Friday, June 5, 2020

In Ruins : My Time At Portia, Landmark

There are forty-seven posts on Inventory Full tagged "Landmark", fifteen EQLandmark, five EQNLandmark and three EQNextLandmark. Sony Online Entertainment and Daybreak never worked out what Landmark was meant to be and I never settled on what to call it.

Building defined Landmark, from its inception as an eye-wateringly expensive buy-in alpha to its demise a mere three years later. The game, if it was a game, something no-one ever really seemed sure about, never had much of a loop but its one consistent feature was construction.

As far as I can tell, after just nine hours, My Time At Portia is no kind of building game. I don't believe you create anything from scratch. And yet, Landmark is the game it most reminds me of so far.

The similarity struck me like an acid flashback the first time I visited the Abandoned Ruins, although I was already experiencing some deja vu, even before I got there.

I'd come to the Ruins in search of copper ore. I needed the ore to make bars. I needed the bars to make a grinder. I needed the grinder to make copper pipes. I needed the pipes... well, I've forgotten exactly why I needed pipes just then. It know seemed important at the time.

For the purpose I'd made myself a pickaxe out of wood and stone I picked up off the ground. I paid the fee for a week's access to the Ruins and stepped into a featureless cavern. I wandered around for a while until I saw a rust-colored patch of wall. I hit it with my pick and the feels came flooding back.

Maybe there are dozens, scores, hundreds of games with this exact same mechanic. I'm sure there are. There can't be many that look and feel so very similar, though, can there?

It's not just the mechanics of it, which can't vary all that much - hit surface with hard, sharp object, make a hole. It's the way the hole deforms, the precise, imprecise shape of it. The way it's like tunneling through chalk, brittle, friable, until you stike against a vein of something sterner, your pick clangs, you feel the judder and shake through your fingers on the keys.

It's the fragments and shards as they spin into your packs, the lists of numbers and kinds. It's the colors, the ores, the striations across the surface; walls, floors, ceilings. Above everything it's the tactility, the sound, the repetition. So soothing, so calm, so addictive.

Landmark's earliest iterations had no caves and caverns. You had to dig your own. The underground world and its creatures came later. You entered a cave, you explored, you mined, you foraged. There were creatures. You fought them with weapons you'd made.

My Time At Portia comes with a combat system much better developed than Landmark's ever was but that's a topic for another post. It also comes with a backstory. There was a civilization. It fell. These are its ruins. Go glean them for relics so we can rebuild. Simple but very much something.

By comparison, Landmark had nothing. Why were they there, those caverns with their mysterious machines and strange creations? No-one knew, no-one cared. And with nothing to discover, no-one stayed. Only the builders.

In Portia there's purpose. Maybe too much purpose. Another post for another day. In the ruins you scan, you search, you find. Occasionally your scanner exposes a hidden room. Inside, creatures. You fight them. There's loot. And treasure.

It feels like adventure, just a little. Landmark's caves felt stranger, less comfortable, scarier. My Time At Portia does everything so much more sweetly. And better. Just... better.

Landmark suffered terribly from two things: ineptitude and complication. Everything was clunky and awkward. All the tools were unintuitive and confusing. Word was even the developers didn't fully understand how best to use them. It was down to players to explain best practice in videos and documents.

Nothing ever felt quite right. There was no polish. And yet Landmark was both compelling and entertaining for all its manifold flaws. I enjoyed my time there. Some of it, anyway.

Had SOE or Daybreak been able to achieve even half of the simplicity and elegance of MTAP the servers might still be running now. But Portia has the huge advantage of knowing what it wants to be. Landmark never did. Also, hubris. Always with SOE,there was hubris. Daybreak don't suffer it so badly. That's why they were able to close Landmark down.

After the Ruins, outdoors, back in daylight, I upgraded my basic axe to a bronze model to chop bigger trees for hardwood. I hacked the trunk of a tree. Chips flew, then whirled around me, into my bags. I remembered Landmark had the exact same visual effect.

And the same progression. Different sizes of tree give different qualities of wood. Different qualities of axe are required to fell them. Most games of this kind must use a similar heirarchy. The one I happen to have played is Landmark. The iterations are near-identical.

Even the crafting stations are reminiscent of Landmark's alpha. The time when there were several and all were important. You ran something through one to make something for another. Later, I seem to remember, there was just one that did everything. Or am I imagining that?

Landmark is a blur, honestly. I remember it in lightning flashes or long meditations. Nothing much between. I remember my first house in the mountains. I called it Skycatcher and worked on it for weeks.

Not that you could name buildings in Landmark. I only named it in my mind. In Portia you can name your workshop. You have to for your license. And then the name appears over the door, not just a sign but a portent. Of purpose. 

And that's where the two games split hard. Landmark never went anywhere except where you took it. It was a sandbox with pretensions but no direction. It's too soon for me to say exactly what My Time At Portia is but it's evidently something. It has direction and focus. Landmark had none beyond what you brought with you.

It's too soon too to say whether I'll stick with Portia. At the moment it feels as if I will but I say that so often and then I drift away. For all its faults I did stay with Landmark, all those posts attest, even if, mostly, I just visited, once in a while. When I hung around, though, what made it stick was the building, that one thing Portia paramountly doesn't have.

But the building in Landmark scared me. It was quicksand. It pulled me down. It ate time. If I miss it it's only the way a dry drunk misses drink. Glad to be free of it. Glad it's gone.

Portia has some compulsion and detachment issues of its own. I'll be getting to those another time. For now, I'll just say it scratches an itch I thought I didn't have, one I'm not sure I want to flare up again. Let's hope the differences are more meaningful than the similarities because I really don't need another Landmark.


  1. That daisy chain of figuring out how to do what you need to do --in what order-- to get your products built is one of the things that kept sucking me into MTaP. If you are good at looking at the things you need to do on a Saturday, figuring out the optimal way of working on them, and then doing it, MTaP does scratch that itch.

    I never played Landmark, but in some respects MTaP allows you to explore without it being too unnatural, build without it being too complicated, decorate without overdoing it, and socialize without overthinking things.

    1. I'm very happy not to have the free building option. It just eats time and I am never going to have the skills to make that a good fit for me.

  2. I assumed all along that Landmark was player-paid game development for, supposedly, EQ Next. Kind of scammy. I likewise assumed that's why it wasn't just a sandbox, but an underdeveloped one. While SOE~Daybreak didn't seem to get much, if anything, useful from it all, this post suggests at least some other game company(ies) did. Geez.

    - 7rlsy

    1. Landmark was a mess but a glorious one. The real problem was that certain people at SOE simply had bigger ideas than their budget or their skill set could cope with. There are some ironies to be had from a comparison of what SOE tried to do with Vanguard after Sigil overplayed their hand and what DBG tried to salvage from SOE's hubris. If there's a lesson it's surely "Live within your means".


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