Monday, 14 March 2016

The Torch Passes : Pantheon, EQNext

Now here's a thing. In all the dust and smoke kicked up by the falling giant that would have been EQNext it was all too easy to miss the latest PR push from the only other current pretender to EQ's throne, Pantheon: Rise of the Fallen.

Almost exactly two years ago, when Brad "Arudune" McQuaid unleashed his ill-fated Kickstarter campaign to an embarrassed shuffling of feet and jingling of pocket-change, the great EQNext project was still all systems go, even though none of it was actually going anywhere. Smed was still in charge of the the EQNext roadshow with Dave "Smokejumper" Georgeson as the ever-grinning master of ceremonies.

Compared to their three-ring circus act, Brad's indie effort looked like a dog and pony show. Once the Kickstarter went down in flames barely half-way to its goal most observers thought that was curtain down for ever. There was even a little speculation over whether the Great Smed would wave his magic wand over poor, deluded Brad once more, the way he'd done when Brad so spectacularly failed to realize his vision with the launch of Vanguard, and haul the Pantheon project on board the good ship SOE.

Hero's Song. For a very small value of "Hero"

And now, here we are in 2016. EQNext is dead. Sony Online Entertainment is dead. Smed is...well, he's failing his own Kickstarter for a game that sounds vastly less-ambitious and less interesting than anything Brad ever put his name to over the last twenty years. There would have been some serious money to be made had anyone run an accumulator on those odds.

I didn't watch the Twitch stream live as Brad and a bunch of his co-developers at Visionary Realms showed off their pre-alpha build to anyone who cared. I only vaguely knew it was happening. My interest in Pantheon, never strong to begin with, pretty much fell off a cliff after the Kickstarter failed.

Brad, however, turns out to be made of stronger stuff than I or probably anyone who'd vicariously winced at his career downhill since the infamous parking lot firings would ever have believed. Instead of rolling over and giving up, Brad and his Visionary Realms crew (VR - that's an unfortunate acronym) have rolled on, picking up funding from who knows where.

Two years on not only is the Pantheon project still alive, not only does it have a smart new website, no, much more than that, against all odds it appears they are actually making a game. Ald Shot First, who is far more on board with Brad's vision of a fully group-centered retro retread of EverQuest running on a modern game engine than I will ever be, has full coverage of this weekend's big reveal.

So far I've only watched the first fifteen minutes of the hour-and-three-quarters of footage that's up on YouTube. That was more than enough to convince me that Pantheon is the real thing after all.

It might look rough around the edges. The animations and spell effects might look faint and sketchy. There might not be any lens flare, light shows, spectacular explosions, giant lion-men walking on their hind legs or buildings falling down but by all that's holy those guys are playing an MMO!

To be precise, they appear to be playing EverQuest. Only with prettier pictures. The dream is real.

Ald observes that "More surprising than anything is how modern the interface appeared. I was worried we'd get some sort of terribly clunky interface all for the sake of either EQ nostalgia or some sense of stubbornness many old school players seem to have. So far i'm not seeing that." I take that to mean he hasn't played EQ for a good while, because that interface looks remarkably similar to how I have EQ set up today.

I like my spell bar on the left but otherwise that's just about perfect.

The entire thing just screams EverQuest, from titles of the classes to the text in the chat boxes to the names of the mobs to the placement of the camps. And, of course, to every last detail of the gameplay. Starting with the pulling, through the the adds and the fights to the brief territorial tussle between two groups of players vying for the same Orc Camp, to (and this was the capper for me) the minute's sit-down for the entire group after a big fight so the casters could get their mana back, this could be me playing EQ a decade and a half ago.

I'm not in the least bit convinced that's something I want to do. I did it already. It was fun while it lasted but those days are gone. I'd like to think I've moved on. I know for sure the world has.

Still, it really is good to see that someone, somewhere is still holding the faith. EQNext, had it ever appeared, seemed set to erase every last vestige of affection for the look, feel and gameplay that supposedly made EverQuest the world's most successful MMORPG of its day. Jeff Butler, one of the original architects of that success, seemed particularly determined to ensure none of That Kind Of Thing ever happened on his watch again.

When Pantheon eventually becomes something we can buy and play (and it looks more likely now than ever before that that's a thing that could happen) I will almost certainly give it a try. Curiosity, nostalgia, and the knowledge that, for all his multifarious shortcomings, Brad has been the visionary force behind two of my all-time favorite imaginary worlds, make that much a certainty.

With the heavy emphasis on all group play, all the time, and the very unattractive lore, it's extremely unlikely that I'll make Pantheon my new MMO home but I wish Brad and his team all the best in making it happen. Just don't screw it up again, this time, okay?


9 comments:

  1. He tried to do that with Vanguard somewhat as well. The name badges above players were in the same sans-serif font.

    I'd be more interested though if Brad showed more focus. Previously he was still in "must have all possible features" mode, which was what sunk him with Vanguard. He could probably do a few things well enough, but all the things will mean years of fixing problems.

