Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Backwards Into The Future With Pantheon: Rise Of The Fallen !

Brad McQuaid, probably better known to almost no-one outside his old gaming group as Aradune Mithara, is back. You may remember him from previous MMOs such as Everquest and Vanguard: Saga of Heroes. Brad's sure hoping you do. His new Kickstarter campaign's counting on it.

Just how much he's relying on both the recognition factor and good old-fashioned nostalgia to enthuse potential backers of Pantheon: Rise of the Fallen becomes almost painfully clear as you peruse his proposal and pick your way through the pledges and stretch goals. There came a point last night as I was scrolling down the increasingly unfeasible list of financial milestones when I wondered if I was in fact reading the design brief for EQ3.

You have to wonder, just how happy are Sony's lawyers to see Brad promoting his new Druid class (ours for just $1.8 million dollars) with the pithy tagline "Got SOW?", for example. That seems to go a step further than the typical, industry-wide "common influence" of "Halfling: Hairy feet, Outrageous appetite" or "Ranger: The guardian of the woods. The stalker of the forest". I suppose they have bigger things to worry about. Let's hope so, for Brad's sake.

Wilhelm and Keen both have discussions up and running and the topic of these stretch goals is a hot one. It certainly does raise an eyebrow when you see an MMO staple like crafting included only as the eighth stretch goal (a steal at $2.5 million) and one has to wonder at the designer's commitment to PvP when it doesn't appear on the list until 13th place, just behind a mobile app. Although come to think of it, having PvP only as a half-hearted afterthought would be very much in keeping with EQ tradition...

Kickstarter proposals often invite more questions than they answer. The fundraiser runs for a month and continual engagement with potential backers is part of the process. Expect to see many explanations, clarifications and amendments over the next few weeks. Even so, opening with a list of stretch goals most of which would appear to be things that anyone interested in the game in the first place might reasonably consider to be core components does seem to be offering up a whole bunch of hostages to fortune.

One doesn't want to harp on about it (especially not with the Bard class coming in at a cool $3.2m) but the longer you study these stretch goals the less inspiring (some might say the less palatable) they become. $1.4m gets us "New Content: Adventure Area. An amazing new area unique to the world of Terminus. Offering more content and things to discover." Come again? You're offering a zone as a stretch goal? With content and things? Let me get my wallet!

Backing cautiously away from the stretch goals, the basic premise has a certain appeal. In a long list of bullet points Brad describes something that resembles a cross between Everquest and Vanguard with a nod to Rift's back-story. How did that get in there? Of all the MMOs you could have looked to for inspiration when it comes to lore I wouldn't have thought Rift would even be on the list, let alone at the top, but :

"The player is a legendary hero, stripped of his or her powerful relics and left to explore the dramatically diverse and epic regions of Terminus with hopes of reclaiming their relics and those of lost heroes." Pantheon

"As an Ascended, you can draw on the Souls (and powers) of champions from Telara’s past." Rift

Perhaps not exactly separated at birth but can you deny there's a certain family resemblance?

Moving swiftly on (again) a few things stand out as warnings, at least to me. The tedious adherence to the new orthodoxy demands "Reactive combat where you can determine what the NPC is doing and react to it. (move, counter, deflect, etc.). Sadly it's an approach that seems likely to infest all MMO combat forevermore but it will probably bother few and attract many.

The strong emphasis on "Group-focused social gameplay" will be lauded now but early Everquest and Vanguard were both very enjoyable to explore solo, especially if you chose the appropriate class. Enforced grouping may turn out to be more controversial than Brad would like, when the game actually arrives, should people find themselves flagged LFG for lengthy periods with not much else to do (especially if they can't pass the time crafting because they failed to stump up enough dollars for tradeskills to make an appearance).

Then again, Brad believes that patient waiting is good for the soul. Here's his philosophy on that: "Designed Downtime should be a part of the game to ensure players have time to form important social bonds." Call me cynical if you like but I'd guess that "designed downtime" in 2017 will mean tabbing out to play another game, web browse or watch streaming video. In 1999, when we all sat for several minutes after every fight while our mana and hit points restored themselves (oh so slowly) you couldn't even run Everquest in a window, legally at least.

