Saturday, 12 March 2016

Not Waving But Drowning : EQNext

The comment thread following Massively's breaking news that Daybreak Games have cancelled Everquest Next runs into four figures. The blogosphere similarly resounds with the clangorous echoes of a mighty giant fallen. Wilhelm, chronicler of all things Norrath, is keeping a tally. I suppose we're all obligated to say something so here goes...

I agree one hundred per cent with Wilhelm when he observes that EQNext "was in its ideal state for a few hours after that first SOE Live presentation about it". It was a great presentation. One of the best I have ever seen for a game. It had verve and enthusiasm and punch. What it didn't have, as became increasingly obvious in the weeks and months that followed, was a game.

Actually, if all the team working on the project hadn't had at that point was a game, they would have been in a much happier place. After all, making games is supposed to be what they do. They could have come up with one in a year or two.

But it was much worse than just not having a game. They also didn't have a game engine or a voxel engine or an AI engine. They didn't have any of the basic infrastructure they needed to hang their game on when they made it.

It didn't stop there. In addition to having no game and no game engines they didn't even have a game plan. Instead they had "open development". That high-concept take on game-making amounted to not much more than a sporadic series of talking shops that asked questions that no-one cared about and didn't even listen to the answers to those.

There was a series of videos offering the unedifying spectacle of various staffers goofing with each other and sending up the project even as they were supposed to be promoting it. There was a whole beta application process, made hideously complicated and controversial by the involvement of PSS1, all for a product that had no earthly chance of entering any kind of beta in any reasonable time-frame.

Let's see, how about we put Qeynos...here!

And, of course, there was Landmark or, as it was initially known, Everquest Next: Landmark.

Landmark came as a total surprise. I never heard anyone claim to have anticipated or expected that SOE would simultaneously announce that they were going to make a new EQ MMORPG and a voxel-based, Minecraft inspired quasi-MMO at one and the same time, let alone that the latter would be available to play in less than six months.

They did, though, and it was. Or it was for those early adopters and curiosity-seekers willing to shell out the price of a triple-A release for what turned out to be a poorly-optimized tech demo.

The weirdest thing about Landmark and its controversial alpha-launch is that, if you go back and read the coverage from those first few months, it seems a lot of people were having a really good time. I was. I bought the most expensive pack for Mrs Bhagpuss as a birthday present and the cheaper one for myself so I could play too.

I have never regretted it for a second. I believe we got good value for our money. If you read my blog posts from back then you can see I was having a lot of fun. A couple of months of fun for the cost of a regular game is about what you'd expect. Of course, some of the supposed perks that were included in the price, like Early Access when the game launched and the ability to carry some of your work into release will never be fulfilled, but I knew then that I was paying a fee to get into the alpha. Everything else was just window-dressing.

I really enjoyed those first two or three months in Landmark. In many ways I liked it best back then, when it was rough and ready and there wasn't much to it. Over the years it has been smoothed and rounded and plumped up so that it's actually quite presentable, although that means it now runs like a three-legged dog on my aging PC.

I'm not so pessimistic as some about Landmark's upcoming launch. It's always been a fun...toy. It's not really a game. At $9.99 it could be a bargain. I'm looking forward to playing it again, whenever I finally upgrade to some tech that can handle it.

Wherever there are Combine Spires there'll always be Norrath

Landmark wasn't only (many would say "even") a "game" in its own right. It was also supposed to be the test-bed for the systems that would drive EQNext. And it was, controversially, the crowd-sourced sweatshop for some of that putative game's actual content.

Landmark players were set contests to design and build what were intended to be the cities of Norrath's future. I forget which ones they got around to doing - Neriak was one. The prize was supposed to be seeing your work immortalized in EQNext; to be part of Norrath, forever.

Now there won't be a new Norrath. Of course, it was actually going to be a very old Norrath, a Norrath from the deep past. Another swirl in the mist of confusion that  obfuscated everything about the project and made it harder and harder to explain or sell as time wore on.

There won't be a new Norrath in Landmark. Officially, that is. The precarious thread between the two has finally been broken. When the game launches you should, as always promised, be able to build whatever you want. I'm betting now that someone, probably a lot of someones, will build Norrath. Just because.

