[GDC 2014] EverQuest Next: Landmark – Water, Optimization, NPCs, Taxes, & More

Written by  Wednesday, 19 March 2014 04:31
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After the typically groggy-Monday start, San Francisco’s Game Developers Conference enjoyed its most bustling day on Tuesday, March 18th. We met with Paradox, Obsidian, and Sony Online Entertainment for the day, with SOE stealing the show on the topic of their impending EverQuest Next and EverQuest Next: Landmark titles.

eq1-concept-artThe original EverQuest from 99 had impressive concept art. It is also home to my favorite game soundtrack of all time.

I previously posted a quick EQNL specifications and requirements article, but aside from that, our coverage of Landmark has been pretty thin. This post should very quickly get you up to speed on the basics and provide some interesting developer commentary for existing fans. In taking with Dave Georgeson, Director of Development for the EQ Franchise at SOE, we covered several fan-requested topics within EverQuest Next: Landmark (EQNL) and the far-future EverQuest Next (EQN) launch.

A couple key discussion points addressed in the video interview below include client-server I/O optimization, modding support, water and accompanying static vs. dynamic physics, griefing countermeasures, the future of EQNL, NPCs, and a bit more.

You should also check back on Thursday for another EQNL article from us.

EverQuest Next: Landmark Interview – Dave Georgeson Talks EQNL Updates

We only had 30 minutes with Georgeson, but they were pretty packed with content. I ran through a list of questions provided by reddit (and many of my own questions) in rapid-fire fashion – a format that works incredibly well with someone as energetic as Georgeson. Only some of the topics were included in the video – I’ll touch on a few of the others below, but first, we need to define EQN & EQNL for the newcomers. Feel free to skip by this part if you’re already ‘in the know.’

What is EverQuest Next Landmark? What’s the Difference Between EQN & EQNL?

EverQuest was one of the very first MMORPGs and holds claim to several MMO and game industry firsts, including being the first “mainstream” (1,000,000 players was gargantuan) 3D MMORPG ever. The game shipped in 1999 and survived on a subscription model for a long time, but just recently went free-to-play – the game turns 15 this year and, in SOE’s eyes, is still strong. This was also my first major gaming addiction, where I easily sunk 2000 hours into a couple of characters; it was eventually my gateway to more traditional tabletop RPGs, like D&D, as EverQuest featured a lot of heavy role-play elements that were immersion-intensive.

At least, that’s my memory of it. Who knows how rose-tinted those glasses are.

EQ’s dominant reign in a space it largely pioneered was eventually challenged on all fronts, and within a decade, we’d end up with a graveyard of MMOs from numerous publishers and developers.

The point is, EverQuest was a big deal and has shaped many aspects of our industry. To give an idea for timelines, EverQuest 2 shipped in 2004, roughly 20 days before World of Warcraft’s official release.

In more recent years, EverQuest Next has been spoiled and hidden away several times over, but each time was for good reason. The SOE team says that the gameplay mechanics were too familiar – they’d played this game before – and it was every other MMO currently out. So the team scrapped the design. Twice. Years of development and design were thrown out or rehashed (where salvageable) to try and move away from “mechanics that should go the way of the Dodo,” to quote Georgeson. These mechanics, he indicated, are things like exclamation-over-head quest-givers, levels, grindy kill / escort / fedex quests, and static world content.

eqnl-gdc-2A player creation.

So EverQuest Next “Proper,” we’ll call it, will be a sort-of follow-up to the EQ series in traditional bombastic MMO fashion. We presently know very little about EQN, but that’s because the team’s been focusing on teaching the world about EverQuest Next: Landmark.

Landmark exists in alpha currently and is playable. The most common (and perhaps laziest) comparison to EQNL is Minecraft, given that EQNL prominently features world-building as a central mechanic. In fact, EQNL is better described as a tool-set than a game in some ways; it’s part 3D-modeling, part standard block placement and world-building, part collection tasks (fetch resources), and part adventure, though the last bit isn’t really implemented yet. The principle idea of Landmark is to “give players the same tools we have” (sans a few powerful things), ideally setting them loose to create wildly unique buildings and objects and landscapes with no fixed lore requirement. Sci-Fi structures can be built alongside Fantasy structures, but the EQNL team is taking steps to ensure period- / genre-friendly servers will exist, in case Titans ruin your sword-swinging experience.

Here’s a video that SOE produced about what EQNL actually is:

In short: EQN is slated to be the MMO/RPG with full focus on exploration and gameplay; Landmark is a world-building tool / game that has some gameplay mechanics built-in, like item collection and eventually enemies. It will become more “game-like” as the team advances through its alpha and beta stages. If you like Minecraft or Terraria and games like them, it would be reasonable to start looking into EQNL.

Where’s EQN? When will we know more?

I had a few EQN questions that were loosely addressed, but ultimately, the team stated that their decision to keep quiet on EQN was actually for point of clarity. There’s already too much confusion surrounding EQN and EQNL (and their differences), the team told me, so they’re trying to limit information to EQNL for now to reduce the barrier-to-entry for newcomers. “Once Landmark gets into its beta stages we’ll start talking a lot about EverQuest Next,” Georgeson emphasized, highlighting that they’re avoiding additional confusion by releasing all the news simultaneously.

The GDC 2014 Discussion - EverQuest Next Landmark Gameplay

Located in a top-secret building that wasn’t in a San Francisco Marriott, our discussion with SOE began with some back-and-forth on how the original EverQuest had a somewhat ‘magical’ allure that sucked players in. It was the first game of its kind. Ultima existed, yes, but EverQuest really went at things from a different angle.

