As we recently reported, EverQuest Next Landmark's paid alpha is officially up and running, and we'll bring you streaming video and impressions of it soon. But first, I'd like to tell the story of an EQNL adventure that you probably won't be able to have, despite the MMO/space-age imagination engine's formidable voxel-powered flexibility. I have seen the very limits of Landmark's evergreen realms, tunneled to its deepest depths (and then well below them) and built an even giant-er ice cream in its skies. It was astounding fun - not necessarily more so than regular Landmark, but in a different sort of way. The only problem? I wasn't playing by the rules.
Down we went.
PC World's Hayden Dingman and I decided to tunnel to the bottom of EverQuest Next Landmark. We wanted to see what lied beyond rock bottom. The end. Oblivion. Probably a skybox. And why not? We were virtual gods. On an itsy bitsy essentially private server with admin mode enabled, we could do anything. We had all construction tools unlocked and limitless resources to draw on. Instead of chipping away with brittle picks, we could literally select - ala lassoing a bunch of icons on a Windows start screen - gargantuan chunks of land and delete them from existence. Just like that, solid earth became football-stadium-sized crater after football-stadium-sized crater. We were making good progress.
Until we hit some sort of infinitely gaseous glitch layer, which lazily thrummed with hues of red and then, ultimately, ethereal blue. It was then that our character models disappeared altogether, and an SOE developer asked us to input the game's location command. Turns out, we were 1000 feet beneath the bottom of the game world. There was the culprit.
So we ascended. A no-clip fly mode allowed us to soar into the open moonlit air, jungles and deserts quietly snoozing below us. Also, someone had managed to stack hundreds of the same house model (weird out-of-place decorative plant and all) on top of each other, forming these bizarrely beautiful towers of rustic majesty.
But we quickly rose past them. We'd seen the bottom, now it was time for the top. And lo on that day, the impossible metropolis (and also Mountain Dew subsidiary) of Sky City was established. Stories spread far and wide of the sensation sweeping and/or blotting out the zenith of the nation, and by "far and wide," I mean throughout our demo room. People were legitimately curious about the small continent slowly creeping across the sky, and I'll admit: it was really cool to hear people refer to something I helped create in awed, reverent whispers. They had no idea where it came from, but they so desperately wanted to understand it. To comprehend what, why, how, and where did the sun go. (The answers to all of those questions can be summed up in a single exchange: "Hey, want to put a bunch of ground in the sky?" "That sounds really dumb. So yeah, sure.")
My imagination ran wild as soon as Sky City's patchwork quilt of overlapping landmasses was in place. This was a place of culture, of history, of terrible "sky" puns. It would be home only to those who had seen the very bottom of EQNL - experienced The Vision - and made a wordless pilgrimage to our holy monument of celestial perfection. I set about building a skyscream cone three times larger than my previous effort, a mountain of frozen delights that required a cone so large that the game's incredibly handy copy/paste functionality couldn't contain all of it.
Sky City also gained a gigantic Pie In The Sky, an attempt at a giant chess board, a random Mountain Dew can, and EverQuest Next Landmark's first ever monument to the phallic form, painstakingly modeled by Sky City's resident minister of culture and gentlemanly endeavors, Sir Dingman. And then, on the seventh day, we rested because SOE booted us out of their demo room, probably in shame.
But we wanted to see the limits of EQNL's world, and by god, we found them. And we built a lot of giant food up there for some reason. And then That Other Thing because - most drawn out sigh I can muster - videogames.
Most of this is not possible in the version of EverQuest Next Landmark players can now obtain. You've got to physically mine resources, earn your tools, you can't just levitate everywhere - nor can you build outside your own "claimed" area. There is, in other words, no analogue for Minecraft's creative mode in EQNL. Also missing: the option to run a private server and spread your filth far and wide away from the public eye. To keep it from affecting other players' experiences, in other words. EQNL merges that sort of handiwork-heavy experience with a multifarious MMO realm, and that means compromises. Full freedom simply isn't an option for now. But what about later?
That depends on a few factors. The biggest? Well, even if the servers are private, EQNL is still a Sony game. If it becomes a haven for the diabolically heinous and word gets out, SOE believes that'll be on its head.
"I don't foresee us [including private no-rules servers], but I don't want to preclude it," said SOE president John Smedley. "It actually is something we've discussed a little bit, but we're kind of [leaning away from it for now]. The downside of letting people do anything when you are a company like Sony is the association [with people who make these things]. If people make a swastika or a giant dick or something. These are things we constantly have to be aware of. It's a small world now. People can tweet that stuff and all the sudden it snowballs and Landmark becomes the land of phallic symbols. We're just not willing to let that happen - for the integrity of the kind of game we want to make."
Which is perhaps a bit of an exaggeration compared to what would probably happen if people decided to shout word of their phallus mountains from the mountaintops, but the point remains: SOE isn't a tiny indie. Despite the admirable versatility and intuitiveness of EQNL's creative toolset, the game's wild west might have to be a little more tame than most. Copyrighted material is another concern, with SOE figuring it'll have to draw the line when tributes get a little too obvious. As for what exactly that will ultimately mean, only time and experience will tell.
Creative director Jeff Butler largely echoed Smedley's sentiments, though he didn't seem quite as worried about the inevitable deluge of dick-based dickery. That's just the tip of the Internet's penchant for the perverse, and honestly it's often in
good some kind of fun. It's the not-so-innocuous stuff that SOE's really worried about - private servers or not.
"It's one of the things that players may really request," admitted Butler. "Alternate rulesets and alternative servers are really a thing players like in MMOs. There's no reason why we can't consider doing that - with the sole exception of the need to adhere to things like ESRB ratings. You can't necessarily represent that your game is Teen and then have an avenue that lets them stumble upon content that wasn't within ratings. So I think ultimately that might be a constraint."
"We know the first penis in the game was there [during this demo session], and we know that stuff will happen. What we really are concerned about isn't so much playful stuff. We know people will do that all the time. Even internally, no one's been bothered by that. My big concern is outright offensive things. Say I take blocks and use them to make hate speech in letters that are clearly visible from a distance away. That stuff has to be squashed immediately. Our first line of defense will always be the customers. The first guy who sees it and reports it helps us get to that even more quickly. But that's my first priority. We'll deal with the playful, jokey stuff as a second tier."
Most encouragingly, he added that even if no-holds-barred private servers never materialize, SOE's definitely open to the idea of alternate rule sets and sweeping mechanical changes on a per-server basis. "Alternate rule servers and things like entire worlds of PVP, there's no reason we can't consider that," he said. "It's why we really hope people give us good feedback."
Senior producer Terry Michaels further floated the idea of private continents for guilds and other large groups. Yes, I'd like one Antarctica, please.
So then, will Sky City ever be reborn? Probably not without a lot of work and the aid of a really, really, really big staircase. As I can attest both from EQNL and games like Minecraft, there's something to be said for a purely creation-focused mode, but SOE seems hesitant to hand us all the keys to its kingdom. It's a shame, because I'd love to push such a versatile toolset to its outer limits some more, but for now EQNL is meant to be a hybrid MMO/creation engine. It will ultimately have monsters, quests, combat, and winding character progressions too. I suppose we'll just have to wait and see if those tastes go great together or mix like chocolate and large-scale construction projects. Here's hoping, however, that SOE someday offers a more versatile, almost-anything-goes option for those who only want to build without artificial constraints.
Because honestly, Sky City? OK for a start, but only a stepping stone on the sky-path to Sky Country and Sky Universe. There's still so much more ground to cover. Er, sky.