Tuesday, March 29, 2016

If You Build It : Landmark

Landmark launches this Spring. That means Daybreak Games has, at most, just under three months to straighten the rugs and put out the peanuts before opening the doors to anyone who can scrape up the ten dollar admission fee.

Of course, there might be more of a sense of urgency if the game hadn't been in Early Access for two years already. And never forget, if you can't wait, those Trailblazer Packs giving Instant Beta Access and a 48 hour headstart at launch are still on sale for $99.99!

Okay, let's not get into the la-la land of modern MMO pricing. No good can come of it. Let's look at the game.

For a start, is there one? There's a question people have been asking for while. I lose count of the posts I've written describing Landmark's latest change of direction, while wondering if anyone, least of all the developers, have a clue where it might be heading.

Reports of the removal of the Starter Tower turn out to be exaggerated. You do have to build it yourself now, though. It takes 56k stone, which I estimate at around 45 minutes mining.

Well, here we are, heading off down yet another road. Only this time it's different. For once it's not a road to nowhere. As of last week's wipe all roads lead to launch. Come "Spring" this thing has to be "a game". Is it?

No. Not yet. Not nearly. But it could be. If you make it one.

Yes, you. The player. The customer. The Luminary. That's what DBG has decided to call you and I have to say that, daft though it is, it's at least more euphonious than "Landmarkian".

Names for descriptive purposes only.
May not reflect actual environments.
Terms and conditions apply.
Take off all those hats and put on some of these: builder, designer, scripter, writer, director, gamesmaster, entertainment officer, master of ceremonies, unpaid laborer. You're going to need a lot of heads. And DBG is going to need a lot of goodwill, something that was in very short supply indeed on the official forum during the two days downtime prior to the launch but which seems to be slowly returning now people are able to get in and mess around with the new tools.

But before we get to that, let's look at what you do get that you don't have to make for yourself, or, more likely, hope another "Luminary" is going to make for you. I don't propose to go into a huge amount of detail - the changes are very substantial and I haven't had either the time or the patience to explore them all in depth - if you want chapter and verse on the update Domino has you covered here.

Here's the basic deal: for $9.99 DBG will provide all the infrastructure you'd expect - the servers, the UI, the landscape. You get access to a wide range of "props", a catch-all term that includes every pre-made, placeable object from furniture to monsters. Recipes (to make weapons, armor, potions and the like), creatures to place on your Claim Build, and various resources are offered as drops from gathering and adventuring.

Both those activities, never robust, have been thoroughly gutted but Landmark's "adventuring" is perhaps now the most unambitious such activity ever seen in an MMO. Instead of exploring to find caves that were sometimes frighteningly extensive and confusing you simply click a UI button to appear instantly in a randomly-selected bijou cavelet (known collectively and euphemistically as the "Chaos Caverns"), where a handful of extremely uninteresting basic mobs wait mindlessly for you to come slaughter them.

And that, I think, is about your lot. Oh no, wait, there are Achievements as well. Of course there are.

If you were expecting quests, narrative, a storyline, cut-scenes, lore, or indeed any written content whatsoever then you came to the wrong game. Perhaps you were thinking of EQNext?

Landmark exists in an existential void. It is because it is. It has no past. If it has a future it's a future you'll be making for yourselves. That's the collective "you" - the Luminaries.

Could that work? It just might. It's hard to tell right now because although the Wipe and Final Restart (pending one more possible pre-launch wipe but let's not get picky) has brought curiosity-seekers back in numbers, as yet few are back up to speed. The islands Landscapes are almost all bought up but most of the Builds are empty lots as yet.

Almost the last free Build on this Landscape. (Does that really sound better than "Almost the last free Claim on this Island?" Really, DBG?)

I did manage to find a build that was showing off the most basic capabilities of the new scripting system; a compound where a cadre of guards was holding off an incursion by a Toxic Giant. It looked surprisingly authentic. I joined in on the side of the guards and the giant took notice of my amazing DPS skills (press and hold LMB), broke off his engagement with the forces of authority and chased me off the claim. It felt almost like I was playing an MMORPG.

Landmark runs like a drunken pig in stilettos on my elderly PC and looks about as pretty but if you have a machine that can handle it the world, such as it is, looks good enough. The biomes may feel generic and everything might look bland but that's really because they're no more than blank canvas and basic clay. Roll your sleeves up and get on with it: an ambitious myth-maker might work miracles.

Red border means I got beaten up. Makes a nice frame, too.

It shouldn't even be that difficult. It looks as though complexity is out of fashion here. You can, of course, only simplify a set of virtual building tools so far, but compared to where we were a year or eighteen months ago this latest version is pared down to the pith.

All those progression paths for gathering and crafting are gone. The endless grind to upgrade your tools is over. Harvestable plants are back to being mere set dressing. There's just a single craft station left - the Replicator.

The multiple layers of underground caverns and their associated tiers of ore and gems have been replaced by a simple binary: everything is either on the Surface or Underground. Combat, never complex, is another binary. You have your Left Mouse Button. You have your Right Mouse Button. Now go kill something.

The Replicator - Craft Station or Super-villain?
You might have to look quite hard. The decision to have no wildlife on the surface, neither to hunt nor to provide ambient color, seems perverse until you discover that the creatures builders place on claims can wander off. Well, not so much "wander" as chase and kill anyone who disturbs them. It could get lively out there, especially when some people can't tell the difference between mobs and players.

After a couple of hours poking around I feel cautiously optimistic. As an MMORPG Landmark is a complete and utter joke. It's a non-starter. As a toolset for creating MMO content, however, it has genuine potential.

We've seen how players need little incentive beyond the approbation of their peers to put in far more work than paid professionals would ever be willing or able to offer. Star Trek Online, the various versions of Neverwinter, EQ2's own sublime housing and less-than-adequate Dungeon Maker, all of these and many more have been seized with both hands by players eager to show their creativity, get their name on a leaderboard or earn a title or a trophy.

DBG has built a toolset. It's still a little shaky and rough around the edges but it works. If that was all you'd be getting then $9.99 wouldn't seem an unreasonable price but your ten dollars down doesn't just give you the opportunity to build a castle of your own. It's also an entry ticket to every pageant and parade and tournament in the land.

And that could turn out to be quite a bargain.


  1. Holy crap....I had no idea they dumbed everything down like that, for lack of a better term! Only one crafting station left? :D
    So they removed the whole gathering exploration part for a full creative mode after all. I dont know how I feel about that but given that it never became an MMO, it may be for the best to just let players craft and build with ease.

    1. It seems to be all part of the current "if it's not fun, can it" meta. Of course no two people an agree on a definition of fun...

      That said, I don't think it's a bad idea to streamline the crafting and gathering. It was fine before, when the plan was to make a full-fat MMORPG out of Landmark but I think that ship went down with EQNext. As things are now, I'd say there's a fighting chance of pulling Landmark into adequate shape for a June launch, provided they throw some of the ex-EQN resources at it and focus entirely on making a toolset for players to make an actual game. I'm very confident that players can do at least as good a job of it as devs - we see that all the time in every game that allows modding.


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