For the best part of a decade the MMO genre has stagnated. Since Blizzard’s landmark success with World of Warcraft, nothing has come close to revolutionising online RPG gaming.
With that said there have been incremental changes; in the past few years free-to-play has really taken off and, perhaps more fundamentally, MMOs are starting to broaden their scope in terms of gameplay. For instance, titles such as Defiance, Vindictus, and DC Universe Online have mixed in elements more commonly found in action-heavy games. However, no matter how you dress it up, MMOs continue to use the same core template, reiterating everything from character customisation and quests to raiding, guilds, and the odd bit of crafting.
This perpetual cycle of recurring elements goes back even further than World of Warcraft; though it is often thought of as the godfather of MMOs, it too owes its existence to SOE’s 1999 original, EverQuest.
Despite being usurped some years ago, Sony Online Entertainment’s flagship MMO has sustained a dedicated following, recently celebrating its nineteenth expansion. Its sequel, EverQuest II, has also been met with ongoing success, players eagerly awaiting the Tears of Veeshan content drop, which is due to launch this Autumn. There’s no doubt SOE will continue to support these products but the company clearly has its eyes set on the future, firmly throwing down the gauntlet at this year’s SOE Live with the official announcement of EverQuest Next.
Described by John Smedley as the dawn of “The Emergent Era”, Next will do away with conventional MMO tropes to deliver a true sandbox experience. This ambitious feat can only be made possible by adhering to the developer’s “Four Holy Grails” as outlined by Game Director, Dave Georgeson.
In a nutshell, these core tenets equate to an ever-changing in-game world, where players, unrestricted by class and experience, can make decisions that have resounding and permanent effects. It’s an exciting premise for any MMO fan and if anyone’s going to pull it off, it has to be Sony Online Entertainment.
At the core of this all-new experience is the game world itself. EverQuest Next, which has been in development for four years, will run on SOE’s Forgelight Engine, the same kit which powers titanic online shooter, PlanetSide 2. However, it isn’t visual prowess that Next prides itself on; instead, by adopting this advanced technology, SOE has scrapped traditionally static environments for ones completely made up of “voxels”.
Put simply, voxels are tiny building blocks that have been sculpted and masked to create just about everything you see in EverQuest Next. What’s particularly intriguing about voxels is that they are highly destructible; as Georgeson puts its, players can “blow up anything, anytime, anywhere.”
The gameplay potential for such a feature has already been demonstrated, along with Next’s multi-tiered environments. The entire game world is composed of three primary layers, including the surface and two underlying spheres. Players will be able to explore between all three and can even use tools to excavate, thanks to the game’s destructible voxels.
It’s not all about smashing things up and blowing them to pieces, however; EverQuest Next will also encourage players to build their own creations and share them with the community. This will be done largely via SOE’s Player Studio initiative which, like Steam Workshop, allows gamers to sell their virtual wares for real money.
However, unlike Workshop, you don’t need to be a pro at Blender, Maya, or Z-Brush; all of the tools are right there in front of you. For some, these creation options will serve as a fun diversion but, ultimately, players will forge how EverQuest Next takes shape. From time to time, SOE will actually call upon the community to build constructs that will be used in official game content.
Another core feature will surround player consequence and the emergent events that populate Next. Though SOE confirmed that there will be some reiteration from traditional MMOs, these will be heavily over-shadowed by the way the game handles AI and a new public quest system dubbed “Rallying Calls”.
In the MMOs we play today, we’re used to walking through pre-scripted environments, knowing exactly which enemies will appear, where they’ll come from, and at what intervals. In EverQuest Next, this element of predictability has been torn out and replaced by something much more organic and in line with the game’s sandbox focus.
One example Georgeson used was that of a roving Orc warband. Orcs naturally shy away from big settlements, looking to corner small groups of travellers, and this behaviour is filtered directly into the game’s fabric and will be used to determine when and where these NPCs will appear in the world.
Behavioural patterns can be changed over time, however. Using Goblins as an example, Georgeson explained that killing a horde of the green-skinned critters could force them to evacuate a certain area. On the flip side, it could cause them to become even more aggressive and patrol in higher numbers. Whatever the outcome, it will be emergent, seamlessly adapting the game world around player actions.
When we talk about public quests we often think of games such as RIFT, which offer multiplayer bouts of gameplay isolated in small, contained areas. It gives a sense of community and togetherness often missing from MMOs, especially among newer players or those who aren’t enlisted in a group or guild.
Rallying Calls takes this to the next level however; gathering players from all over the world to participate in a campaign that can last days. The example shown used the construction of a new settlement, where adventurers could either scout the surrounding area for enemy threats or help with gathering building materials, both with their own consequences.
In terms of the players themselves, a familiar range of options will be available. When building a character you will select a race and primary archetype, though this won’t define your overall experience. You may start out as a human warrior, but by training in the game’s 40+ professions, you could come out as a completely different character. Where multi-classing has been largely experimental in other MMOs, EverQuest Next will embrace it fully, giving players complete control over their online avatar.
Sony Online Entertainment have yet to confirm a solid launch plan for Next, though beta sign-ups are already live. One thing the company did confirm was that the game will be free-to-play, and that a spin-off, EverQuest Landmark, will release later this year. More of a taster than a prologue, Landmark will allow players to get an early hands-on with EverQuest’s all-new creation tools.
Unfortunately, there’s no solid indication as to whether we’ll see a PlayStation 4 version in the future. “We need to make sure that it’s a kickass game on PC before we do anything else,” Georgeson recently told press. With that said, the director did later mention that EverQuest’s simplified control scheme means it has “accidentally” become a game suitable for gamepads.
Not only that, but two of Sony’s other recent MMOs – DC Universe Online and PlanetSide 2 – will both be launching on PlayStation 4 during its launch window, so hopefully we’ll see EverQuest Next join them at some point down the line.