Sony Online Entertainment
MMOs aren’t fun anymore: EverQuest Next wants to bring online gamers back by changing the rules
“I think it was almost a guaranteed recipe for failure,” said Dave Georgeson, Director of Development on EverQuest Next. The previous version of Everquest Next, which had been in development for at least three years at Sony Online Entertainment, was to be scrapped and restarted from scratch.
The writing was on the wall. The old MMO template was a trap. Companies were lured in by the billions of dollars generated by World of Warcraft, and one-by-one they learned the hard way that Blizzard is not easily toppled once they've reached the peak of a genre.
Star Wars: The Old Republic had recently become the latest victim of the spike-and-fail phenomenon, an all-devouring curse of the MMO genre, which caused a huge surge of purchasers to subscribe at launch before ultimately moving on when they figured out that the game was nothing new.
If even Star Wars couldn't succeed with the standard model, then what hope did the aging EverQuest brand have? Sony seems to have agreed that the chances were slim and knew they needed drastic reinvention to make an impact again.
For Georgeson, a talking stick may have actually shown him the true direction for the future of EverQuest.
The Talking Stick
“Way back in Ultima Online the very first thing that happened to me in that game was the thing that hooked me onto MMOs forever,” said Georgeson. “I was walking down a road and there was this stick laying in the road and it started talking to me. It said, 'Hi, I'm a magical stick, I fell out of a tree and I need to get back to the forest. Can you help me?'”
Georgeson's voice jumps up a few octaves when he's taking on the persona of the talking stick, as though mimicking a forest pixie. You can tell he enjoys telling this tale, and has told it more than a few times before.
“So I picked up the little log and carried it to the forest, and then a thief, who was hidden with a stealth skill, de-cloaked and went laughing his ass off into the trees,” said Georgeson. “He was standing cloaked right next to the log so it'd look like the log was talking to me. And that's when I realized that user-generated content is way better than anything a designer could ever come up with.”
It's a fun anecdote, but user-generated content doesn't just hinge on players screwing with one another.
Georgeson said that when SOE set about redesigning EverQuest Next they went back to the core of the role-playing experience: Dungeons & Dragons. What is it that's so great about the Dungeons & Dragons experience that has kept it alive and thriving for thirty long years?
“There isn't a single person in the game industry who hasn't played D&D at least once,” he said. “So we talked about what it was we liked in a roleplaying game, and we started figuring out what was really interesting about them. And part of it was that ad hoc feeling, and being able to change what you're doing on the fly and getting new experiences on a regular basis.”
“So obviously we couldn't do that with a human Game Master for every player in an MMO, but we can definitely set up the servers so they're giving you a much more tailored and much more dynamic experience that you can push around as a player and make changes in.”
That's the core of EverQuest Next and EverQuest Next Landmark, a prequel game that will set the stage for EverQuest's voxel-based world creation engine.
The lonely road
Everquest Next gives the players a destructible/constructible world that will give players power over their environment in a unique way for an MMO and allow them to build and destroy whatever they see fit, Minecraft-style.
The game will also offer a world that's much more dynamic than its competitors. Georgeson described a highly atypical artificial intelligence system that Sony Online Entertainment hopes will help enliven the world of Norrath.
As an example, Georgeson told me about a hypothetical situation where a group of players decides to venture out and clear a party of orcs from their campsite along a lonely road.
“If the players decide to go up there and make that road safe the orcs would take off and try to find some place that's better for them,” said Georgeson. “But what they might find is a nearby village that wasn't at all like a lonely road situation, and they may start attacking the village. And then there's all sorts of quest opportunities that arise from that. And the players didn't know it was going to happen when they were making the road safe, it just happened after that. This kind of non-predictability creates a lot of dynamacism in the world and allows us to focus on the big stories and story archs. There's a ton of stuff happening in the moment to moment play that we can lean on because of the AI.”
Whether or not players will actually be able to notice these changes resulting from their actions remains to be seen, but Georgeson said it was time for the old style of MMO to die. New changes had to be made.
There are still a lot of questions left to be answered about EverQuest Next, but as he describes it to me I begin to get a picture of a game that's part Warcraft, part Minecraft, and part… whatever the players want it to be.
“We've played the static world a lot, and players are pretty sick of it,” he said. “And I can point to business proofs for that in the sheer number MMOs that have spiked and failed by continuing to follow the exact same model, just putting some new quests, new story, new graphics on the existing game.”
“A really good MMO is all about creating memories,” he continued. “The things you do, they're moments that you remember for a long time, and it's a lot better if they're a unique story. Me and my stick story, for example. Those are the best stories. They're the most interesting ones. Canned quests, canned events, canned places that everyone has done to death, there's nothing interesting about those stories.”
It's a concept that is very much atypical to the usual style of modern MMO which seeks to keep players on a predetermined track for as long as possible in order to keep them subscribing. But it's an ideal that SOE says is very much in line with the soul of the EverQuest franchise and its beginnings.
“If you look at the original Everquest it took a bunch of things and some new things and put them together in a way that had never been seen before,” said Ben Conrad, the public relations manager who arranged my call with Georgeson. “The cool thing about EQN and Landmark is that it's actually really true to that spirit.”
“And none of that stuff was rocket science,” Georgeson chimed in. “EverQuest was successful because it was the only place in the world you could go to get that flavor of game. And so that's what we intended to do with EQN. We didn't want to just make some changes because we thought things needed to be changed. We wanted to create a gaming experience that you just flat out couldn't get anywhere else.”
The promise of EverQuest Next is exciting and its great to see someone doing something new, but we've been disappointed by many an also-ran MMO over the past decade that promised the world but delivered much less.
It's hard to get excited just yet, as part of the challenge that Sony Online Entertainment faces is convincing a jaded MMO crowd to give the genre hype another chance. For now, they have our attention.