Can EverQuest Next offer a satisfying journey?
There are many things that go into making a great game. Story, art, sound and mechanics come together to create wonderful backdrops and tools for us to live out great adventures in an artistic medium quite unlike any other. But as MMO gamers, we know none of that matters if you don't have Endgame.
It is Star Wars: The Old Republic's second birthday this week, and it's pretty safe to say it's not been as smooth a ride as many expected, though I will hastily add that I understand why many people like it and continue to play it.
SWTOR was sold to us with the promise of grand, fully voiced story that would lead us across the galaxy we traversed so many times in our imaginations. A grand ambition for any developer, being able to achieve this in an MMO setting pushed even Bioware's abilities to the limits. And by golly, they pulled it off. The stories were compelling, the characters were rich and the settings were well sculpted and felt authentic. Only later did we realise it was all for nothing.
In single player games, a lovingly crafted interactive experience can be an absolute joy. I could have cried at the ending of Telltale's The Walking Dead (though of course I didn't as I'm a big tough guy), and the world of Fallout has been my home for more hours than I care to think about. But MMOs are not bespoke solo adventures, you are not a beautiful and unique snowflake.
So EA and Bioware broke the first rule of MMO game development, they thought it would take players longer to reach Endgame and exhaust the max level content. In hindsight this seems like an obvious mistake, but can we really blame them?
The truth is that many players were happy taking their time, they were playing a Star Wars game made by Bioware! For many it was their first MMO, others wanted to experience the galaxy far, far away with no thought of progression.
Unfortunately, as we have seen time and again, the opinions of those people do not carry as much weight as the mysterious, self described 'hardcore' MMO player. These are the people that will skip the opening cutscene on their first playthrough, that will never read a single word of quest text and about a week after any MMO launches will declare 'There's nothing to do'.
In some cases there is some weight to these claims, in others they are unjustified as false comparisons are drawn with other more established games. Ultimately it is the perception that matters, when the 'hardcore' give their verdict, that is all the majority of potential players will hear.
Personally, I think this is a shame, and it goes against common sense entirely. But there it is. For better or worse, we as MMO players have collectively determined that the journey is inconsequential to us. How sad.
But wait, EverQuest Next is not a themepark, it won't feature the kind of content gating that we're used to, in essence it's all journey with no destination at all! Should we be concerned?
Progression in EVE Online works in real time, and the length of time it would take to max all skills is over 20 years. I think it's fair to say CCP is not expecting many people to achieve this, their model is built around creating directions for progression, not destinations. Giving players a horizon to chase has been a great strategy for EVE, and was arguably the secret to WoW's huge growth.
Could it be then that players want the journey after all? Is it the disappointment of the journey's end that drives players away from new MMOs?
I'm sure the designers of EverQuest Next hope this is the case. Creating a sandbox with procedurally generated content means they could keep players chasing the horizon for a long time. If collecting classes, participating in Rallying Calls and exploring New Norrath gives us a sense of meaningful progression, those of us looking for a new experience could find a new home.
Call me a romantic, but I think what many of us want is the journey. More importantly the journey we can take with friends, making new ones along the way. Ultimately that is the difference between MMO and single player RPGs, MMOs are about the stories that we make together.
I apologize for ending on such a soppy note, but it's Christmas after all.