Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Stick With What You Know

This popped up completely out of the blue on Massively:OP today. Project_N (“Project_N” is only a placeholder name"), a prospective new mmorpg from a company called... um, there doesn't seem to be a name. Or, indeed, a company. ("Once the company is formalized...")

There's a team, though. It's headed by Shawn Lord, who used to be Lead Game Designer on EverQuest and subsequently Lead Content Designer and Design Supervisor for DCUO. He was with SOE for almost twelve years in total, from the very early days of EQ at the turn of the millenium. 

I don't recognize his name but maybe I'd know him by whatever catchy handle he used on the forums back then. Also, I had a bit of a thing in those days about not treating game developers as if they were rock stars. Because, y'know, I didn't even like rock stars being treated like rock stars. 

Shawn definitely isn't acting like a rock star. Really the opposite. The whole vibe around Project_N (hate that underscore...) seems to be to damp down expectations. After years and years of overblown pitches for god-games that end up imploding before they even reach market it's nice to see someone setting their sights low for once.

The FAQ is chock full of caveats and qualifiers: 

"One area in which we’ll likely get some push back..."

"If you’re industrious enough..."

"We’re making a game that’s not meant for everyone."

That's good, I think. Obviously you'd want the people behind your game to be confident in its worth and value but confidence doesn't generally seem to be the problem with most of these things. That would be hubris.

More striking than the diffident approach to me are some of the genre tropes the team behind Project_N are willing to lean on. They include some things that most modern game developers would more likely cite as failings of the past, design flaws their shiny, new games will totally avoid:

"Something about zones just feels right."

"We also like the gameplay associated with making it to the zone line with only a few Hit Points left."

"Our goal is to keep the world as public and shared as possible. This means that we’ll refrain from using instancing ...We’re aware of the ramifications of this approach, including things like contested spawns, content saturation, etc…We like the camps".

"We are targeting individuals that prefer paying for a monthly subscription"

"In-game coolness should be earned."

"There are no plans for supporting other platforms at this time."

Reading the whole thing is oddly reassuring although maybe I'm confusing familiarity with reassurance.


There are also some of the same premises and assumptions we've seen in altogether too many pitches for other retro-mmorpg projects. The belief in an untapped pool of players who "enjoy challenge and community in a way that differs from the offerings of more modern, convenient, “gamified” experiences". The assumption that if you build it, they will come.

I am starting to see one significant flaw in this argument, which did indeed seem very convincing when it first began to be made a few years ago. If the potential audience is so niche, so poorly-served, how come so many developers are trying to make games for it? And more to the point, how many of them can hope to succeed?

Project_N does seem to have one major design advantage over just about every other similar "Project" I've heard about: it plans on "staying narrowly focused". If Shawn can hold to that it's going serve him better than any amount of "vision".

The full philosophy is expressed very clearly, if not perhaps very succinctly, in this paragraph from the FAQ:

"More investment, means more desire for return on investment, means more need to appeal to a broader audience, which in turn means more features, dilution, hand-holding, and in our opinions - more risk."

It's not often you hear someone drumming up interest for a new mmorpg by stating outright that investment can be a bad thing. And yet, as we've all seen in too many Kickstarter overruns and "investment rounds", it really can.

None of this means Project_N will turn out any different to all those other old-school nostalgia fests. Evidence to date is that they all take an unconscionable time to reach Early Access or Open Beta, much less a final, official launch, and that the results when they arrive are less than awe-inspiring. Still, setting realistic targets and, more importantly, sticking to them has to help, doesn't it?

As for the game itself, when and if it ever appears, it does sound like the sort of thing I'd enjoy. The western high-fantasy setting, the races and classes, all those would probably work for me, even if  I'm not as convinced I belong to the much-hyped "niche" as once I did.

I'm certainly not crazy about the group-centric ethos but I like the little mention of content being tuned "...with groups of 2 or 3-6 people in mind". I could go for some old-school duoing if Mrs Bhagpuss can be persuaded to give it a try.

For now, though, I'm just going to bookmark it and forget about it. I'll get excited when it comes with a launch date. Or at least a beta.


  1. Do yourself a favor and watch his saved interviews with his old EQ developer compatriots on his Twitch channel (A Loving Robot).

    He's very engaging and down to earth. For anyone with fond memories of the game it is must see tv (pc?).

    1. I had the Scott Hartsman one on in the background when I was writing the post (although I couldn't really concentrate on it because I was writing the post...). It was interesting, though. I'll have a look at his channel, thanks!

  2. Isn't most of the stuff you quote eerily similar to the announcement for Wildstar? And we see how it ended......

    1. I can see what you mean, but there's a very important difference that's also in the FAQ but which I didn't qoute. The audience they're hoping to appeal to would "prefer a slower pace, which allows for time to chat". The real problem with WildStar, at least in terms of the combat, was the frenzied speed of it, not the difficulty. This one looks like the problem modern gamers are going to have is being bored out of their minds by the funereal pace of it all, which is an entirely different issue!

      Really, though, I think it's patently obvious that what they're doing is remaking EverQuest as it was in the period Shawn Lord was in charge of the design there, only without the raiding. That's a reasonable pitch because at the time EQ was the most successful Western mmorpg most EQ players didn't raid. Whether there are enough ex-EQ players left who still hanker after that playstyle is another matter. There were millions of them, though, and Project_N probably only needs a few thousand to be economically viable. Another big difference from WildStar.


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