One thing you hear a lot as an MMO player is companies spewing PR about how their new MMO is going to reinvent the genre. They’re going to make the most believably living worlds, with no grinding and a fast and furious-gameplay system. You’ve heard it all before. Last week we heard the same spiel from Sony Online Entertainment when it revealed EverQuest Next, or rather the third version of it. However, for the first time, I actually believe it.
Let’s turn the clocks back a bit. When EverQuest came out some 14 years ago, it sparked a firestorm that took a Blizzard to put out. It had reinvented the way people thought about a relatively young genre at the time and did the impossible by toppling the then giant of Ultima Online. However, ever since 2004, the series has stayed relatively quiet to the general gaming public, due to other new games coming around (like the aforementioned World of Warcraft).
In the 14 years or so since EverQuest burst onto the scene, not much has changed in the MMO world. Oh, sure, there are the outliers like the Planetside series and EVE Online, but for the most part, we’ve all been playing the same game. The gameplay of most MMOs revolves around a routine of finding the guy with the exclamation point above his head, skipping everything he says, finding some boars, playing hotbar whack-a-mole with dozens of abilities, repeating. As Dave Georgeson, Director of Development for EverQuest Next put it, “For 35 years we’ve been playing a lot of Dungeons & Dragons.”
Through that simple-yet-bold statement, Georgeson shows us how exactly SOE plans to change that.
Changing The Game
During the reveal, Georgeson talked about the various things they as designers always wanted to do with their games. This included four features they always wanted to put in, but never could due to lack of the resources or technology to implement them. These four things he referred to as the Holy Grails, and with EverQuest Next, they’re finally going to take a crack at them.
The first, as previously mentioned, was to change the core gameplay. A lot of what he talked about, while not groundbreaking (as a lot of it has already been used in other games in the genre), does point to a more refined gameplay experience. The first was by implementing multiclassing. The way it works is simple: at the start, you get to choose between seven classes. Then, over the course of your journey, you’ll discover other potential classes which you can then mix-and-match the abilities with the abilities you learned though other classes. The reason for this change was to build a stronger connection to a character as well as to make a character that much more customizable.
Another thing they wanted to do was to get rid of leveling, at least in the traditional sense. Instead, they’re going with a tiered-system that’s based more in horizontal progression than vertical. The game will be less about how much XP you accrue and more about your collective accomplishments. That includes anything from getting a complete set of armor in your class’s tier to crafting some awesome sword to taking part in a Rallying Call (which we’ll get to later.)
They also went into detail about the way they’re rethinking weaponry. They’re going about this by making the type of weapon more important than the numbers attached to it. They’re doing this by tying specific abilities to different classes of weapons. So, that whirlwind spin your warrior just pulled off with that giant claymore is no longer possible once you switch to your prized halberd. They’re also trying to make weapons more unique. This is done through implementing a Borderlands-esque system where the characteristics of the weapon are determined by the parts it’s made out of.
The final thing Dave brought up was getting rid of the stale hotbar-based gameplay. The way they’re going about this was by limiting you to only equipping eight abilities at one time, with four being tied to your weapon and four being tied to class and racial abilities. This wasn’t too surprising, as last year’s Guild Wars 2 showed just how well that system will work. Overall, I think it’s fair to say that the gameplay has effectively been changed.
The second Holy Grail they brought up was Destructibility. Essentially, they want everything to be able to be blown up. To do this, SOE went with a voxel-based world, which easily allowed the designer to make the game fully destructible. That’s not PR speak, either. As was adequately demonstrated, anything and everything can be destroyed. Buildings? Check. Ruins? Check. The world itself? You betcha.
Now, this raises the obvious question of “what happens when you fall in a hole in the ground?” Simple. You fall into the next tier of the world. You see, the entire world is built of multiple tiers. Did that giant you were fighting blow a hole in the earth and threw you in it? Congratulations, you just discovered an entire crystal-filled cavern. The way this is possible is that a lot of the world is procedurally generated. So where you’re running around the plains somewhere in the world, there are potentially three different subterranean caverns under you at one time.
This switch to voxels not only changes the way the world is built, but it also changes gameplay. In a hypothetical gameplay scenario, you as a wizard could create a wall of crystals to block in the incoming wave of goblins. If they manage to break down that wall or get around it you can then destroy the bridge they were just on. The terrain you’re fighting on will also realistically deteriorate over the course of a fierce battle. Now, naturally, this destruction isn’t permanent. Whatever damage you do to it will heal over time. But that’s where the temporary changes end.
