Thursday, September 7, 2017

Mutual Friends: Pantheon

Lest we forget, Brad McQuaid and his trusty team are still plugging away on Pantheon: Rise of the Fallen. While the would-be true sequel to EverQuest always figures somewhere in the background of my thoughts when it comes to MMOs that might prove worth an emotional investment, I haven't been lurking on the official forums like Keen, so I tend to be vague on details of the game's current status, let alone the specifics of its avowedly niche design.

I did know something about the "Perception" system. I remember some discussion of the mechanics in  one of Visionary Realms' lengthy "Let's Play" videos but until I read Massively OP's short piece on it this morning I'd never really thought about the implications. All I'd really taken in was that quests would pop up automagically according to your character's ability to perceive them, which seemed to amount to nothing much more than a stat.

That would be an interesting design choice in itself. The idea that you would need to raise a stat in order to receive quests is arguably a more elegant version of the longstanding MMO convention that quest access can be tied to faction or reputation. Instead of working to get the questgiver to like you more you'd work to make yourself more capable of seeing what the questgiver wanted.

It's a neat reversal that could have the welcome emotional effect of making your character seem more like an intuitive, insightful adventurer than a desperate, needy supplicant. Apparently, though, Pantheon isn't planning on replacing the old system so much as adding more layers:

Factors such as a character’s insight and investigation skills, class, race, and faction standing all influence whether or not a particular quest will unlock.

Fair enough. Nothing there to frighten the horses. Then we come to:

Yet if you’re part of a group and just one member can get that quest, he or she can share it to everyone else.

Pantheon has always been promoted as a group-centric game. Brad McQuaid has made it clear that there will be solo content and that players can solo and enjoy themselves, but as in EverQuest, those who chose the solo route will be well aware that they're taking a harder road, one which is unlikely to give them the same rewards as their more social counterparts.

The thing about EQ at its height - one of the things - was that it wasn't just a group-oriented game, it was a social game. Even solo players tended to rely on others, even if they didn't actually want play with them. Before you set out to do lonely battle in some far-flung corner of Norrath, depending on your class, you would want to prepare by meeting a Cleric, an Enchanter and maybe a Shaman with the intention of buying buffs.

Buffs in EQ lasted hours not minutes and they changed hands for cash. Anywhere players congregated in safety prior to setting out to earn experience you'd hear Clerics selling their hit point buffs, chanters hawking clarity and KEI, shamans offering a whole range of stat boosts. Open chat channels would ring with their calls, often augmented by Beastlords, Paladins, Druids and even Rangers - anyone who had a buff that lasted an hour or two that someone might find useful.

Suitably buffed, possibly with player-made potions stuffed in their bags, these would-be rugged individualists would then often call for a taxi. Druids and Wizards, able to teleport in seconds to zones that might take literally 30 minutes on foot, were much in demand. So much so that those who didn't relish an evening running passengers to and from North Karana or Dawnshroud Peaks were forced to set their identity to "Anonymous".

In these days of concerns over microtransactions, F2P business models and Pay-to-Win it's perhaps been forgotten that in the Pre-WoW era almost everything was for sale. Indeed, EQ's in-game economy relied almost as much on the sale of services as it did on the auctioning of items (something that was itself far less subject to restrictions like Bind on Equip or No Trade back then).

Even today many MMOs have a thriving, legal secondary economy in which players sell access to supposedly restricted items or areas to other players. EQ2, for example has developed a whole culture known as "SLR". The acronym stands for "Selling Loot Rights": those willing to pay are invited to join instances where a group or raid boss has been downed so that they can loot the No Trade drops, which can't be sold directly.

Pantheon's perception-gated quests will magically become available to the under-qualified by the simple means of joining a group. This will, without any doubt whatsoever, lead both to groups selling invites to individuals for quest access and to qualified individuals offering their services to groups for a fee.

This, I would contend, is almost certainly the intention behind the design. One of them, at least. For roleplayers who exhibit self-discipline then, yes, the Perception system has considerable potential to enhance immersion and feed lore. For regular players, however, it will become nothing more than a business opportunity or an operating expense.

I think that's fine. I liked EQ's idea of an in-game economy as much as most and more than many. The manifold ways that players both could and did interact commercially contributed significantly to the sense of a Virtual World. Perhaps counter-intuitvely, it made the whole place feel more magical rather than less.

The more I pay attention to the details of Pantheon, the more I like the sound of it. No-one has ever been entirely clear what exactly it is that Brad McQuaid does but I am increasingly of the opinion that, whatever it is, other MMOs could do with more of it.


