Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Cut To The Chase : Pantheon

Visionary Realms, the developer behind Brad McQuaid's "Pantheon: Rise of the Fallen", has a predilection for releasing very, very long live streams, during which various developers talk at great length and in considerable detail about the systems and concepts behind the game. This is a form of publicity that has its merits but for anyone with a less-than obsessive interest in the project it can be counterproductive.

It's true that watching other people play video games has become a thing in the second decade of the twenty-first century so there's probably some demographic that actively looks forward to a full evening of watching a bearded guy in a beanie hat talk over muddy footage of a pre-alpha but its a demographic that doesn't include me. That doesn't mean to say I'm not interested. I'm very interested. It's more that I just want the bullet point version.

Amazingly, someone has thought of that. And not just thought about it but done something to make it happen. Thanks to the invaluable MassivelyOP my attention was drawn to this google docs summary.

It's a fantastic list of topics hyperlinked to the exact point in the stream where those subjects are discussed. I spent half an hour flipping through it and learned a lot. And what I learned I liked.

CohhCarnage, hosting the stream, asks the VR devs a number of questions put to him by the viewers of his channel. Sometimes he answers from his own perspective as someone who's played the game as it stands right now. There's a wealth of detail but the key takeaway comes in his reply to the simple question "How close to EverQuest is this?" to which he replies "...in my mind it's what EQ2 should have been...EverQuest One with a little bit of Vanguard and some modern mechanics".

And isn't it just? You can see that in every second of footage. It looks like Vanguard, it plays like EQ and the footage of the Perception System demonstrates that everything doesn't have to be exactly the way it would have been a decade ago, let alone all the way back in 1999. What's more, if you scroll down that Google Docs page to the summaries and screenshots after the links you can see the similarities go way, way further than skin-deep.

When Pantheon was announced I think it's fair to say we were all skeptical. No, let's be fair - the most optimistic among us were skeptical - the rest varied from derisive to outraged. When the Kickstarter crashed and burned you couldn't have taken bets on Pantheon ever appearing in any form, not at a thousand to one odds. And yet here it is.

Perhaps the reason Visionary Realms are so keen to use lengthy livestreams of actual gameplay as a promotional tool is that this way no-one can be in any doubt that the game really does exist. Look, there it is. Those are people actually playing it. And having a good time.

Compare that to the EQNext "gameplay" footage that some people at the time seemed to think was almost too good to be true. Irony, much?

So it seems Brad is back for real this time. After all the debates and discussions over just how much input and influence he ever had in making EQ into the classic it became, there can't be any doubt any more, can there? EverQuest, Vanguard and Pantheon - separated at birth. The common factor would be Brad McQuaid. Whatever it is he does he's doing it again.

Kind estimates would suggest we won't see Pantheon hit anything you'd call a "launch", whatever that means these days, until 2018 at the earliest. I will be sixty in 2018. God help me. I was forty when I picked up EQ at whatever that long-forgotten, long-since closed down video game store was called.

Twenty years on, will I want to start over again, playing an MMO that looks to all intents and purposes to be the same damn game I started with? You'd think not but every one of those streams I dip into the more I want to say yes, I probably do.

Even the lore, which on the initial announcement underwhelmed me to the point that I couldn't find my whelm at all, is beginning to grow on me. This explanation of why the Gnome character in the party looks like an android kabuki player had me thinking "I want to play a Gnome". And yes, I know I always want to play a gnome, but now I want to play that gnome.

There were other things in the stream that made me feel more positive about the direction development is taking. The reply to the question "Is this game able to be played by a soloer?" was immensely reassuring, for example. "On the whole we're a group-centric game but we will never discourage soloing" seems to me to hit exactly the right tone.

There's also a great moment where Brad talks about the game going into wider access next year and a PR person comes in behind him to say "When Brad says we hope to do something for Q1/Q2 it's really, really important to note that's a goal - it's not set in stone". You tell him, PR Guy!

If that alpha does arrive in the first six months of next year it will be for "pre-alpha pledgers only" (PR Guy again). I'm glad he clarified that because I was idly considering pledging if it would get me into the game early. It looks entirely playable already and after all, who knows if any of us will be around when Pantheon actually releases? We're none of us getting any younger.

Too late for that though. Take a look at the available pledges. The cheap seats are all gone. No one else is getting into alpha and as for Beta, well, I might be interested but not without a date. $100 isn't out of the question, seeing it includes two digital copies of the game itself, but a hundred dollars for something that may never happen? Although that makes it half the price Smed was asking for Landmark at the same stage of development...