The third Holy Grail, and the one most likely to either work perfectly or completely fail, was Emergent A.I. As Georgeson pointed out during the presentation, most MMOs use a very static A.I. system when it comes to NPCs. Friendly NPCs almost universally stand in the same spot all day doing essentially nothing but service the player while Enemy NPCs will roam the same 10 sq. ft. area waiting to be wailed on by a passing player. Simple but dull as all hell. EverQuest Next aims to change that.
The way they plan to go about this is by monitoring the movement of players and NPCs alike and then adapting that information to best suit the NPC’s motivations. The example they used was that of the Orc. Orcs like gold and they like stealing that gold from naive adventurers. They don’t like cities and they hate guards because all they end up doing is beating them up. So, it’s in their best interest to find the roads that at the least protected whilst still getting a lot of foot traffic. So, using all the collected player data, the game will analyze the area and find those roads they love the most. Then, the game will pick an area to spawn the Orcs and let them naturally find those areas.
Once they find that lonely road, they’re going to set up camp and are going to have a gay old time robbing the occasional passing traveler. This will gone for a while before the players decided to step in. This could be done by telling a guard, teaching traders better trade routes, or taking the matters into their own hands and clearing out that camp all on their own. Once this happens, they’ll move again and find that other road they so desperately love, and with that the players have actually created an actual change in the world of the game. And the changes don’t stop there.
The final Holy Grail was that of Permanent Change. Essentially, they want to get players involved in the world and create their own stories, and they’re doing this with Rallying Calls. Similar to a world event in most games, occasionally the designers will put out a Rallying Call that players can chose to participate in that will eventually lead to a permanent change in their world. The example Georgeson used was Raising of Halas. When the event is sent out, Halas is but a simple tent city and if the player chooses they can help build it into a major city. They can go about this in many ways. They could help harvest materials for building a log wall, crafting weapons for the guards to use, or even going out into the forest and clearing it out of goblins. The cool thing is that what moves that story forward is a mystery. What ultimately moves the Rallying Call to the next phase will never be made clear to the players.
Once they hit that trigger, the next part in the story starts. Once the players have cleared out the forest, the Goblin King may get angers and start trying to burn down that log wall you built. A natural way to combat this would be to improve that wall by building a quarry so as to make a stone wall. However, dig too deep and you many open a hole to the caverns below, which can cause enemies to spill out of there. Once the next trigger hits, the story would again move forward until the climax, where the Goblin King has had enough of your crap and will start an all out siege. Once the players put down that siege and strike down the Goblin King for good, the city of Halas is officially established and the Rallying Call ends. However, one thing Georgeson was quick to stress was that just because that city is sitting there now does not mean it always will.
An Unexpected Variable
One thing Georgeson brought up was that in order to make these Holy Grails possible, they had to build a lot of tools from scratch since most of these ideas have never been used in an MMO. The one they put the most effort into was the build system, which makes it very easy to build a unique piece of the world in relatively short periods of time. However, this tool was so good that the team found themselves starting to compete with each other in order to build the coolest structure. So, seeing an opportunity to make it even easier for fans to help with the game’s development, they decided to give the fans the same tools they use to build the game. That collection of tools is a free-to-play MMO called EverQuest Next Landmarks.
Essentially, Landmarks is a giant sandbox. Each server will be a blank slate world that players are dumped into and can start building… well, whatever. You want to build an entire city? Go for it. A little homestead for you and you alone? By all means. A recreation of the Millenium Falcon for you and your friends to live in? Why not? The best part is that you really are using the exact same tools the designers are using. It’s also all in game, so there’s no need to fuss with Maya, 3DS Max, or Photoshop, and since the entire world is persistent, you can also go out and check out the cool stuff other players have made. Essentially, Landmarks is the sandbox mode of Minecraft except with thousands of players on a server at one time and a deeper tool set.
SOE is also making it possible to make money of your creations through SOE’s Player Studio. Not unlike Valve’s Steam Workshop, the Player Studio lets players put their creations up on the market so that other players can use them to build their creation. Even cooler, if a player uses one of your creations to build something they then turn around and sell you get a cut of the profits. The real nail on the head with Landmarks is that if your creation is good enough, SOE will put it in the game come launch. As a fan, that’s gotta be pretty sweet to be able to point at something and say to yourself, “I built that. I did. No one else.”
It is entirely possible that EverQuest Next is too ambitious for it’s own good. It’s also entirely possible that this may all be yet another example of marketing hype that will ultimately fall flat. However, for once, I’m actually going to give them the benefit of the doubt. Despite the general sentiment that EverQuest is dead, it very much has an active and passionate community and I doubt SOE would carelessly release something they know their fans would hate. Maybe the optimist in me has faith in SOE, but I’m willing to stake a claim that it isn’t bull and that they really are changing the game. Fingers crossed.