First Look: Everquest Next

By Adam Smith on August 2nd, 2013 at 8:01 pm.

Yesterday, Sony Online Entertainment significantly altered my entire outlook on the next twelve months of gaming. When I sat down, along with a small gathering of journalists invited to see the reveal of Everquest Next, I wasn’t expecting to have my line of thinking about MMORPGs to fundamentally shift, but that’s precisely what happened. From being a game in a genre that I have only the occasional interest in, Next immediately became one of the most fascinating and exciting games on the horizon.

And that’s just the half of it.

At several moments during the presentation, I wrote in block capitals, circling and underlining. This is the headline feature. This is something nobody has tried or managed to do before. Then, toward the mid-point, while I was still processing what had already come, lead designer Dave Georgeson demonstrated a feature that changed everything.

Everquest Next’s world is made of voxels and everything in it is destructible.

I had to fetch a ladder to retrieve my eyebrows. This is not mere “we’ve played Minecraft” rhetoric. It’s something else. It’s big-studio exposure to the kind of things that have been going on in the world of gaming over the past few years. It’s not even a ‘feature’ as such, it’s the foundation of the tech and design choices, influencing everything that is built on top of it. And everything that is on top addresses the accepted wisdom, or lack of, in the majority of MMOs – enemy behaviour, the unchanging nature of the world, player interactions, combat and the nature of questing have all been overhauled. Or perhaps not even that.

This isn’t a reinvention of the wheel, it’s the unveiling of a hovercar.

Like so much else that was shown, destructibility could have been little more than a gimmick and was almost introduced as such. That’s because Georgeson knows how to work a crowd. He showed us in-game footage of a fight, which left the battlefield scarred, covered in fresh craters and debris. A wizard destroyed a bridge, sending goblins tumbling to their death. Impressive, and in keeping with the fast-paced, skill-based combat and movement, which is built around weapon-specific fighting styles and parkour elements. It looks like a third-person action game, without the spongey enemies and toe-to-toe power exchanges that plague most of its peers. Great stuff.

Providing elegance and variety to movement and combat, making exploring and fighting interesting activities for their own sake, does solve many of my issues with the WOW (and original Everquest) model. Players still select a race and class to begin with, each having access to four abilities and a couple of weapon types, but they can learn the skills of the other classes as they progress, mixing and matching skills and equipment.

In the battle we were shown, the wizard was Daud-like, blinking through the air, materialising behind enemies and destroying them, sending splinters of rock screaming through the air. The Kah Shir warrior (lion-like now, rather than the tiger-person of yesteryear) charged, sending smaller enemies sprawling, then pouncing from point to point, chaining attacks together, and avoiding spells and the hefty blows of larger creatures.

And then a golem stamped on the players, breaking through the continent’s crust and sending everybody tumbling into a dimly lit subterranean world. They regained their senses and found themselves in a cavern, a procedurally generated space that could link to demonic lairs, forgotten kingdoms or warrens of tunnels, twisting maze-like into darkness.

The lower layers of the world drawn on the thousands of years of Everquest lore, archaeological depths that can be explored and looted, or that can become tombs for the unprepared. Certain spells will allow characters to teleport beneath the surface but any hero can grab a pick and start digging. When everything from the largest structure to the ground itself is a massive collection of changeable voxels, exploration isn’t simply about walking from point to point, it’s about making new routes to previously impossible places.

That’s worth saying again: exploration isn’t simply about walking from point to point, it’s about making new routes to previously impossible places.

In an MMO.

Rather than relying on the functional blocks of Minecraft, Next is capable of breaking environments down at the smallest level, leaving jagged scars in the side of hills and allowing for earthquakes that can splinter entire regions, revealing the ancient things below. Some of those ancient things may wake up and emerge, creating new problems and new opportunities.

