Shooting for the MMOon: The many promises of Everquest Next

Emergent AI. Destructible environments. Permanent change. The features packed into upcoming free-to-play MMO Everquest Next reads off like a gamer's wishlist, full of whimsical, oft-promised ideas that the wizards at Sony Online Entertainment have reportedly made manifest.

I'll admit, it all sounds rather alluring—the trappings of World of Warcraft and (old) Everquest left by the wayside, we'll find ourselves in a world ready to be molded as we see fit. Driven by a team of experienced game designers working in concert with fans from day one, the latest entry in the classic Everquest franchise aims to turn the MMO-world on its head with lofty ideas—but will they pan out?

Clever little people

Consider the non-player character (NPC), mainstay of any narrative-driven video game. They're the quest-givers, and random baddies of your average MMO, doling out rewards or serving up a bit of flavor text so the world feels a little less empty. In Everquest Next NPCs will be given proper motives: in one example, a band of orc raiders roam their territory, judging trespassing players' relative strength before deciding whether or not to attack or give them a wide berth. They might also prey on wandering NPC merchants, who would in turn decide something must be done, and begin offering players rewards for dealing with the bandit menace.

It all speaks to the MMO-player's general fatigue with traditional systems, wherein players march along a nigh-endless content treadmill until the community dwindles to naught and the game is shuttered. Everquest Next will be holding on to many of the themes of your traditional MMO—there'll be classes to choose from, goblins to smite, and villages to save—but shaking up a player's daily interactions will help the world feel a great deal more lively

This land is your land

The world of Everquest Next is built on voxels, or volumetric pixels—think Minecraft's textured-cubes on an intricately grander scale. This will ostensibly allow for fully destructible terrain, with battles and the like reshaping the procedurally-generated world around you.

As wondrous as tearing the world asunder might read on a fact sheet, I've got to defer to my inner cynic. We've been promised this sort of thing for years (remember Red Faction?) and while I've no doubt that technology has advanced to a point where this level of terrain deformation is feasible, instinct tells me that things will be a lot more contained than the developers are letting on.

Building an MMORPG with terrain that anyone can change is an attractive—if seemingly impossible—proposition.

Anyone who's played Minecraft on a random public server has seen what happens when players are essentially given the keys to the kingdom: they level everything, poking and prodding at the world around them just to see what's feasible. Any landmarks or aesthetic flourishes will be ground into dust by the first player who wants to check out what their sweet new move would do to that wall over there, and the developers will be forced to relegate terrain deformation to pre-defined areas, re-load environments regularly, or watch as their world is gutted by a feral playerbase.

The dreaded human element

Therein lies the rub. Everquest Next promises to shake up tired old MMO conventions, but there's a reason games like WoW and its ilk have settled into these grooves. Consider Ultima Online's Artificial Life Engine, which is akin to Everquest Next's emergent AI systems on steroids. Ultima Online's developers built a living world with interdependent ecologies, and their paying subscribers simply massacred everything in sight, butchering the delicate balance the developers had envisioned and forcing them to rely on spawning mechanics that are now industry standard. I've no doubt that Everquest Next has the technology on hand to make intelligent, roving bands of NPCs a reality, but what's to stop players from scorching the earth in search of loot, preventing the sort of emergent NPC interactions the developers are envisioning?

Doubly so for destructible terrain. If the first players who join can carve through walls and the like at will, those that follow will be greeted by virtual miles of bland, devastated terrain. That won't do, of course. But if terrain deformation becomes locked to an individual player or group's instance, is relegated to particular zones, or is simply wiped clean at regular intervals then it becomes little more than a gimmick. And then there are things like permanent, player-built cities, letting gamers leave their mark on the world. A careful balance will need to be struck between limiting the rate players can expand and not shutting out players who come to the game years down the line and find all the prime spots have been taken.

Everquest Next looks and sounds great—in theory.

There are no easy answers, which makes me doubly excited for what the developers have in store. A companion free-to-play online game dubbed Everquest Next Landmark will be launching this winter, and it would seem its chief raison d'être is to offer players tools to create buildings and items that will have a chance to appear in the Everquest Next MMO. There's also the Round Table, which encourages prospective fans to vote on polls and chat with the development team on social networks and forums.

Details remain scant. But despite my handful of misgivings, my interest is piqued: being especially ambitious is always a good problem to have, and with MMOs like World of Warcraft losing steam it's always good to see developers trying something new with the space. The Everquest Next site doesn't have much in the way of information yet, but I'd recommend heading on over and applying for the beta.

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