So, we'll have Landmark, if anyone wants it. We won't have EQNext. I'm glad about that. Let's be honest, it looked awful. Other than that jaw-dropping first presentation, when did anything about the project inspire excitement or anticipation from anyone with a strong affection for the franchise?

EQNext was going to be a bright, brash technicolor ARPG in which cartoon characters bounced Tigger-like across frangible landscapes with all the subtlety of a runaway wrecking ball. It would have been a center-targeted, left/right mouse button hammering, console-favoring experience that bore little or no relation to any previous version of Norrath's story.

I would have played it despite almost all the features Dave Georgeson and Jeff Butler crowed over, not because of them. Just because it would, in some peripheral sense, have continuity.
They call this place The Graveyard of Dreams.

I'm very sorry so much time and energy and effort and money was wasted on such a hubristic project. I dearly wish they'd stuck with whatever the first iteration of EQ3 was, all those years ago, before they scrapped it, what was it, four more times? If they'd just have aimed squarely at their core market we might have been playing EQ3 for five years now and I could be writing a piece today speculating on when we might see EQ4.

This is the problem with MMOs. It's great to have a franchise. It's great to have a loyal core audience that wants more of the same. But, unlike a franchise in movies or novels or comics you can't just keep churning them out and selling them to the same people because when it comes to MMOS those same people are still playing your last franchise game.

All that happens if you try to sell them another one is that your same  audience splits into smaller parts. Which is why, instead of making new MMOs you make expansions and stack them on top until the whole thing teeters and totters and anyone not already on the top floor gets a stiff neck looking up at what she'll have to climb to get to where everyone else is supposedly having the time of their lives.

That, I guess, is why Smed and Smokejumper and Jeff "No Gamer Name" Butler were so keen to break out to find a brand new audience. They must have known as well as anyone that all their core audience really wanted was EverQuest with better graphics. That's all the core audience ever wants (although the evidence from EQ's various graphical overhauls suggests that even when they get it they don't like it. Then again, that sums up the average EQ or EQ2 player's response to everything).

Well, the dream of growing the EQ franchise into a new zeitgeist and a global brand is over. It was never more than a pipe dream, at that. The people behind EQ already changed the paradigm once, when they laid down the framework for Blizzard to follow as they made World of Warcraft. You don't often get to change the paradigm or dictate the zeitgeist twice in a career and never by doing the same thing over again.

DCUO: doing much better than clinging on by its fingertips.

What the fallout from this admission of defeat will be remains to be seen. I thought Russell Shanks' statement was quite informative, especially if you read between the lines, as I always try to do. He as much as says that they bit off more than they could chew and that's a lesson SOE never, ever learned. If all that comes out of the fall of EQNext is a realization at DBG that projects need to be proven to be practical, realistic and manageable before work begins on them, that will be a fine legacy.

I believe the EQ franchise has been better-served under DBG than it was for many years under latter-day Sony management. The games run well, get regular updates and new content. The small teams working on them are doing a stellar job. GW2 players can only wish they were getting the same level of service from ANet's vastly larger workforce.

It may be over-optimistic to hope that EQNext going down the pan will free up some extra resources for the older Everquest titles, let alone that we might actually see a new, less insanely ambitious EQ game announced at some point. More likely the individuals not required to work on EQN any longer will be re-assigned to DBG's now-flagship titles, which would be the twin H1Z1s and DCUO.

Whatever happens, though, I am sure it will be better either than the endless silence and suspicion of an unreleased EverQuest Next or the inevitable media car-crash that would have ensued should that unhappy game ever have seen the light of day.

Goodbye EQNext. We never knew you and you won't be missed.




10 comments:

  1. I still think Landmark would be better as a Voxel Minecraft. Let players create their own servers and worlds with it. The only thing it ever felt like it was missing was the persistent change I love about my minecraft worlds.

    EQ:N was never a thing but a pipe dream. And while I may have taken a drag or two off of that pipe there was never any real or serious hope there. Especially when things started changing at Daybreak.