When a new entity arrives in the world, whether at the developer’s bidding or due to player interference, its behaviour is driven by a series of objectives, needs and desires. Whether an orc bandit or an enormous demon from the depths, a creature is not the product of a spawn point, mindlessly wandering until the proximity of a hero activates its basic functions. It’s an AI entity that functions as part of a world. At least that’s the claim.

A gang of orcs, for example, won’t simply appear at a specific point in the world, replenishing shortly after they have been eliminated. Instead, when they appear, they react to the changing world. They act as bandits, and their purpose is to steal and murder. Therefore, they’ll lurk near settlements, finding good positions to carry out roadside ambushes as goods and people travel from village to village.

If a group of players start to patrol that road, clashing with the orcs, the parameters change. The AI reinterprets the situation, checking if the threat level is too high and possibly deciding to move on, wandering until it discovers a new suitable location. Or perhaps not. It’s possible that a particular group of players won’t present a strong enough threat, in which case the orcs could become more confident, preparing an assault. Or maybe they have a leader who will call for reinforcements.

The emergent situations created by an AI that is systemically driven carry more potential to change the way Next works as an RPG and online experience than the destructibility, but they’re harder to demonstrate in the short-term. Whether they’ll work as intended, we won’t know until the world has been in progress for some time, but that SOE have worked so long to find solutions to problems that most MMO designers don’t even seem to recognise as problems gives me confidence in their approach.

Having an entire world in which human players are competing with reactive AI provides dynamic objectives. If those orcs stray too close to a village, or kill too many merchants and travellers, an NPC may put a bounty on their heads. Alternately, the villagers may ask for better defences, which could lead players into patrol duty, or even gathering resources for teh construction of a palisade or stone walls. It may even be possible to side with the orcs, becoming a raider, and sodding off to the next horizon and leaving the situation to fester is always an option. NPCs remember players’ actions so the consequences of decisions will affect relations and future interactions.

There’s a final addition to the game’s structure that ties everything else together. Keeping with the blank slate approach to the genre, which involves jettisoning a great deal of jargon, larger quests aren’t defined as ‘raids’ or ‘instances’. There will, at any one time, be an over-riding, worldwide mission, which SOE describe as a ‘Rallying Call’. Every single player is part of a Call, although they are free to ignore its objectives. Each one will last for around three months and they will alter the world in a more directed fashion, creating enormous structural changes or new alliances and enmities.

The example described involved the founding of a city. A location is chosen, true to Everquest lore, and the plans for a new settlement are drawn up. The first players to arrive at the spot can set up camp, a few tents, vulnerable in the wilderness. Because people are idiots, they’ve decided to build in goblin country, so the camp will be in immediate danger. Now, every player knows about the quest, and if the attacks become severe, they will be told that help is needed. Quests come with rewards, so heroes may well converge from every corner of the world to assist in the defence and expansion of the camp, eventually making a village, to which NPCs will move. That village will eventually become a city, permanently established in the world, but before that can happen, the goblins must be driven out of the area for good.

Hunting parties could set out into the woods and wilderness, discovering goblin settlements and destroying them, but the nascent settlement will also require a militia to defend its people. Crafters could work in tandem with the hunters, asking them to bring back resources to aid in the construction of sturdier walls, and while the players react, so does the AI, planning counterattacks and possibly gathering all its forces under one ruler to lay siege.

The system has enormous potential. Civil wars, rebellions, elusive villains – my Tolkien-infused brain jumped to the War of the Ring, a multi-pronged epic quest, in which different groups take on varying tasks in far-flung regions of the world. The opportunity not
just to see a world change, but to contribute to that, either as a famous hero or a small cog in a larger war machine.

There are plenty of unanswered questions, and in a game of this scope that is still many months from release, that’s inevitable. Chiefly, I’m interested to see how a world of consequences and change fuses with the mostly inconsequential nature of player death. It is the one problem of the genre (though not unique to the genre) that I didn’t hear any new thinking about.

