Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Disenfranchisement : EQNext, Landmark

A few days ago Azuriel curated a collection of quotes from ex-WoW superdev Greg "Ghostcrawler" Street and other MMO pros. It all made for an interesting read for anyone curious about the men and women behind the curtains but the stand-out quote for me came from current Blizzard employee, Community Manager Bashiok, who said, in response to a direct question on what Blizzard considers to be the biggest barrier to entry for WoW :

"Well *I* consider the biggest barrier being it's a 3D WASD game with a movable camera."

Ghostcrawler chimed in to agree, adding that "a lot of data" supports this view, although sadly he declined to detail or link to any of that data.

Yesterday Ultraviolet put up a post about the coming of combat to Landmark. He was understandably puzzled by the implementation. Like just about every other aspect of Landmark's development, what's being promoted (through a PR campaign that includes a video trailer, no less) is in fact nothing more than the very earliest, bare-bones iteration of the underlying system.


Ultraviolet was surprised to find that "Combat" in Landmark currently means player-made arenas only. He clearly doesn't follow Massively's coverage because they have been doing the topic to death of late, with two combat-oriented LiveStreams, an editorial/review and a rundown of the ten best Landmark PvP arenas, all in the space of two weeks.

I haven't logged into Landmark for a long time. It's largely unplayable on my aging PC and development moves at such a glacial pace I've decided it can easily wait until I upgrade my hardware later this year or even next spring.

I don't appear to be alone. Every one of the many bloggers I follow, who were talking about the game earlier this year, has gone silent on the topic. Interest appears to be at an historic low, although Syp's current "What Are You Playing?" poll shows a surprising eleven respondents have logged in at least once during the last couple of weeks.

Just because I'm not playing, however, doesn't mean I've lost interest in the game or its development. It will, after all, provide the bedrock and most of the structure around which EQNext will be built. So, I read Ultraviolet's piece with interest, watched the trailer embedded above and went to visit the forums, where I spent the best part of an hour reading threads on Landmark's combat and how it's going down with those members of the hardcore fanbase willing to put finger to keyboard.

It's a depressing read, largely because the Landmark forums now consist almost entirely of a very small number of deeply committed, highly articulate individuals with fixed ideas about what the game ought to be. Most threads either have single-figure responses or degenerate into lengthy arguments between two or three individuals who've clearly been in the process of scoring points off each other for months.

What does come through very plainly is that Landmark's combat, and thereby, inevitably, EQNext's, will look and play absolutely nothing like any previous Everquest game, nor indeed like any tab-target, stand-and-cast MMO, nor yet even like any GW2-style hybrid. The comparisons being made are primarily to MOBAs although the more optimistic of the nervous brigade hold onto the hope that they might end up with combat that looks and feels more like Neverwinter Nights.

Perhaps the oddest thing about this latest round of Landmark/EQNext's eternally odd development process is that it would now appear that the games will have two entirely different control systems, in and out of combat: systems that seem to bear no resemblance to each other at all. Maybe we'll end up with two separate cultures living side by side in the same imaginary world, the keyboard clickers doing all the crafting and the mouse-shooters doing all the killing. At this point I'd believe almost anything.

In the comments on my first ArcheAge open beta post Netherlands said "The news that the combat is from what I understand mercifuly not 'action combat' ... does make me more interested in ArcheAge". Yes, it made me more interested too. Indeed, it's one of the key reasons I can imagine playing AA in the future.

My feeling is that we are increasingly unlikely to see very many big-budget new games or virtual worlds using the traditional 3D MMORPG controls that we became familiar with from Meridian 59 and Everquest onwards. Those systems, which appeared to serve us very well for almost two decades, will be discarded without hesitation by the large corporations who fund development of these lengthy, expensive projects if doing so leads to, or is believed to lead to, significantly greater market penetration. If WASD movement and a moving camera really are the biggest inhibitor on take-up for what is often claimed to be the most successful MMORPG so far, and if there's now an established, highly-successful alternative, to do otherwise would be fiscally irresponsible.


Chances are, then, that by moving to adopt the control and combat tropes of other genres the decline in audience interest in MMOs can be halted and reversed. All well and good for the companies and developers who make them but what does it mean for "traditional" MMORPG enthusiasts?

Many MMO players already play other types of video games and are familiar and comfortable with FPS or MOBA fixed viewpoint, action-oriented control systems. Those players may or may not welcome the transition but they at least won't be frightened away. Many more MMO players will be sufficiently flexible and adaptable to learn the new systems, either willingly or grudgingly, provided they are sufficiently interested in a specific game. I count myself among that group.