We didn't talk to each other and form social bonds because we were better people back then - we did it because the choice was that or sit in silence. The moment we got the opportunity to do something other than make small talk with strangers we jumped at the chance. Remember when they added Gems? You didn't hear a word from anyone for weeks!

It's very far from all bad news, though. Most of the proposal makes Terminus sound very appealing, with its "open", "non-linear", "huge" "constantly expanding and evolving" world, where you can "Travel where and when you want" to "explore, trade, and adventure". Taken as a whole it does sound very much like a game I'd at the very least want to try, which brings us to the Pledges.

Unlike the stretch goals, the pledges seem well-thought out and rather inviting. A mere $20 gets you a beta invite with $45 letting you in for the alpha. Not only is that very reasonable by current industry norms but I would be amazed, assuming Pantheon ever does launch, if six months later people weren't claiming it was so much better in beta. They always do and in my experience they're usually right.

Even if that's not the case, that $45 dollars also includes a digital copy of the game plus the first 30 days of game-time. That's not so much a pledge as a pre-order. $100 gets you all that plus a pet and a mount and a second copy of the game "for a friend". I can't help comparing that with the $200 plus tax Landmark is going to cost Mrs Bhagpuss and I for approximately the same deal for a supposedly free-to-play game.

Those pledges, in fact, are so attractively priced that I may well grab either the $100 or two of the $45 packs before the month ends. Only two things are holding me back. Firstly, I'll be surprised if Pantheon meets even its base Kickstarter target. Brad's counting on support from a niche that's already been heavily mined by recent Kickstarters and I'm not convinced there's enough ore left in that seam. Secondly, 2017...

All the pledges have January 2017 as the estimated date of delivery. Even if that happens, and these dates have a tendency to slip, three years is a long time not only to defer gratification but to predict what both my and the industry's circumstances might be. I don't plan anything on that kind of timescale, not even still being around, let alone what MMO I might want to play.

That, however, is a problem with funding Kickstarter projects in general rather than this one in particular. I'd far rather decide in January 2017 whether I want in, not try to guess now how I'll be feeling then. But if we all took that view no Kickstarter would ever fund. Oh the responsibility...

Oh well. If nothing else it's going to give us all something to talk about until Landmark.


  1. Yeah, I caught that little bit of Rift in the mix as well, and it made me go "hrmm..." It could be just an attempt to create another back story to suit his vision I suppose. But otherwise nostalgia for early EverQuest is his trump card. I just wish the whole vision felt a little more baked and that he was really up front on being able to focus on a small initial game that will expand over time. Trying to get everything in on day one hamstrung Vanguard at launch.

    1. Supposedly when Vanguard launched they'd completed full art assets for five continents, not just the three we got. Even with 40% missing, Telon is still vast compared to many MMOs. Brad certainly doesn't think small. Whether he thinks practically is entirely another matter. I'd be a lot more optimistic about this one if it was someone else's project and Brad was Creative Director.

    2. All of this makes me wonder how much having a more world wise senior manager made EverQuest possible. Smed doesn't get a lot of credit for EQ, but I wonder how much his work really kept things on track.

  2. Great post. My post about community was long enough so I didn't go into the bullet points or pledge goals (which genuinely made my jaw drop with how high they are for what they are..), but I second what you've said about those parts. We'll just have to see. I will be waiting for 2017 because right now I don't know what to think aside from, "This could be really great, or really really bad."

    1. Just read your post and I agree that there's a potential issue with the community that might be attracted. It's something I think a lot of Kickstarter-funded MMOs might experience. On the plus side, with everyone involved from pre-alpha onwards at least no-one can say they didn't know what to expect.

      (Also added your menagerie to my unfeasibly long blogroll).

    2. This is true. I would go into it fully expecting that community and instead choosing to seek out a friendly guild I'd be comfortable in, thus eliminating it as being much of an issue. In theory. :)

      Aww, thanks. Mine needs a few additions, but it doesn't quite live up to yours which I feel I should bow to the greatness off.

  3. My biggest issue is that the Stretch Goals present a lot of stuff that we might expect without the Pledge telling us precisely what we will get.

    I mean, I love bards, rangers, and druids, but what are my options without those? I enjoyed making a gnome, but maybe I don't need that too?

