Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Time Will Crawl : EQNext At SOE Live 2013 and 2014

It's exactly one month to SOE Live, a fact I was already aware of from news sources like EQ2Wire and Massively. Had I not known, I would have found out the moment I logged back into EQ2 this weekend after my long layoff (130 days since my last log in - shameful!).

It wasn't a pop-up or an in-game advert or anything crass like that. It was something much warmer, something that felt almost comfortingly familiar. There's this excitable fellow in one of the chat channels I belong to in EQ2, you see, and for him this particular fan convention is the highlight of the year. Every year.  For almost as long as I've been playing, he counts down the days, tells us his travel plans, what he's going to eat, the things he's going to do when he gets there. He starts anticipating his next trip sometime around Christmas and he begins reminiscing about the last one from the day he gets home so it's pretty much a year-round commentary.

For the rest of the less, shall we say, committed fans, the best part of Sony's annual festival of backslapping is the opportunity it offers for some real, firm information about the games we play and, especially, the games we hope we will be playing soonTM. On that front 2013's event appeared to deliver big-time. Not only did we get a metric tonne of info about EQNext including videos of something that appeared to be gameplay, we also got to learn for the very first time of the existence of some new, previously unmentioned project going by the name of EQ Landmark.

For a couple of weeks all the MMO world wanted to talk about was The Everquest Franchise. Excitement verged on hysteria. I put up five posts on the topic in six days. And then. And then...what, exactly?

Over the next twelve months EQNext quietly drifted off into the background. The much-hyped Roundtable turned out to be not much more than a talking-shop for the fans. The polls, which covered a bewildering range, from core gameplay issues to bizarre trivia, were confirmed to have no binding effect on development whatsoever. A cynic might well suggest their main purpose was to amuse the people making up the questions.

No more "gameplay" footage of EQNext appeared. Indeed there was precious little of anything. Have we even had a new screenshot since SOELive last year? I don't believe we have. Certainly can't see any here. As for those Beta sign-ups we all frenziedly scrabbled for a year ago ( I believe this household alone has seven accounts registered, although most of those were with PSS1 so will need to be re-submitted), well I'm glad we got in there fast. Would have hated to miss out, what with only having another twelve months and counting to get those applications in...

Landmark was promised by "the Winter" and long before Christmas Landmark was just about all SOE wanted to talk about. The alpha was delayed until February but made it out the gate before the end of the appointed season by a whisker. For a while Landmark was hot news but as alpha morphed into beta and development ground on with a truly magisterial ponderousness all but the dedicated lost focus and wandered off.

Somewhere along the way Landmark lost its EQ prefix and then Smed whipped back the curtain on yet another "unknown" MMO, the strangely-named H1Z1 and then no-one was talking about The Everquest Franchise any more, anywhere.


When attendees fill out the forms for SOE Live they have to nominate which game they are registering for. There are eight represented titles from SOE's portfolio to choose from: EQ, EQ2, EQ Next, Landmark, DCUO, Planetside2, H1Z1 and Dragon's Prophet. According to Linda "Brasse" Carson, ex-superfan turned Director of Global Community Relations, by far the highest number opted for...fifteen-year old Everquest. Not-so-closely following but still in second place came the ten-year old sequel, EQ2. Together those two titles comprise well over half of all the interest shown.

Concluding my series of pieces on EQNext after last year's reveals I suggested that the third installment wasn't being aimed at the existing fanbase but rather at the incomparably greater demographic that had managed to resist Norrath's charms for fifteen years straight. That was certainly how it appeared at the time and for a while, not least with the reveal of H1Z1 and Landmark choosing to distance itself from the EQ brand, everything seemed to confirm a company set on outgrowing its trademark High Fantasy genre roots.  

And then we're back with competitions in Landmark to "create the Foundation Museum for the dark elf style guide in game!". I'm confused. Everyone's confused. If anything's clear, though, it's that a gathering of your most hardcore fans is probably not the ideal audience for your New Direction.

When Sony Online Entertainment decided to go with the current open-door, open-arms, we're all devs now approach, inviting everyone with the odd twenty, fifty or hundred dollars to spare to come on board before the the first coat of varnish had even dried on the deck of the new ship, I don't think anyone realized just what a long, slow, tedious voyage they were letting themselves in for.

