NPCs walk down a certain path or say certain things. We were able to recover those, just undelete them, basically. We could go back to find those.

Vallée: We got super-excited, then Holly’s like, we’ve got to keep this a secretAt first, we all kinda went, “Wuuuuut? Why would we do that?”

And then when she explained her reasoning about letting players discover it, we said, that’s totally awesome. We had to keep our mouths shut all the way up until launch.