That will leave a significant number of traditional MMORPG players who currently pretty much only play MMORPGs. For many MMOs that demographic will include both the most casual and the most committed - the grans and the fans. For fans wishing to stick with tab-target and a moving camera the options will almost certainly be reduced to older MMOs or niche offerings. The big, new AAA releases will simply become irrelevant for them, of no more interest than the launch of a new World War 2 shooter or sports sim. For grans only interested in sharing an interest with and having the chance to chat to their grandchildren there are now so many better ways of doing that it should hardly matter.

And that's fine, until you factor in the franchises. Some MMOs have a core fanbase whose interest lies primarily in the lore, the world and, of course, the social connections they have made there. Those players are possibly the least tolerant of change and the least flexible in attitude while being both the most lucrative customers and the most vocal proponents of the games they adore. Those are the people who are going to feel locked out of the future of franchises they have, in some cases, given decades of their lives to support.

When EQNext launches (I want to say if EQNext launches but let's be positive!) it won't be pretty. If it's a runaway success there will be a disgruntled rump of elder gamers, who won't adapt. Left behind in EQs one and two they'll feel bitter, rejected and also increasingly threatened and fearful as their more flexible game-mates make the decision to jump ship for the new shiny. SOE Live won't be a comfortable place for devs that year. Contrarily, if EQNext bombs, there will be a deafening chorus of "I told you so"s from the old guard that should last just about as long as it takes them to realize that EQNext's failure may have closed the door on any future development of Norrath for good and all.

However all this plays out one thing's for certain. No matter how many "build our game" alphas and "you are the dev" initiatives we sign up for, no matter how often or how loudly we speak out in Round Tables or Ask Me Anythings, change will come and it's unlikely to be the change some of us would choose. Adapt to the future or retire to the past - for as long as the past can last.

And I haven't even mentioned VR.




21 comments:

  1. As a non MMO veteran, having mostly played GW/GW2 and a bit of Aion, I found the control of ArcheaAge very ackward : why can't I attack the mob clearly in front of me until I have slowly click on it = release right-click, put your mouse on the enemy, then Left-click ? After 6h of game, I only have 4 attacks, and they are all the same : just give me one ! Or give me 4 that do different thing ! For the heal, I need to Alt + 8 to target myself. Why the button to let me go on horse, does not work to go off ? Why is the mana used to run ? Cool a boat... but how do I turn ? The mice does not do anything neither the MoveLeft/Right button... Ok I need to go to the Arrow key to drive the boat...
    And the UI : the "map" is totally... The equipment window does not show the stat, etc... Where are the scroll of identification ? Oh you do not need it but just right click on it... But it consumes... something... used to craft. Ok when I click on a forge, it propose me to... craft a strange stone ? no weapon ?

    About coop : why if someone hit a monster before me, I do not have the credit ?Hey I am dead, nobody want to rez me ? And how can I revive other ? Hey, PNJ, why you do not mind if I step on you, you have not seen I just killed your friend 1m away ?

    I would like to have question about the world : how to fish ? to have a mount ? etc... But those are question about the interface between the game and me.

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    1. I didn't really spend long enough or delve deep enough to come across most of those issues but for the time I did spend there I found the controls and UI extremely familiar and comfortable. The Guild Wars games would both be relative outliers in the MMORPG spectrum, I think. Neither of them has controls that are all that much like WoW's and the gameplay is fairly non-standard too.

      Some WoW players certainly struggle with the transition to GW2 although its such a simple UI that most of them get there in the end. I would guess that, given the large number of gameplay options AA offers, it would be among the more challenging MMOs for someone new to the genre in terms of just working out how to make your character do want you want him to do. I'm guessing that AA really won't appeal to many people who aren't already pretty steeped in MMO culture, for a number of reasons, not least among them the kind of issues you list.

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  2. I've stated this before but i honestly feel SoE has realized that their disgruntled and small playerbase isn't doing them any favors and has moved from them. They're obviously chasing the younger Minecraft/MOBA crowd. This is disappointing as i absolutely loath MOBA's and blame them for all the issued we now have with actual MMO's.

    I too stopped playing Landmark a bit ago. It was mostly due to having seen what i wanted to see from the building aspects. I was waiting on combat implementation. Unfortunately, the more i see of the actual combat, the less i want to even bother with it.

    I cannot stand attacks being bound to mouse clicks. It's terrible and combat related to it is terrible in my eyes.

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    1. I completely agree. It's apparent from many of their videos and livestreams that that's where their coming from, to the point that occasionally they seem to be trolling their own core fanbase. It's very strange in that most of the people working on LM/EQN appear to be at least in their 30s, with the senior people in their 40s and 50s. don't believe for a second that most of these people are making the games they want to play the way they were doing with the original Everquest. If there's one reason EQNext will fail it's that.