    As big as he likes to think, I do not think McQuaid is very forward-thinking. So many of these goals seem like piecemeal re-appropriations of Everquest, rather than things that would make the project seem wholly complete without necessarily having to have every stretch goal.

    1. Yes, it's bad enough having what could be considered basic classes, races and game functions listed as Stretch Goals but worse not to bother to mention what classes, races and activities are actually included in the base target. There's a lot of vision and not much substance in that proposal.

  4. I've got the popcorn ready for the eventual debacle this will be if it manages to get funded. I'm jaded and know too much about the crap going on during Vanguard's development to take this guy seriously anymore.

    1. Yet Vanguard is either my second or third favorite MMO of all time, and the other MMO he helped create, Everquest, is my first so for me at least he must have been doing *something* right.

      I played Vanguard from beta3 through launch and on for the best part of two years, with a break in the middle, and it was one of the best runs I've ever had in an MMO. The game ran pretty well for me from Beta4 onwards, certainly playable. Subjectively at least it feels as though I have seen as many bugs in GW2 as I saw in Vanguard. Even as I write we are having ongoing problems with GW2 and have been for a couple of weeks.

      If Brad gets something out of the doors that's anywhere close to how much fun Vanguard was at launch I'll be more than happy, even if it's in the same unfinished, unpolished state. It's not whether he delivers a polished product that worries me, it's whether he's able to deliver any product at all.

    2. Brad had a lot less to do with anything enjoyable that came out of Vanguard than you think. He didn't even show up to work for the last year of the game's development, for one thing.

    3. I just see him as a figurehead. I've never been sure what he actually does. Games that have gotten made with him around have been the best I've played, though, so I'm happy to take him on trust as some kind of touchstone.

  5. Cautiously pessimistic is the view I am taking on this one =) I have a hard time respecting someone who is riding successes of 15 years ago with a pretty big flop in between. Lighting tends not to strike twice =)

    Why did you stop playing Vanguard? I did beta it but I couldn't play it live after that experience and how it launched. Very glad it was one of your favorite though - I haven't heard that from anyone - what made it great for you? (really curious.. maybe a future post? (or past post that I missed?)

    1. I have posted about Vanguard a fair bit on and off and it's in my rather long list of MMOs I still theoretically play. I stopped mostly because I'd played two characters to 50 and by then development had just about stopped. I did try going further when they added another 5 levels but progress was attritionally slow solo since new content by then was was largely and understandably aimed mainly at the regular hardcore loyalists who were all raiders, never my scene.

      I got into Beta3, which was all but unplayable on the PC I had then. I found out from the forums what I needed to run the game as it was then and bought new PCs for both myself and Mrs Bhagpuss, specified specifically to run Vanguard. With those machines we were both able to run VG at a perfectly playable standard from Beta4 onwards. Consequently we were always able to play "normally" and could appreciate the game as a game and the world as a world when many others were just struggling to get it to run at all.

      Yes, it was buggy as hell, but our main EQ2 server for 5 years was Test. Playing in the midst of untested, extremely buggy content and systems was normal for us. That said, I would contend that VG wasn't all that much buggier than many other MMOs I've played anyway. GW2 could give it a run for its money when it comes to real show-stopping bugs like an auction house that doesn't work for weeks or guilds that don't recognize their own guild leaders...

      Those are reasons why, unlike many others, I was able to enjoy Vanguard. The reason why I *did* enjoy it can be summed up very simply: Vanguard is the follow-up to Everquest that EQ2 should have been. I love EQ2, it's the MMO that vies with Vanguard for 2nd place in my all-time favorites list, but other than the setting and lore it barely resembles EQ at all. Vanguard, on the other hand, feels and plays like EQ in almost every respect.

      On to that solid, familiar, welcome structure VG then added some superb new activities: really excellent housing, the wonderful diplomacy system and possibly best of all boats you could really sail! I think I had more fun just sailing my sloop than anything else. When I log in these days it's mostly to sail around for the sheer fun of it.

      Oh, and don't forget the great crafting system. And the magical art direction and aesthetic... I could go on and on and on but if I do yes, you're right, it'd better be in a post, Far too much to say in a comment!

  6. I do remember diplomacy as a very clever system =) Thanks for the comment reply here (and on my blog) and looking forward to exploring more of VG through your future posts!


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