Massively multiplayer online games fail because the people who make them simply can't keep up with the gamers who play them, Sony Online Entertainment president John Smedley says.
The solution, he believes, is to cede some of that content creation over to players through emergent storytelling, lasting consequences and perhaps most important, by allowing players literally to make pieces of Sony's next EverQuest, and get paid to do so.
Smedley detailed how EverQuest Next will fundamentally reimagine the characters, lore and environments of the franchise and, in some respects, the genre. He also said that EverQuest Next Landmark, a parallel game and creation tool that hopes to mash together the best of EverQuest and Minecraft and turn it into something that isn't just fun to play but profitable for players.
EverQuest Next Landmark, free-to-play like all of Sony Online Entertainment's games, hits this winter and uses the same building tools used by developers to create Next, but gamifies the process so players need to mine for material and craft, while building in the varied terrain.
"With EverQuest Next, we're going back to our roots - a space we defined with the EverQuest legacy - and ushering in a new era of MMOs: The Emergent Era," Smedley said in a prepared statement. "Today, many MMOs fail because players consume content faster than developers can create it. With EverQuest Next, we're creating a living world that players are part of and empowering them to produce new content alongside the development team. What does the future hold for EverQuest Next and Sony Online Entertainment? It's in the players' hands, and we like it that way."
In a recent demonstration in New York, Dave Georgeson, director of development for the EverQuest franchise, explained that after working on this new game for several years they decided to "mothball it" and start over.
"We were doing what everyone else had been doing," he said.
When the original EverQuest hit in 1999, it had few competitors. But then World of Warcraft hit in 2004 and broke EverQuest's stranglehold on the genre, creating its own dominance.
There were clear iterations in Blizzard's own high fantasy online game, but the core experience remained unchanged from EverQuest, Georgeson said, and the games that have come since still adhere to those principles.
"All of the other guys are reiterating the same things," he said. "Most of them are pretty much the same game. We realized that if we did the same thing we would probably have the same fate, which was the big spike up at release and then a drop. We wanted to build a game that we haven't built before."
So about two years ago, the team set about dismantling what they had created so far for EverQuest Next and examining what everyone else had done or was doing. Out of that deconstruction, came a set of "holy grails," Georgeson said.
These five holy grails are things that everyone on the team always wanted to do, he said, but either didn't have the technology to support or the "intestinal fortitude."
EverQuest Next's first grail was to improve the core of the game and for the developers that meant they needed to "stop playing Dungeons and Dragons." Role-playing games lean too heavily on the gameplay models established by D&D, Georgeson said.
"We wanted to bring a different game," he said. "That particular model has some real drawbacks."
NO LEVELS IN NEXT.
The solution is to create a game that uses multi-classing. There are no levels in Next, but there will be more than 40 distinct "professions" to choose from at launch. Each of those professions will have their own multi-tiered abilities and specialized weapon skills to collect and master.
"You can collect or you can play mix-and-match abilities between the classes," he said. "Every class also has two different weapons."
And those weapons aren't just about the amount of damage they do, they're being designed to "fundamentally change your gameplay."
BLOW UP ANYTHING, ANYTIME, ANYWHERE.
The second tenet of Next is destructible environments.
"Blow up anything, anytime, anywhere," Georgeson said. "Every designer in the history of gaming has wanted to make that game."
And in EverQuest Next, they're doing it.
"Everything is composed of pieces, so we can destroy anything," he said.
And it's not just about destruction, it's also about manipulation.
"An Earth Wizard can raise a stone wall and monsters have to path around it, or you can make a hole and pepper them with fire," he said. "Lots of characters' abilities do different types of deformation. Catapults can chew away at terrain."
As players tear away at the surface of the planet they'll be able to explore deep into the land's bedrock.
While the destruction is an important part of the game - even AI-controlled enemies will use it, Georgeson said - they can't make it permanent. Creating a world where everything is destructible at anytime would likely lead to a shrinking world that would eventually get chewed away to nothing.
The solution is to allow the land to heal, Georgeson said. He said the team hasn't yet determined how quickly the land will heal; it's something they're still trying to find the right balance for.
But some player action in the world is permanent.
A key issue with MMOs, the team realizes, is that everyone eventually has a very similar story to tell when it comes to the big events of the world they inhabit.
"Your stories are kind of boring to the other players because they've all done what you did," he said.
The solution is to create events, called Rally Calls, which can have a permanent impact on the world, and can't be repeated or reset for the next batch of players.
These Rally Calls are like a public quest. For instance, settlers might ask you and others to help them build a frontier town, and then to build a stone wall around it. Once completed, that town and wall won't reset itself everyday, it will stay there forever or until it's destroyed.
RALLY CALLS WILL LEAD TO EPIC STORIES THAT SEEM MORE MEANINGFUL TO PLAYERS.
"When you come into the game as a new player, you can no longer do that sort of quest," Georgeson said.
These Rally Calls will lead to cities rising and falling, large-scale wars and, the developers hope, epic stories that seem more meaningful to players because they had to be there at the right time to experience them.
