Just when it seemed that the future of MMOs might be a bit boring, the people behind EverQuest have decided to massively shake things up.
Announced today in Las Vegas, Sony Online Entertainment is making not one but two new EverQuest games. Actually, you may be helping make one of them.
The expected part of this news is the announcement of EverQuest Next, a major new free-to-play MMO set for release at some unspecified time that more or less restarts the mighty EverQuest lore afresh while introducing a very different EverQuest game.
The surprise is the simultaneous announcement of EverQuest Next Landmark, a free-to-play MMO that emphasizes land and content creation and that introduces many of the tools that will then work in EverQuest Next. That game is slated for a winter release. Think of Landmark as the Minecrafting of EverQuest. And think of it as a canvas on which users will be able to create content for the ambitious EverQuest Next. [UPDATE: At an SOE event in Las Vegas today, company president John Smedley said Landmark would be out this year.]
This new EverQuest has been a long time coming, and is turning out to be different than what longtime fans may have been expecting.
"We've rebooted our own game," the EverQuest series' director of development David Georgeson told me during a recent meeting about the game in New York City. "About a year and a half ago, we changed the team out, we tore it down, and we rebuilt it from the bedrock up. We were really serious about it. We wanted to figure out what was fun, what wasn't fun. There's a lot of stuff people don't like about MMOs, and we didn't want to rebuild that again because 'that's an MMO' and there were all these Holy Grails we wanted to put into a game but never had the courage or resources to make those kinds of changes. But since we're doing something brand new, we wanted to start from scratch and try to build something that's very, very different from regular MMOs."
The part of EQ Next that is traditional is that it is, like its predecessors, a third-person massively-multiplayer online game. It's set in Norrath. It features numerous races, from human to dwarf to elf to Kerran. It features different classes....
Oh, there are changes.
"We're changing the core game," Georgeson said. "For 35 years we've all been playing Dungeons & Dragons. It's the same game every time. You get a class, you kill stuff, you unlock your tech tree. That's boiling it down to its essence, but that basically is what it is. What we wanted to do was come up with a new experience for players, something that would be more fun." The result is a system that lets you begin with one of about seven basic starter class like warrior, wizard or rogue, each with a handful of abilities.
As players go out into the world to explore, they will find opportunities to gain new classes—more than 40 in all—each with their own abilities. They can spend XP on the classes and then switch between classes when out of combat. Players can also mix and match class abilities to create hybrid, custom classes. Examples given: a backstabbing wizard or a teleporting wizard, each cooked up from mixing a wizard with a rogue.
Each class also has two weapons.
At any one time, players will have access to, at most, eight abilities, four from their class, four from their weapons. (Yes, those eight abilities would seemingly map really, really well to the d-pad and face buttons of a game controller, but Georgeson says that that wasn't the motivation; there's no announcement for a console version. Both are announced initially for PC. Hey, shades of what Blizzard had said about Diablo III!)
One of our primary drives was to keep you from being focused on the hotbars down at the bottom [of the screen]," Georgeson said, "And start watching the action up here on the stage where all the really cool things are happening. When the monster is doing a big wind-up, you can't move out of the way if you're not watching the monster...We don't want to turn it into twitch gaming. We want it to be approachable and familiar to MMO players, but we want to put more attention on the stage than on the hotbars."
"The entire world is made out of voxels," Georgeson said, referring to the common term for a three-dimensional element of digital art. "Everything is made out of pieces. We can literally destroy anything at any time. We might not let you destroy it. For instance, a player-city we might not make player-destroyable but [would be] monster-destroyable. Otherwise, it would be a player parking lot."
Georgeson started rattling through possibilities: earth wizards raising stone walls and the monsters having to break through it or walk around it; a hole being blown into the ground and monsters falling through it; monsters leaving crater footsteps. Different parts of the world can be given different properties, making stone harder than dirt, for example.