From a development philosophy perspective, the team has taken to a very public, semi-transparent model that encourages direct communication with the player-base. It’s almost like an outward-facing AGILE/SCRUM software development lifecycle, in some ways.

eqnl-gdc-1Frank Lloyd Wright's lawyers are calling from the grave.

“We want them to feel like they’re part of the team, like they’re included in the process,” Georgeson told me, “and so far, it’s working out really well.” I pointed out that Georgeson’s approach to audience interaction reminded me of how Chris Roberts’ handles Star Citizen (we did a big interview with them over here. And here. And here). I mentioned somewhat to the side that, perhaps thanks to Roberts’ direct community involvement, they’ve managed to blow far past their initial $2m prototype funding target and are now resting over $40m raised; Georgeson seized the opportunity to note that it’s not SOE’s goal to raise a lot of money from the players in that regard, further emphasizing that they’re being very careful not to do that. I didn’t go any further down that discussion topic, but I did think it was worth mentioning – especially since it sort of came up organically. That tells me that monetization concerns are on their minds and that they’re being very careful of the image they’re creating.

Diving into the questions, I explained that we’re primarily a “PC hardware as it pertains to gaming” website, with my coverage spectrum generally landing in engineering topics. We talked about PC optimization and server hurdles in this regard – this was also briefly explored in the video above. Georgeson explained that some of the biggest optimization issues thus far have actually been on the data distribution and I/O side. Because EQNL is built around all manner of custom objects in the world, connected systems will actively be hammering the server each time the player loads a new ‘cell’ and its content. This becomes exaggerated as players are actively building within the world. It’s a somewhat unique challenge for games of EQNL’s ilk: Because the world is constantly changing, we can’t purely rely on hitting storage during load and then referencing system memory once in the zone; new objects being actively placed means the server has to tell us there’s something new, we have to reply, receive the new data, and then render it on the screen. This is a task that is data-intensive, so it’s going to primarily deal in heavy server-client communication and server hardware, as opposed to demanding more of the user’s setup (though a faster internet connection would be beneficial).

Georgeson told me that SOE has made fairly sizable advancements in optimizing the data retrieval and draw times, currently signified by a “spinning gear.” As for the framerate, well, that’s on its way up, too. Proper driver support in the full version will make a world of difference, of course, so that’s not all on SOE’s shoulders.

eqnl-gdc-4

Moving on, we also talked about modding possibilities within EQNL’s engine. Because the entire game in its current form is effectively a giant modder’s toolkit, I was really more interested in learning about top-level mods like UI changes, potential scripting / macro support, and similar items. Georgeson was firm that there will be no private servers (“we’re an MMO”), which is really hard to fault them for, but did say that custom UIs will be supported and encouraged by SOE, among other unspecified possibilities.

Feeling somewhat inspired by this answer, I asked about potential scripting support for players within EQNL. Because scripting can be powerful enough to break things, I figured that’d be one of the areas SOE would be very careful in what they give players; with the same ambition as all the previous answers, Georgeson told me that their Storybricks framework component will effectively use a software development flowchart (like those found in Glitchspace or software design docs) in place of a scripting or programming language. To clarify, from what I was told, a form of scripting will be supported, but players will not be expected to have existing knowledge of C, Java, some similar language, nor will they have to learn a proprietary language line-by-line. The flowchart will enable scripting from more of a designer’s perspective, as I understand it.

Another community question very specifically asked if an individual player would be able to stake claim to – for example – 15 plots of land in order to build their own town or city. I was told “it would be very difficult for one player to do,” with Georgeson explaining that an upkeep system (being implemented next month, it sounds like) will require players to pay an effective landowner’s tax on their claims. This would make it very expensive for any one player to own so much land, but it seems like it could be technically possible within the ruleset. Georgeson did cite a recent event where a guild collected several adjacent claims to build their own city, but this was an agreement between multiple players.

eqnl-outfitsIt doesn't all have to be fantasy - Sci-Fi world-building and characters are encouraged.

For the curious, the ‘taxation system’ is targeted somewhat at keeping the game feeling alive and populated and isn’t meant to ding players for cash. Because the game will be F2P, Georgeson knows and accepts that a lot of players will try EQNL and then decide it’s not for them, or maybe they’ll go on extended vacation, or get deployed, or do any other thing that takes them away from the game for a long time. Having big, empty swathes of land would have a negative impact on the whole ‘MMO’ experience, so SOE is handling it in a sort of clever way.

The tax is “more of a check to see if they’re still play – if you’re still playing, check this box,” Georgeson elaborated. When asked what happens to inactive players with claims, SOE said that the claims would be packaged up and effectively hidden from view. I’m extrapolating here, but my speculation is that the land will become available to other players when this happens; the “packaged up” bit is pretty important, though – it means that you’d be able to go on a very long vacation or tour or whatever, return, and still have your castle saved on the server and ready to be restored.

eqnl-gdc-5

The video covers water, griefing, and all the other teased items above, so I’ll leave you to that for further in-depth EQNL information. Check back on Thursday for another article from us about the game. We’ll also start getting heavier EQN (non-L) news soon, so I’m planning to follow-up with SOE on several of the community questions from reddit once we’re cleared for discussion.

A quick disclaimer: The game is still in alpha. It is entirely possible that EQN & EQNL could be amazing, but it’s always possible that a game could flop for a number of reasons. Because this is a paid alpha, I wanted to remind everyone to read more than just my article (though I’d be flattered) before buying into it.

That stated, you can learn more about EQNL here: https://www.eqnlandmark.com/home

- Steve "Lelldorianx" Burke.

 

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