The Siren Call of Dynamism

Looks like we have the next Jesus game:

EverQuest Next Could Fix Everything Wrong With MMORPGs

I’ve played every major massively multiplayer role-playing game released since 1998, yet it feels like I’ve spent the past 15 years playing the same game over and over again. That’s a problem. EverQuest Next is the solution.

I probably should have stopped reading that Kotaku article right there, but I’m a masochist at heart.

Don’t get me wrong, some of the things I’m reading about EverQuest Next sound interesting. Voxel-based things, somehow without looking like Cube World. And… err… yeah. Classless/multi-class systems like The Secret World/FF11. Stylized graphics like WoW, Firefall, Wildstar. Red zones on the ground that you shouldn’t stand in, like most every game these days. Jumping and “parkour” (which means what, exactly, in this context?) like in Guild Wars 2. Reducing abilities down to eight, like Guild Wars 2 again. Dynamic events and “calls to arms” like Guild Wars 2 and Firefall and Warhammer. Hell, considering they brought over Jeremy Soule to do their soundtrack, they probably should have just called the game EverGuildQuestWars2Next.

Then there are the hype red flags. A StoryBricks-based AI that wanders around and sets up camp organically? Neat. But then I started reading this interview:

So, to better understand the Rallying Calls, I wasn’t clear on some things with David Georgeson’s example: say you’ve built a big city, and built these stone walls around it, and now an army has come for a siege. Is that something that happens over a couple hours, or a week?

McPherson: That army siege lasts until the players on the server have completed that stage.

[...]

With the “emergent AI,” though, how can you maintain something indefinitely? If the army comes to attack, and is defeated outright in an hour or the players just ignore it, what then? Do you keep spawning enemies?

Butler: Until the things that spawn them are destroyed.

[...]

So, if orcs are released into the world and wander around looking for areas they like, they’re not coming from some point and spreading outward, they’re spawning from camps they set up?

McPherson: Right, perfect example. So in phase four of this Rallying Call, four large orc warband camps spawn in the hills. Those camps are literally swarming with orcs.

Butler: And they’re unassailable.

McPherson: Until you meet the requirements to move on to that next area and eliminate those. Then you and your army push past them and assault them in their homeland.

Butler: You try to fireball the palisade walls in the orc camps, but the fireball doesn’t take down the walls because you need catapults, because that’s what unlocks the next phase and gives you the ability to assault the camps directly.

[...]

What happens if players don’t do any of this?

Butler: It’s simple, it doesn’t advance. So just like a chapter of a book, right? You’ve got your personal storyline, you’re playing through the game. Your personal contribution and the story that goes with it goes on at whatever pace you choose to pursue. The server has a storyline as well, expressed with these Rallying Calls. If players choose not to pursue them, the clock just doesn’t advance.

Oh. So… these things are completely indistinguishable from anything we’ve seen a thousand times before, all the way back to simple phased quests in WoW? Will there be a little “Catapults put into position: 0/2″ blurb in the middle-right side of the screen too? How dynamic and revolutionary.

Getting back to the Kotaku article, the author presents his final conclusion like this:

Addressing the Real Problem

Boredom is the enemy of the MMORPG, plain and simple. Now matter how gorgeous the world, or how animated the player base or how compelling the game itself, eventually all of that content the developers spent years creating is going to grow stale.

That’s the real problem here. MMORPGs have traditionally been developed much like single-player games. There’s a beginning, a middle and an end. They can be padded with downloadable content, but they’re still single-player games with other people crammed in there to keep us from realizing that we’re playing the same thing over and over again.

Maintaining a strong community helps, but its not enough. To really solve the core problem, you’ve got to create what so many games before have promised — a living, breathing, ever-changing world.

EverQuest Next sounds like the solution to me.

Now, he says he has been playing MMOs for the last 15 years, but I get the distinct impression that he hasn’t. All long-term compelling MMO content is player-based. An ever-changing world is irrelevant in comparison to a completely static world populated with other people you like hanging around with. People are still playing the original EverQuest for god’s sake! This is besides the fact that there isn’t a “living, breathing, ever-changing world” in EQN or anywhere.

