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.

EverQuest Next: A Life of Consequence

As players continue to construct items and build epic structures in the Landmark Beta, Sony Online Entertainment released its latest video with new details surrounding its upcoming AAA MMO, EverQuest Next. Join the game's Lead Content Designer, Steve Danuser, and Storybricks Lead Designer, Stéphan Bura, as they explain how player choice and emergent AI will shape the world and lead to a life of consequence within EverQuest Next.

Your Next: That's No Moon

When logging into a new MMO for the first time, among the complaints about server issues and general vitriol, I would be willing to wager five whole American Dollars that the global chat channels would feature some kind of argument about World of Warcraft. Even if the argument is about exactly how bad it is, or how much abuse its players deserve, even the redundant ‘WoW-Killer’ discussion (yes, some people still think that’s a thing), I guarantee it’ll come up.

Why shouldn’t it? The MMO landscape has been shaped and sculpted by the existence of one game for so long, it’s been distorted to the point where some feel it’s the only shape that’s even possible. It’s shaped not just the games that have been made, but the very context in which we consider them, even before we really know anything about them.

Your Next: Gambling Problem

Many of us are suffering in silence; we pace about dilapidated rooms and shy away from the sunlight. We are the MMO addicts, we just want to chase the dragon. So we bounce around the official sites, news sites, reddit and fan sites - poring over every last shred of news for that hit we all need, here on the hype train.

I can tell you, for example, that Storybricks' Engineer Brian Schwab’s postmortem on the AI of Hearthstone is available for free on the GDC Vault. It’s a fascinating look at his approach to creating a ‘tag’ based AI system that’s designed to be intuitively manipulated. Sound familiar?

Of course it does, we can’t help ourselves.

Imagine my excitement when, in a brief exchange on twitter, the Director of Development himself Dave Georgeson made a point about MMO design in response to an article by the devilishly handsome Veluux over at EQHammer, that I believed to have been abandoned. Stay tuned to find out what it was!

This week, just like all the other weeks, I’ve been scouring the internet to find any fresh morsel, wondering what is it about the MMOs we love that cause us to feel that pull? What is the reason so many of us never quite get over our first MMO experience? Is it because of the sense of wonder it provided, before we knew how all the pieces fit together, before we started making spreadsheets and earnestly debating with strangers on forums about what kind of death penalty is objectively superior? I hope so, because that way we can get it back.

There is another point worth considering, the cynical among us could point to the hype train and the often borderline exploitative ‘retention strategies’ that draw comparisons to the Skinner Box. I have a tendency to point these aspects out when I feel the need to lash out at things beyond my control, but I also consider myself an optimist, and that’s why I firmly believe there’s more to it.

The drive to be lost in a fantasy world is strong in many of us, I grew up reading the Discworld series of novels by Terry Pratchett, and I have read every one without ever worrying what loot would drop at the end.

But... games! We exclaim, trying not to sound pretentious, games are different, an interactive experience requires feedback. Without progression players would just quit, they’d have no reason to keep playing.

Forgive me, my awesome readers (all two of you), when I say that in my opinion a novel is a far more interactive experience than almost any video game. Just look at the graphics, think of all the work we do to make up for that.

Alright, I’m half joking about the graphics thing, but when it comes to being drawn into an experience, the experience of being immersed in a different time and place, holding out for that particular purple helmet to drop is nothing compared to feeling such acute empathy for a character brought to life by our minds and a sequence inked shapes on paper.

I believe story is important. Of course, we all know that context is the basis for our motivations. I don’t think it’s possible to argue with such a broad idea, but it does seem sometimes like those responsible for making online games might have gotten confused about the best way to create that context.

Sorry to keep going on about Destiny but, well, there it is, it is there. If there’s one thing you can say about Destiny, it’s that it exists. A titan standing astride the console market, blotting out the sun to cast a pallid, dreary malaise over everything beneath its mighty sales figures. Bravo, capitalism in action.

The reason I bring it up is because the main criticism of the game is based around how tepid the story is, how it seems to flinch from making any kind of point about anything, and only using language that looks like it had to make it through several committees and focus testing cycles before being approved.

