Everquest Next Wish List – The calm before the storm
In a few hours Sony Online Entertainment will be hosting their annual SOE Live (previously called Fan Faire) in Las Vegas. We expect many news to come out of this event, but without a doubt the biggest one will be the reveal of the new chapter in the Everquest series – the last one, Everquest 2, released in 2004 and the first one was the most successful MMO in the West until World of Warcraft, effectively paving the way for dozens of themepark MMOs, including Blizzard’s one-of-a-kind phenomenon.
Not much is known about Everquest Next. The game was originally first spoken of during Fan Faire 2010, although little to no information was actually revealed save for a couple of in-game screenshots, which we’ve attached below.
After that, Sony Online Entertainment went dark with Everquest Next. The game was a no-show at Fan Faire 2011, with only a brief mention by Dave Georgeson, who said that “there’s no MMO like it, not even close”, adding that they thought they had something completely original, with a unique feature set, and disclosing for the first time that Everquest Next would have used Planetside 2’s new engine, called Forgelight.
In retrospective this small tease makes much more sense, as John Smedley announced at Fan Faire 2012 that the reason for the information drought was that the game design had been “blown up a year and a half ago” (which is just before Fan Faire 2011) into something new. He then proceeded to label Everquest Next as “the largest sandbox-style MMO ever designed”. Seemingly, an evolutionary design was in place, but in the end the development team felt that they had to do something more groundbreaking, with a shift to emergent gameplay after noticing the downward spiral of high budget themepark MMORPGs like RIFT, Star Wars The Old Republic and The Secret World.
I couldn’t have been happier to hear such words. Personally, I’ve felt the appeal of sandbox MMORPGs since mid-2008, when World of Warcraft’s grip started to wane. While I enjoyed Azeroth for many years, there was always something that bothered me, and I narrowed it down to the completely static nature of the world. That’s when I started looking into games like Darkfall Online and Mortal Online, indie titles that tried to bring back some of that Ultima Online’s magic lost in the themepark years; however, they simply didn’t have the resources to create a polished product. Sony Online Entertainment does: by all intents and purposes, Everquest Next will be the first Western AAA, high budget sandbox MMORPG to be developed in a decade or so.
A seamless world large enough to host player houses and guild castles without instancing
Theme park worlds are, if you analyze them carefully, really disappointing. Mobs are usually cramped in packs and you can barely travel the roads without attracting their attention, which means that exploration is severely limited. In order to give players the feeling of a true world, Everquest Next should space the inevitable mobs in a natural way, leaving more room for wandering off the map. Also, player and guild housing are two very hot topics in the MMO community – recently most games seem willing to have them, but usually they are segregating them into separate instances. This severely hurts the social aspect which is the foundation of any MMO, as effectively those players who enter their own house instance are temporarily removed from the world; instead, player housing and guild housing should be placed in the persistent world, where they can be used to further enhance player interaction and world dynamics.
The Forgelight engine should be able to handle all of this, technically. It already proved with Planetside 2 that it’s capable of amazing graphics and huge zones with thousands of players locked in battle.
A player driven economy with item decay
This is almost a buzzword right now, with many games claiming to have a complex economy. But in order for a player driven economy to work properly, item decay must be implemented. What this means is that every item, sooner or later, becomes unusable or destroyed; this may sound terrible if you look at it from a theme park player perspective, but you have to understand that there are no uber weapons or generally, items in a true sandbox (which also ties in PvP, but more on that later). Moreover, this means that there is never a moment in time where most active players already have what they need, leaving crafters with nothing to do; with item decay enabled, there will always be demand for items, thus crafters will always be absolutely necessary for every single player of the game. If there is demand for items, there is also demand for resources and this will be, much like in the real world, the true reason for player conflicts on a massive scale.
Crafting will also be tied to Player Studio. This is the new creation tool implemented by Sony Online Entertainment in all of its games, and it lets players participate in the design phase – for example, they could design the skin of their to-be-crafted helmet – and get a reward for it: the helmet skin could be added to the cash shop and the designer could receive 40% of the revenue in real money. It’s an interesting way to involve the community in the process, and at the very least it should mean that the characters in Everquest Next won’t be all dressed alike.
