Tuesday, 11 February 2014

What Does Landmark Tell Us About Everquest Next?

Okay, maybe it's a bit soon to be asking the question with any expectation of a meaningful response but it is what everyone's thinking, isn't it? After all, a year ago no-one had even heard of Landmark. John Smedley had dropped a little squib about how we'd be getting our hands on something Next-related and playable before the winter was out and speculation was running high on whether that meant EQNext could possibly be released by the end of the year or whether it meant we'd get some kind of demo or mini-game or character creator to play with.

Then the big reveal came at last summer's Sony Live and what we got was something clumsily called Everquest Next Landmark. Yet even so, although Landmark came as a total surprise and was scheduled to appear first, focus remained firmly on EQNext. Everyone and his dog churned out reams of reaction, analysis and speculation in most of which Landmark barely got a mention. Then, somehow, the emphasis began to change as promotional videos began to appear, Landmark got some firm release dates, and this odd duck MMO-or-is-it became something you could actually pay money for, expect to play, and soon.

You can tell it's a rich world. Even the flowers have particle effects.


Now Landmark is here, at least for a given value of "here", one that reads "some of it's here and some of what's here even works". There's no NDA, bloggers are giving their impressions almost daily, showing off their creations (or apologizing for them), YouTube is filling up with "How To" videos. You can even go read the alpha forums without signing up for alpha. In short, Landmark is now A Thing.

Which is all well and good and heaven knows I'm enjoying it all a heck of a lot more than I ever expected to but it's still EQNext that I really want to play. As Wilhelm observed a while back, with the flowering of Landmark the flow of information on EQNext seems to have dried up almost completely. Not only that but Smed seems keen to skip EQNext altogether and move on to the next next MMO in his ever-shrinking  yet ever-growing stable.

Now that does look like Norrath.

So, since SOE aren't talking so much about EQNext any more and since Landmark is what we have, let's take stock of what little we know and see where that takes us. My immediate reaction to the EQNext reveal last year broke things down into eight headings. One was Landmark itself and one (Collectible Classes) appears to be only intended for EQNext. Three more (Emergent AI, Combat and Dynamic Events) aren't due to arrive in Landmark until beta. We'll get back to those then.

That leaves three:

Looks - My initial reaction to the EQNext footage was that it looked very cartoony and I was happy with that. I like cartoons. Other people were less impressed. There were even dark comments in some quarters about it looking like Free Realms. Well, people who thought that way might be quite reassured by Landmark. It's nowhere near as cartoony as that video might have led you to believe.

I smell Elf.


In fact I don't think it feels cartoony at all. The screenshots sometimes look a little like animation cells but as computer game graphics go I'd say it's more towards the "painterly reality" end of the scale that Guild Wars 2 occupies. As for the worldliness of the world, even though the landscapes are procedurally generated and the number of biomes is very limited yet, still they have considerable heft. Some of the scenery is quite breathtaking and the transitions from biome to biome are relatively subtle and convincing. The lighting effects are as stunning as promised.

Once designers and artists get their assets down against this backdrop I would anticipate an extremely satisfying and immersive world to emerge. Playing Landmark has given me every confidence that, if nothing else, EQNext will both look sumptuous and feel like Norrath, two things that have hitherto never been achieved at the same time.

I think I banged my head on a rock coming down. I'm seeing double.

Destructability - When Dave Georgeson announced that EQNext would be constructed from destroyable voxels I was somewhat underwhelmed. It seemed like one of those gadgets that sound great when the guy talks it up in the store but when you get it home you can't actually think of much to do with it and it ends up at the back of the cupboard under the stairs. How wrong I was.

Being able to terraform the landscape at will is astonishingly entertaining, far more so than I imagined it would be, but in the context of EQNext it has the potential to add whole new orders of complexity to the gameplay. One of the very best things about the original Everquest, at least prior to the Planes of Power expansion, was the way it allowed players to come up with their own solutions to problems. Improvisation was very much the order of the day and there were many times when we worked with whatever tools we had to hand to get the job done dirty when we couldn't do it clean.

The Ice Cream Mine Is Mine All Mine.

Being able to manipulate the environment opens up so many possibilities. Just imagine the ranger, running back to the camp with a posse of goblins in tow, leaping over the pit trap the party has hastily been digging while she was out on the pull, turning to notch an arrow to her bow just as the last of the goblins falls onto the squirming, squealing heap at the bottom. Then imagine the smile fading on her face as those goblins begin to burrow through the earth, disappearing out of sight only to re-emerge seconds later, boiling out of the ground right beneath the party.