That was the key to the entire presentation and the interviews that followed. Everquest Next is being constructed by people who have a creative and intellectual fascination with finding new approaches to familiar problems. The solutions are so far-reaching that it barely resembles the games I expected it to be comparable to, including its named predecessors, and the experiment is hugely ambitious. Of course, eliminating problems tends to create new problems, but they’ll almost certainly be interesting problems.

It’s hard to express how large the shift in my expectations was. When John Smedley, CEO of SOE, introduced key members of the team, he gave them a lot to live up to. Twice, he explained, the project has been abandoned and restarted, with eighteen months of work completed each time. There was a fundamental problem. The games they were making had already been made. Static worlds, in which monsters and equipment act as little more than bundles of numbers, and players grind against them for the rest of time.

‘Enough is enough’, he said, ‘we’ve played the same game too many times’. He’s right. When Everquest Next comes out next year, whether it hits the mark on every front or not, it’s going to change our expectations of what an online fantasy world is capable of.

Rather than releasing Everquest 2.5, which would have been far cheaper than this long-haul iterative design, SOE have actually used their talents, thought about what could be done, and understood the time and money that a cooperative big name publisher can provide. They have elected to experiment with the form and attempt something pioneering. I’m struggling to think of another project in development with as much concentrated potential.

More to come, including interviews with all of the key development staff and composer Jeremy Soule. Also, do read about Everquest Next: Landmark if you haven’t already.

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172 Comments »

  1. Badgercommander says:

    I actually had trouble reading this article because I couldn’t stop my mind drifting off into imagining the possibilities. The article itself reminded me of 90′s PC Gamer, reading about genuinely exciting new worlds and mechanics. Age has made me more skeptical so I can’t help but wonder how close these bold claims will be to the final product but I’m optimistic that it’s enough to mix up an almost stagnant genre.

  2. wodin says:

    My first thoughts where like everyone else..sounds great, proper destructible enviroment, oooh proper combat like an online fps then quickly followed by erm..there will be nothing left of the world a few hours into launch.

    Also if all the bridges get blown up..who rebuilds them??

  3. AnotherGamingEnglishman says:

    This is so ambitious I’m scared.

    I have to applaud SOE for genuinely attempting something different within the MMO genre, beyond simply ‘look! our combat is “action combat”!’, or ‘hey! our quests are “dynamic”!’, or “get this! our story is “personal”!’

    Those improvements that have come about in MMOs during the last few years are great n’ all, but they hardly do much to change the fundamentals of MMO.

  4. dE says:

    Oh that new Everquest looks interesting I might…

    Our European players will play EverQuest Next with our partner, ProSiebenSat.1 Games.

    noooope.

  5. Maret1954 says:

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  6. Felixader says:

    Me: “I am exctited! This sounds really to good to be true!

    Nineth Screenshot has a boobwindow in it.

    “…. FOR FUCKS SAKE!”

    EDIT: To make this clear, i am still excited about and will keep an eye on this.
    It’s just……. you can do better than that!

  7. crinkles esq. says:

    Hey Adam, you hard-linked to their maintenance page. Their site is not down anymore, but it would look like it is from your story.

  8. Crosmando says:

    Are MMO’s dead yet?

  9. Koltrane says:

    I’ll give SOE their due – they really appear to have tackled what has become a rather moribund genre and addressed the trouble spots. Smedley is spot on when he says that we’ve all played the same game before, and since 2005 we’ve been basically playing WoW.

    You start at level 1, a guy sends to to kill rats, you’re level 5 before you leave the newbie area, then you follow the quest trail and pretty much solo until you max out, then start raiding. Sound familiar?

    More exciting to me than a destructible world is the shattering of the paradigms: leveling, raiding, instancing, circuit walking mobs, and an ever-changing world should forgo all the stupid in-game maps and bring back the thrill of exploration. It’s all rather ambitious and quite exciting.

    However, there’s one thing SOE hasn’t addressed: players.

