Whatever happened to those heroes?
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.
Of course, Landmark isn't the only game we're interested in. EverQuest Next will be different, there will be a high fantasy story being told, there will be factions and wars and our decisions will have impact. We will choose to play the hero, or not, and we will live with the consequences of those choices.
Could this elaborate setting actually put EQNext on the back foot in terms of longevity? Will the MMO player base want to exist in a world so heavily prescribed by designers for much longer?
Well, just because design is moving away from it as a principle doesn't mean that the hero fantasy will just disappear. How much EQNext will attempt to craft a personal story of heroism for players is yet to be seen, but hopefully the story elements of EQNext will provide a context for the decisions of players, rather than dictate what those decisions should be.
The interesting angle of EQNext is that players will have the ability to actively change the world in-game. We don't have to wait for the game to tell us we need to save the day—we can go out and save it without permission.
As far as I'm concerned, having the opportunity to see the world reshaped through my actions is a far greater prospect than having an NPC tell me that's what happened. Far more heroic, at the least.