Sailing off the Edge of the Map

eqntitle LandmarktitleIt’s been a while since we’ve reviewed EverQuest Next and it’s sister game Landmark in any detail.  Some of you may recall that these are the games to watch right now for some really revolutionary thinking that has been both promised and in some regards delivered on already.  Last time this blog looked at the state of things, Landmark was chugging along in Alpha and EQN was far, far away.  While Landmark is now in closed Beta and EQN is still far, far away, SOE Live, the Sony Online Entertainment conference held in Las Vegas each year, came and went.  Quite a lot of information was dropped during those presentations, so let’s try to piece together what we can from the official and unofficial channels and see what kind of picture is emerging for these two future properties.

A Quick Recap

SOE Live 2013 was the first official announcements for both Landmark and EQN.  It was here that the unbridled enthusiasm of Dave Georgeson and the amazing honesty of Jeff Butler won me over on their properties and turned me into a fan of their works.  Jeff’s comment, during the class panel on EverQuest Next, was really the rallying call for me personally:

I refuse to have my guild fall apart because Terry decides he does not want to play a particular massively multi-player game anymore, and he was our primary healer.  This is a responsibility that we created as game developers and we are abandoning it.  Right?  We are not going to put our players through that.  We’ve seen the damage that it’s caused over the course of the last 15 years.  We are moving beyond that, with this design.

This was in response to a question concerning the Holy Trinity and how gameplay would work without it, and why they wanted to get away from such a “staple” of the MMO genre.  I was already on board thanks to Dave’s presentations, but this just blew me away.

Dave’s keynote was the other major selling point for their games.  There were 4 primary goals (and if you want to go back and re-watch them, the link to my original post on them is here) laid out by Dave in the keynote.

  1. Changing the Core Game
  2. Destructibility
  3. Emergent AI
  4. A Life of Consequence

The discussion points that Dave reviewed in his presentation offered a rich new tapestry for both gameplay and role play.  See above for some of those early conversations.  The rest of this article is going to try and review the current state of things as of SOE Live 2014.  And please note, while I’ve taken pains to verify all the info below, there’s likely plenty of things that I’ve missed that some may find just as or more important than what I’ve highlighted below.  So please feel free to leave a comment if I’ve missed something or gotten something wrong.

Changing the Core Game

The original class discussions were focused a great deal on multi-classing and how that will work, and how it will be a major driver of content in the game.  This is, thankfully still the case.  In the presentations this year at SOE Live, there were several additional classes introduced as well as a deeper dive into the mechanics of how the classes were constructed.  We know that there are no levels in EverQuest Next.  Class progression will be handled with achievement points, that can be spent on any class that a character possesses, at any time.  Content is tiered in difficulty based on abilities unlocked.  Tier 5 content has been confirmed but how a character progresses through the tiers was not discussed.

Keywords were the main thrust of the class discussion.  There are origin keywords and damage type keywords and all classes have them.  In addition, all items, all armor pieces, and all weapons also have keywords associated with them.  These keywords are used to help define the visual language of the game as well as the mechanical functionality of the classes and items using them.  Because there are so many items with so many keyword associations, many of them offering differing boosts and other desirable in-game effects, the possibilities for build specialization and unique gameplay are very deep and progressed.  One of the stated goals with using a system such as this was to reduce the amount of unwanted gear/loot that players get while playing.  The idea being that while you may find an item or something that offers bonuses for a class or power you don’t have, thanks to multi-classing, you may be able to make use of it later in a way that may make it worthwhile to hold onto the item.

Combat is very fluid right now and still in the early stages of development.  If you want an idea of how combat will play in EQN, Dave Georgeson suggests you try Landmark.  Combat was going live as of August 27th (yesterday if my time of posting is right), and how combat works in Landmark will be pretty much how combat works in EQN.  While Landmark only has PvP combat options available right now, PvE will be along soon.  Beta keys are now being offered at Wal-Mart and other retailers along with station cash you lucky jerks.  I remember the old days, when you were happy to pay to get into Beta….and school was an uphill walk in the snow, both ways.  Every day.

Destructibility

If you’ve been paying attention to what’s going on in Landmark, you’ll have a very solid idea of what’s going on with this goal.  Thanks to their work with voxels, we’re seeing a destructible world that will be more dynamic then anything that’s ever come before.  And they are only scratching the surface at what’s possible here.  Everything that Dave riffs on in that original presentation from 2013 on a destructible environment is fully possible in the new games.  At this point, everything that they promised can be realized.  We’re setting up for game locations that “regrow” their structures as soon as they are torn down, to things that are created and destroyed almost instantly by players, or NPC’s.  No specifics were discussed around what a fully destructible environment means for the game and gameplay, but you can bet we’ll see things we’ve never seen before as a result.