New players might ask gamers who have played for longer, "What was it like back in the beginning?" Georgeson theorizes. "That was before the civil war and the dragon attacks."
These dramatic, lasting changes, the developers believe, will change the way people play Next and impact the sort of decisions they might make in the course of their gaming.
These permanent changes and the destructible environment means that the game needs a smarter sort of artificial intelligence for the game, Georgeson said.
To make better use of these new takes on an MMO, non-player characters will be given specific motivations and preferences that will help guide their behavior, instead of a narrow script of what to do.
For example, orcs will be designed to like gold, to like attacking unguarded caravans and to like forming settlements on their own.
"Then we release the orcs into the world and they know what they like or don't like and then form their camps," Georgeson said. "They stay there until things change and they don't like it anymore."
NPC ARE GUIDED BY MOTIVATION, NOT SCRIPT.
That could tie into a rallying call too, he said.
Maybe a town asks people to help put a stop to raids by orcs on their caravan. And then, in response, the emergent AI has the orcs decide to start attacking the town, and the townfolk ask for a wall to be built. That in turn leads to bigger attacks by more orcs. The entire thing can set off a back-and-forth domino effect that leads to a full-scale war, one never designed, predicted or scripted.
The AI also uses this sort of thinking and applies it to combat as well, so orcs might spread the message of a special attack players use on them that is very effective, and figure out a way to thwart it, Georgeson said.
A LIFE OF CONSEQUENCE.
All of this comes together, the developers hope, to deliver a game that makes players feel like they have virtual lives with meaning within the game.
Characters in the game won't follow scripted lives, they'll live by their programmed wants and mores. The game will "remember every choice and action that players make and will organically deliver opportunities to do more of the things players like to do."
A VIRTUAL LIFE WITH MEANING.
"We believe that the bold choices the team is making with EQN will result in a product that provides players with an absolutely new kind of game experience," Laura Naviaux, senior vice president of global sales and marketing, Sony Online Entertainment, said in a prepared statement. "However, there is something even more important to us. As an organization, we are dedicated to partnering with our community to give them a voice in the games we create. With EQN, we are taking this idea even further and offering our players to the opportunity to actively build EQN with us."
After walking us through those five tentpole elements of EverQuest Next and the impact the team thinks they will have on their game, Georgeson paused and then said, "One more thing."
"We needed a voxel editor to make this game," he said. "We wanted to make it intuitive. Then we decided to productize it and make it more into a game itself and give it to the players."
EverQuest Next Landmark ships this winter.
"It's a gateway to everything EverQuest Next," Georgeson said.
But where EverQuest Next is a story-driven experience, Landmark is an experience that, like Minecraft, is driven by creation.
The creation game will exist across a variety of procedurally generated, persistent worlds, Georgeson said, each of which will support thousands of players.
The day the worlds open up to players, they will be given a flag and set free to run the land looking for a place to stake their claim. That land, once claimed, will be a player's permanently; a place they can build and not be harassed, but can invite friends to help out on.
In a short demonstration of the tools used in the game, Georgeson started by building an archway of cubes.
"In Minecraft you would see this movement, where you build with cubes," he said. "We wanted to go further."
Next Georgeson started slicing away at the cubes with a bevel and smoothing it with another tool.
Ultimately, he said, showing an image of a much more realistic natural cave, players can create this.
As with Minecraft, players will have to find resources to use in their creations. Players can also find pre-built items spread across the worlds which they can take back to their land. They'll also find recipes and templates that can be used for creating items on specific sorts of crafting tables located in certain hubs in the world.
There will be no rules about what is made in Landmark, so things won't, for instance, have to be all EverQuest themed. Making EverQuest Next-themed items, though will have its advantages.
Players can sell their creations to one another for real money for use, if appropriate, in either or both games. Players can also sell particularly good creations to Sony Online Entertainment for an "appropriate" fee.
"If we get one million people playing Landmark," Georgeson said, "and ten percent start making things, and ten percent of those finish and ten percent of that isn't crap, that's still a thousand people making cool stuff. And we don't have 1,000 people on the development team."
Occasionally, SOE will also have contests requesting specific creations to help direct some of the items being made with an eye toward use in Next, Georgeson said.
THE FUTURE OF MMOS.
EverQuest Next is a reboot of the EverQuest lore in the way the modern Star Trek movies rethink and retell the story of Star Trek. They're set in the same universe, but things have been changed.
"Dragons have a lot more influence, they're smarter and more organized," Georgeson said, as one example.
The world itself is more dynamic and vertical; there's a lot of traveling to the roof of the planet and into its underground.
There will be guns of a sort.
But the biggest changes, the idea of empowering players to help shape the world of EverQuest Next, both narratively and literally, aren't simply for this game.
This new approach to MMOs, Georgeson said, is something that the company is looking at as a possibility for everything they do.
"EverQuest Next is the future of our company," he said. "We're really committed to this."