Your Next: No More Heroes Anymore

After much teasing, SOE President and apparent surprise fetishist John Smedley laid out the details of the newest MMO offering from SOE this week. Landmark is no longer the new kid on the block as H1Z1 shuffles out into the light, a zombie apocalypse themed MMO. The reaction seems mixed right now, with some commentators wondering what will differentiate this offering from the other early access zombie contenders.

For my money, SOE won't want to mess too much with the formula that made DayZ a phenomenon, but what they do have is a solid MMO engine and the resources to get a well-polished product into the market, something the current crop certainly struggles with.

If you're a regular reader you'll probably be aware I'm a big fan of DayZ, and since H1Z1 is free to play you can be sure I'll give it a try. It's also one more reason to invest in the new SOE All Access subscription plan, so in my opinion SOE knows what it's doing.

The announcement did make me think about the direction of game development as a whole, as we are seeing more and more games that put the user in the driving seat. There are more robust tools for user generated content, an increase in player agency and a focus on emergent gameplay. I'm a fan of this type of design, and I think it will persist until it becomes the norm. There's the rise of online gaming as a platform to consider, the 'evergreen' nature of procedurally generated content and PvP, but ultimately it's what the new generation of gamers are used to. 

These new crops of gamers are growing up with MOBAs like League of Legends, procedural sandbox builders like Minecraft and survival gankers such as DayZ. These are the games that the largest demographic of video game players in history are shaping and being shaped by. Interestingly, while these games have mechanisms that can make a player feel powerful, they don't make you feel like a hero if you don't want them to. Landmark follows this trend—there is no good or evil as of yet, and with players eventually determining the nature of the content, can good or evil really exist at all? We can destroy the evil cyborg one day and blow up the elf queen's castle the next.

Think about how many games the older generations grew up with that cast us as the hero, which prescribed us a moral compass and told us who was evil.

It's an interesting thought, and incredibly important to consider when trying to contextualize decisions being made by designers who want us to play their game for the next 10 years. For younger players so used to having such a big impact on the world they play in, H1Z1 and Landmark seem to be a great step in the right direction.

Your Next: Building Bridges

In one of the first editions of Your Next, I wrote about the importance of new media for the success of new online games. I argued that companies could do a lot more to support streamers and content creators as the net benefits far outweighs the cost. I think we're at a point where it's difficult to argue that's not the case, but some companies stick to tried and tested methods of getting their message out to the community. SOE has been fantastic so far in promoting and supporting community created content, and is going above and beyond in terms of giving streamers the tools they need to become centres for the community. From promotion on the Landmark homepage, to donating keys for in-game items, even going as far as inviting local streamer Aradiah onto the official weekly Landmark show.

Your Next: Getting Beta All The Time

As I'm sure many of you are aware, EverQuest Next Landmark began its closed beta phase this week, and had a little name change to celebrate. Now it's just Landmark; SOE really wants people to know it has two games coming out, not just EverQuest Next. As time and development move on this will become increasingly apparent, Landmark is about to start coming into its own.

As everyone who bought a Trailblazer Founder's Pack should now have four beta keys to give away (keys that now grant unlimited closed beta access), giveaways are everywhere and anyone can hop in for $20, we can expect a large influx of new players. What can they expect to find?

Well, Landmark is in beta, and it shows. The system is more solid and the game features are becoming more robust, but we're still far from the finished product. 'The tip of the iceberg' was how Lead Designer Darrin McPherson put it, while Technical Director and Hero of Alpha Steve Klug said we'd 'barely scratched the surface' of what Landmark will offer.

As the whole development team have been remarkably transparent throughout the development process so far, I'm inclined to believe them. Just how deep the rabbit hole goes is still up for debate, and the topic of rampant speculation, but we can be sure there is still a long way to go.

So while the team is eager to spread the message that Landmark is its own game, they also want us to be acutely aware that it's not finished, it's still being made and the players are driving the development of the game. The day after closed beta launched, Senior Brand Manager Omeed Dariani and Darrin McPherson appeared live with popular streamer CohhCarnage to talk about what we can expect in the future. You can watch the hour-long interview here.

Alpha participants created some amazing things in a short time, creating techniques and wonderfully creative builds that the Landmark team didn't even know were possible. We're going to see more and more as new crafting and building possibilities are introduced, and it'll be amazing, but I'm ready for the new opportunities that will reshape Landmark entirely.

Your Next: Gaming the System

We're seeing a lot of love for EverQuest Next Landmark from its early adopters, as you would expect. The criticism has been thin on the ground, the game is solid for an alpha, development is gaining momentum and you can't dismiss it as a 'WoW-Clone'. So far, so good. In a few weeks the game will be in closed beta, guest keys will abound, and we'll see how the game stands up to scrutiny from those less invested in the innovative sandbox.