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    1. They go on about PvP in the first ten minutes and the clear implication is that the would-be players who are adopting Pantheon at this early stage have been pushing for it. I agree entirely with you that PvP is a dead-end and a drag anchor for a game of this kind but the advocates for it are always among the most determined and vocal of all so it must be very hard for developers to completely discount them. They should, though, in this case.

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    2. I went to look at the Pantheon FAQ and there is the can of worms I feared, PvP servers with changes to classes and races to "make PvP more fun." Welcome to forum flame wars and never ending class balancing!

      We shall see I suppose.

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  2. I think you might be mistaken on calling Pantheon more ambitious than Hero's Song.

    After all, what is Pantheon doing that is actually new? It's appeal seems to be "back to the future", bringing back all the systems that were discarded in the quest for casual players, with some quality of life adjustments for the modern age. It's also being made in Unity, an off-the-shelf solution; whereas a truly ambitious game like Camelot Unchained, is building their engine from the ground up for what they need to do (huge RvR battles).

    From one angle, the only thing ambitious about Pantheon is the will to overcome its mishandled beginning.

    And Hero's Song is actually trying to do new things within its niche (according to the pitch). Self-hosted servers with thousands of players. Most importantly, a procedurally generated back story (written by a professional fantasy writer) that not only creates a random fantasy world each time, but the world created effects what classes you can play, magic you can use etc.

    I may have missed something, but I don't think that's been attempted before.

    - Simon

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    1. I don't really think either of the games is remotely new or ambitious, let alone original but I personally have very little time or sympathy for games that look like Hero's Song, which reminds me of things I played in the 1980s, whereas the world in that Pantheon video looks like somewhere I'd be quite interested to explore. That's a personal preference, though.

      As for developers building their own engines, as a player and a customer I have never seen the point, unless you are making a game that literally cannot be played satisfactorily on any of the existing options, which apparently is the case for CU.

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    2. Well, I think my hunch about this was correct. It turns out the "AI guy" behind EQN's much-heralded dynamic systems is now working with Smedley on Hero's Song:

      http://intrinsicalgorithm.com/IAonAI/2016/03/on-everquest-next-and-ai-driven-mmos/

      I suppose the bigger question though is what should be described as "ambitious" and in what context?

      You could probably make the case that any game with MMORPG-aspirations could be called ambitious just because of the technical difficulty in actually building the MMO element, and then, on top of that the game design that goes into creating a successful virtual world. (Though with the rise of middleware like Unity, the technical element is much less of a challenge).

      Ambition could probably also be weighed in the context of who is designing it. What is considered ambitious for a former CEO like Smedley, is probably very different than for two indie designers in a dorm room.

      - Simon

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    3. Everything is relative, as they say. I read that AI piece yesterday as it happens and I was very unimpressed and unconvinced. I might do a post on it if I get time. I remember someone (possibly Mark Jacobs?) doing an interview way back in the early 2000s, saying that designers were able to do far more creative and innovative things with AI in MMORPGs than anyone was seeing but that whenever they tried adding anything like that players hated it. The guy writing that piece mentions that theory and dismisses it but I think it is exactly what does happen.

      Players always claim they like unpredictability and surprise on their MMOs but my experience has always been that they really hate it when it happens, unless it is very clearly to their advantage. If Orcs get up and move to another area that's safer for them, they won't be there for players to kill when they come home from work and log in. Players will then have to spend a portion of their gaming session looking for them just so they can get on with killing them like they meant to from the start. If the AI is good enough that the orcs can successfully hide from the players altogether (or turn into Good Orcs and move to the city and get jobs as bouncers) then that's content the player used to have and has now lost.

      A lot of players DO hate this sort of thing. Whether there are enough players who would appreciate being jerked around by AI controlled mobs to sustain a mainstream MMO I think is at least questionable. Anyway, this is turning into the post I said i might write so best leave it at that for now...

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    4. I think that is a very good point about MMORPG's players not wanting unpredictable AI opponents. However, it should be stressed, I think, that is the preference of MMORPG players, not players of other genres of games. (For example there is the constituency of Dwarf Fortress, whose motto is "Losing is Fun"--you can google it!).

      From what I can tell, Hero's Song is directed towards this different niche. (Though Smedley was obviously using his MMO press contact to hype it in the MMO media). Or at least, is not directed towards the segment of MMO player you mention.

      This is in addition to other design choices Hero's Song appears to make, like having the procedurally generated back story determine what classes or races you can play. (What do you mean I can't play an Elf today? Why are there no mages, oh right, no magic in this playthrough etc.)

      Perhaps it was the advanced AI that rendered EQN unfun. But what is unfun in a MMORPG might be certainly be fun in another setting.

      - Simon

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  3. I'm not sure how on board i am until i see group play first hand, as well as how much exploration is possible. Those two aspects are very important to me. I believe in the vision but i need to see it play out in game.

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