Developer: Sony Online Entertainment / Publisher: Sony Online Entertainment / Release Date: TBD / Platform: PC / ESRB: Rating Pending
“Damn,” I said to Dave Georgeson, head of all things EverQuest at SOE as I sat down to talk to him after the press briefing of the all-new EverQuest Next. “DAMN,” I followed up, illustrating my cunning use of smart language and critical assessment.
But, that’s a good reaction – one as much of shock as it was awe. The story of EverQuest Next’s development is already pretty fascinating, and its position in rebooting the great MMO franchise is modern and fresh, and can genuinely be seen as a new take on a familiar format. But what’s important to understand is that during the course of a 45-minute or so presentation, then five minutes with several people of the development team, the surface has barely been scratched to ascertain exactly what EQN will be. In part that’s due to the scale of the plan, and in part it’s due to the fact that SOE doesn’t have a 100% handle on how it will all shape out ultimately.
While that might sound like shaky ground for a developer, in this case it’s due to a revolutionary new arrangement with the thriving community the company has built since EQ’s 1999 release.
EverQuest Next is not one game, but two, and one of them, known as EverQuest Next Landmark releases later this year.
For Next, the journey to its current format has been, let’s say, lively. Georgeson and CEO John Smedley were remarkably candid about a development plan that started in 2008, getting what was described as “really far with one of our builds, a good looking game” but it wasn’t the revolution. There’s a reason Next is not called EverQuest 3, making the distinction that this is no mere sequel, but a reimagining – a reboot, if you will – even going so far as to cite JJ Abrams’ reinvention of Star Trek.
So now we have this EverQuest Next reveal, which showcases a distinctive graphics style and a game design philosophy built on four core principles.
The first is changing the core game. Georgeson was candid in admitting that we’ve been playing a form of online D&D now for fourteen years, picking a character and leveling up through slaughtering monsters and looting their corpses. In Next, you choose from one of eight classes to start, armed with two weapons and with four to six abilities. Then, as you interact with the world you learn new classes which you can then mix and match, changing the abilities you have at your disposal; so when you change your weapon you change your abilities. A couple of examples showed a wizard who could use a vortex ability to pull a group of enemies close together, teleport you out of the immediate area, then smash the tight group with a powerful area-of-effect attack. A warrior character had a shield bash, and could roll through entire lines of enemies. All-in-all in a short, out-of-context demo, it looked cool.
Visually, the art style, powered by the Forgelight engine used for PlanetSide 2, is distinctive, eschewing a lifelike or photo-realistic format for a more cartoon look that is clean and endearing, and allowed for a broad range of expressions both via emotes and SOEmotes (where a camera trained on your face mimics your own expressions to your in-game avatar).
The second principle is destructibility; environments that are, for the most part, fully destructible, any time and all the time. Now what that means in a persistent world is part of the explanations to come, but when you and friends assault a tower you will be able to knock it down (though Creative Director Jeff Butler confirmed that, like monsters, it does respawn). The world is built of voxels (you may remember them from back when Novalogic was touting them as the key to their realistic environments in the Delta Force games) and that allows the team to knock down, then rebuild these blocks somewhat like Minecraft, a game no doubt played extensively by this development team, and a clear source of inspiration.
This destructibility should also serve as a vital story-telling mechanic as the shape of your environment changes over the course of a particular adventure or session…or your hiding space gets obliterated by a massive iron golem.
Principle number three is a life of consequence; that means your actions have a lasting, persistent impact on the world. That’s been a long-touted intention or goal of most MMOs, but in this case there’s a background AI at work that could actually make it a reality. The example cited was that where enemies will always spawn in one spot in current games, in Next they will spawn and decide what to do next, which could be to camp a road or go hunting for adventurers. But if the players are constantly wailing on them in one spot, they’ll find somewhere else to go, and in the process alert a higher NPC what you’re doing, which in turn spawns new, dynamic missions.
It sounds complicated largely because it really kind of is. Talk of dynamic missions is always easy – the proof will be in the final gameplay – but given Smedley’s assertion that the team has pushed every boundary possible, bitten off more than it could chew, and in general gone dream-crazy, it’s not impossible to consider a situation that does see dynamic shifts to the world as the days, weeks, and months pass.
Last on the core principles is permanent change. Just like those dynamic quests change, so will the world; so on day 30 from launch the game will be different from day one, and day 90 very different, with towns emerging, driving new missions to get resources or protect routes.
You put these elements together, and if each is executed as described, it really would be an all-new MMO format, and that’s before we get into details like how instances work, PvP, level progression, economy, and so many other elements that are hallmarks of MMO design.
But what’s monumentally exciting about EverQuest Next is related to what Smedley described as “the most openly developed game ever.” Coming later this year is EverQuest Next Landmark, a totally separate game that will embrace community involvement like no other. Essentially, SOE is releasing the tools, textures, and objects from the game and letting players build, shape, destroy, rebuild, and retry almost anything in the game. “Wandering through the imagination of all the players,” is how Georgeson described it. From Landmark the SOE team vows to skim the best items, objects, whatever created by players in Landmark and have them in-game, in Next, on day one.
Landmark also builds on SOE’s Player Studio, which allows players to make real cash money for creating items in-game. But the system works on a deeper level here, whereby if player A builds a really cool tower that he can sell, then player B buys that tower and builds a big expansion around it then sells that, player A will get royalties based on the amount of that original design in player B’s creation.
Sound Minecraft-ian? That’s because it is. Let’s Play video makers will be fully supported as well, so expect a ton of machinima to come from Landmark as players craft and create.
So there you have it, the start of the next EverQuest, and the very beginning of the information that will answer the vast number of still unclear questions. No question it’s a phenomenally ambitious project that, to put it in simpler terms, blends the fundamentals of an MMO with crafting and creativity of Minecraft with massive social integration on every conceivable platform.
Oh, and it has composer Jeremy Soule (of Skyrim fame) so committed to it that he’s working exclusively on EverQuest Next; you won’t be hearing his compositions in other games while EQ Next is in the works. That’s a coup in itself, and underscores the level of investment in talent, as well as the vast scope of the project.
As a long-term EverQuest fan it’s a fascinating, exciting take. The visual style is intriguing, but after seeing the Kerran warrior in action, I couldn’t imagine wanting to play as any other race. I mean, lion men. No release date, and only PC confirmed as a platform, so don’t expect EQ Next until probably late 2014 soonest, but Landmark is coming later this year and will offer an opportunity for gamers to get involved like no other game. Crazy stuff, very cool stuff, tons more to come.