Outlining the problem that EverQuest Next seeks to solve, director of development David Georgeson takes aim not only at the original game and its sequel, but also the genre they established: the 3D combat-focused RPGs that came to define the term MMOG. “We’ve been playing a sterile version of Dungeons & Dragons,” he tells us, “and it’s been that way because we couldn’t come up with a better solution.”
This is an area of gaming in which slight tweaks to the template are enough to justify costly projects and tremendous risk, and that is what makes EverQuest Next’s extraordinary ambitions so notable.
The entire game is rendered using voxels, for a start, which allow for fully destructible environments and for players’ actions to cause meaningful damage to the landscape. Dynamic combat AI will force rampaging monsters to react when, say, a mage creates an impassible barrier or blows out a bridge. Alterations will be slowly repaired over time, and players won’t be able to destroy everything – the key city of Qeynos, Georgeson points out, “would be a parking lot in a couple of hours” if players were allowed total freedom – but the system adds a sense of responsiveness that isn’t present in other RPGs of this type. We’re simply not used to the notion that a massive fireball presupposes the existence of a crater.
The basic flow of combat takes cues from the Guild Wars series to allow players to mix and match class and weapon abilities that are unlocked as the world is explored. A parkour-style system has also been implemented, allowing player characters to more realistically vault, slide and tumble around the landscape.
Voxels also allow for substantial procedural generation. While the design and layout of the game’s surface world will be creatively managed by SOE, players will be able to dig down into Minecraft-style substrata to participate in dungeon adventures that are generated on the fly. Voxel-based tools will allow players to build the structures they want, but unlike in the majority of building games the player has the freedom to resize the block brush and smooth edges with a bevel tool. It’s more Maya than Minecraft.
These tools will be made available later in the year as part of EverQuest Next Landmark, a standalone game in which players will claim plots of land and hunt out resources that are used to build structures. Prefabricated buildings can then be sold to other players for real money, or entered into competitions with a chance of being officially included – with a credit – in the final game. It’s a massive turnaround: SOE has moved from a period of deep secrecy to an open invitation to all players to help make its game.
The world of EverQuest Next will be constantly changing. Monsters will find a place for themselves based on pre-programmed personality traits and will ultimately learn to avoid grinding players. Three-month-long public quests called Rallying Calls will focus attention on an area with long-lasting consequences: the players who help build a new city when the game launches will later have the satisfaction of knowing that they changed it forever.
EverQuest Next is a strident response to the ‘sterile Dungeons & Dragons’ of the past 20 years. SOE has clearly paid close attention to the type of experience that drew crowds away from the MMOG and made conscious steps to address the balance – and that’s laudable. Given the scale of its ambition, however, EverQuest Next will need to prove repeatedly that it isn’t vapourware, but should it succeed then it suggests, for the first time in years, a genuine future for the MMOG.