Even if EQN or some future game actually managed to pull it off, would you even want to play it? As I pointed out back in 2011, player impact on the game world is considerably less interesting than many people make it out to be. Imagine if xxArthasDKlolxx killed an NPC and now you can never interact with said NPC again. Is that what you want? Feature sets that include “destructible environments” always have to be followed up by explanations about how it isn’t permanent, lest new players be introduced to a cratered wasteland made by bored griefers.

EVE has been in the news lately with its dynamic player impact, but all of that has been confined to player social structures, and not the game-world itself; star systems have changed ownership, but it’s not as though there are less NPCs or ice rocks in the universe.

That’s how you do dynamic content: with people. Whether orcs spawn in the valley or on the hill is extremely trivial, considering you still have to remove them in pretty much the same manner as you did 15 resets ago. GW2 has committed itself to two-week content obsoletion cycles, which I guess is one way to avoid the tedium of redoing the same thing over and over. Then again, even if the set pieces change, you are still interacting with the world the same way, more or less, as you did at level 1. “Kill this, click that, jump here, fill up your meter, claim rewards.”

I’m not saying that dynamic/changing content can’t be fun, I’m saying that dynamic content is not some silver bullet for boredom. Things might change randomly or dynamically, but your understanding of their mechanics only increases over time. Nils has talked about this years ago, as I have, but I think Klepsacovic summed it up more poetically here:

That last part is the key: anything I could think of.  Early on I did not imagine what else I could want to do in this world.  I’d done only a tiny fraction of what I could.  This had two effects.  One was that I had not run into a limit yet.  The other was that I could not imagine a limit.  I did not imagine that the sky ended, that the quests ended, that the raids could all be done.  These were all true, but since I did not know them and did not even imagine them, they were irrelevant.  I was running the infinite distance of a circular path.

Since then I’ve learned and my behavior has changed.  I do not run in circular paths.  I run out, find the edge, map it out, and then fill it in.  This means that very early on my mind has already filled the size of the world, so that all that can happen after are details, with nothing big to be revealed.  In my mind it looks like two strategies for filling in a circle.  Both start at the center.  One draws a line out to the edge and now the radius is known.  It then spirals inward, knowing exactly where it is headed.  The other starts the spiral at the center.  It will cover the same area, but it will do so not knowing where the edge is, what the limits are, until it reaches them.

Cynicism is easy, but it’s also an appropriate response to any claim that non-player dynamism is going to solve anything. You can still get bored playing a procedurally-generated game; if that fact is not the simplest indictment of the intellectual bankruptcy of Mike Fahey’s Kotaku argument, I don’t know what is. People are the only thing that will continue making a game interesting once you have mapped out the circle. The player-built structures and other such things might bridge the gap, but it won’t be enough if you aren’t making friends and setting down roots. Given how EQN is F2P though… well, I’m not holding out hope for a particularly stable, long-term community.

All that said, EQN is now on my radar. If it’s fun, I’ll play it. Hell, I’m kinda interested in the incredibly devious EQN Landmark “game” where you’ll likely pay SOE for the privilege of building content for them (Landmark is F2P, but that just means the costs are hidden). Imagine building your own house – as in, your IRL house – and placing that in game… or selling it to other people. I have never used Portal 2′s puzzle-making feature, but I am always a fan of developers giving players tools to build in-game stuff. Crowd-sourcing is great, but even better is the ability to sorta build your own game design portfolio.

Would I get bored with EQN eventually? No doubt. But I don’t see that inevitability as a negative – it is simply the natural consequence of learning and experiencing things. An MMO doesn’t have to last forever to be worth playing. People and relationships don’t last forever either, but I don’t see anyone saying those are a waste of time.

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Posted on August 5, 2013, in MMO, Philosophy and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 12 Comments.

  1. As a dyed-in-the-wool Everquest fan it’s no surprise that I’m more excited about EQNext than any MMO since…well since EQ2. Almost everything I’ve seen revealed this weekend looks great. My main complaint is that I can’t play it right now.

    All the same, I entirely agree with you. Almost nothing in it is new, most of the promised innovations won’t live up to the hype and NOTHING will live up to the pictures players are making up in their heads. And by god doesn’t it just look like GW3?

    But so what? I like GW2 a whole lot. Been playing it for a year. I love Norrath. Been playing i that setting for 14 years. A more refined version of GW2 gameplay in a Norrathian setting? Sign me up.

    The real question isn’t going to be how innovative it is, anyway. It’s going to be how fresh does it feel compared to the alternatives available at time of launch.

