Everquest Next is People

Tipa is feeling very, very skeptical about Everquest Next:

I’m trying not to be caught up in the EverQuest Next hype. It’s such a blank slate at this point that people feel free to read anything into the various teases. People in the public chat channels in EverQuest 2 speak with absolute certainty about things that contradict what some other certain person believes. As far me, I haven’t seen any evidence of any gameplay, some thread through the game that keeps people logging in. I fear it’s just going to take the usual sandbox route of being PvP focused — “the players are the content!”.

I … am somewhat more caught up in the hype. But really, I understand the skepticism, and the wariness about PvP. Actually, a person’s experience in PvE can be every bit as obnoxious and painful as it can in PvP. And there’s no way to shoot back. So yeah, pickup (groups, raids, etc.) Consider this story she tells.

I also have this weird hangup about joining random groups. I’m paranoid that people will call me out for being a crappy player. This is because people regularly call me out for being a crappy player. We were working through a raid a couple weeks back and someone said they should start a vote to boot the crappy controller. Me, being the only controller in the raid, agreed, and said we should boot her right away. Nervous laughter — wondering, maybe, if I understood they were talking about me. The vote was taken, I was kicked. I spent the rest of the night flying around cities alone, listening for the hum of exobits and wondering why I just didn’t log off and delete the game. The other guys successfully completed the raid.

Last Sunday, we raided again. I chose the “damage” role that every class can choose so that I wouldn’t be tapped to be a controller. Though I intended to play that role anyway. Entering as “damage” would just ensure there being a real controller along as well. Instead of trying to use crowd control powers, though, I just fed mana continuously the entire raid. Nobody tried to kick me, and we eventually succeeded.

So, what’s “fun” for some is not for others. In fact the best aspect of MMOs is also the worst – there are other people playing. Sometimes you have lunch with other players, and sometimes you are (in my case a fabulously redheaded) lunch. The problem is the expectations of players, or as I’ve said before, the social contract of the game. I’ve played in games, tabletop and face-to-face, where we were trying to smash each other’s face in (metaphorically speaking). But everyone knew that was what the game was, and thus, no problem.

I don’t know how you manage to create a social contract among a player base of a few thousand people. It seems impossible. But SOE appears to know that the can’t do it themselves, and that they need to make EQN attractive to the sort of person that can do it, and make experiences like Tipa’s happen a lot less. The game is supposed to be a social game, which means it’s about the people playing the game.

IGN’s Leif Johnson first echoes some of Tipa’s fears:

In fact, while answering another question a few minutes afterward, Georgeson hinted that such effects may play a significant role in PvP: “I mean, my God, how can we have destructibility without talking about PvP?” If that means what it sounds like, this could be big.

But then a few paragraphs later,

Above all, Michaels stresses that he wants to make sure “seeing other people is never a negative for you”— in fact, he wants us to be happy to see other human beings. “We know that social interaction is the backbone of an MMO,” he said. “Without players, we don’t have a game; without social interaction, players don’t stick around.” Michaels’ language here and elsewhere suggest that he’s planning an intensely more social experience than we find in many contemporary MMOs (especially in the upcoming games WildStar and The Elder Scrolls Online), which place a much greater focus on single-player gameplay.

That’s a tall order, though they seem to be focused on game mechanics. No “group penalty” to experience or loot. This has an effect, but it’s sort of a negative effect. So how do you keep players from eating each other? I’ve long been advocating for scope for prosocial behavior. In Everquest, a druid could stand at the Freeport gate and hand out Spirit of the Wolf. This is a form of “pay it forward” that sets a tone for the game as a whole. It creates a game-design problem when this devolves to “pay for buff or transport” – the game isn’t being played the way you thought it would be. But game designers kind of need to suck it up, and get over their irritation at player creativity.

It appears Director of Development David Georgeson and Senior Producer Terry Michaels know this, and they are pinning their hopes on crafters. That’s right, crafters. Everquest Next Landmarks is part of this.

Indeed, much of what we do know about how EverQuest Next will handle social interaction actually springs from EverQuest Next Landmark, the building companion to the upcoming MMO that’s scheduled for launch later this year. That’s partly because Landmark will rely so heavily on crafting. “Crafters are the social glue,” Michaels told me in a private interview. “It’s not because they actually craft,” he said. “It’s because of the personalities that are attracted to crafting. They’re the kinds of people who organize guilds; they set up raids; they solve disputes between players.” In Michaels’ words, they make social interaction “work.”

It remains to be seen whether this will actually work, but I think it’s got a shot. The other piece is that they plan to put lots of things in the game that one person can’t do by themselves. For example, combat. But Leif has worries that I think are justified.

Unfortunately, EverQuest Next’s lack of a trinity bears worrisome of what I call the “faceless” group play of games like Guild Wars 2, in which you play with many people but never have cause to learn their names. “There’s group content out there that requires a group,” we heard during the Q&A panel. “It doesn’t matter how many classes you collect, you’re still only one dude.”

We went through this in the tabletop space when Runequest came out. There were no classes in Runequest. This was in reaction to the very rigid class system of D&D, and a welcome innovation. And it meant that characters didn’t really have any role or niche in a fight. Classes promote teamwork albeit in a very crude way.

But there’s another sort of group collaboration – the building project:

“One of the reasons why you want a lot of people to work with you is because if you want your guild hall have this beautiful mahogany floor,” he said, “you’re going to have to find the Black Forest and harvest all of that.” That forest, he said, might be on the other side of the world, so you’d want to send some guildies to get that and others to search a volcano for obsidian for tiling. I expressed my worry that many players would just start buying all the items off an auction house, but Georgeson seemed nonplussed. “It will definitely be more important than sticking something on the auction house,” he said, and both he and Michaels laughed that there may not even be an auction house.

I feel positive about this because some of the best times we ever had in EQ2 was earning the money to buy, and subsequently decorate our guild hall. However, this kind of focus is tricky. EQ2 tried to promote teamwork/collaboration in crafting and it failed utterly. People made alts to make the subcomponents they needed, because it meant less social interaction. The problem is that playing an MMO isn’t a job. Nobody is under an obligation to show up and do X at any given time, and people are busy with offline things.

So if a project consists of “go out and find X amount of Y” and that’s non-trivial, that’s a very good way to collaborate. And they are thinking that way. They don’t want people to just go and look up where the Black Forest is. I have no idea how they will accomplish that, by the way. Harvesting has its usual nodes with randomized locations, but what they are describing is a whole new level. They think they can cancel out use of trading, too.

The quote is “maybe there won’t be an auction house”. This is coy. There has never been an “auction house” in Everquest, P2P trading isn’t in the form of an auction, but as an “offered for sale” model with the sell limit being less of a listing price (too much sell friction) and more of a “number of slots” thing.

In thinking about the experience Tipa describes, being kicked from a raid, I wonder if this is the work of Achievers or Killers. I’m not sure. But it’s clear that the players they want to be sure to attract are the Socializers and Explorers who also have a streak of Acheiver in them.

Out of respect for Tipa’s allergy for hype I’ll admit that it’s impossible to say if it will work. People can surprise you sometimes. Kids are notorious for liking the box the toy came in more than the toy, for example. But it’s the right thing to be trying to do.

At the moment, I’m playing more Skyrim, my MMO playing is in slow motion. But I want to try to make a push to get the band back together for EQNext. The point of the game is to have people around that are, well, fun to be around, and have something to do that can be done together. Like Soylent Green, Everquest Next is People.

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