Your Next: Friendly Competition

This week we begin with a little trip down memory lane and a few thoughts about Guild Wars 2. I know I’m supposed to be talking about EverQuest Next and Landmark, we’ll get there really soon, I promise.

With the rumors of a Guild Wars 2 expansion looking more solid every day (at this point we’re just waiting for the official announcement), I found myself downloading the client for a trip down memory lane. After years invested in World of Warcraft, and the disappointment of Star Wars: The Old Republic, GW2 sits as my second MMO love. It’s true that it’s sweeter the second time around, but you never forget your first.

As this column goes live GW2 will be on sale at 75% off, and after the announcements at PAX South interest in the game will be peaking. I imagine many old faces will be returning to mingle with the new ones. If you’re wondering whether it’s worth your time, I definitely recommend it. It’s fast paced, fun and polished with plenty to do, and it’s really grown into itself over the last year. While there’s no shortage of things to do with other players, the traditional raiding endgame is absent, so if that’s your one and only love you’re better off looking elsewhere. No doubt there will be big things happening over the next few months, so it’s a perfect time to jump in.

Two of my favorite aspects of the game are the build system (which is beautifully elegant in design) and the combat system. Both these systems are best demonstrated in the various PvP types; the PvE content is not the best light to see them in, but it’s been this way since launch and the efficiency-obsessed corner of the community has only made the situation worse. This may be about to change though, and the reason why might interest those of you keeping a close watch on the development of EverQuest Next and Landmark.

We got to the part about EQN! If you made it this far, allow yourself a little treat as congratulations. A bon-bon, perhaps, or a glass of wine. Don’t overdo it though, there’s a few hundred words to go.

Your Next: Change for a Dollar

We made it! Now that pesky 2014 is out of the way we can all get on with our lives, confident that this year will see Landmark move into open beta and hopeful for a playable version of EverQuest Next within the next 12 months. Also this year will be Avengers: Age of Ultron and, if we all decide to be super-cool to each other, world peace and the promise of an escape from the nightmarish dystopian future we’re collectively plummeting towards. Happy New Year!

It’s unlikely that 2014 will go down as a vintage year for video games; with a lukewarm reception  for many AAA offers and little in the way of smash-hit indie crossovers, I expect we’ll collectively wash our hands of it and move on. If you’re interested, games I liked this year included LISA, Kentucky Route Zero and Wasteland 2. I would be willing to say they were good in front of people, confident that those listening would infer from this small selection that my taste was that of a debonair trendsetter.

“But what about MMOs?”, cry the voices in my head. Well voices, I won’t lie, it’s been a disappointing one. The same mistakes are repeated with a now tedious inevitability, and we’re all subjected to people like me bemoaning the state of the industry. Rest assured that I hate writing about it just as much as you hate reading about it, but what I could really do without is the clown-shoes-merry-go-round that leads us back here time after time.

Your Next: Links to EQN

I expect everyone’s far too busy playing Landmark to be reading this, so I suppose I could write about anything. We could do some kind of top 10 list, that’s very popular at this time of year. Maybe an introspective essay about how my relationship with my mother influenced my approach to Pokémon Blue.

I’m joking of course; I’m going to talk about EverQuest Next and Landmark to feed my peculiar addiction.

Keeping track of all the changes to Landmark this week, along with everything that’s coming soon after the holidays, feels like trying to look at a parade balloon that’s right outside your window. You can see it’s massive, you’re pretty sure it’s awesome and you wish you could see the whole thing.

One of my favorite things about following the development of these two games is contemplating how one affects the other. No doubt much will be said of how this weeks additions change the dynamic of Landmark (and we can reasonably expect this to be a recurring theme in the months ahead), but what do these systems say about EQN?

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.