Monday, August 12, 2013

The Next Big MMORPG?

It's been a difficult period for MMOs these past couple of years in the gaming industry. We've seen Star Wars: The Old Republic crash and burn, although BioWare continue to poke its corpse; we've seen The Secret World not become the breakout hit that Funcom needed it to be, although it's doing a little better these days following its free-to-play conversion; and we've also seen Guild Wars 2 have probably the best launch and post-release period of the three. I've already written about NCsoft's forthcoming Wildstar, and Bethesda continue to beaver away on The Elder Scrolls Online, but last week saw perhaps the biggest pretender to the MMO throne partially unveil what it has in store, and boy was it interesting.

I am speaking of course about SOE's EverQuest Next, revealed to the public last weekend at SOE Live, Sony Online Entertainment's version of Blizzcon.

First thing first: the game looks amazing, hands down the best-looking MMORPG that I have seen to date. This is due in no small measure to SOE's proprietary ForgeLight engine that currently powers PlanetSide 2. It's not all about the visuals though, EQN has a lot going on under the surface to where this might actually be the prophesied "WoW-killer" foretold so long ago.

At first glance, perhaps the most eye-catching feature is the destructable environments. The entire game world is made up of voxels (think three-dimensional jigsaw pieces) which can be broken apart at will by the game. Of course, some areas will always be safe (certain outposts, towns and cities, most likely), but even just in the conception stage this opens some tantalising avenues for gameplay that really haven't been seen before. Fencing a bunch of mobs together and then blasting through the ground so they fall to their deaths below sounds appealing, as does actually digging into the ground in order to mine mineral deposits in certain areas, or even finding new areas underground to explore.

Another interesting snippet is that at any one time there will be one primary world quest for everyone on a particular server. These "rallying calls", as they're known, will advance in stages, at a pace dependent on how many players are participating and how much everyone is doing. The example given by the developers so far is to create a new settlement off the beaten track. Initially the area might need securing from wildlife, so that would need to be taken care of first. Then materials could be needed to actually construct the settlement, and bandits may appear that need to be repelled, defences might need to be constructed, etc. Each server would advance at its own pace, and (presumably) rewards would be handed out proportionally to those players who have contributed the most to the various stages. On paper, this sounds like an more advanced version of public quests, initially seen in Warhammer Online and refined in Guild Wars 2, but worldwide across the entire server, not delineated by zone, as is usually done in MMOs today. Provided these are varied enough, and there is enough to keep players interested in contributing to the objectives, I can see this kind of system being somewhat of a metric used to "score" your server against others (similar to WvW rankings in Guild Wars 2 currently).

Developing from an idea first used in Guild Wars 2 (again!), the class and skill system is unique, too. There will apparently be 40 classes (!), and, as seems to be becoming the norm these days, you will be able to have eight skills equipped at a time. Four of these skills are derived from your class, and four are determined by the weapon you are holding at the time. SOE's twist here is that you will actually be able to learn abilities from other classes and add them to your own repertoire; this will lead to your class actually becoming your class, completely tailored to the skills you want to use and the weapons you want your character to wield. Speaking of weapons, crafting also looks to be significantly different. Instead of having to start with common materials, make hundreds of crappy things and then selling them or breaking them down for materials, then rinse and repeat with higher-level materials, SOE have said that each material will have specific uses that will remain useful for the entirety of the game, rather than the usual Copper -> Tin -> Iron progression for mining, Linen - > Wool -> Silk for tailoring, etc. This is reminiscent of Ultima Online, where certain materials had certain properties, such as silver weapons doing double damage to undead monsters. In addition, SOE have said that crafted weapons and armour will actually look like the materials they're constructed from, so you won't need to inspect another character's paperdoll to see what they are using, you will just recognise it by how it looks.

Perhaps one of the biggest announcements by SOE, and I'm surprised they were able to keep a lid on this up to now, was that there will be a second EQN-based game - to launch this year - called EverQuest Landmark. Think Minecraft but in EQN gamespace. Players will be able to claim particular areas of land, construct buildings, points of interest, etc. They will be able to sell their creations on SOE's Marketplace for real money, and if their works are used in other buildings (the example given is that if you make a tower and then someone constructs a castle that incorporates your tower) you will automatically earn a cut of that castle's earnings. The very best areas and buildings stand a chance of making it into the full version of EverQuest Next. This sounds like a very interesting way to both build up interest in the EQN brand, but also appeal to players' artistic interests, as player-made content is very popular right now in several Valve games (TF2 being the most popular) and moddable games such as Minecraft and even Skyrim. EverQuest Landmark will be free-to-play and is meant to be released before the end of 2013, so expect to hear news about this in the very near future.

All in all, I am very interested in EverQuest Next. I enjoy MMOs and have played most of the major ones on the market today, but too many are content to try and make WoW 2.0, forgetting that the original World of Warcraft was released in 2004, almost a decade ago, and that the gaming industry of today is very different from the gaming industry of back then. The fact that WoW's subscriber numbers drop seemingly every quarter is just more evidence that people are looking for something fresh and original, and EverQuest Next could well be it (because god knows it sure wasn't TOR). SOE have apparently rebooted EQN twice, abandoning much of the work they had already done and starting over, because they felt that it wasn't of a high enough quality. That a company is willing to keep iterating like that, and eat what must be significant financial costs every time they do so, makes me very interested in what is to come. If SOE can deliver on even half of what they have unveiled so far then expect EverQuest Next to be a significant shake-up of the MMO sector - and perhaps even as big a shake-up as the original WoW created, all those years ago.

EverQuest Next will be a free-to-play title and is expected to be released sometime in 2014. Anyone interested can sign up for the beta by clicking here.