Something to fight for – PvP, diplomacy and consequences
Some argue that sandbox doesn’t necessarily mean PvP oriented. While that may be true to an extent, games which arbitrarily remove the possibility to attack any given player at any time impose a huge wall to player interaction, which then becomes static and binary – either friend or enemy forever, depending on the predefined faction chosen by the player. In a free-for-all PvP environment, player interaction literally jumps to another level, as diplomacy becomes a true factor and allegiances a necessity.
Yesterday’s foes might be today’s uneasy allies. Intrigues and scheming foster true stories, sandbox stories, the best kind of stories possible in a MMORPG since they are only dependant on players themselves, instead of some arbitrary plot that equally descends upon every player; longevity is boosted as well, since interesting and unpredictable events happen naturally as players and/or guilds pursue their goals in the world.
It is also important to give consequence to actions, since we’re talking about a sandbox. After killing a player, it should be possible to harvest his loot, either partially or fully; again, I know that some are vehemently scared of this occurrence, but as I briefly mentioned before this wouldn’t be nearly as important in a sandbox since you wouldn’t lose the epic sword of that boss who finally dropped it after 30 dungeon runs. It would be just another craftable sword, and if you’re a savvy player you might already have some in your deposit since this one would eventually decay anyway. Of course, it would still be a loss, but this is exactly what the last MMORPGs criminally tried to erase: a risk-versus-reward mechanic.
It’s important to have zones with NPC guards able to make them relatively safe, but you should expect to be on your guard when adventuring in the lawless areas; the thrill of truly having something to lose or win makes everything much more meaningful and interesting.
I mentioned consequences, and of course criminals should be treated as such. Archeage even has a trial and jail mechanic, with a randomly formed player jury that decides to convict the offender or not. It would be great if NPCs were able to recall whether a certain character attacked another in their presence, changing their behavior consequently – perhaps the roguish types become more inclined to talk, while others who uphold the law will refuse to talk or even attack him/her.
The same applies on a larger scale for guilds, of course. With guild castles to conquer and significant benefits to holding them (for example, getting the taxes from nearby player houses or even getting exclusive access to some resources), guild rivalries instantly become more appealing than just claiming a “first kill” on some PvE boss. Some guild members are then likely delegated to the diplomat role, and this becomes a game in itself, a metagame if you will, more than able to keep those characters in the game for hours and hours as they plan an overnight strike.
The PvE – player created quests, dynamic events and more
Everquest Next can’t rely on static quests, not anymore. What else, then? Dynamic events have been another hot buzzword since RIFT and more recently, Guild Wars 2. I’ve been really excited by the opportunities of this feature, but in the end I was more than let down by the implementations – guess what? I think sandbox games are better suited to have them. The reason is simple, dynamic events as you can see them right now are not really dynamic: they are just another type of content cycling endlessly without any real impact by the players.
This is because they are meant to be the natural progression path for players – in a theme park, player interaction is really limited and all you can really do is experiencing the content prepared by the development team, in this case, dynamic events. But if there are no dynamic events, then how can players progress? They wouldn’t have anything else to do, except segregate themselves in some instance for another activity. As long as some players are in the world, though, it becomes vital for these events to continue their odd cycle – despite the fact that every pretense of players affecting the world is quickly lost, since an event might occur exactly in the same way just 10-15 minutes after you completed it.
This isn’t necessary in a sandbox, as it doesn’t rely on developer created content consumption. There are many other player-to-player mechanics that can occur at any moment (I have detailed some so far, but not all), which means that players will always find something to do even if there is no dynamic event in place. This could enable developers to space them further apart, making them truly rare and therefore epic moments that will be remembered for a long time.
Let’s make a quick example of a dragon who descends with its unstoppable force, bent on death and destruction. This could take either of two ways: players could quickly band and try to fend off the beast, succeeding after a long battle. In this case, they would be acclaimed as heroes by the NPCs inhabitants of the town; but if they chose not to show or simply proved not strong enough, then to dragon could raze a village for good.