There is, however, one major criticism already out there that has seen some people take up SOE President John Smedley's offer of a no quibble refund: Landmark is too much like a game.

When seeing the power of the building tools in Landmark for the first time, most people were simply blown away and the possibilities seemed unreal. As a result of this, some players were disappointed that there was anything else to the game at all.

This is certainly an issue that will turn some off Landmark. Unlike the super-successful sandbox builder Minecraft, Landmark has no creative mode, the building tools and materials are only accessible through the game itself, and there is even crafting progression required to get all of the building tools.

This issue is only going to become more pronounced as development moves on. New tools and workbenches are already making their way into the game, risk and danger are just around the corner, and exploration will become increasingly important. As new features are added, Landmark will become less like a virtual sandbox and more like a sandbox MMO. Sometimes the distinctions we make when discussing this game seem strange, but Landmark is such a strange and unique beast that a conventional perspective just doesn't fit.

Right now we only have building, so the game feels like a building tool with grindy gathering and progression, not what you would call an optimal experience. As features and creation tools are added to the game it will start to feel more like a way to build whole mods and gamemodes, all inside a persistent online world that makes it easy to find collaborators and guinea pigs for your work. The idea is that as the game matures it will become a smorgasbord of creativity—not just a builder, but a platform for all kinds of collaborative content against the backdrop of a persistent world filled with opportunities for emergent gameplay.

In the short term, it may seem like SOE is missing out by not allowing players to go as big as they can from the start, but I have to wonder, would we still be playing that game five years down the line? If the history of online gaming has taught us anything, it's that reskinning a popular game is unlikely to bring great success.

Your Next: Leave Those Kids Alone

Progress on the EverQuest Next Landmark alpha marches on, the Roadmap is turning into real metaphorical roads, and all the while we are showered with news and updates.

Life is good for the Landmark enthusiast, but what of those people who are here for the promise of a return to Norrath? News from the new world has been thin and far between, by design, but we did have a Roundtable response that gave some insight into the newest incarnation of the world.

So here we are, discussing EverQuest Next. Though I would strongly urge those people who have dismissed Landmark to take a look at the longer term goals of the game, I'll be needing gladiators for my arena when the time comes.

The question was deceptively simple: Should there be multiple starting areas? It's a good question to spark discussion as the conversation will naturally branch into ideas of factions, starting areas, new player experience and so on, but the question itself turned out to be a bit of a trap.

The forum population, and those who vote on the Roundable polls, is heavily seeded by those who are already invested in a new EverQuest experience, so when a question comes up, you can bet the top response will be whatever EverQuest did. There are people asking for a reskinned EverQuest, so it's no surprise.

What we didn't know was that the designers of the game had decided to go against what the vast majority of the players that voted, as is absolutely their right, and wanted to explain why. To be fair to SOE, the designers were interested in the discussion of what a starting area could be and how it could fit into the world, hinting that they might be going in a new direction could have derailed the discussion before it started.

The long and the short is that making starting experiences is not easy as they need to be finely tuned. The first few minutes in a free game is absolutely vital, especially these days. Back in my day we had to walk 15 miles in the snow for a quest to kill some rats, and we were glad to have it, not like kids these days.

Speaking of kids these days...

WildStar: Relearning the Trinity

If you’ve played any MMORPG in the past 10 years or so, I’m sure you’ve grown quite familiar with the plethora of mechanics that accompany the genre. Everything from questing to battlegrounds to loot-filled bags that need sorting out should all be familiar territory to any MMO veteran. Another one of these well-established mechanics that you might be accustomed to is none other than the “Holy Trinity”.

While this commonly used gameplay mechanic has proven time and time again how much it works, it has grown a bit stale over the years. That being said, I believe the upcoming Carbine Studios-developed MMORPG, WildStar, aims to give players a fresh take on what it means to play their chosen group role. With free-form targeting mechanics, a complex telegraph system and its huge emphasis on movement and position-based gameplay, WildStar may be just the game to hit the sweet-spot between combat innovation and familiarity.

Today I’ll be taking a look at the Holy Trinity of WildStar and what things players may need to learn or keep in mind for their role in group play. By the time you’re done reading, you’ll be well on your way to helping lead your group to victory upon arriving on planet Nexus, so let’s begin!

Your Next: No Business Like MMO Business

With a torrent of news and announcements about EverQuest Next Landmark this week I was spoiled for choice when it came to choosing a topic to discuss, though one stood out as a foundation of the game's potential success.

This week, Minecraft passed 100 million registered users, with over 14 million paid accounts, so it's safe to say there is a market for voxel based sandbox games.