With such a hefty reported budget to match the resources and reach of a studio like Bungie, we can only assume it wasn’t considered important. Or worse—that it would be somehow distracting or off-putting to players.

A Conversation with Storybricks

The collaboration between SOE and Storybricks to create a new way of telling stories in MMOs is probably the most highly anticipated of all the promised features of EverQuest Next.

When you get right down to it, a new way of delivering story means a new way of delivering content, fundamentally changing the way players interact with the world. Players have been asking for an end to content that more closely resembles a box-checking exercise than an adventure for years, and Storybricks is confident it can deliver.

Your Next: Selfish Gamers

Being part of SOE's development of Landmark and EverQuest Next has so far been a strange and unique process, at times it feels like watching a Rube Goldberg machine assemble itself. We don't understand how everything fits together because we don't know yet, it's never been done. Frankly, I doubt that SOE knows how it all fits together; opportunities emerge as they build the tools to make the platform to build the tools. Opening the crate with the crowbar that's inside it.

SOE Live offers a convenient point of punctuation—it’s a great time to look back and take stock of how far we've come in such a short time while looking ahead at the ever clearer path in front of us.

Over a year ago during SOE Live 2013, I became hopelessly enamoured with the idea these games represented. Whether it's a case of cognitive bias or not, I must say being part of this experience has so far exceeded my expectations and I am consistently floored by the innovation of this unprecedented project.

Of course there's a long way to go, but right now I'm glad it's happening at all. Those of you who follow the news of the industry at large will be aware of the awful events of the last couple of weeks. We all know an unfortunate side effect of the anonymity the internet provides is giving a mouthpiece to people who don't think some other people's experiences are valid. So called 'gamer culture' has provided a breeding ground for these hateful fantasists, the themes and marketing strategies of the AAA game industry tend to play into their delusions.

So we must endure the death throes of this weak and petty bunch, all the while maintaining our superiority, because we are selfish enough to want others to be included.

Did I say selfish? Surely they are the selfish ones? Don't worry, it's just a trick – read on for the delightfully hyperbolic rhetoric!

When discussing accessibility in MMOs, I often refer to my selfishness. Because I am selfish, I want other people to enjoy playing the games I do; I want them to be knowledgeable and competent and feel empowered in the way that I do because improving their game experience improves my own.

It's the same with the game industry as a whole. I want all types of people to feel included, respected and valued because I am an awful, selfish man who wants games to be the best and most interesting they can be.

This is why I tend to champion instances of user generated content, social cohesion and player agency in games. I think it makes them more challenging, interesting and ultimately exciting. It might not always make them better, they might not be any more fun and judging by suggestions on forum posts we can expect more misses than hits.

EverQuest Next: Classes and Combat

According to the EverQuest franchise Director of Development Dave Georgeson, “EverQuest Next is going to launch with 40 different classes that you can find, collect, and use.” Even though you’ll have to select your starting class from a shortened list of around eight, it’s clear that there will be many multi-classing opportunities as you progress through the game.  Last year at SOE Live, the Warrior and Wizard classes were introduced. This year, SOE is giving players a closer look at the Warrior and Wizard as well as introducing 3 new classes: the Elementalist, the Cleric and the Tempest.

SOE Live: Landmark and EverQuest Next

 

This week, we're on the ground at SOE Live!

We've been getting a close look at the latest news on Landmark and EverQuest Next. Between a press briefing and an interview, we've learned a lot. Below is a compilation of everything we've found, so take it all in!

Your Next: Genre Defining

As some of you know, I'll be getting married next week. She's cool—you’d like her. At times like this one's thoughts can't help but turn to the nature and idea of commitment.

It's something that's always struck me about the MMO genre, if it is a genre, these games are made with the hope that we'll be playing them for years to come. Many of us have, or still are.

We're all aware of how much competition there is for our valuable free time these days. With the rise of quality free-to-play titles, the Steam Sale and the Humble Bundle, the barrier of entry for the best gaming has to offer drops lower by the day.

It seems like an insurmountable task for a developer to create one game that could hold our interest for any length of time, let alone years.

Could this be it? Could MMOs soon be relegated to a niche curiosity with the odd nostalgia product aimed at an aging, dwindling crowd?