Triple-A MMOs seem to have a development cycle of around three to five years and in the traditional, old-school beta process a few, hand-picked players might have gotten their hands on the partly-finished product somewhere around a year out but most beta testers saw no more than the final few months. Now everyone is jumping in on the adrenaline rush of hype and promos only to find the game they imagined is just that - imaginary.

All there really is to look forward to is month after month of iterative system-building laying the foundations for gameplay that might, someday far in the future, offer something approximating entertainment. John "Smed" Smedley seems to have picked up on this, if a little belatedly, with this observation on the pending release of a playable version of H1Z1 on Steam's Early Access program : "We just realized ... it would be smarter to announce it after our feature list was complete".

Talk about your epiphanies! I wonder if he feels the same about EQNext? A year on from SOELive 2013 a lot of us are starting to feel like Ashgar of Ash's Adventures, whose "very strong suspicion that EverQuest Next in the previously demonstrated form is vaporware" was re-blogged to a larger audience by Syp as yesterday's "Quote of the Day".

There are five panels on EQNext scheduled for this year's convention. There's a "Keynote", which if previous keynotes are anything to go by will be a lot of hot air and some "concept art". Then there's "The Tech Evolution of the World", during which we'll no doubt hear a lot about voxels, most of which we'll have heard in countless Landmark discussions already. Speaking of which, third up is "Landmark and EverQuest Next — how they relate", a question a lot of people have been asking ever since we heard of Landmark but to which I very much doubt we'll get a definitive answer.

Finally we come to two panels that might, just might, offer something solid to get our blogging teeth into: "EverQuest Next: Combat & Classes" and, saving the best for last, "The Content of EverQuest Next". Well, thanks. That's really what we'd all like to know, isn't it? That and the release date, of course.

I'll be following SOELive as best I can from 5,000 miles away but I'm not going to let my enthusiasm run away with me this time. Here's hoping we just get some real, confirmed, hard facts for a change; not least an idea how far away the damn thing is. Right now even my worst estimate, a full launch in 2016, is starting to look wildly optimistic.





13 comments:

  1. This is a great round-up! :) I admit, having missed out on the original EQ train, I hope that EQN tries to appeal to some of that oldschool spirit still instead of just catering to a new demography. I always enjoy your tales of old but jumping into EQ today isn't really an option for me imo.

    It feels like SOE are all over the place atm. I haven't logged back into Landmark for a while now. I didn't particularly like what I saw on the forums, as much as I give props to SOE being close to the fanbase, I just don't think players make great 'co-devs'. If they were ever serious about the concept, they're probably finding out now too.....and if they weren't, well then it's a pretty low marketing stunt.

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    1. I think they still are serious about it - that's what worries me.

      While I'd never say it was too late for anyone to try EQ, any more than it would be too late to read The Great Gatsby or watch His Girl Friday, I agree that it would be one heck of a culture shock for post-WoW MMO players. On the other hand, WoW was based on EQ to a very considerable degree so maybe it wouldn't be as much of a giant leap as you imagine...

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  2. I have this sneaky suspicion that SOE had an idea of the direction to take EQNext and have scrapped that yet again recently. When they announced they were doing so a year ago i had a feeling they were going to chase the GW2 model and expand on it with voxels. That's both good and bad depending on the "expand" part.

    I loved every aspect of GW2 except the group PVE content. I'm hoping for a more robust trinity based take with the proposed 40 classes they initially touted. We're not going to see the old school EQ group content, since no one but us old fogies wants that, but i'm hoping they don't turn the game into a MOBA. I despise those games.

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    1. The thing about MOBAs though is they actually have roles: jungler, carry etc. It isn't the MMORPG trinity, but it is just as defined. And, most importantly, you can gain great fame by playing one of those roles well. (Good junglers seem to get the most press for some reason).

      I'm not a MOBA player, but I'd much prefer even those roles to the "Everyone in DPS" of GW2.

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    2. I'm with Ald on the MOBA thing, not because there's anything wrong with them per se but I don't think anyone's going to claim a MOBA is any kind of Virtual World and it's VRs that I'm mainly interested in, not competitive games.

      I also got the strong impression that last year's version of EQNext was leaning heavily on systems and concepts brought to market by GW2. Of course, one version (or was it two?) of EQN had already been scrapped by then and for all we know the one we saw last summer may have joined them on the scrapheap by now. Still, GW2 is probably the most commercially successful AAA MMO released in the West post-WoW and it's still thriving so maybe it's a model worth sticking with for a while.

