A wizard blasts away a hunk of hillside with an explosive spell. “Did you see what just happened?” asks David Georgeson, EverQuest Next Director of Development.
Until now we've been talking about races, classes, and weapons. You know, fantasy MMORPG stuff . Georgeson loops the animation and I raise my eyebrows as chunks of hillside fly and tumble out of the explosion. So, deformable terrain?
"We can blow up anything at any time, anywhere."
“Yes. Something that every designer I know of has always wanted to do, and which we're doing in this game, is that every single thing in the world is composed of pieces,” he says. “We can blow up anything at any time, anywhere.”
Eyebrow levels are now stable at 50 percent elevation. What if a bunch of mages get together and try to dig as far as they can?
“Yep, they can,” says Georgeson. But certainly they can't just keep digging and digging, and, what—fall into a secret underground cave?
"Exactly," he says. My eyebrows flutter toward the ceiling as Georgeson explains that players can explore a procedurally-generated, randomized underworld by “phasing through with magical spells or digging through with equipment,” and this winter will get access to the developer's voxel building tools in a separate free-to-play game, EverQuest Next Landmark , which he describes as Minecraft's creative mode in thousand-player persistent worlds.
I thought this was just about elves, orcs, and hotbars?
Elves, orcs, and hotbars
Let me back up. I've just walked into the hotel room, and we're talking about elves, orcs, and hotbars. Georgeson tells me that EQ Next is “not the regular MMO that you're used to playing,” and I think, a bit cynically, here we go, tell me how you're totally reinventing the fantasy MMO genre .
“For EverQuest Next, we had been building what I consider the cardinal sin of any MMO, which is pretty much building the same game over again,” says Georgeson. That's true, two prototypes have already been scrapped on account of not reinventing the fantasy MMO genre totally enough.
"For EverQuest Next, we had been building what I consider the cardinal sin of any MMO"
“So we changed the team out—that's when I got involved in the project—and we got this incredible veteran set of people together that had done like, four or five MMOs each, and had many, many years of experience." That team, says Georgeson, rethought everything—classes, guilds, friends lists—and rebuilt EQ Next as a "fundamentally different" MMO.
At the most superficial level, that rebuilding led to a multiclassing system. There will be “five or seven” classes available at the start, with “over 40” classes to be discovered in the world. Each class comes with four skills, which can be mix-and-matched to create wizard-rogues and other combos. Georgeson says these skills are all unique. "It's not like this wizard has a damage spell and it's this color, and the thief has a damage spell that's this color."
He feels the same way about weapons. "There should be a difference, in my opinion, between a longsword and a halberd," Georgeson says firmly, as if it's a controversial opinion. “If I have a warrior class and I have a halberd and a longsword, I might use the halberd to do sweeping attacks that clear out areas around me, or a shockwave effect on the floor, whereas if I use the longsword I might be able to do a lot of damage to a single foe, or do some blocks and parries and things.”
Below the surface
These features alone don't make EverQuest Next "fundamentally different." For instance, Georgeson wants players to keep their eyes where the monsters are, not playing the hotbar "whack-a-mole" game, but there's still a hotbar. It just has a maximum of four weapon skills and four class skills at any given time. It's still familiar.
"If we make the first player city destroyable, it'll be a player parking lot, right?"
Likewise, movement has been redesigned with a parkour system. Contextual actions make long-distance traveling a series of vaults, tumbles, and double jumps rather than a monotonous run with a weighted-down 'W' key. Special abilities, such as the wizard's "Flash"—think Dishonored's "Blink" ability—add even more variety and platforming skill. This is a nontrivial new feature, but not the big, fundamental change I'm looking for.
And this is when Georgeson starts terraforming a hillside.
Everything in EQ Next's environment is destructible. Every building and every rock can be smashed. Can be , but players won't always have that power. “If we make the first player city destroyable, it'll be a player parking lot, right?” says Georgeson. “But the monsters might be able to destroy it, so a dragon attack could come in and knock down your city wall.”
"If you can destroy stuff, how cool would it be if what you destroy had an effect on the world?"
Not only can matter be blown into its component bits, it can be created. “An earth wizard can raise a stone wall, so now for the monsters to reach you, they either have to break down that wall or go around it," says Georgeson. "That's cool crowd control."
Georgeson has only hypothetical scenarios, sharing the potential without committing to specifics. As part of a public quest, players could work together to build city walls. In a PvP scenario, one group might be defending a keep, while the other breaks down the castle walls with catapults. In a PvE scenario, players might have to destroy a giant floating island. And there's a jokingly-called "parfait" of procedurally-generated underground areas, for which archaeological lore dating back 10,000 years was written to inform, which we'll explore by digging into the surface of Norrath.
