The EverQuest Next Landmark alpha packages—$60 and $100 Founder's Packs—don't buy a complete game, and Landmark hasn't been a very functional incomplete game until the most recent patch. But despite four days of server outages, crashes, bugs, and wiped data in the voxel building MMO, EverQuest Director of Development David Georgeson is optimistic about Landmark's first public play test, and even wishes it had started earlier.
"In hindsight, I kind of wish we'd been doing this a long time ago," Georgeson tells me over the phone this morning. "Our alpha is better than most betas I've been associated with. Yeah, there were some rocky times in the beginning, but I'm telling you, I've seen games launch in worse shape."
And again, despite the rough shape of Landmark over the weekend, the official forums and Georgeson's Twitter feed have been populated with largely positive and supportive feedback—I even saw a player recommend that the dev team go to bed instead of getting the servers back up. According to Georgeson, a positive relationship with players is all about transparency and understanding.
"The players are forgiving because humans like to know 'why,' and the game industry doesn't tell people 'why' very damn often," he says. "We just don't talk to people that way. We're so afraid that somebody's going to get upset, or that they're going to maybe quit, that we don't want to tell them all the reasons because we don't want to have fights online.
"[SOE President] John Smedley was absolutely the champion of this idea. He was like, 'Wait, human beings are not like that. If you tell them exactly what's going on and they absolutely understand what's going on, they can be your friends.' It's not that they just know that we're working, or that we're working hard, or that a patch is coming in four hours. We're telling them why we're working on a feature, what exactly happened."
But outside of Landmark and among the general PC gaming audience, paid alphas, such as those now on Steam Early Access, have been criticized as unethical. I asked Georgeson how he responds to critics who say that charging $60 for an unfinished game is like charging players to be Q&A testers—something players should be paid for and not the other way around.
"It cracks me up," says Georgeson, "Because, sure, that's one way to look at it. But the other way to look at it is—let's say you were a huge BMW fan, and you had the opportunity to buy a pass that let you actually go in and sit with the car designers and make suggestions on the next car line. Would you pay for that? It's the same thing. It's the same thing . Yes they're helping us hunt bugs, but that is not the point of alpha. Beta is bug hunt. Alpha is feedback and commentary, and helping us to steer the direction of the project. And the other fallacy, the other argument people are putting out there, is ridiculous. That's not what we're doing."
I've been playing the Landmark alpha since it launched last Friday. Currently, it's limited to a simple set of systems—mine for resources and craft equipment to mine for better resources, claim a plot of land, and use your resources to build—but there are many more features to come, and Georgeson tells me that some of them will be implemented within the next month.
Not much could be accomplished over the weekend, but last night's patch has increased stability and I can now play reliably. With a plot of land claimed on the newly opened third server, I'll have more detailed impressions of Landmark's alpha up this week. So far, I don't recommend that the casually interested buy in—any purchase right now is an expression of enthusiasm—but I think it's safe to predict that by combining elements of Minecraft and Starbound with SOE's MMO experience, Landmark will find plenty of players to fill its servers when it enters free-to-play open beta.