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  3. Indeed, one of the reasons I am really looking forward to SOE Live this year is to see exactly what song and dance they are going to bring out to explain the big let-down in the implied promises of last year. Both of us, over the last year, have noted EQN's sinking profile and fortunes at SOE. You can certainly bet that responses to whatever they say this year will fall upon a much more jaded audience.

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    1. They have certainly squandered most of the publicity last year's reveals generated and thrown away much of the good will along with it. Then again, the core fanbase isn't going anywhere (more likely staying right where it is in two aging games even after EQN launches, if it ever does) and the wider world will long since have forgotten whatever they heard about EQNext a year ago.

      In the end nothing counts except the game they finally release, I guess. Everything up to then is just chaff.

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  4. Yeah, I'd like to echo everyone else. My excitement for EQN has dwindled a lot since the announcement. Heck, I watched the last SOE Live AT WORK strictly because of EQN. I worked at a bank as a teller, so it was awkward working that in.

    My problem with SOE's whole direction right now is I feel like they've lost any sense of purpose for themselves. Video games should take into account what fans want and incorporate that into their design, but I want the developers to have a clear vision in mind first and foremost. The waffling on EQN and silence makes me think SOE has zero idea what to do with it anymore.

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    1. They do seem particularly rudderless at present although it's hardly a new condition. The thing about Everquest is that it's a brand with very little meaning or traction outside of a core MMO audience and an aging part of that audience at that. They are probably already serving most of that fanbase about as well as they can with the two EQ games they have running. An awful lot of people playing those won't even move to EQN when it arrives, I'd bet. EQ players certainly never moved en masse to EQ2.

      I'd be more than happy with an EQ3 but I'm not sure there's a big enough audience waiting to make developing one worthwhile, especially if it did end up cannibalizing the current EQ/EQ2 audience. I think they pretty much have to go for a modern MMO demographic and that means making something a lot of long-time EQ fans probably won't want.

      Unless, of course, it's really, really good, in which case everyone will want it. Let's hope for that.

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    2. Yeah, I agree. That's also why I am far less interested. I get the whole appealing to a more modern demographic, but I was hoping and thinking they might have the vision and tech to still give a lot of the core EQ experience of old a shot for new audiences.

      The more SOE talks, the more it seems like they are a purely market-driven company that has zero interest in making any projects for themselves.

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  5. Ummmm....you all are aware that the foundations for EQ:Next are all in Landmark, right? The development for Landmark IS the development for EQ:Next. If SOE errored, it was in implying the game was a lot farther along than it actually was.

    SOE Live this year will tell a lot as for the development goes. If they don't give too many hard facts then the game is in trouble. More likely, they intentionally held back details so they would have stuff to say at SOE Live making it a better convention. EQ:Next will be in the headlines again for a few weeks anyway.

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    1. It did occur to me they might be deliberately holding stuff back for another big PR splash at SOE Live but that's a risky strategy. If that's what they are planning then they really will have to follow it up with something solid this time around. Otherwise it's going to become farcical.

      As for the "Landmark is EQN" line they've been pushing, does anyone really buy that? If it's true then EQN has to be two years out still at least. Landmark is absolutely nowhere near being an MMORPG yet. It has virtually none of the systems in place that EQN will need just to go into alpha.

      At the current rate of development, Landmark itself won't be a "game" this calendar year. Even if you assume a finished Landmark contains 100% of the technical infrastructure EQN needs, that still leaves the entire job of world-building, quests, events and, well, content. If they aren't already doing that concurrently and have to wait for Landmark to prepare the entire ground on which that's going to be built...well, they can barely be said to have begun on EQNext.

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    2. Yeah, that's what I'm really interested in finding out at SOE Live. My hope is they have a semi-polished combat system ready to start testing next year but I'm kind of doubting that. We'll see. If they plan on having the fans do all the artwork for the cities and races then it might be 2018 before we sniff this game. However, that will certainly cut down on development costs.

      I don't think waiting to make a big splash is a risky strategy if the game isn't close to being released. In fact, you don't want to oversaturate the hype before you are ready. When the game gets to less than a year and six months, yeah, that's when you want constant updates to keep your name on people's lips. However, if the game is 1+ years out then that type of feedback usually bites you in the rear because you start promising things that can't or won't be delivered and I'm not sure there is anything that pisses off gamers more than not including content that was promised in development. So far, SOE has done a pretty good job of being vague enough that they really haven't promised anything they can't deliver (now, whether or not systems work as well as they hope is another issue completely).

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