Here's an example of combat that's enhanced thanks to the destructibility of the world:
The new Next game spreads not just across the land but deep below it, allowing users to discover procedurally generated caverns and dungeons or just dig out their own. The game's creators have sorted out about 10,000 years of archaeological lore in the game's new timeline, Georgeson said. "We know what's all these different archaeological depths. We have a procedural system that can generate all these lost cities and ancient temples and buried areas and so on and so forth. And then we have occasional earthquakes in the world that destroy areas and reconstitute them so that players can constantly be finding new content as they explore.
Alternately, players can just burrow down and dig their own mines. Yep, like Minecraft.
The EQ Next team wants their world to feel like it is full of consequence. They're introducing a system called "Rallying Calls" that are big public quests that result in world-changing events. Rallying Calls may take weeks or months to play out, Georgeson said. He gave an example of having to start a tent city, explore the woods, go on quests—"not feather on the head quest stuff; you just see people, start helping and participate"—leading to new changes in monster behaviors, new changes to the land, all unfolding dynamically and, ideally, naturally.
"A couple of years down the line, if somebody says to you, 'What was it like back at launch?' Your answer is going to be like, 'That was before the civil war. That was before the dragons attacked,' all this crazy stuff that they can participate in—there is a way to use a chronomancer and go back and experience it—but it's not the way the world is now."
The game's creatures will exhibit some pretty good artificial intelligence.
"We're tagging everything in the world with what it is," Georgeson said, "and then the monsters have likes and dislikes." That means that the game doesn't spawn orcs at some orc spawn point where orcs will always dwell. Instead, EQ Next will add orcs to the world and the orcs will intelligently find a place to live, depending on what's around them. In Georgeson's example, they might be looking for a lonely stretch of world where there are no guards and the occasional player walks by.
Georgeson said that this AI system will be applied to the various non-playable races and species in the game.
There's parkour. Characters can gracefully run, jump, clamber, hop, double-jump—"the kind of things you see in an Assassin's Creed, Georgeson said, because we know that will be fun for players.
"We wanted a more of a heroic fantasy," Georgeson said, "with dynamic motion and tumbling and fluid acrobatics."
Before EverQuest Next comes out, there will be EverQuest Next Landmark. It's a gamified version of EverQuest Next's creation tools, but with badges and achievements.
"It's a whole series of persistent, procedurally-generated worlds—so they're all completely unique from each other—and we're going to give players the tools we have and a shell of a game that goes with it and let them run amuck. We're going to let them build anything they want to that customer service will allow."
Players will start with a bag, a toolkit and a flag and will be able to claim a spot. "That is going to be your lot. That's your claim. You can build anything you want to in that lot and it's protected from all the other players in the world. You can build anywhere that isn't claimed, but it is not protected."
Players can earn and buy more flags to claim more lots.
Landmark players get access to all the building materials and tools that the Next developers are working on. Here are some examples of those tools in action...
The tools include different-sized voxel cursors, rotation on three axes, copy and paste, undo, smoothing, brushes. "Let's put it this way," Georgeson said. "It's really easy to make it impossible to see the blocks."
Players can find recipes and resources. They can decorate their homes. They can build in co-op. Players can make and sell their creations in Sony Online Entertainment's Player Studio and can retain rights to what they create, even if it becomes part of something else a player sells. For example, Georgeson said, one player could make a tower and sell that. Another player could put that tower on a castle and sell the castle, with the tower-making player getting a cut of each castle sale.
SOE will run creation contests and will let players vote on the quality of those creations, with the promise to then put those winners into EverQuest Next proper.
Landmark will be supported long-term, even beyond the launch of EverQuest Next. The games will differ. Landmark will, initially, have no combat in it, for example. And EQ Next will be the ultimate main event—an ambitious MMO that runs a bit differently than others.
Naturally, we're in the early stages here, when many an upcoming game sounds great. I wasn't shown any live gameplay. I was shown in-engine, pre-recorded movies. I wasn't seeing an MMO run on servers with thousands of people playing. I was hearing about plans and dreams. I hear about so many games, really, but few in recent memory have sounded quite as ambitious as this. They're dreaming massive.
"EverQuest is in its 15th birthday," Georgeson said. "We want to build for 15 years again."