Players will be able to permanently build on land they acquire—details on that are a bit sparse—but day-to-day, combat related creation and destruction isn't persistent. The world heals the same way corpses fade out over time, Georgeson tells me.
But that doesn't mean your actions will be inconsequential. "If you can destroy stuff, how cool would it be if what you destroy had an effect on the world?" asks Georgeson.
Orcs must die, or not, we don't care
"We're embracing the fact that we want change in the world," says Georgeson. He uses orcs as his hypothetical example to explain how "emergent AI" enables permanent change:
"We're embracing the fact that we want change in the world."
Orcs are bad. They like killing adventurers and stealing their gold. They don't like to be near guards or cities, because "they'll get their butts handed to them." Orcs like lonely stretches of road with occasional wanderers.
EQ Next knows what areas are patrolled and populated, and how many adventurers have traveled any given stretch of road. So, rather than the designers plopping down static orc camps, orcs are created with these likes and dislikes and "released into the void." They wander around looking for just the right stretch of road to camp near, and if guards start coming by, or players beat them back too often, they'll move.
Now that's interesting. I'm not excited by the "theme park" style of MMO design (yeah, I'm an EVE player), where content is added and then we stand in line to consume it. I don't even like the word "content" used to describe an experience. I do like the idea of logging in to find that orcs are encroaching on my town, and that players are grouping up to whack at their skulls until they leave—doing something for a reason.
I hope—and now here I am with my own hypothetical dream—that these orcs cause a real problem and aren't trivial to fight. My biggest problem with the "theme park" design is that I never have to identify and solve a real problem. Instead, I'm given a target which I then mine for XP and loot until I'm powerful enough to fight the next target. Boring. But if a pack of orcs can really turn away merchants and mess up my town's economy—Georgeson tells me EQ Next will simulate a meaningful economy—and killing them comes with actual risk, I'm in. I want to make meaningful decisions.
"So there's this barn burning up on the hill, and you can see humans running around screaming and orcs chasing them," says Georgeson with another example. "As a player in a normal MMO, you'd see the guy with the quest feather over his head, you'd click on him and he'd tell you what to go do. You ignore everything he said and you go do whatever gets you the reward, probably saving the humans.
"In our game, you're going to decide as a player what you want to do. Ignore it, go put out the barn, help save the humans, or help the orcs slaughter the humans. We don't care, because the game is going to remember everything you did. And then the world reacts to what you did."
Wait, what happens to Qeynos?
A burning barn is a small scale instance, but it could be the beginning of a world-shaping event. Georgeson calls expansions "Rallying Calls," epic stories that happen because of the players, instead of around them. In yet another hypothetical series of events, he describes the founding of a small town in a previously unexplored area. Crafters build a little wall around it and venture out into the woods to explore. And then, goblins. So the players drive the goblins out. The goblin king is pissed, so he sends more goblins. The players drive them away again and build a bigger wall—maybe the NPC townspeople build a stone quarry in the process and accidentally dig into ancient ruins, who knows?—and this town is becoming a city. Now the goblin king is really, really pissed, and he calls his allies in for war.
"Just because you helped build this city doesn't mean somewhere down the line it isn't going to get destroyed"
"Unlike most MMOs where expansion content just goes out, and out, and out, our expansion content can eradicate things you've already done before," says Georgeson. "Just because you helped build this city doesn't mean somewhere down the line it isn't going to get destroyed, like if the dragons attack. And then you end up with a whole set of new stories that nobody else has.
"A couple years down the line, somebody will say, 'What was it like back at launch?' and you'll say, 'Dude, the dragons hadn't attacked yet, Qeynos still existed, that was before the civil war...'"
This is all still hypothetical—Qeynos is just fine, probably—but the ideas are exciting. Why live in a world that doesn't change? Why kill goblins if, in ten years, they'll still be spawning in the same woodland camp? Here is one solution to that problem: a story collaboration between developers, players, and artificial intelligence. I hope that, ten years after launch, there really is a player who can say, “This all used to be farms, you know? Those were the days.”
We don't know when that launch will be—no release date has been announced for EQ Next, which, like all SOE games going forward, will be free to play. It's in a playable state now, but not quite populated with all of Georgeson's dreams of giant floating islands, castle sieges, orc bandits, burning barns, and goblin wars. I'd wager that it has a ways to go.
EQ Next's companion game—EverQuest Next Landmark, a creative voxel building environment which players can harness to help build EQ Next along with SOE—however, will be available before the end of the year. Really, that could have been the only announcement and I would have still lost my eyebrows— read all about it here .