Realistically I doubt we'll see such an on-the-fly, interactive use of the destructible environment in PvE although with the famous Storybricks emergent AI who knows what's possible? In a PvP setting, though...well I wouldn't stand in one place for too long, that's all I'm saying. Either way, whether the full potential is joyously realised or whether it ends up being hamstrung by practicalities, having seen desructability in action I give the voxel revolution my firmest vote of confidence.

Ok, just keep calm. A back flip ought ta do it.

Movement   - This was the throwaway at the reveal. Dave Georgeson kept calling it "parkour", which just made me think of Lady Penelope's chauffeur. I gave it a couple of lines. Lots of commentators didn't even mention it at all. Again, big mistake.

One thing SOE's MMOs have often been criticized for in the past is the appearance and animation of the character models. It's not something that comes in very high on my list of likes or dislikes for any MMO but some folks do get very exercised over it and even I notice whether a character "feels" right. Boy! do these feel right.

No doubt there will be polish passes to come but even at this stage character animations are clean and satisfying and movement seems comfortable and natural. With no NPCs in place there's no way to judge whether the big-eyed look that received some criticism when it was seen in the EQNext footage will, as promised, make sense in context with the Storybricks AI but I can say with confidence that player characters in game do not look either overblown or weird. Uncanny valley this is not, nor is it Mulan in Norrath.

Hard to see, I know, but I'm up there somewhere.

Better still is that "parkour" thing. Not only is it fun, which was expected, but like the destructibility it has enormous gameplay potential. The sliding down scree and slopes kicking up dust part is exhilarating and the forward rolls and somersaults are entertaining but at the moment they're just visual sugar because in alpha we can run up any slope and fall from any height. Once the physics goes in and the death mechanic along with it, that sugar is going to turn to salt, adding flavor to every roll and tumble. A good slide or a double somersault might save your life, or at least some repair bills. This is one kind of "action gaming" I can get behind.

What's more, demonstrating its intention to be more than just a gimmick or a simple background mechanic, movement becomes an attribute you can improve with gear. You can get items to help you jump higher and, of course, run faster but best of all you can get a Grappling Hook. Again, it sounds like an amusing toy when you read about it but once you get one in your hand it feels as important to your character as a sword or a bow. Add some mobs, especially ones with grappling hooks of their own, and the prospects for treetop chases and spectacular entrances and escapes abound.

And that's how it goes in the World of Speculation. Imagination knows no budgetary constraints. The reality of EQNext, when it comes, will probably be far more pedestrian and predictable than any of that. But then, that's what I thought about Landmark...

11 comments:

  1. You know, I wouldn't be against a MMORPG with more platforming and puzzle solving (via destructibility) worked into the actual combat/encounters. Especially if they are going to place so much emphasis on both anyway.

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    1. I'm not keen on the shoe-horning of other game types into virtualworlds so I disapprove on principle of GW2's formal jumping puzzles, for example (and no, it's not because I can't do them. I can do most of the non-insane ones when I have the patience to bother). However, I love world design that allows the exact same techniques for free exploration. In other words, a plonked-in JP with a chest at the end and achievements is an annoying nuisance but the exact same layout with no chest, no achievement and no inducement to explore it would be a serendipitous pleasure.

      The destructible world offers almost limitless scope for the latter.

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  2. "The reality of EQNext, when it comes, will probably be far more pedestrian and predictable than any of that. But then, that's what I thought about Landmark..."

    IMHO, the pedestrian and predictable EQN will be a great game. I just played the EQNL alpha a few, but I can see it have a very good crafting system. Let's hope that storybricks be a very good system for implement better dynamic events.

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    1. I think you might be the first person I've heard say anything good about the Landmark crafting system. Most comments I've seen are either neutral or negative. As for EQNext itself, of course it will be a great game. It's EQ, isn't it? Not that I'm an easy sell or anything...

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    2. @Bhagpuss

      I played both SWG and ATITD. SWG had a very good crafting system and ATITD have a very good crafting system. SWG was a sandbox and ATITD is a sandbox with no combat, only crafting.

      The few time I played I saw EQNL had a crafting system very similar to what we see at ATITD. However, ATITD is a game that is made for be hard core crafter paradise.