    We will get an EQ3 someday. It may be a decade away when everything shuts down at Daybreak and there is some spiritual successor kickstarter from some people who legitimately care about Norrath.

    Your picture at the top is also quite suitable because it seems as though he is holding his breath.... I'd suggest to not do that.

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    1. I think there will eventually be an EQ3 of some description, too. It might end up being player-made, like the CoH sequels, but there will be something. By then, though, I will probably be too old to care.

      Landmark is actually pretty entertaining. It does need optimizing but for ten dollars it should be a good buy.

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  2. Yes and yes. I remeber the bewilderment when they came out announcing two games at the same time; wutt? It was bizarre, who does that in this day and age of the MMO industry? More importantly, why do it?

    I'm the same as you, I really had a great time in early Landmark. Heck, this is the first time I bought a founder's pack while a game was still beta, that's how cool it all looked at the time. And then it just stayed a great building tool forever with no additional features that would warrant the MMO title. It's a shame really, had they only focused on that one game and added trade and social features to it, they could've had something here. But you're spot on with the hubris, I am glad to hear someone say it out loud. Hubris or a complete disconnect from reality, I don't know whichever is worse given who did this. What a tragedy for the people involved who have to suffer for it.

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    1. I think it will still be interesting to see what comes of Landmark. If they can just get it optimized so it runs reasonably well on most rigs and then they market it appropriately and don't claim it's a whole lot of things it isn't, it could end up being quite successful. I still find it highly additive every time I log in and it's only the abominable performance I get (Landmark makes Black Desert feel like WoW, in terms of playability, on my machine) that stops me playing it regularly. Or, I should say, playing WITH it, because as of now it's still a toy, not a game.

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  3. My worry is the revelation that Holly Longdale is now the exec producer for Landmark in addition to her Norrath duties. I don't want the Norrath team diluted.

    Anyway, now we know where Daybreak is getting staff for two H1Z1 games.

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    1. Yes, I'd prefer to see someone else run LM and have Holly stick with the two Norrathian titles. Still, look on the bright side. There's every chance that once Landmark is out the door no one will ever need to work on it again!

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  4. I'm disappointed EQ:N will never see the light of day. I have no special attachment to the EverQuest franchise, my entire experience with it being limited to about twenty minutes of EQ2 followed by a hasty uninstall, but if nothing else, EQ:N was ambitious. It was daring to be different. You can call it hubris if you wish, but the MMO genre really needs more people willing to shoot for the stars, not less. Even if EQ:N didn't end up being a game I enjoyed, I felt it could have moved the industry forward in interesting ways.

    Still, I'm not going to start waling and gnashing my teeth as some have. It's disappointing, but it doesn't spell doom for the MMO genre as some seem to feel.

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    1. I think you would be exactly the target audience they had in mind when they were promoting EQN: MMO players who hadn't played any EQ games but had heard about them and might be persuaded to take a look if only they didn't look so incredibly dated. Whereas almost everyone who had played or still played either EQ game for any length of time really wanted very little to do with any of the "revolutionary" aspects of EQN - they just wanted the same game again with better pictures.

      If they had been able to bring something to market that would have satisfied that first demographic then it might well have been a revolution for the genre. Once the initial hype died down, which took no more than a few weeks, however, it was hard to find anyone who believed they were going to be able to pull it off with the people and resources they had.

      There's noble ambition and then there's self-delusion. It seems quite plain which side of the balance this project weighed down on.

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  5. Why does no one mention Planetside 2 in these articles on EQ:N? It's not at the heights of launch, but it is still humming along with a dedicated playerbase, and an internal culture I haven't seen in many other games (just check out the PS2 Reddit).

    - Simon

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  6. Sad to hear this but it might be for the best. I do hope we'll see the whole StoryBricks/evolving campaign world AI feature in other games, though, as that was the real eye-catcher for me.

    Aside from your and other people's blogposts I am not that familliar with Landmark. But considering that e.g. the original NeverWinter Nights allowed for fairly sophisticated module- and persistant world creation about 15 years ago, might it be feasible that they could add such a feature into Landmark (perhaps a Landmark Expansion) so that people could create their own world? I could see Landmark being succesful as a 'build your own game world' game.

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