Minecraft caused a seismic shift in the gaming industry; it totally changed the landscape of how games are made and viewed. Many games have seen great success that may not have even been possible without the foundation laid down by Marcus 'Notch' Persson and Mojang, but the question remains whether SOE can build on these foundations with EverQuest Next Landmark or if it will fall into the traps set for the Free-to-Play developer.

Director of Development Dave Georgeson took to the official forums to give us a first look at what to expect from the business model for EverQuest Next Landmark, causing an emotional rollercoaster worthy of an Oscar nominated film. At least, that's what you'd think reading the comments. With the exception of a few standouts and hints at features to come, it's pretty standard fare, the good and bad of what we expect from a current Free-to-Play title. So read on for the ups and downs of the post, keep your hands and arms inside the column and remember that this is subject to change.

Very soon we'll see the beginning of the long term monetization strategy for Landmark. By the end of March, SOE is planning to give us the most and least controversial items on our future shopping lists.

Item 1: Outfits

Cosmetic outfits were a given, really. With Landmark being a canvas for players to paint with their creativity, it makes perfect sense that we should be able to dress our characters as we see fit. Hopefully in the future we'll see additions from the Player Studio to complement SOE's catalogue.

Item 2: Resources

Buying resources is certainly the hot button issue at the moment—it’s even been called Pay-to-Win. Exactly what you win is yet to be seen, but with the possibility of making real money from the Player Studio every hint of an advantage is bound to be scrutinized. Dave Georgeson did his best to smooth any potentially ruffled feathers by reiterating the point that the final model for progression will not be focussed on amassing large volumes of resources, and hinted at an achievement based progression system that could be rather interesting. This has been more interesting than a debate about how much a game needs to resemble a Skinner Box before it can satisfy the compulsive behavior of certain 'hardcore' players, at any rate.

Your Next: Nostalgia Ain't What It Used to Be

At the time of writing, Pantheon: Rise of the Fallen has raised a little over half of its target on Kickstarter with only 24 hours remaining. After a well managed and well publicized campaign, over 3000 backers (including myself) will be disappointed by the result. Of course, that pales in comparison to the feelings of Brad McQuaid and the team at Visionary Realms. All is not lost, however, as the team is committed to seeing their vision come to life. Perhaps Rise of the Fallen will turn out to be an apt name indeed.

So how did we end up in this situation? After the success of Kickstarter campaigns for other MMOs with old-school flavor, one helmed by a titan of the genre like McQuaid seemed to be a sure thing. Maybe that was the problem, perhaps potential backers are just burnt out, unwilling to shell out with so little tangible game to show, or maybe the star billing had the opposite effect on some.

Maybe, just maybe, there aren't that many people who are desperate to play a new game that is just like EverQuest.

Eorzea Examiner #8: Crafters and Jobs

Hello and welcome to the eighth edition of the Eorzea Examiner, ZAMs column on Square Enix’s Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn. At the end of last week's column, I teased that I'd be talking about crafting again. Before anyone runs from another mountain of text on "here's what changes need to be made", this one's actually closer to last week's column where we brainstormed new classes for FFXIV. For this week's column we're going to talk about something that I think the Disciples of the Hand should have to be considered a true path for player progression: Jobs.

Your Next: Socially Retentive

We're now two weeks into the EverQuest Next Landmark alpha, and so far it's been a pretty smooth ride. Problems have been met and dealt with, and stability increases and new elements are being introduced into the game. The vertical slice is getting wider, and as it grows, we begin considering how SOE plans to unlock the potential of its new blank canvas.

This week, Director of Development Dave Georgeson shared the first development roadmap for Landmark, giving us the first look at where the game is currently heading and what to expect in the coming months. As we've come to expect from Georgeson, hints and teases abound and a few surprises come nestled in the wall of text. One thing that should be of no surprise is what came at the top of the list: social systems. The current focus is giving us ways to interact in-game beside exchanging /onods as we hunt for sapphire. This is such a crucial part of the game, and SOE knows it.

So many MMOs have seen their hype trains pull into the station, enjoyed the party for the first few months and then watched as dwindling interest led to a spiral of decline. It's such a shame to see MMOs working backward like this; the majority of players only see them in the worst state they will ever be in.

So what is the trick to retaining players in an MMO? For all my talk of innovation and climbing out of the MMO rut, this is something the genre got right 15 years ago and has since all but abandoned.

As we discussed last week, Landmark is an MMO, so social systems could be the make or break feature of the game. We've already seen many players sharing their creations with screenshots, videos and livestreams, so there is obviously demand for a way to share projects. Weaving this into the game itself is a great way to promote a spirit of competition and add an aspirational quality, which are two must-haves if SOE wants players to stick with the game and eventually throw some money at the screen.

When competition is introduced, cooperation is never far behind. Giving players ways to make something they can be proud of through challenging gameplay is a recipe for superglue-strength social stickiness; there's just nothing like it for creating trust and lasting bonds.