      I also think they are hugely overestimating the name recognition that the EQ brand might have outside the current MMORPG clique. It's blindingly obvious from the open chat channels in any MMO not published by Sony that many people playing MMOs these days have never even heard of Everquest. If they turn their backs on the customers they still have there's really no guarantee the EQ brand in itself will bring in anyone else.

      They'd just better make a real humdinger of a game or they're stuffed.

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  3. It is getting harder to maintain the little voice within me that keeps saying, "EverQuest Next will come! It will come and it will bring us joy and quests and smite our enemies!" I want to believe.

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    1. I think there's a real chance we might never see EQNext, especially if H1Z1 and Landmark were both to tank. They are so clearly aiming to exploit existing market trends that, with their pace of development being so very slow and ponderous, they must be seriously at risk of launching games that come out of the gate looking like yesterday's news. I wonder if some of the devs now wish they'd just stuck to the original development plan.

      If they ever get this thing rolling I will play it whatever it is like, at least for a while. I do already have a fallback position for the combat style if I find it unmanageable on the PC: I'll buy a PS4 and play it on that. Or possibly it might have to be a PS5.

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    2. Smed seems to be driving the agenda more than he used to... at least publicly. Maybe he was always doing so in private.

      Interesting tidbit: Smed is hosting an EVE Online CFC get-together at SOE HQ this Saturday evening. Smed plays EVE off and on and has been in the CFC in the past. He has also gone to EVE Fanfest.

      There are some former CCP devs on the list of those attending, along with The Mittani and some Goon luminaries. If I could get down there, I would totally attend, as this is sparking some rumors of SOE buying CCP again, especially since a pack of CCP devs have left for Riot Games.

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    3. If SOE bought CCP certain parts of the internet would burst into flame. Be fun to watch.

      I actually first heard of The Goons way back when I was playing my very first run of EQ. I was doing some research on servers to see where I might like to start a new character and I kept running across warnings that either The Goons were on a particular server and making it hell for everyone or they were about to arrive on another and make it hell for everyone there instead. I imagine there are a lot of crossovers between old-time EQ players and the CFC.

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  4. I think if Landmark was built solely to compete with Minecraft and no other reason, it could be a great game. Give me personal worlds to build, screw the online part (but have it there if I want it). It filled a creative niche for me that Minecraft used to - but I hate the non-permanence effect on the world.

    Every game doesn't have to be online to be good, you know. (by you, I mean, them. but you know that. The real you.)

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    1. To be fair, they said right from the start that Landmark would be a fully fledged MMO. People just got hooked on the "Building" part because that was all there was (and still pretty much IS).

      I haven't got a problem with Landmark being a lot more than a more realistic Minecraft. I've got a problem with it progressing at the pace of a very elderly snail crawling over broken glass.

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    2. I don't have a problem with it either - I just think they are missing the big picture of what that game could be, by confining it to an always online MMO (and trying to squeeze in things like combat and the like that don't seem to "fit". I'd buy server space to give the world permanence. People are less interested in temporary these days.

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  5. I find it hard to understand why your "elder gamers" would feel rejected, threatened and/or fearful if EQNext succeeds with a different combat system (among other things). They already have a game that caters to them, that they are familiar with, that meets their MMO needs. From the lore perspective, SOE have been crystal clear that there is no continuity between earlier EQ lore and EQNext lore, so they don't lose out on anything in that respect if they don't play EQNext.

    There are plenty of games out right now that offer different combat systems, different lore, and different communities. I would expect that those elder gamers who are die-hard EQ fans would make up the majority of the current playerbase - everyone who would be lured away probably already has been. Do you think that EQ fans would jump to a mostly alien environment, where nothing (gameplay, graphics, lore) but some geography and races/factions is the same, solely on the back of a brand name? I'm trying to think of a good analogy, but all I can come up with is comparing The Office (original, UK version) with The Office (US version), and I'm not even sure that's helpful.

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    1. It's the very fact that they would be excluded (or really, of course, exclude themselves) by dint of the reasons you list that I feel they'd be upset if EQN was a massive success. It would be like your best friend having a party and inviting a whole bunch of new friends he'd made and telling you you could come along if you liked, only you knew you wouldn't fit in with the new crowd and that your old friend he'd moved on and didn't really want you there reminding him of where he'd come from anyway. People are emotional in these situations, not rational.

      That's the rejection part. The threat and fear comes from the worry that, with a newer, more popular, more successful version of EQ on the go the time to phase out the old versions would come ever nearer. What company needs to run three MMOs set in the same place?

      I'm a bit puzzled about the "SOE have been crystal clear that there is no continuity between earlier EQ lore and EQNext lore" part. I've read a good deal of the promo material and followed the round tables and watched the Live Streams and I got entirely the opposite impression. I thought the whole premise was that we were in the past (possibly an alternate past) of Norrath where we would get to see how many of the great institutions of the franchise started and even participate in that history. Most of the examples of Rallying Calls I've read seem to be coming from that perspective. Did I misunderstand something?

