When I was but a wee young'un, I played the original EverQuest until I felt more lizard person than socially confused middle-schooler, until I could fearlessly face down even the most mildly irritated of dogs because they weren't Sand Giants. If you had asked me back then, "Gee Nathan, where do you think this series will end up in 13 or so years," I would've been way off the (land) mark. And then I would've said something stupid and obnoxious and I would totally understand if you just hauled off and punched teenage me in the mouth. He had it coming. Point being, EverQuest Next: Landmark is more hyper-advanced Minecraft evolution than massively multiplayer role-playing game, but it's a foundation on which we'll be able to build infinite MMO worlds, quests, storylines, and dreams. SOE's EQN is just a single twinkling star in its gigantic galaxy. So of course, I used it to build a giant ice cream cone.
I am nervous.
EverQuest Next: Landmark's lead developers are telling me about all the cool stuff other journos and dev team members have breathed virtual life into throughout the day, and I'm coming up blank on ideas of my own. Director of development Dave Georgeson points out gothic castles, structures with buttresses flying so high that they'd nearly left the atmosphere, and - standing next to that majestic fantasy kingdom - a hulking, gun-coated mech. Because of course. Given infinite resources and a bottomless well of influences, man will invariably build a really big robot. There is actual science that backs this up.
But what mark do I want to leave on these boundless green plains? I scroll through my available tools as Georgeson explains them. I can drag shapes - for instance, blocks or spheres - into any size I want, from molehill to mountain. I can also spawn all sorts of premade props (trees, boulders, etc), apply a huge library of premade textures to them with a simple painting interface, or - perhaps most usefully - stretch a straight/angled line structure for inches or miles.
On top of that, I can opt to delete anything - whether I built it or not - by simply selecting an area (using the same sort of drag-and-select box tool used for growing and shrinking blocks) and making it go poof. I can select anything, really. Create, destroy, texture-ize, whatever. Conversely, I'm shown a heal brush, which returns any area or object to its original form. Lastly, if I'm going for a more natural look, there's a smoothing tool that grinds away sharp edges until they're soft as a baby porcupine's adorable widdle tummy. (Note: you may replace this with a simile that's less indicative of the fact that I've been browsing r/aww on Reddit for the past, um... what day is it?) Anything I make can be saved as a template for future usage or even sale on SOE's Player Studio.
Georgeson notes that I won't have such a pants-sagging utility belt at my disposal right off the bat in the final game. Textures and other such materials will have to be mined from various places in the world, and certain tools will be locked until I accomplish objectives or defeat monsters in order to open them up. The idea is to slowly build from basic to wildly complex - from pitiable cardboard box fort to Death Star carousel castle in the clouds. SOE thinks that, this way, new players won't be overwhelmed and they'll get a sense for what it's possible to build in the process.
That said, wrapping my brain around my architectural arsenal proves mostly simple and intuitive, with many tools simply functioning the way you'd expect. Don't like the last thing you did? Just hit CTRL + Z and, sure enough, it's gone. That kind of thing. I can copy/paste as well. I feel like I'm toying around with a fusion of Photoshop and Minecraft's creative mode, but turned up to 11 and with voxels that don't look like they never left the year 1995.
I still don't know what to build.
Another SOE employee literally runs circles around me while carving out something that I feel is halfway between a castle and a slab of melted butter. It looks kind of like a series of slanted steps, oddly angled but very aesthetically pleasing. He does this in maybe seven or eight minutes. I'm impressed, but I realize I have no idea how he did it.
I decide to burrow underground in fear, presumably because a great great great great grandparent of mine married a vole at some point. And then it comes to me: I will tunnel to the bottom of the Earth. Aha, improvisation! Here is my great project. I use the destroy tool over and over and over on the ground until I find... the sky. The game is still quite early, you see, so there underside of the world is simply the same as its topside. I realize at this point that movement also feels pretty janky, and I briefly gnaw my lip in worry.
But then an SOE employee coins the term "groundsky," and I am pleased. I begin tunneling forward, until I've created a trail of gleaming sky in the Earth's deepest, darkest bowls. It's really, really dumb, and I am entirely certain that all three SOE devs in the room have decided I'm either an idiot or a crazy person. Probably both. "That's, um, neat," they offer. "Now why don't you try building, like, a castle or something?"
