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.