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    2. Fair enough. Regarding the lore, you're more likely to have the more accurate take on it, I was just going on the initial announcements last year, where they were keen on repeating that "It's Norrath, but not the Norrath you know."

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  6. Not sure why they decided to cast their fanbase aside. Everquest means something to a lot of people. Along with that meaning comes certain expectations for game play. I totally hate most everything they have outlined for EQ Next as it appears to have almost no similarity to the Everquest gameplay I have loved to play. I wish they would start over again and this time get it right, give us a sequel, give us something we can enjoy for another 15 years.

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  7. Bhagpuss,

    I could easily believe that Ghostcrawler and Bashiok do think that the biggest barrier to WoW's success is that it feels like an MMO, not some other kind of game. It felt for years like the improvements they put into play were to do their best to fundamentally alter WoW into some other sort of thing entirely, thus the portals in the capital cities, allowing you direct access to new areas without any of the bother of that whole virtual world thing. Yes, I do think that they think that being a 3D WASD game with a moveable camera was a problem rather than an integral part of the genre.

    I'm far from sure that they are correct in this evaluation.

    One of the things that I really remember about the end of the first year of WoW was how it was rapidly growing out of the world of "gamers" and into the world of, well, everyone. I remember an article (I think in Forbes) talking about how World of Warcraft was becoming the new golf, how the complexity of organizing a raid team matched well to management skills, how CEOs played it. People talked about putting it on your resume.

    This didn't happen. Instead, the "second string" team, under Ghostcrawler, produced a game that would appeal to people with a shorter attention span, who maybe liked Call of Duty. The exploration and discovery was replaced by built in questfinder. Social skills were replaced by "dungeon finder." And the playerbase became younger.

    I'm sure their buddies approved. But they could have been so very much more.

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    1. I think that's roughly SynCaine's view as well. Not having played Vanilla WoW I can't judge from experience but I've always found it a persuasive argument. It may be that gamers experience in other forms of gaming find WASD and a moving camera difficult or just not as good as what they're used to but I'd have thought for a non-gaming PC user it would feel very natural. It's just point and click like using a website when you think about it.

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  8. A fundamental aspect of discussions, speculations like these is we have no numbers -- not even ballpark figures. To watch Smokeblower, et. al. on video postings and think of the size of S O N Y, one could easily think the EQ franchise is a major aspect in the INDUSTRY, but... *shrug* Trouble is, I'm not so sure we really know whether it's a big player in the upcoming markets (read: younger) or some old fart trying to come off quasi-hipster enough to stay in the game (read: East Asian).

    Disposable income. There, I said it. You pick.

    Yeah, I'm a little frustrated, too. The Wildstar fiasco should be instructive in all this...somehow. It really looked like some sort of attempt at being, I dunno what... modern?

    *buzzz* Fail.

    SOE/EQetc seem similarly bent but, alienation of established player base aside, they do seem to be flailing and deeply hesitant.I think you've made some (probably) astute points, so it's enough to inspire me to nose down and level an underplayed class toon through Kunark and ignore what's Going On.

    -- 7rsly
    Antonia Bayle &
    (that blob guilty server that gets 2v1 no matter what, just cuz)*

    *We keep hoping the Yak tenaciously fights its way to meet us. :)

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    1. Just over 24 hours to go. I am nailbiting over our current reckless PPT. I think we're still safe from Gold but I'll be a LOT happier come reset when I know for sure.

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  9. Better late than never...

    Biased as heck in this regard, I'd, too, say that WASD controls are actually pretty standard for PC users but perhaps not for the hip console crowd GC likes best. I remember from Wrath (when GC rose to power) a lot of complaints from the old hands on the official forums that GC was turning the game into a console game, catering to console players etc. Though I am the first to say that UI is a huge factor in wether a player sticks around or not, and the success of WoW has no doubt to do with a) being able to be ran on a toaster and b) having a more accessible UI than previous games.

    I think that the 'upcoming' bitterness from older players may also stem from the fact that the limited AI and (lack of) lasting effect on the game world was always a major immersive flaw in 'themepark' virtual world games, EQN promised to finally solve this - and now they're slated to being blocked from this because of (trying to) appeal(ing) to a far different demographic. Even if my funds will stay thusly, I don't think I'd personally buy a PS just to bounce a Gnome around Norrath.

    Count me in the camp that Landmark would likely work better if it was 'just' an online building game, when I read that they're aiming to e.g. bring in Achiever Bartle types into its fold I did, I am sorry to say, roll my eyes and decided not to play it, as IMO catering to Achiever types is one of the worst mistakes MMORPG's made - I play games to escape the rat-race, not to run another one for pixel prizes and 'survival' (aka gear treadmill).

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