Emergent AI

This particular topic saw very little discussion at SOE Live this year.  While a questioner mentioned it in a  panel and a dev acknowledged it’s existence, it’s clear that whatever they have in store for it, they’re not really ready to discuss it in detail just yet.  This could be because they’re still figuring it out, or this could be because it’s hard to show how enemies are intelligent without showing them kill players, which is not what you want to show in a demo, or there could be a host of other reasons for staying quiet about it.  What was confirmed was that Emergent AI is tweakable.  A dial can be used to turn the enemies intelligence up and down.  This is exciting for lots of reasons, including GM’ing and other options not really discussed with EQN but previewed as a lead in to Game Mastering in the future with Landmark.

A Life of Consequence

One of the best panels at this year’s conference, showed off quite a lot about this particular Holy Grail.  Unfortunately the audio for the panel was terrible and it was super difficult to get a great deal out of what was discussed.  Here’s what we do know however.

EverQuest Next will be a dynamic story generator.  In the panel, the devs ran through a scenario of generating a story on the fly using some kind of simulation tool.  This story was generated first without player actions and then a discussion of how players could interact and alter the outcomes of the scenario as they worked through it.  From the slides in the video, it’s clear that there will be a heavy focus on factions and interacting with them.  NPC groups will have their own desires and goals that will drive the behavior of their group’s members.  They’ll be able to instigate changes, offer quests, and also react to changes in the world, either from other NPC groups or from the players.  The story created by these NPC groups becomes the backbone for the game.  Narrative becomes embedded in the world itself, with races/kingdoms/organizations/people all running around with conflicting drives to make cool things happen.  All while player action pushes these stories in new and unanticipated directions.  (A lot of this is straight from the slides from the panel, apologies for the transcribing but again terrible audio left me without many options here.)

The simulations from the video showed multiple factions engaging in war with each other on a map.  Within these sections of the map, we were told quests would appear for players to help one faction or another as they saw fit, thus altering the battle landscape and forcing the factions to react to the players engagement.  These events can end up triggering a Rallying Call that will cause permanent change to the world.  How this would be permanent was not discussed, but just looking at the changes to the map and territories won and lost during the simulation would indicate a level of change to the world we haven’t really seen before.  To help explain the scale and scope of these kinds of events, the devs basically pulled the map back from the one section they were focusing on and pointed out that multiple rallying calls can exist at any given time, anywhere in the entire game world.  The devs will be able to help curate events to move things along but it is also clear that great sections of the map will be allowed to just go and do their own things, with no developer actions required.

This is HUGE.

Never before have we played a game where events were allowed to randomly flow.  Never before have we played a game that would allow us to interact with the NPC’s in such a way as to create unintended consequences that the dev teams couldn’t anticipate or control the outcome.  In one of the post interviews, Brian Schwabb, chief technical director of Storybricks, laid out what doing things this way will really mean.  He defined these processes as creating “…huge inexhaustible chunks of content that’s acutally sustainable..”  In the old days there would be  “huge teams of people creating huge chunks of content that are instantly consumed.”  They can now set up systems that create content that you literally cannot consume all of, because the combinations of events and flows are simply too numerous and too widespread to be able to take in all at once.

More content then we could ever possibly do.

Affecting the game world in ways that were never possible as NPC’s and events react to our presence and actions.

It’s difficult to imagine because we never thought it was possible before.  No one’s ever built a world that actually knows we’re there before.  And it’s possible we could all collectively freak out because we’re now living in a world that isn’t directly controlled by a dev team all the time.  The implications of a world that can evolve and adapt to our presence is both exciting and scary, and the risk that we suddenly don’t actually want what we think we’ve wanted for a long time is very real.

But the promise of endless content is just too good to resist.  A game built just for us, to go out and explore, conquer, interact with, and even ignore if we so choose.  Classes that synergize with each other and allow for nearly endless variations of power and playstyle.  Even if they fail spectacularly, the work they’ve done now will pave the way for the future.  And even if EverQuest Next doesn’t get it right (which is highly unlikely at this point), then someone else will eventually.  But so far, Dave Georgeson’s team is knocking it out of the park.

Regardless of what happens, we’re moving into a world with some very exciting possibilities.  Where the action and adventure game you always wanted is waiting right there for you to play.  Totally accessible and easy enough for anyone to get involved in.  Grab your sword.  Strap on your shield.  Make sure you’ve got a good pair of shoes.  And don’t forget to hydrate.  We’re in for a very exciting ride.  But you can leave that map here.  We won’t need it where we’re going.

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