  2. I was underwhelmed by the presentation. To me any MMO is going to focus on social aspects, rather than ways to make the themepark seem less themeparky. Not to say those things are bad, but the strength of an MMO, indeed the only real benefit over a single player game, is that there are other people around. EQNext didn’t give me any reasons in the presentation to care about anyone else being around, and it seemed like they would be at best ignorable.

    • Agreed, there was certainly a lot missing in the interaction department. Even when the characters were playing together, you did not get the impression that the much “tankier” warrior was doing much to block for the more fragile looking mage. That bothers me as someone who continues to look for interaction and interdependence in the newer crop of the MMO genre.

  3. All long-term compelling MMO content is player-based . . . so far. If the claim that every NPC and enemy runs off emergent AI rather than direct placement by devs is true, a big if as it hasn’t been done since UO and has never been done well, then there’s no reason to dismiss the possibility of a third type of MMO content, procedurally generated content, neither player-based nor dev-based. While they’re a niche, such content has certainly kept the Diablo II community active well beyond the game’s expected life.

    I agree with Matt’s criticism above, but I think every “oh just like GW2″ comment completely missed the point, the definition of “dynamic” in this context. GW2 never claimed emergent AI, never claimed different results on different servers, never claimed a lack of static spawns. They explained that such would cycle, and to Anet, and many of the early fans, that repeating change was enough to use the word “dynamic.” If you’re going to ignore some aspects of the announcement to focus on the words used to explain that aspect, the comparison becomes meaningless.

    No idea whether emergent AI or procedurally generated content will cure boredom, not arguing with you there, just the “oh it’s GW2″ comments can only come from fingers in the ears. A comparison to early UO would be more apt. A comparison to Frogger would carry about as much weight.

    Personally nothing about that announcement mattered to me except the emergent AI, so perhaps it is more clear to me that such isn’t something from GW2 — and of course it’s all just in the claim stage. But I think emergent AI leading to different results in similar scenarios, leading to different servers having completely different worlds, is a claim they won’t be able to back out of by simply cycling events like GW2 — it’s a different beast altogether.

    • To me, the “emergent AI” doesn’t mean so much in the context of the explanation the EQN devs made, quoted in the post. Nothing I have read thus far appears to be supporting the UO sort of “if you don’t kill the wandering orcs, they permanently take over the area” or “orcs can permanently be wiped out.” How exactly can the AI do anything emergent when, for example, “the clock doesn’t advance” until players move catapults (etc) into position? It seems like all the AI is being used for is possibly determining the starting point for an otherwise prescribed and metered out Rallying Call. Can the orcs build their camps literally anywhere? Or is the AI simply a fancy RNG that determines whether the camp will be made on the hill or the valley this time?

      I agree with you that emergent AI can create actual dynamic scenarios, in comparison to “dynamic” events in GW2. But at the moment, and based on the quotes from the devs, I don’t believe we’ll actually be seeing emergent AI at all; that vision is simply incongruent with the whole Rallying Cry concept as described. Maybe we’ll see more emergent behavior from wandering mobs, I dunno.

      As for your Diablo 2 point, well, are they still playing because the maps are randomly determined? Or is it due to the random items/itemization? You can have the latter in an entirely static game (e.g. most MMOs) just fine.

  4. Greetings…

    I agree with a lot of what you just said, and as a frustrated fan, who was expecting a very abrupt return to the more ‘hardcore’ mmo, i was a bit put off–well, i was extremely put off–posting constantly on forums anywhere people would listen.

    I saw this in a post somewhere, i wish i could remember where, but it is basically Richard Garriott commenting on a system they had in place during Ultima Online

    [quote] Starr Long, the game’s associate producer, explained in 1996:

    Nearly everything in the world, from grass to goblins, has a purpose, and not just as cannon fodder either. The ‘virtual ecology’ affects nearly every aspect of the game world, from the very small to the very large. If the rabbit population suddenly drops (because some gung-ho adventurer was trying out his new mace) then wolves may have to find different food sources (e.g., deer). When the deer population drops as a result, the local dragon, unable to find the food he’s accustomed to, may head into a local village and attack. Since all of this happens automatically, it generates numerous adventure possibilities.