  1. I think further back and wind up in the MUD I played. It was pretty rare in the sense that at one point, you could log in as many characters as you cared to level and operate and group them all together to kill stuff. Even after they set an IP limit of 8 characters when things threatened to get out of hand, 8 characters was pretty generous and could do basic "raid bosses." More advanced raid bosses enforced a lower IP limit to create social dependency, but that was late endgame.

    It had corpse runs and people who would help with corpse retrieval... (dependency) but you could also CR yourself if you had alts and didn't care for being helped or bothering others.

    Yet, despite not actually having to rely on others if you weren't in the late endgame, it was ridiculously social. People would just say Hi over guild channels and get a chorus of 7-8 greetings in reply. There was constant conversation over public channels and newbiechat with a mentor council.

    I don't know how or why it is different now. One reason could be that times have changed and conversing with strangers over the Internet is no longer a new and novel thing. Over-interaction has perhaps made us more wary of each other (especially how un-beneficial others can be to your gameplay experience.)

    Or maybe it is simply everything to do with population size and Dunbar's number and being able to reconize similar names in one's neighborhood and human nature. The MUD was never much bigger than 300-500 people, and guilds were 10-15 people online or less. So of course you'd say Hi in return, whereas doing it now in an MMO guild of 40+ online would be self inflicted spam.

    And you'd see the same names over time too. I assume those EQ buff vendors and taxis got fairly recognizable in their servers over time. These days, I don't know how to interact with the same people twice short of joining a guild and logging onto a voice chat server...

    1. This is one of the main reasons I play so much WvW. I know so many names there now and there's a lot of history attached to most of them. It's not just the Commanders, although clearly they draw themselves to the forefront of attention. It's the scouts who do the reliable call-outs, the gloom-mongers who complain we're doing it all wrong, the clowns who try to cheer us up...

      Whereas guilds lost their focus years ago, WvW seems to maintain a sense of community that reminds me very much of what it was like to log in and say "hi" back then. Not that I log in and say "hi" in team chat but I do announce in squad if I'm going afk or taking abreak and so do lots of others and people do say "thanks for the run" and Commanders do say "thanks for following" and "see you next time". People remind you to eat your food and oil your weapons and sometimes huge tactical discussions break out that feel like the old Guild meetings we used to have in DAOC... it's all surprisingly friendly for a war zone.

      I do see names I recognize in PvE but it really doesn't have the same feeling of community.

  2. Very good insight. Everything in modern gaming that is not directly soulbound and solo is changing hands for money and usually real money. They appear as "business opportunity or an operating expense" instead of "gaming challenge"

    1. It's the "real money" part that's the problem. I think the swapping of goods and services for in-game money that was earned in game is rarely a problem and often an asset. How to stop people exploiting that for out-of-game gain, though, that's the downside and always has been.

  3. I think that the success of an in-game economy, as measured by the amount of social interaction, is directly tied to the willingness of the developers to make everything rare. To make every character able to do or provide something useful - even essential - but unable to do even most things well. Whether it be the ability to make something like gear or potions or scrolls, or the ability to provide a certain buff, or the ability to provide transport, access to those abilities need to be extremely limited.

    The "dirty casuals" argument that they are paying money and time for this game, therefore they should be able to experience almost everything without depending on others, is the reason these game economies feel flat and boring now. Developers have tried to accommodate that style of player, and it destroys the feeling of a virtual world.

    I think the success of these "niche" MMOs in development will depend on how fast they hold to design frameworks that force players to make character decisions knowing full well that they are giving up the ability to do certain things.

    1. That's an excellent analysis. The direction in which MMOs developed during the second half of the first decade of the 21st century is often presented as a pro-active, design-driven, top-down change whereas in fact it was more of a reactive, bottom-up, player-demanded revolution. The demand for everything to be more accessible, less restrictive and freely available to all "paying customers" was immense. I always think it's a bit rich for players to complain that the games have been "dumbed down" when it was players themselves (albeit not necessarily the same individuals) whose ceaseless complaints brought that about in the first place.

      True niche MMOs should be able to resist that pressure, you'd think, but the tipping point will come when decisions have to be made about what will keep the light on. Vanguard, for example, was made hugely more accessible within the first year (and was vastly improved as a result) only to have difficulties re-imposed later in an attempt to win back the hardcore when the casuals moved on. Very difficult balancing act.


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