Minecraft eluded me entirely. I’ve watched videos of people playing the game, and had even tried to dip my toes in myself…but for whatever reason–be it not using the right mods or not doing enough research prior–I just wasn’t hooked. It was one of those games that just never really gripped me, though everything around me had me convinced it should have and therefore I was suffering some synaptic defect.
So, when EverQuest Next: Landmark was being announced, I decided to try to see if perhaps getting in on the ground floor was the missing cog. What happened instead is a game changed my entire perspective on MMOs and sandboxes…while presenting a whole new set of problems.
I’ll get this out of the way first, in the interest of full disclosure: I am terrible at this game, and stupendously jealous of those who are not. These so-called “voxelmancers” have taken the game’s engine and tools from the very outset of alpha and blown the minds of players and the game’s own developers with their ingenuity and ability. While this is obviously a great thing for EverQuest Next, as it gives the devs tools and concepts to apply when forming Neo-Norrath, it sort of leaves me cold. In a game about building stuff, it’s hard to not see those things and look at your dinky-ass cube and think you’re doing it wrong.
Dave Georgeson, director for all things EverQuest, had even said in the opening video for the game’s current beta that it’s not a race. Being amazing at building things isn’t the point–it’s having fun while doing it or just making your own stuff regardless that’s the idea.
So I’ve been tumbling around the different islands in the attempt to salve my wounded creator’s pride, as well as to perhaps get what Mr. Georgeson and several others have stated. One of the pieces of advice I’ve been repeating to myself as a mantra whenever my frustrations rise has been “The game needs standard, basic structures as much as it needs grand palaces”. In my charging around the game, I began to see what that was about.
For every statue I’ve witnessed or every grand castle I’ve seen in my Twitter feed, there’s also been a variety of claims that speak to that player’s personal desires–here, there’s a simple platform with the crafting stations lined up. There, a giant hole in the ground as someone brainstorms. Over there, some start of a PvP arena that looks interesting. A bunch of templates hanging in midair for practice. A weird castle made of glass and ice. And here is someone’s house in the middle of a desert because that’s something one can absolutely do.
No other game has fed and ignited creativity and personal expression more. Dressing my paper dolly in MMOs was about the most invested I had gotten, and the most creative I was allowed to be. Then this game absolutely put that on its head for me. Every glowing cube in the game’s map is a little thumbprint of that player. Even WildStar’s excellent free-form housing doesn’t come close.
That’s not the only thing that continues to strike me about the game. Not only are claims permanent marks on the world, but digging around in the ground feels significant. Being able to mold and shape and have genuine effect on the world is probably one of the most striking experiences I’ve had in my MMO life, and if I were to just join a mining or logging guild to supply people with materials, I would likely be just fine with that. It is just that compelling.
Continuing my tour of the island, I start to appreciate the efforts of those who are just simply building for the sake of building. The point begins to take shape. I start to open the map, mentally consider a random destination, and run, grapple and leap around to that point. Taking in the sights becomes a joy, where before it was just a random path from Quest Hub A to Quest Hub B. The horizon means something.
Even when compared to the megabuilds and featured Twitter vistas, the efforts of the everyman voxel pusher becomes a delight. I find a run-down sort of Wild West area, with the same sort of ghost town eeriness that one might feel when they find a deserted piece of civilization springing up from the middle of the dust. The detailing is not the sharpest, but the whole package comes together and feels like another world regardless.
With the recent advent of combat, there are lots of folks making places where one can fight. It’s a fun diversion, and has sprung whole new levels of creativity…but the whole thing still doesn’t feel right. Combat is handled with freeform aiming like a third-person shooter, and it’s all very floaty and liquid-feeling. And not in a good way. Additionally, the weapons are horribly imbalanced to the point of parody. In a PvP event I had joined in on, there was an outright abuse of the Staff weapon–a sort of mystical shotgun that also let you lay down a dome that slowed your target. Still, perhaps because of the fact that it’s hilariously underbalanced and not terribly serious, I find it fun. Even if I am horrible at it.
My leaping from claim to claim finally refuels me. I want to make my mark. Even if its a drop in the bucket, I wanna be part of this. Truly, fully a part. I start to dash around to find an ideal place to plant my flag…which is another powerful sensation. Laying your claim down…finding that ideal spot….it just strikes a chord in me. There’s ownership. Permanence. Even if you’re never found, you’re there. This land is your land to do whatever you wish.
Finally, my rambling around has paid off–I find a sort of valley in the middle of the forest that just makes me pause. I look around, and think that it could use a sort of house-thing. I’d been looking at pictures of tea rooms in the UK an awful lot recently, and the spark is lit. I slam down the claim flag and make the clearing mine.
Claims are maintained with upkeep, paid in raw copper one can mine or with Station Cash–SOE’s funny money. This induces eye-rolling, but an eventually free-to-play game has to be kept afloat somehow. The island I’m on is a Tier 1 island, where copper veins are in abundance, so I’m not terribly worried by the mechanic. The upkeep thing is still an apparent work in progress, and forcing people to pay to keep their claim active helps with a lot of the overcrowding. Still, it’s imperfect, and for those like me who can be easily distracted, a balance needs to still be found. They’re getting there, though. Extending the days one can pay for in advance helps.
Having planted my flag, I continue on until I reach the edge of the island. The somewhat recent addition of water to the game has made a huge impact. Not only does the water look great, but it also made people excited for the future, as water is provided as a building material, and will eventually become a dynamic, actually flowing thing. And that’s what this whole game really provides for me. It’s the most future-forward MMO I’ve ever really seen. In a genre where new ideas seem to be stifled by safety and concern of ROI, this game really tries to break new ground. The forward thinking of Landmark’s devs has me eager to see what will come next.
It’s not perfect–the game is still in beta, so systems are missing or bare-bones. Crafting is still the same boring-ass thing. Framerates need to be improved. Building tools are still weird and a little imprecise, and making the most standard of shapes still requires levels of manipulation that are obtuse and needlessly complex. Combat is looser than teens post-prom. But even in an unfinished state, this game feels more compelling, more engaging and more like a world than the majority of completed MMOs I’ve been in. It has frustrated, delighted, mystified and swallowed me. It has changed the way I see virtual worlds. And it has shown me how completely terrible I am in a visually creative space.
Still…it’s a home. A home I can make out of anything I want. And the icing? This is just a bit of what EverQuest Next can be. A real, honest-to-God PvE sandbox that provides you with a sense of adventure, exploration, ownership and impact. Even if your impact is mediocre.
I finally get it now, Mr. Georgeson. I get it.