It's impossible to resist introducing you to the official unveiling of a post-World of Warcraft MMO without referencing the Las Vegas environment SOE has chosen for showcasing EverQuest Next. Broken dreams, disappointments, big stakes and heavy losses abound in both of these entertainment industries, after all. Admittedly there are fewer prostitutes, binge-drinking chugalugs and Dolly Parton-themed slot machines in your average fantasy MMO, but it's certainly a metaphor with legs.
SOE is at least going all in with this new EverQuest adventure, and it's a game that largely abandons a template still capable of drawing a convention's worth of fans together. It's a bold vision of what the company thinks a next-generation MMO should look like, and it begins with the world itself. Constructed using voxel technology - and layered on top of a heavily modified version of the engine powering PlanetSide 2 - the destruction and manipulation of your next home from home lies at the heart of almost every design decision.
At the personal level of combat, spellcasts and melee manoeuvres - dished out so repetitively as part of the MMO combat canon - have a tangible effect on this particular world. In a demo set in a dark forest ruins, blade flurries tear apart the crumbling walls, while spells shatter the floor and send enemies tumbling into the depths below. It's in those depths that you'll find another of EverQuest Next's bolder design approaches - underground levels layered one beneath the other, where procedurally generated ruins, questing opportunities and riches lie waiting to be explored and recovered.
If you're as cynical as I am - or have at least played Eve Online as much as I have - this notion of a fragile landscape will raise an immediate concern about the juicy opportunities it provides the natural griefer. At this stage of the game's development, the team could only assure me that these are issues they're aware of, and will be handled with preventative measures. Likewise, you might actually feel rather aggrieved at being plummeted into the abyss just as you were about to kill your enemy. Again, the team are at pains to stress that there'll be enough visual clues to ensure that only those who want to explore will find themselves doing so.
But if destruction adds more realism to all of this casual violence, it's the opportunity to create that represents EverQuest Next's most intriguing ambition. A new system known as Rallying Calls - most easily likened to the public quest format that's become a staple of the modern MMO - will draw an entire server community together. Cities will need to be constructed, invasions driven out, and defences built, for example. Once completed, every construction effort remains a permanent feature of the landscape, giving players a tangible sense of impact upon the world.
Fascinating though the idea is, it remains to be seen how exactly players will be motivated to collaborate on such large-scale endeavours, stretched out over long periods of time. The city-building campaign was pitched as a two to three month project, but there will always be those who prefer to sit on the sides and let everyone else do the hard work. More worrying is the potential for low-population servers to produce suffocating and stagnant worlds. Again, it's an issue the team are aware of, and so movement between realms will be relatively easy, and the Rallying Calls themselves will scale to the population.
That's the sort of macro, server-wide and community-driven creation events you can expect from the game, but there's scope for individual creativity too. Later this year, SOE will release EverQuest Landmark, a game that might rather unfairly be considered a companion title, and one that draws inevitable comparisons with Minecraft. Here, you'll be able to enter a world that's based on the continents of EverQuest Next, claim an area of land for yourself, and then carve and create not just the landscape around your territory, but objects within it using precision sculpting tools.
In the vast majority of this separate world space you'll be able to create whatever you wish - a good and a bad thing, when you consider the internet as a whole. In other areas, players will be expected to assume a keener sense of roleplaying, and create content more in keeping with the traditional themes of Norrath. The best creations in this particular development area will make it into the final game at launch, at which point you'll also be able to sell creations to other players in the live game.
As for how those players will appear in the new EverQuest, the new characters models are remarkably emotive, with exaggerated features to convey more meaningful emotions - whether on command or in response to world events. Look beneath the cosmetic surface, however, and there are more meaningful changes to the most important person in any MMO. Instead of choosing from a rigid RPG archetype and slowly unlocking spells, you'll be able to mix and match abilities by discovering new classes in the world and equipping new weapons. It sounds promising, but it's impossible to shake the fear that a "cookie-cutter" approach to customisation will appear once the community has crunched the numbers.
As with the creation aspects of the game, there's a macro and a micro approach taken by the developers when it comes to designing the enemies you fight. On an individual level, monsters will act a little more intelligently, adapting to your repetitive combat moves so as to provide a little more challenge and situational flair. An example given of pack mentality involves nomadic bands of orcs who stick to the lonely roads in wait of a passing adventurer, but recamp elsewhere when the heat gets too much.
It's all very exciting, all very grand and ambitious, and so all the more worrying for it when you consider the trail of broken promises that lies behind EverQuest Next. If, on the other hand, SOE can actually turn this vision into a thing of uncompromised substance, then it may well not be the last roll of the dice for the fantasy MMO.
This article was based on a press trip to Las Vegas. SOE paid for travel and accommodation.
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