Your Next: Loophole

I find myself in full fanboy mode this week; the anticipation for the Monday Landmark update has proven too strong. If I were you I’d expect nothing more than a wobbly, translucent veneer of objectivity over my true intent.

I’m excited for the next stage of the character build system, and the prospect of adventurous and violent spelunking to gather what I need. I can’t wait to stumble across a player-made point of interest while I’m down there, and to see just how dangerous the environment will get.

For me, this underground network and the truly 3D nature of EverQuest Next has been criminally overlooked by many of my fellow hype train passengers. I hope this update will go some way to demonstrating just how game-changing this particular innovation can be.

While I’m super-pumped for the new features, and happy that development has reached the point where updates will have more impact on the player experience (because I’m selfish like that), I’m still wondering about that gameplay loop.

Your Next: Difficulty of Difficult

I’ve been lucky enough to participate in the alpha for Heroes of the Storm recently, Blizzard’s new ‘Hero Brawler’ (Blizz pls, it’s a MOBA) and it’s been a pretty good  experience. I’d certainly recommend it to anyone who’s been put off by the daunting learning curve in the past. It streamlines many of the typical MOBA features to the point where they retain much of the fun while sacrificing a lot of the difficulty.

This is no surprise from Blizzard; if there’s one thing they’ve consistently targeted as a company it’s accessibility. Many players see this as a fault, that lowering barriers to entry will somehow taint the pristine waters of gaming, but personally I believe it’s a philosophy vital to the continued success of PC gaming.

This idea shot straight to the front of my mind when it was brought to my attention that the loot distribution in Destiny is not based on the skill of the player or the difficulty of content, a concept alien to those of us accustomed to the meritocratically ‘fair’ progression of MMOs.

This struck me as counter-intuitive at first, not rewarding skill while using FPS mechanics far better suited to creating skill based content and tracking the competency of players. Considering the problem from the other direction, it’s difficult to imagine what the benefits would be outside of PvP matchmaking.

It’s like every reward in Destiny is a participation medal, all that is required is that players show up. From the way some players lament ‘welfare epics’ you’d think the server structure would implode in the presence of such a travesty, crashing into a nightmarish singularity of ‘casuals’.

That’s an attitude we PC lovers could do with shaking off; we can’t act as despotic gatekeepers while simultaneously bemoaning a lack of innovation in a deteriorating genre. One or the other is fine—I know some people like their games super-duper-double hardcore, and while that’s brilliant and should be celebrated we can’t pretend it’s a demographic that embraces change.

Our demographic is older now, and has never been more diverse. The only way we can grow is by being open to the opportunities this presents us. If we keep the drawbridges raised we’ll wither and die while everyone else finds new and exciting ways of being awesome.

Meanwhile, players are still hooked on Destiny and a whole new crop of bright young things are experiencing the conditioning we MMO players love to hate, but without the necessity of following a linear path to climb to the next rung. It looks like the need for progression as we know it is a myth; the carrot doesn’t need to be behind a complex puzzle, we just have to know it exists somewhere.

Your Next: You're Welcome

For those of you not keeping score, it’s been just about a year since I began infuriating the more simple-minded grammar-nazis with this column. To be fair, I’m simple-minded enough that the joke hasn’t worn thin for me yet, every comment along the lines of *You’re still rouses a patronizing chuckle.

What a year it’s been; I got married, travelled to Africa for the first time, attended my first SOE Live, met a multitude of amazing people in and around the EverQuest Next and Landmark community and had more interesting and enlightening conversations about games than in all my previous years combined. At this time of year in a certain part of the world it’s très à la mode to share what we’re thankful for, and this year I feel overwhelmed by how overburdened I am with options.

A quick thanks then, to all of you lovely people reading this for your part, and to the good people at ZAM who still allow me to bother you with this stuff every week.

Now, to the posturing and self-aggrandizing reserved for arbitrary milestones.

In preparation for this week I took a quick look at the first Your Next, hoping to see how far we’d come and how much I’d embarrassed myself with inaccurate predictions. To be honest, I was a little disappointed.

Your Next: Shall I Compare Thee?

As much as we like to complain about the treadmill, character progression is one of the things that makes RPGs of all kinds special. Applying this idea to an MMO carries with it some unique challenges, especially when working to a business model that relies on the same people paying every month. What’s that? Why yes, I am still playing World of Warcraft, why do you ask?

An MMO needs ways to hook players in; these aren’t games intended to be played for a month before moving on, we need to be motivated to stick around. This has been achieved with great success in the past by attaching systems of exponential numerical power growth, with the downside that the increase in power needs to feel significant and satisfying, always.

Of course, like almost all game design, it’s just a psychological trick, but this particular trick has proven so successful that some people consider it a mandatory feature. We know it’s flawed, sometimes it make us angry for offering ourselves as tribute, but then we shrug and ask ‘How else are you going to keep players interested?’.

This stance leads to some uncomfortable questions about our motivations for playing these games, but we’ll skip those for once in favor of posing a question:

If there is no numerical power-based progression, what motivation can there be for players to repeatedly engage over a relatively long timeframe?