      Maybe that be the problem with EQNL crafting: it is hard core crafting. But I am not sure what people hope from a game that have crafting and build houses as main roles. Fight mobs? PvP? I hoped see something like SWG or maybe, if lucky, like ATITD. I saw something like ATITD and for me is not a deception.

      From what I saw, who want have play hours of hard work for craft more advanced tools and crafting stations will be happy with EQNL (it is the same way at ATITD, players need craft better tools and crafting stations, the crafting and harvesting goes for hours... well, the game have nothing more for be done, no combat, just harvesting and crafting). But there are some hard core crafters that will love EQNL crafting.

      The advantages over ATITD is that EQNL have voxels and destructible terrain and better options for build houses. We are seeing that EQNL will be the dream game for amateur architets that want build a fantasy castle. I jsut hope some professional architets are playing the game, so we will see really good looking buildings.

      My guess is that when EQN come, with the features we too see at EQNL, we will will see a minority of players that will dig (a deep role, joke intended) into crafting and that players will build all items for all players from the game. Something like what happened at SWG.

      PS

      My advice is that you try ATITD and see what is a crafters game, a game made FOR crafters.. EQNL is a crafters game. Not sure why people hoped for other thing...

      PS2

      Hard core crafters love complex crafting, for them the best crafting systems are complex and hard work crafting systems. It is because only a few commited players will craft the best items in game. You need play hours crafting better tools, better crafting stations and harvesting the best materials for crafting the the best items that other players will use.

      If you understand how that minority thinks, you can make a crafting system for them. They DON'T want an "everyone can craft everything" crafting system. But that minority is fundamental for a sandbox game work fine. Without them, there is nothing made in a sandbox. SWG was a good as example, the minority of hard core crafters was fundamental to the game.

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    3. What I've seen people complaining about is the "click & wait" crafting system, which is basically the same as WoW and many other MMOs. You gather the mats, select the recipe, click the button, watch the progress bar for a few seconds then the item pops into your pack. That's what I think people mean when they talk about EQL's "crafting".

      If you mean the ability to construct items out of voxels, save them as templates and then sell either the manufactured items or the templates via Player Studio, that's not what I was referring to at all.

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    4. You need build better crafting tools and crafting stations for build things with better mats. In ATITD you start with a stone knife, you need craft a copper knife and the best tool is an iron knife. But first need discover how to harvest iron and how to melt it.

      So far, EQNL crafting is too much similar to ATITD crafting. People are complaining that it is hard to craft a copper pickaxe and the bet tool is a golden pickaxe. IMHO, that is similar to ATITD crafting.

      Take note that ATITD had sheep and camels and planted wax for make cloth. To make cloth was a pain, you need give a treatment to wax fibers, then you need use a tool for make cords with wax, then you can make a wax fabric. Brick, get the mats (dirty and dry grass), then make bricks then put them for dry under sun.

      If they add sheep and wax farms, EQNL will be more similar to ATITD.

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  3. This is the post I have been waiting for! What does it mean for EQNext!

    Destructibility has emergent player behaviour written all over it all over it but it all depends on how much limit SOE puts on it. I love your ranger example but not sure whether will be be doing stuff like that in game.

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    1. I'll bet we won't and for a reason. Even as I typed that example I knew it wouldn't ever happen because of something that one of the Devs (Smokejumper I think) said in the alpha forums. Apparently the main reason mobs aren't in yet is that they are still working on how to get the mobs to path around a destructible environment. They can't use the normal fixed points of reference because they could be destroyed at any time so they have to be able to react to the environment as it changes. Consequently, if my party dug a pit the goblins would "see" it and path around it (or probbaly warp to a safe point, if previous SOE pathing code is anything to go by).

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  4. Indeed, trying to tell what Landmark really means for the REAL game... heh... is about as fruitful as reading tea leaves at this moment. Smed has said more about their unannounced title in the last couple of weeks than he has said about EQN since about a week after SOE Live.

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    1. When I came to write this post and had a good think about it, I was quite shocked to realize just how little has been said about EQNext since the reveal. I know you were making exactly that point a few weeks ago and I sort of knew it but because I was interested in Landmark I didn't really feel it.

      Now that I'm playing Landmark it's easier to stop and think about what comes Next, so to speak, and all I can hear is the sound of tumbleweed rolling in the wind.

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