    However, this feature never made it beyond the game’s beta stage. As Richard Garriott explained:

    We thought it was fantastic. We’d spent an enormous amount of time and effort on it. But what happened was all the players went in and just killed everything; so fast that the game couldn’t spawn them fast enough to make the simulation even begin. And so, this thing that we’d spent all this time on, literally no-one ever noticed – ever – and we eventually just ripped it out of the game, you know, with some sadness.[11] [/quote]

    Anyway, so basically their system had been done before, and was made useless by the player base. You cannot really predict how human beings are going to react, and, sometimes unfortunately, they can react in a destructive manner. This is why i take their ideas with a grain of salt…I mean, even more recently, Rift tried the same thing with ‘dynamic’ rifts that would pop up everywhere, and after experiencing your first few the player recognized the pattern, and their frequency, and quickly became bored (at least i did).

    That being said, i think the idea that AI remembers everything you did, and that it is intelligent and follows a certain line of thinking is an exciting possibility, but like i said, there is the distinct possibility of the human being playing the game recognizing what is happening and either exploiting their (the npcs) natural tendencies, or just becoming bored with the familiarity of it.

    Now, as someone who played the original Everquest for years, and somebody who can really enjoy a challenge, i was most disappointed by their idea that the traditional combat mechanics (The likes of EQ, and WoW) are the primary reason for the downfall of the MMO genre–i find this idea hilarious seeing as WoW continues to have a player base paying to play their tired genre in the number of 5+ million.

    I think it is funny, that in an effort to “not be WoW”, they decided to emulate so much from GW2 (which like it or not is very similar to WoW–i liken it to a combination between WoW Rift and W:AR). I think they have a ton of novel concepts, while some of them may not be new, they were very promising. As much as i poke fun at the emergent AI idea, i think it has promise.

    What bothers me, is that with the destructibility, and exploration and interactive nature of the environment, why did they feel the need to change the core game mechanics as part of their “pillars”? If you watched the announcement video (the entire hour and twenty minute event) you could tell the die hard EQ fans were bothered by a small list of things in particular: Basically, the combat appearing to be too easy, the now cutesy cartoonish art style, and the idea that multiclassing is somehow inherently better than a traditional class system (I disagree completely here, i feel that interdependence on other classes breeds social activity amongst its players, and if everyone can do everything, then eventually that leads to seclusion–like a crafter deciding to keep materials because eventually he could make something blacksmithing, even if he was initially a woodworker–diatribe over).

    Was the removal of the core “heart” of the game necessary? Because, essentially, all they did was pick the bones of EQ, and take the brand name and the location names, and call it Everquest, when it is almost an entirely new game otherwise.

    I look forward to the launch of the game, but my enthusiasm has been severely tempered. I hope they at least make the acquisition of skills and abilities difficult, and place certain restrictions on the time it takes for a person to switch out of a certain class or set of abilities….

    I do not like the idea of a character that is supremely gifted at magic, but wearing heavy armor–perhaps i am just too “old school” in my beliefs, but that should hinder the mage in some way. Players should be only be allowed to excel to the fullest in a select number of abilities, and not be able to change willy-nilly based on the situation. As i have said a number of times before, if everyone can do everything, what makes that player special in the world?

    There is a reason why, as human beings, we are not able to be great at everything–it simply takes up too much time. I feel our characters should be similar here. It would also allow for greater interaction amongst the community. For this reason alone, i feel they should really limit either the acquisition time to find new skills/abilities, or limit how often they are able to use them (or switch to new ones).

    Sorry for the flood of nonsense, i was simply trying to get out a little of my frustration–even if it is just out here in cyber space somewhere.

    I am trying to keep my mind open and hope for the best, otherwise i am probably bound to go crazy–and thank you for mentioning that EQ Landmark is basically a way for them to acquire needed content for their actual game from hardworking would-be designers for free (for some reason people seem to ignore that part).

    Take care, here is to hoping they will limit anarchy a little bit in the game.

    • I don’t know that EQN needs to appeal to the “hardcore EQ” population, so I don’t necessarily make much of the live audience reaction. As someone pointed out, people still play EQ.

      The emergent AI, well, we won’t know until someone puts it into their game. There are many issues and concerns with it, and execution will be very key. Ultimately, I expect all the “revolutionary” ideas to be watered down and left on the cutting room floor for the release. Might we see them in EQNL perhaps?

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