At the beginning of the year I wrote about a whole bunch of MMOs that were to be released or were bubbling to the surface; every shape, size and genre that I could find. Some of them have flopped, some of them we’re still waiting on, but as some of you may have noticed none of them were EverQuest Next, it didn’t even make my ‘Honourable Mentions’. I didn’t include it into my list in January because at that point in time SOE were being pretty tight-lipped about the whole thing and it’s very hard to enthuse or look forward to something that didn’t really exist in anything other than name. Admittedly I was pretty nonplussed by the thought of another EQ game after the less than impressive EverQuest II, especially since I was a fan of the original, which may have led to some SOE-based apathy when it came to them talking about a new and exciting take on the MMO. However, after the big reveal that was done four days ago I’m happy to be proven wrong about overlooking it.
SOE took the angle of wanting to recreate the impact that the original EQ had on peoples lives, by presenting the #MyEQStory segment which focuses on player and employees who were former players, talking about what the game meant to them and how it influenced or impacted their lives. With stories ranging from the game being recommended to them by a friend and instantly feeling at home, to stories of poignant memorable moments; with other tales of online romance blossoming into marriage and children, all thanks to a game that was at the time one of a kind. SOE are clearly proud of the legacy EverQuest created, which has spanned the best part of 14 years now. President of Sony Online Entertainment, John Smedley, tells the assembled crowd that with their next game they want to create something equally monumental, mind-blowing and that will be the shining example of online gaming for the next 15 years. I watched the presentation live (though sadly missed the intro, which was some lovely EQ themed sand art done by the talented Joe Castillo that can now be seen here) and if everything they’ve spoken about and shown is even remotely true, I think they’re in with a real chance of creating something truly unique and memorable.
The Director of Development for the EverQuest franchise, David Gerogeson, gets straight to the point when it comes to talking about how and why the direction of EverQuest Next was rebooted:
Enough is enough. Enough of the same game already, it’s time to get some new ideas into this genre. And if somebody was gonna do it, it should be EverQuest… Again.
He continues to talk about what sounds like an awful long proof-of-concept time, building things up and stripping things back constantly, never dismissing things until they were tried, no matter how complex or odd. The time and resources that have gone into the re-imagining of Norrath seems to be vast indeed. It’s mentioned that game in part, will be recognisable to veterans but completely overhauled into a new and breathtaking world. Obviously there are massive benefits to being an SOE game, one of those is the ForgeLight Engine, which is currently used in Planetside 2; it’s known for enabling visually impressive results, this is the technology upon which EverQuest Next has chosen to rely. Some of the concept art is quite frankly pretty stunning, with environments that focus on being not only detailed but majestic in proportions. The character design direction may be slightly surprising to some as they seem to have decided on an incredibly cartoon-y look. The first thing that came to mind was that the characters looked like they were straight out of Torchlight with a hint of Disney, which isn’t a negative for me as I love both of those things but I can see it putting some MMO players off.
An interesting element to the demo is what SOE are calling the ‘Heroic Movement System’ which David Georgeson calls Parkour-like. The footage shows player characters dynamically tackling terrain obstacles, like vaulting over rocks, sliding down escarpments and double-jumping over chasms. This movement is then combined with class-specific flavour, such as a leap for warriors or teleport for wizard, along with items that enhance movement like ‘Boots of the Zephyr’ that produces/lengthens a glide when jumping from a highpoint. These are all nice features for movement and it all looks incredibly fluid compared to current MMO movement standards. Anyone who’s played an Assassins Creed game won’t be impressed, but for an MMO to truly factor in the environment to the character’s movement through space? That’s pretty impressive. You can tell from these first few bits of information is that they’re really trying to create something spectacular, where things really start getting interesting is where they start talking about what they call their “Holy Grails”, described as the things that they as a team have always wanted to put into an MMO, but for whatever reason (lack of resources, time or in some cases conviction) have never been able to. So let’s take a look at what these mythical Holy Grails are:
The First Grail: Change the Core Game
When SOE say ‘Core Game’ what they mean is the character progression structure we’ve all become accustomed to. Having a character that picks a class, that levels up and buys skills in it’s corresponding tech-tree that slowly, but surely opens up as you advance in levels; they want to turn the Core Game, not on it’s head, but certainly point it in a newer direction. Weapons are instrumental to this, described as “class defining”, a warrior might carry a hammer and will have access to sweeping and smashing attacks, but upon switching to a sword the abilities will switch to slashing and parrying ones; this system isn’t new though, Guild Wars 2 already employs this mechanic but it’s a small part of broader changes.They propose to do this by tying the class system to the experience of exploration using what they’ve called ‘multi-classing’. Georgeson says that at the beginning of the game there will be 8 classes that you can pick from, the twist is that as you make your way through the world, opportunities will present themselves where you can acquire new classes, of which there are more than 40 to discover. You’ll also be able to mix-and-match thereby creating your own unique ability-set. This approach to classes and abilities strikes me as an unconstrained, free-form version of the ‘Souls’ system that RIFT has.
What Sony are saying is that they’re removing putting points into ‘buying’ skills, they’re removing skill progression trees and removing the limit of ‘souls’ you have access to, along with weapons morphing attack types, making it infinitely flexible. Whilst it sounds pretty amazing, to be and do whatever you want, an ‘issue’ occurred with RIFT where it became apparent that a large amount of the player-base (used to the harsh class constraints of WoW for example) were confused and intimidated by the flexibility of the system and preferred to be told what they should be using instead of learning what synergy could be created. It’s always been the minority of theory-crafting players that define what skill-builds are ‘in’, my only hope that the developers can devise a better solution for those faced with choice-paralysis.