With no magical reset, a new event would kick in requiring players to aid in rebuilding the town, but it wouldn’t be a matter of minutes – rather a matter of days or even weeks, depending on player participation – think something along the line of the Ahn Quiraj opening in World of Warcraft. Players would also be very interested to have that town back on its feet in order to access its services and resources, and in the meantime the economy would likely be influenced as well.
There’s another way to have a never-ending stream of different quests – to let players create them. I’m not particularly fond of content creation tools, though – I mean, they’re a good way to augment a game’s longevity, but they do not mesh well with a sandbox game, since player created dungeons like the ones featured in City of Heroes, Star Trek Online, Neverwinter and even Everquest 2 (all of them falling under the category of theme park MMORPG) are all inevitably instanced and don’t affect the persistent world in any way, contradicting sandbox rule #1. However, enabling players to put quests of their own on a bill board is extremely compatible with the whole sandbox concept – maybe you want to put a bounty on a certain player who slighted your guild, or you just need a certain amount of wood and ore to craft your armor.
Smedley also hinted at physically affecting the world, something that is virtually non-existent outside of phasing (which really is instancing). I don’t see single players being able to leave significant marks in the actual world, because that could lead to utter chaos; however, maybe a bloody battle with hundreds of participants could leave a scar in a forest, and only Druids would then be able to heal it with a lengthy process.
Combat and classes
There will be classes in Everquest Next. We know that much at least, since there’s already a panel scheduled for Saturday called “The Classes of Everquest Next”. That said, there could still be interesting systems added by SoE; for instance, multiclassing could be a way to differentiate characters which is certainly not common to most MMORPGs, with the notable exception of Guild Wars (although that was technically more of an online RPG).
Combat took a significant turn towards action in the last year or two, and I can’t really disagree. While the execution can vary in quality, it cannot be denied that blocking, dodging and aiming in real time is more involving from a gameplay point of view, whereas traditional MMORPGs with tab targeting have been very appealing to non-gamers who enjoy a more laid back experience. However, one aspect where action combat can be improved upon recent MMORPGs is certainly that of teamwork – I’ve noticed that in most of these games teamwork becomes less of a factor. I’m confident that Sony Online Entertainment has enough experience to overcome this in Everquest Next, anyway.
NPC AI – Storybricks, the true revolution, roleplaying
This is one of the most important points. Let’s face it: while graphics has advanced majorly in the past years, artificial intelligence has not. This is even more true for MMORPGs, where non-player characters are little more than hollows waiting for a player to come by, and this inevitably corrupts the illusion of a virtual world. NPCs need to have lives of their own, goals of their own; they need to be able to remember player actions and react accordingly.
For Everquest Next, this might be largely provided by Storybricks. A product by Namaste Entertainment, Storybricks was originally meant to be an MMO of its own, but after a failed Kickstarter attempt they decided to focus on their content creation tool as a middleware, which supposedly allows developers to create very compelling NPC interactions. Back in April, Namaste revealed to be working with Sony Online Entertainment on Everquest Next.
It’s easy to see how this could fit nicely into creating dynamic situations and events. While the details are still currently unknown, we will likely know a lot more in a few hours, and regardless Rodolfo Rosini (CEO of Namaste) agreed to have an interview with us, so stay tuned if you’re interested to know everything on how AI works in Everquest Next.
Clearly this could help roleplayers as well, although SoE already has a trick of their own – the technology called SOEMote. If you haven’t seen it or tried it yet with Everquest 2, it uses your PC’s webcam to translate your facial expression on your character’s face. It’s already a neat feature as it is, and I’m pretty sure SoE will have an updated version for EQNext, but what if NPCs were able to distinguish a player’s expression and react accordingly? That would be amazing.
If you’ve made it thus far, you’ll be able to see how all these things would concur in the creation of a living, breathing virtual world, where players and NPCs are both able to interact in a deep way. Logging in could be always a new experience, due to the many variables that each day can change the world and its happenings. As a mere player, I’m really starving for such an experience after the shallowness that currently permeates the genre.
Will Everquest Next be like this? I don’t know. We’ll find out soon enough, but regardless, I hope that Sony Online Entertainment can ignite the flame of interest back into many gamers’ hearts.