I've played every major massively multiplayer role-playing game released since 1998, yet it feels like I've spent the past 15 years playing the same game over and over again. That's a problem. EverQuest Next is the solution.
The original EverQuest established the basic layout that nearly ever subsequent MMORPG has followed. Players create a character and embark on a journey through increasingly dangerous settings, earning experience points in order to reach some sort of arbitrary level cap.
Once the cap is reached, players can either engage in endgame content — raids, player-versus-player, and other systems specifically designed to keep them from becoming bored between expansion packs — or they can create a new character, experiencing the same basic content all over again.
It's a trap that almost every MMORPG player falls into, a cycle that can only end in boredom. Now and then a developer will revamp the starting experience, as Blizzard did with its Cataclysm expansion for World of Warcaft, but that fresh content quickly became the new old. For all their claims of creating living, breathing worlds, most major MMORPG games have grown accustomed to holding their breath for a long, long time.
It's a problem of content — players devour it faster than it can be produced. Guild Wars 2 developer ArenaNet recently switched to an ambitious (and likely grueling) two-week new content cycle to address the problem.
Before I got my first look at EverQuest Next in the "Black Room" of SOE's San Diego studios last month, my excitement level for new MMORPG games was at an all-time low. The Elder Scrolls Online is interesting, but that interest stems from the series' rich history, not from the game itself. NCsoft's WildStar shows promise, but nothing I've seen so far indicates that I wouldn't fall into the same cycle of content consumption.
But as franchise director of development David Georgeson explained how EverQuest Next's world worked, my excitement level spiked.
An Ever-Changing World
He called them Rallying Calls — you may have read about them in Stephen's piece on the two EverQuest Next games. A call goes out to players to form a tent city in the woods. That tent city has to be protected from the goblins inhabiting those woods. Players drive them off — no really, the goblins are gone now, it's not just basic kill x number of y quests — and that tent city begins to thrive.
At least until the goblin king, angered at the treatment of his minions, starts sending war bands to harass the settlement. Or maybe he doesn't. Maybe the show of force from the players is enough to keep him at bay. Maybe he'll bide his time, amassing his forces until the day that tent city evolves into Qeynos — one of the capitals of the first two EverQuest games — and finds itself besieged by an entire goblin army.
These Rallying Calls aren't special instances that come and go. They are major events that shape the face of this new Norrath. The game world changes over weeks, months and years. There is no "create a new character, fight through the same old crap." It's "create a new character and have an entirely different experience."
The sweetest moments in any MMORPG come when the world is fresh and new. Taking those first steps into Norrath or Azeroth or Rubi-Ka, when every single step is towards something fresh and new. With EverQuest Next, that feeling never has to fully fade away.
It's more than just the Rallying Calls. It's also the fully-destructible terrain. Imagine wandering onto the scene of a recent battle, the ground pockmarked with the impact of powerful spells, dotted with magically-raised barriers. They'll fade over time, but not so fast that epic skirmishes are quickly forgotten.
Or picture your party wandering through the swamps of Feerrott when they're attacked by a massive elemental. The creature blasts the ground below your feet, opening a chasm that swallows you whole. Now you're deep within EverQuest Next's procedurally-generated underground, facing off against a Void Goliath.
Better yet, don't imagine. Watch.
I'm sure some MMORPG veterans look at these random occurrences and see annoyances, disrupting carefully laid plans. That's exactly what they are, and they are wonderful. This is a true living, breathing world, and it's anything but predictable.
Maybe Not New, But Certainly Refined
Not all of EverQuest Next's ideas are new — I get that.
Multi-classing has appeared in various games in some shape or form, from Final Fantasy XI to The Secret World's completely class-less system. Skills derived from weapons is a Guild Wars 2 thing, as is the idea of exploring the world through physical movement — gotta love jumping puzzles.
But EverQuest Next takes these ideas to new heights.
Instead of simply jumping, there's a full-on parkour system, which should give players a sense that they're running through a world instead of just walking on top of it to get to the next monster to kill. The multi-classing system allows players to mix-and-match abilities from more than 40 distinct professions, giving them freedom to play the game the way they want to play.
Other games have involved player-created content, but many of those contained that content to special instanced areas. With EverQuest Next Landmark, the MMORPG building environment launching later this year, crafty players can actually create buildings and items that make it into the game proper, for all the world to see.
And sure, EverQuest Next is borrowing some ideas from other MMORPG games, but considering the original EverQuest started the craze and inspired everything that came after, I'd say it's entitled.
Addressing the Real Problem
Boredom is the enemy of the MMORPG, plain and simple. Now matter how gorgeous the world, or how animated the player base or how compelling the game itself, eventually all of that content the developers spent years creating is going to grow stale.
That's the real problem here. MMORPGs have traditionally been developed much like single-player games. There's a beginning, a middle and an end. They can be padded with downloadable content, but they're still single-player games with other people crammed in there to keep us from realizing that we're playing the same thing over and over again.
Maintaining a strong community helps, but its not enough. To really solve the core problem, you've got to create what so many games before have promised — a living, breathing, ever-changing world.
EverQuest Next sounds like the solution to me.