    Someone said the world will be a cinder 12 hours post launch. Maybe not, but what’s to prevent things like griefing 14-year-olds demolishing the structure you’ve spent two days building? Wait, you say, that will be protected. But I’m hearing promises of an ever changing world with volcanoes and earthquakes and digging for loot. How open will this world be?

    Many years ago I had a friend who was a high level player in UO. He charmed a large monster and walked it back to town where it wreaked all kinds of havoc. For that, he was banned. He didn’t hack the system at all. He used the rules of the game to grief. This, I fear is what we will see.

    When summer vacation middle schoolers start destroying the world, does SOE step in? Do they “earthquake” it? What happens when the griefers claim to be on the side of the Orc raiders (or whatever)? You just can’t make players behave.

    I’m cautiously optimistic, but I’ve seen things like this go totally away from the developers’ intentions, from Shadowbane’s PvP becoming a noob killfest to EVE’s infamous blueprint cheating. I wish them SOE the best, but I’ll believe it when I see it.

  10. Chedruid says:

    If they create micro-multiple servers, avoiding overpopulation, this could be REALLY good… This news captivated my imagination!

  11. Enkinan says:

    If they do what they are stating in regards to NPC AI, then it will be a step forward for the genre singlehandedly.

    The destruction aspect seems pretty neat, but I get a big feeling it is going to be very limited from the video I saw. It seems only certain overpasses or patches of wall are truly destructible by players. When the group drops through the hole in the ground? I’m almost positive that was an instance, not literally the terrain beneath. They perfectly dropped in front of a boss mob with no way out? Not buying it. My guess is they magically jump out of the hole back to the normal world on completion.

    Otherwise it looks and sound suspiciously like GuildWars 2. Skills are class/weapon based, and the AI they are touting sounds like the dynamic events and weekly/bi-weekly “living world” content that GW2 is already doing.

  12. Shooop says:

    They’re making it sound like a more realized GW2.

    What’s combat look like? Is it the craptastic hotbar system?

  13. newprince says:

    Wake me when someone updates Dark Age of Camelot (Unchained doesn’t count).

  14. Premium User Badge

    differenceengine says:

    Okay; The continued shift away from role play and grind towards a sandbox that we’re comfortable spending time in. Not a problem.
    It looks good. There are some very nice game advancements and the idea of doing away with spawns with migratory mobs is very promising. That said, in order for me to want to play, continue playing and making or paying for content in Everquest Next, it must:-
    - Be skill based MMO combat
    - Not have a pay to win feature
    - Have first person, with better FoV
    - Find a way of dealing effectively with asshats who will just dig holes everywhere (usually dwarves)
    - Continue to allow me to make omelettes out of random meat parts.

    Trolls da bestest cooks. /salute Carver Cagrek

  15. isarmstrong says:

    Clearly it won’t work. Why? Because UO tried it 14 years ago and it didn’t work in the first major MMO undertaking ever attempted in a graphical environment. Nothing has changed. Also, you should kill yourselves because life is hopeless.

    Mind the sarchasm.

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  17. Nest says:

    If this works, and it’s a big “if,” then I think the system they use to regulate player behavior is going to be just as interesting as the actual game content, if not more so.

    Right now, I’m thinking about all the different kinds of minecraft servers I’ve played on, and there are only really three types of scenarios that I’ve seen:
    1) Open server with no major constraints on what can/can’t be destroyed and built = smoldering craters, swastikas, and giant phallic symbols everywhere.
    2) Closed server with a trusted whitelist, and no major constraints on what can/can’t be destroyed and built = an interesting and dynamic world where there is a constant ebb and flow of conflict and cooperation, creation and destruction.
    3) Open server with “grief protection” software and protected zones = Buildings explode and then reassemble themselves 30 seconds later, you can’t dig/build in most areas because it overlaps with someone else’s territory, the game mechanics seem arbitrary and there’s no sense of consequence to anything you build or discover.