When was the last time we were excited about EverQuest? Were you ever? Not me. It was one of the faces of classic MMOs, a celebrated icon. Now, half a dozen expansion packs later, the second installment is evidently still appealing to a large enough crowd to remain profitable, but the brand has been casting little more than ripples for the better part of a decade. Deflating, given the original's cultural significance.
It's with no small sense of bewilderment, then, that the next in the series – er, "Next" – has leapt to the fore for me. I'm excited. And, like a glutton bellying up to a several-course meal, you should be too.
To be more precise, it's the sister project to Sony Online Entertainment's upcoming MMO that has me a-tizzy. EverQuest Next and Everquest Next Landmark are separate, self-contained games of proper description. While the former role-player remains a distant and ill-defined glimmer, the latter sand-boxer has recently appeared in early access alpha.
There's a world of voxels to play with out there. Think bricks the size of your foot, but in this case blended and smoothed to look natural. Each of these can be torn from its natural habitat and wrought into something artificial – something borne of your own creative whims. Would you build yourself a castle, recreate your favorite parliament building, or sculpt something entirely more freeform? You'd be forgiven for thinking this sounds an awful lot like Mojang's mega-popular block building game Minecraft.
The interesting bit is that these sorts building games have, despite their enormous popularity boom, been solely the district of independent developers. Now here comes big ol' SOE, swaggering in with the full brunt of its ample resources.
At this stage of development, these resources are rearing their fat little heads as aesthetic appeal and the promise of things to come. All you'll be doing, should you jump on board now, is collecting and building in a somewhat broken and incomplete environment. But it's going to look wonderful while you're doing it. And your avatar, presented with all the sweet rendering candy of the Forgelight engine (borrowed SOE's awfully pretty multiplayer shooter Planetside 2), is going to animate with naturalistic fluency as you travel.
What's more, characters fit a style seemingly drawn whole cloth from Disney's Tangled, replete with brightly saturated colors and wavy brown locks more luscious than conceivably fair. Landscapes are a bit sparsely featured at the moment (smears of vegetation sport glossy greens despite nary a drop of water to be seen), but capture a striking beauty nonetheless. The view from my balcony is of sweeping crests cloaked in the atmospheric haze of distance. Peaks and slopes are dotted with the creative handiwork of people I'll never know. It's downright majestic. Even a little romantic if you allow yourself some sentimentality.
Such a pretty world bears an inflated importance placed on details, though, and here is where I can see Landmark alienating some would-be architects. You've got a host of tools now, rather than a simple take-a-block leave-a-block functionality. What kind of shape do you want to place? How big should it be? Do you want to draw via drag box selection? Maybe blend and round your edges just so, or paint new textures over existing structures?
Smaller voxels and such modern conventions as sloped surfaces and their ilk are going to inflate the upper bounds of the effort one is going to need to lavish upon their creations to stand out. My first encounter with a non-right angle and the accompanying rush of possibilities was, I'll admit, daunting.
Of course, if a finer set of instruments appeals to you as it does to me, you're in for a treat. Landmark feels like graduating. As if becoming a proficient builder with Minecraft's chunky blocks was the bachelor's degree equivalent to Landmark's master's. Perhaps this path ends in modeling software like Maya or 3ds Max? Not everybody is going to want that. Simplicity and accessibility, I imagine, were enormous factors in Mojang's success. But this palette offers much more potential for capturing the image in your head, if you're up for the effort.
Maybe Landmark is limiting itself to a niche. Maybe it will capture a wide audience of those who are wanting something more intricate. Judging by the utter lack of available real estate the alpha stumbled over after its launch, a fair number of other people are interested as well. Either way, it'll be fascinating to witness the larger community's reaction to the first big budget foray into the genre.
If building and building alone isn't enough to whet your appetite, you may want to check back some time down the line. The game's really rather incomplete at the moment. SOE's posted a helpful roadmap on their forums detailing their plans to fill out Landmark's bones, starting with calcifying what's already there. Build tool tweaks and biome additions have taken place, and the near future holds the addition of caves that'll hide higher tier materials, permissions for building sites, and social stuff. At some point there'll be monsters and combat of some description, scores of loot, and the absent bodies of water will make their appearance.
Most significantly, SOE plans to feature what they call the “Player Studio”. Here's the second big reason for the disinterested to be interested. The talented builder will be given the opportunity to template their productions and monetize them via a Landmark market place. Got a simple, elegant design for a stair case? Sell it. Looking to save some time and effort, or dedicate your creative juices to something more ostentatious? Pop open those purse strings! Some will rake in cash, others receive a product they've deemed worth the expenditure, and SOE's slice of the pie funds further development for the rest of us. Everybody wins.
At the risk of repeating myself, does this sound familiar? To my knowledge, Valve currently constitutes the entirety of the player-driven marketplace. Two of their titles have been generating profit by means of creating value for players for quite some time – a free to play system that's difficult to consider anything but a universal good. But few developers seem to be inclined to replicate the business plan. It's nice to see someone else following suit. Heck, if your creation captures that special spark well enough, it even stands a chance of being transplanted into the MMO.
Is SOE simply playing copy-cat? If such is all that Landmark is, should we even be upset? I don't think so. The game may be riding the great ideas of other minds, but re-use doesn't diminish their worth. This thing is dryly, clinically interesting at the very least. Perhaps more likely, it's the next big time sink for a great many of us.