No, I can wait. But I'll wait with interest. And if there's a beta announcement sometime next year then I'm not ruling anything out.


  1. Leaving aside some of the early gaffs on the project, it does seem to have gotten further than I expected after the Kickstarter failed to fund.

    My problem, as it is with all those games I funded at one point, is that I am not keen to be a live, unpaid tester. I deal with enough bugs in my day job. When I get home I just want to play the game. And if I am going to wait for the release, I will likely be waiting a long time.

    1. I agree. I think I've done my share of unpaid, voluntary game development - more than my share. However, I do still have a pretty high tolerance of buggy systems and content, just so long as no-one's expecting me to do anything about it. I'm quite happy to wander around having a good look while half-finished stuff gets smartened up around me. Bonus points if there's no NDA and I can get some blog posts out of it.

  2. I ran into an old EQ Testserver Guildy about 3 months ago. She found me, and we were levelling "partners" in EQ - after being out of contact for the better part of a decade. She was focused on Pantheon, an early pledger, and was building a guild of all old EQ players (quite a few Testserver players, too) and for all of us to take one last adventure together in this new world by Brad McQuaid.

    Future so bright, gotta wear shades.

    Then, abruptly, she cancels the whole thing. We had a discord chat that we were all in daily, discussing games and gaming and the future.. and then.. *poof*. When I asked her why, she said Pantheon had failed. When I asked her to elaborate, she explained she was on a founding contributor sneak peek gameplay viewing, and the group got split up / lost and it took them 20+ minutes just to find each other.

    As aging adults, she said if we had to spend that kind of time just to find each other, the gaming wouldn't be as fun. Paraphrasing and this was a while ago, but a big about face on a fun project.

    This is why I like(d) the progression servers - EQ feel and nostalgia, with the modern conveniences built in.

    I may play, may not, but I am definitely not following it any closer than any other title these days.

    1. That's a very, very interesting anecdote. I was tempted to do a whole blog post based on it because I think it's emblematic of the problems these retro projects are always going to encounter. Only I want to play some MMOs today, not spend four hours writing a polemic.

      Short version is this: almost as long as I've been playing every MMORPG has been "too hard" according to very vocal and frequently very influential cadres. If you listen to the EQ vets, for example, you'd get the strong impression that Golden Age EQ was a wonderland of opportunity, challenge and satisfaction, beloved by all who were lucky enough to be there to appreciate and enjoy it. My memory is very different. I remember the endless, vociferous and frequently intemperate demands that filled the official forums - demands for just about everything in the game to be made easier, faster, more convenient.

      When WoW took off by far the biggest reason quoted for its success was that it was much easier than the MMOs that came before it. And yet that didn't prevent WoW from becoming easier and easier and easier. Vanguard started out about as "hard" as EQ and rapidly had to be made easier - and that was while Sigil were still running the show.

      Most MMOs I've played were as hard (read "inconvenient") as they were ever going to be when they launched. They all got easier and went on getting easier still. The one exception I can think of is GW2, which began as a very easy game indeed and managed to acquire a loud and persistent faction that claimed it would be so much better if only ANet would make it harder. So ANet made it harder and that failed so badly they had to come back six months later to apologize and make it easier again.

      Pantheon, like many other post-WoW-in-decline MMOs, has a strong and committed audience that imagines they'll love a really hard, inconvenient, unforgiving game that takes no prisoners and demands players who take it seriously. Carbine was the last studio to take that demographic at its word and look how that went for them. I think your friend's experience and her reaction to it says volumes about the difference between imagining you're going to enjoy something highly inconvenient and actually enjoying something highly inconvenient. Whether there are enough people with sufficient time to waste to make a genuinely inconvenient MMO commercially successful I guess we will find out when someone releases a genuinely inconvenient MMO and refuses to make it convenient.

      My guess is that MMO won't be Pantheon. Pantheon, like the rest, will be at its harshest at launch (possibly in various stages of beta although beta systems and mechanics are often less harsh than launch in my experience). If it wants to retain sufficient players to keep the servers up it will get progressively easier and/or more convenient ever afterwards.

      I hope so, anyway. I'm kind of counting on it.

  3. I was very impressed with everything. The only MMORPG I'm even remotely interested in on the horizen.

    1. It looks amazingly playable for a pre-alpha. I'd play it.


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