The Second Grail: Destructibility
This one is a fascinatingly slightly complex one, not in terms of wanting to blow things up and destroy them, other games have already introduced the concept of destructibility into a game world… It’s the scale of the destructibility that SOE wants to achieve that takes everyone aback. The world is built of something called ‘Voxels’, which are tiny-weenie building blocks that make up everything in Norrath, making everything not only destructible but also constructable. These tiny blocks extend even into player abilities, which allow changes in the landscape around them, by letting wizards conjure obstacles like crystal barriers from the ground blocking off the enemy or letting warriors destroy a staircase forcing perusers to find another path.
The scale of what is proposed doesn’t really hit you until you realise that the entirety of the world is made changeable. You’ll be able to dig tunnels into the earth, seeking out caverns and resources, discovering not only what lays on the surface, but also what lays beneath Norrath at your own leisure. Whilst everything is mutable and there’s a real emphasis throughout the entire presentation about enacting permanent change, parts of the world’s Voxels will regenerate so as not to leave the continent a smashed-up husk. Also the potential for event creation is pretty significant: Dragon attacking your castle? It’s actually destroying the walls. Giant meteor hurtling towards Norrath and players must break it up before it hits? Cool Armageddon tribute. I absolutely see the comparisons people are making to Minecraft and it’s huge success that stems from being able to change the world around you, SOE are taking a leaf out of Mojang’s book and giving the game another dimension of playability.
The Third Grail: A Life of Concequence
The slightly less esoteric title for this entry is ‘Emergent AI’, the aim of this particular Grail is to make your choices and behaviour matter to the wider world and the AI that inhabit it. An example is your base, feral Ork: He doesn’t like cities, definitely doesn’t like guards, likes being able to jump travellers and steal their gold and their stuff; more importantly he hates adventurers. In traditional MMOs a static, re-spawning Ork camp would be placed by a roadside and will forever more be cyclically killed without change. EverQuest Next will instead generate an Ork with motivations driven by how things are tagged in the world (like: Guard post, quiet road, busy road) and then release it in to the wild to find it’s way toward what it wants. The Ork will wander until finds things that it likes, set up a camp and start harassing people and run away when guards turn up or players start killing them, opting to find somewhere new that fulfils their needs. In a more complex scenario, you could be given the task of clearing out some Goblins that have recently installed themselves in a local wood and who have been bothering villagers. Once you dutifully clear out the Goblins, it could be that any survivors simply flee deeming the forest too dangerous to continue to inhabit or it could be that by killing the Goblins you managed to anger the Goblin King, who then doubles the effort to out the villagers from their homes. The point is to make it so that everything has consequences, just sometimes they wont be what you expect.
In conjunction with the dynamically occurring tiers of depth enabled by the destructible world, dynamic quest will reveal themselves through your exploration above and below ground. Given the changeable nature of the world, these will appear and disappear meaning that a quest that is there today won’t necessarily be there tomorrow, like a cave becoming inaccessible because of an earthquake or cave-in. This provides some motivation to actually pick up and pay attention to quest, rather than leaving things for later because they’ll always be there, keeping experiences fresh even on second or third characters. The dynamic nature of questing that they’re setting out enables you to have a different experience and conversely have the world react differently to you each time you play anew.
The Fouth Grail: Permanent Change
‘Change’ has been a recurring theme throughout all the entirety of what EverQuest Next brings to the table, though true permanent change hasn’t been tackled. When you talk about permanent change in current MMOs you think of things like the World of Warcraft: Cataclysm expansion, where sweeping changes are made permanently to the game world without outside influence, uniformly across all servers. SOE aim to make permanent change more interesting and interactive through a system they dub ‘Rallying calls’, which is described as a server-wide public quest. The example given is that you are directed to somewhere in the world to establish a new settlement, a series of dynamic quests in that area will become available that you can contribute to, whether by building the village and defences or making the surrounding areas safe. Eventually the AI comes in to play and influences your overall objective, you may eventually (after potentially months of joint effort) establish a fully-formed city or you may have annoyed the local inhabitants so much that the city you’ve created is destroyed in a siege.
Their aim is to have no obvious objectives as such, so as to keep the gameplay and experience as organic as possible. You end up making choices that have a wider impact on the fate of the region, for better or possibly worse. Another aspect of this is that every server will be different, their futures and features diverge from each other at every opportunity making no two servers ever the same content-wise, which is another step in ensuring that no two characters experience is the same. This also gives the potential to have dramatic change between generations of players, each server with it’s own unique history and story to tell.
You’ve got to admit, after reading all of that EverQuest Next sounds like the most ambitious MMO I’ve heard about for some time. After watching all of the presentation, despite all the banal whooping from the audience, I was impressed. Very impressed. They’ve grabbed my interest now, they’ve grabbed everyone’s interest in a major way. Other games news outlets have expressed similar levels of surprise and awe, not just because of the game but also because of the accompanying world-building tools that enabled the developers to create the lush world that they’ve shown. What’s also very clever is that SOE plan to let players use the same tools to create content (subject to approval obviously), through something they’re calling EverQuest Next Landmark, thus creating a player generated content system and a very lucrative real money economy much like the Steam Workshop for Team Fortress 2 and DOTA 2.
You can make up your own mind by watching the whole presentation on the EQN YouTube channel here. It’s being touted as a Free to Play MMO, System requirements and platform availability are yet to be announced, but I think we can safely assume it’ll be available on PC. More information about the game and beta application details are available on the website (for EU/UK beta applications you have to register on this website, which is SOE’s partner in Europe).