For all the MMOs released in the past several years, the genre hasn't exactly changed a great deal. The studios behind these behemoth titles still put plenty of focus on the same old elements that they believe will bring in players -- massive worlds, expansive leveling systems, hundreds of quests to complete and the like. Of course, if a player wasn't interested in MMOs 10 years ago, none of these features are likely to pull them in now.
Dave Georgeson, director of development on the upcoming EverQuest Next
MMO pairing, is hoping to break this cycle.
He recognizes that many MMOs focus on monsters respawning over and over again in the same areas; game mechanics that are barely dynamic and skill-orientated; gameplay that's repetitive and derivative.
"We hate all that stuff too!" he laughs. "That's exactly what we're trying to change. That's why we've put in this emergent AI system, and I think that this is the real crux point - in a normal MMO, we usually use state tables, where monsters go through the exact same logic trigger every time they want to attack you."
"So there tends to be lather, rinse, repeat sorts of ways to defeat those monsters," he continues. "In addition, all the quests that are like that are very linear in nature. There's a quest, you go out into the world, you kill 10 rats or whatever it is, you get your loot, and you move on to the next quest. There's not very much attention paid to the world around you, and the world isn't very dynamic, and doesn't change to whatever tactics you want to adopt."
Learn and adapt
It's this emergent AI system that Sony Online Entertainment has been talking up for EverQuest Next
-- the ability for the enemies to not just attack you in waves, but actually read how you play, and react in such a way that they have a better chance of survival.
Says Georgeson, "Let's say you're in combat, and you use a fireball followed by a cold spell, and it happens to kill the monsters really well. You think 'Well, that seems like a really good idea, I'm going to do that a lot!' Then you go in and start using it against different types of monsters, and you realize that they start reacting to you in different ways, depending upon how smart the monster is."
Enemies have different levels of brain power, and the smarter they are, the less likely the same tactics can simply be used over and over again.
"They start using different dynamic situational modifiers," Georgeson adds. "It's not like an aggro bar, where you're basically just trying to keep a monster's attention by going 'nee-ner nee-ner' at him. They are assessing the threat constantly. So as you move around on the battlefield, your physical location in relation to all the other monsters is being assessed by all the monsters. The tactics you were, which defensive abilities you have up - all these things affect the monster's decision making."
The hope is that this will mean every combat situation is different, no matter where you are and who you are battling against. Of course, when you bring another of EverQuest Next
's big selling points into the situation -- the voxel-based world destruction -- things can that little bit more interesting.
"When you start using destructability on top of that, to be able to use the environment around you in a tactical kind of situation so that you're blowing a tree down to block a doorway to keep monsters from coming in, or building a pit under some monsters so they fall in temporarily," says Georgeson. "All of these things are different ways to interact with the game."
"Our intent is that you'll be able to play the game for two years, and if one of your friends joins in, you will be able to group together and play together."
Another way in which EverQuest Next
is attempting to break the mold is by nixing the leveling system.
"In a regular MMO, you pick a class, and then if you want a different kind of game experience, you have to ditch that character, and form a new one that's a different class," Georgeson reasons. "What we're doing instead is, as you move through the world and you learn more things, what you do is you pick up other classes. You can not only play any of those classes at any time, but you can actually mix and match their character abilities, to be able to create classes that you've never seen before."
The idea is to provide players with a feeling of moving forward through vertical progression, upgrading gears and items within each class. By removing a leveling system, SOE hopes that players will be able to join their friends at any point, no matter how many hours a person has already put into the game.
"Our intent is that you'll be able to play the game for two years, and if one of your friends joins in, you will be able to group together and play together," he explains. "You'll clearly still be the vet - it just won't be as dramatic as it is with a traditional leveling system, where's there's no way you can group with each other. What we do is give you lots of ways to progress, and essentially customize each one of these classes to be the way you want them to be."
"So there's a lot of verticality depending upon what way you want to play," Georgeson adds. "But there's definitely not the same game as a traditional leveling RPG, and you have to kind of look at it in a slightly different way."
Steam Workshop, but better
SOE has said before that the future of MMOs is user-generated content, and EverQuest Next
is no different. The game will feature the Player Studio, an online store where players can upload their own creations, and potentially sell them to other players -- much like Valve's own Steam Workshop.
"Steam Workshop is a great model, and Gabe [Newell, Valve co-founder] is a very smart guy," says Georgeson. "It's obviously been hugely successful for them. But we have a venue that they don't have - we're building a virtual world. We're building an online community that is helping to shape their own world."
"So this is a lot different than, say, making hats for Team Fortress 2
," he adds. "I don't want to sound like I'm belittling that at all - it's been a huge business for them, and I admire it. But we have social dynamics that can be applied to this Player Studio model that other people can only dream about."
One of the ways in which Georgeson plans to better the user-generated competition is through bringing players together who can benefit one-another.
Explains the EverQuest
director, "There are mechanisms that we can do to get the people who are prolific creators within our game, to be about to marry in with the people that want to support them in a big way - the people that like to spend money."
"By putting those people together, and making sure that they're socializing together, that they have perks that benefit them, to be able to talk to each other - those sorts of systems push these people together, and all of a sudden these people that are amazing creators can actually know who their audience is, and they're talking to them on a regular basis."
This is the idea behind EverQuest Next Landmark
too -- a companion release for EverQuest Next
that will release before the main game, and will offer players the ability to claim land and start creating objects, items and building templates for the main spectacle.
"I've said it lots of times, but we're really serious about this whole idea of thousands of players working with us to build this new virtual world," Georgeson notes. "Player Studio is entirely designed right now to get these groups to be able to talk to each other, and to be able to focus on making better and better stuff for their world."