Your Next: Not All Bad

It’s an unfortunate fact of life that it’s much easier to articulate what we don’t like about something than to express what we do like. ‘It’s broken’ is easy and ‘it works’ isn’t much of a quality judgement, but ‘it’s good’ takes a lot of qualifying. This could be part of the reason that critics who identify as ‘angry’, ‘grumpy’ or ‘cynical’ have attracted legions of followers, whereas I would struggle to name any critic who presented themselves as ‘optimistic’ or ‘enthusiastic’.

Now that I think about it, there is comic book vlogger Amy ‘Enthusiamy’ Dallen - while she doesn’t serve as much of an exception, she is super cool enough for a mention. Just doing my part to redress the balance.

While I try to maintain a default position of optimism I have been as quick to criticize some games as anyone else.

With all that in mind, I have decided to take another look at games I often disparage to find something I would like to see included in EverQuest Next or Landmark.

Your Next: Back to WoW

I consider myself to be a late bloomer when it comes to online games, unlike many of the EverQuest and larger MMO community who can claim a proud history peaking into the last century, at that time I was woefully ignorant of its existence.

Despite spending my teen years playing tabletop games and CRPGs I missed the first MMO boat entirely, even to the extent that when a friend described Star Wars Galaxies to me I thought he was winding me up.

It was only when World of Warcraft began its transition into its all-consuming behemoth form that I discovered the well-worn path to the now civilized frontier.

Like so many of the games grotesquely swelling playerbase I was drawn in immediately, bumbling around without the assistance of veteran friends or online guides, occasionally being genuinely confused about which characters were players. I can still remember the feeling of surprise when I found the auction house, and walking into Orgrimmar blew my mind.

So that was it for the next several years, barring brief dips into new MMO releases, until the release of Guild Wars 2 where I found a new home. I’m still convinced that the success of GW2 was due, at least in part, to Kung Fu Panda. Yeah, I’m still bitter about that.

Your Next: What's an MMOBA?

The MMORPG genre is no spring chicken, and it’s certainly not the darling of PC gaming anymore. The past ten years have seen advances in online gaming that we couldn’t have imagined in the 90s, and it’s a testament to the quality of games like EverQuest and Ultima Online that have stood the test of time and maintained loyal player bases to this day.

When I start with a paragraph like that, you know I’m going to be talking about something that will upset some of the old school. Such is the unfortunate reality of progress, some people like things just the way they are.

While it’s great to look at what came before for inspiration and guidance, if all we do is retread old ground we’ll never discover anything new; there are those who clamor for change while stifling any deviation from established conventions. The worst part is that sometimes we can’t separate what we have liked before, from what is the best fit for now.

Last week I noted a few of the ways Magic the Gathering is influencing the systems of EverQuest Next and Landmark, this week I wanted to talk about another influence: the MOBA genre.

Legion of Heroes: Mobile MMO With Heart

I'll admit I was skeptical of how an MMO would work on a phone. Nightmares of aged and horrendous UI designs from failed MMOs circled my dreams the night before I tried out Legion of Heroes, and I wasn't sure what I would face the next morning. The fears were put to rest upon starting this game from Nexon M, and I'll admit there were more surprises than expectations met.

Your Next: Playing Cards

Often this column is only very loosely formed around EverQuest Next and/or Landmark, and I sometimes feel a little guilty about that. I’m prone to getting wrapped up in ideas and discussions of broader trends, when I’m sure that many of you would rather have a chat about those cool games we’re all excited about.

So this week, I’m not going to get derailed by what’s going on in the industry at large, even if it’s thinly wrapped in the context of EQN and Landmark. I don’t think this is the place for it, and other people have already done a much better job of it than I ever could.

If you’re not sure what I’m talking about, look for the word ‘gamer’ in the mainstream press. In fact, it’s probably best not to, it’s just embarrassing.

Instead, we’re going to talk about some great things that are happening in the development of EQN and Landmark right now! I know you don’t come here for news either, so hang tight and brace for opinions.

There’s been an update to combat in Landmark, and with it some of the basic ideas that form the foundation of what will follow; not just in Landmark, but in EQN also. It’s great to see more of the systems being fleshed out, and I’m personally very happy with the way this one is going. Slowing the pace of combat and adding more opportunity for tactical decision making is a positive step, and the systems used to do it are encouraging.

Creating depth without becoming bogged down in complexity is always a great challenge in game design, especially with horizontal character advancement, and it looks like SOE has some great sources of inspiration in place to facilitate it. Specifically, we can already see the influence of Magic the Gathering on character building:

  • Collecting more options can be very helpful, but isn’t required to engage with the content

  • Enormous variety is possible, but you don’t have to understand or even be aware of everything to be strong

  • Conversely, by understanding how the different elements can be used together a player can become more powerful through understanding, not just by the numbers on their gear

  • While it’s possible to make a very strong build, the large possibility space means that nothing is the best solution to every problem

Your Next: The Shoulders of Giants

SOE is getting less and less shy about calling EverQuest Next a new kind of game, and personally, I’m glad. Challenging the tropes of MMOs has been the overarching goal of EQN since the team were sent back to the drawing board in 2011. They were smart enough to see the pattern of huge releases with disappointing retention. I don’t think any of us want that for the next product in the lineage of EverQuest.