(An aside: super-confined press events like this can be reaaaaally awkward. To SOE's credit, they let me do whatever I wanted within the game's confines. However, crammed in these tiny hotel suites, there's always an odd pressure when all eyes are on you and you're learning the ropes of a game you've never played before. Expectation, like you should be inherently competent, at least ("Don't you play games for a living?" etc). But developers and publishers absolutely do not want you to feel uncomfortable, so they stand around and pander. "Oh, that was really good! You're great at this," they'll grin with feigned enthusiasm. I don't think this cycle necessarily renders previews useless, but it does make them strange. For the record, I try my hardest to play as I would while alone in these situations - which is to say, usually stupidly.)
Now, I decide, I will make a sun for the groundsky. It looks so bare, after all. So thin and wispy and naked. I drop the biggest orb I can in the middle of nowhere and apply a lava texture. Boom. Groundsun. Satisfied with my underground edge-of-the-universe lair, I decide to play with orbs and textures. First up, a blue one with a divoted metallic texture. I place it on the groundsky, only to realize that something's off. It looks like... ice cream.
We all scream.
THE SIZE OF A MOUNTAIN.
Demo time is running short, but I have to do it. It is my Sistine Chapel, my white whale, my EverQuest Everest. I ask Georgeson and co if it's possible. Their response? "Yeah, um, sure. I don't really see why not." They recommend building the cone upside-down first, using a bunch of slanted line structures all connecting at a single point. Georgeson points out that he recently built a volcano this way, and conceptually what is an ice cream cone if not a really cold, delicious volcano?
The process is, admittedly, a bit awkward. There's no real way to measure relative distance from the midpoint of the massive structure, except to manually use the square shaped cursor to count spaces. So essentially, I'm eyeballing it. I recommend that SOE should just let us have the option to toggle a grid on-and-off, and they seem pretty open to the idea. Eventually, I lay down a decent framework. It looks like a teepee haphazardly assembled from woodgrain planks. I have a smoothing tool. It'll do. I copy my initial structure, rotate it so that the point is on the ground, and then paste a new one. Tada! A cone.
At this point, one SOE developer realizes the sheer artistic genius of my idea and decides to make one of his own. As I plop spheres of gooey, chewy goodness into my cone - to the point where it looks like a sunny day sundae disaster - my construction compatriot rolls out a much improved take on the same concept. His cone actually looks like a cone. His ice cream comes in multiple flavors. My mountain-sized ice cream cone might've been the first, but his is the best. I concede defeat, hands calloused and stomach very, very grumbly.
I'm impressed, though. For all of Landmark's early kinks, it demonstrates fantastic versatility. Tools also do a good job of using control schemes and interfaces that most people already find intuitive. Basically, if you understand the very basics of an image editing tool like Photoshop (or even MS Paint), the game's options shouldn't be foreign to you in the slightest. They do feel a bit slippery in a 3D space, but there's room to accomplish a whole, whole lot with relatively little.
Also, the tools that birthed what may well be the biggest ice cream cone in gaming history are only the beginning. The ultimate goal for EverQuest Next: Landmark - its purpose, really - is to spawn entire worlds. These are essentially the tools SOE is using to create EverQuest Next, so the idea is that EQN proper is only a single shard of a much larger universe that will probably include robots, dinosaurs, and well-dressed secret agent sharks galore. Generic high fantasy? Who needs it.
What I'm saying is, I'll be able to create an ice cream planet. With ice cream quests and ice cream NPCs and ice cream hopes and ice cream dreams.
All of that will be possible sooner rather than later, whether you want to collaborate or work alone. The alpha version - which you'll be able to play in February if you buy into SOE's founder program - probably won't include everything, but there's already a fair deal to work with even now. The ambition of Landmark is stultifyingly massive, but - assuming SOE can iron out some rather prickly wrinkles - there is reason for optimism. The idea of infinite player-created playgrounds is tremendously thrilling. Yeah, most of them will be worthy of a nice, gentle nuking from orbit, but a few will inevitably bustle with brilliance. Who knows? Maybe SOE's EverQuest Next world will be overshadowed entirely? If that's the case, Georgeson tells me, he'll be just as pleased as he would've been if the hatchling of his company's brain egg grew up to be the biggest and strongest.
I cannot say for sure yet whether the future of EverQuest is bright, but it's at least looking different. I dream of ice cream that ascends right past the pies in the sky, but perhaps SOE dreams even bigger. I am nervous. Nervous about their chances. But I'm also excited. Hopeful.
Note: Unfortunately, SOE was not able to provide me with an image of my colossal ice cream confection due to something about servers. That is the greatest shame, because you would've been really impressed. Oh well. Check back soon for an interview about future prospects for Landmark, how SOE's defending against trolling, SOE's version of EverQuest Next, how similar tech might be applied in PlanetSide, and tons more.