It is expensive to make a game. It is even more expensive to make an MMO. Just ask companies like BioWare/EA who reportedly spent $500 million on Star Wars: The Old Republic. Because of that extra risk, many companies fail at making an MMO that turns a profit and many chose to call it quits before taking the chance, such as Blizzard who recently cancelled its “Titan” project after seven years of development. Sony Online Entertainment, the MMO development and support division of the Sony conglomerate, probably has more experience shipping quality and, more importantly, profitable massively multiplayer online games than any other company out there. That’s because SOE has changed along with the market, such as adopting the free to play model ahead of its competitors. With its flagship brand EverQuest, Creative Director Dave Georgeson said the company is taking full advantage of new concepts in gaming such as open world crafting and early access for devoted fans. These experiments in EverQuest Landmark are changing the way SOE makes MMOs and funds their development.
EverQuest Landmark is always going to be different and separate from the planned sequel of EverQuest Next, but the two are very much related. “We wanted to build EverQuest Next, and we realized that along the way we could let people play this very, very cool idea called Landmark,” said Georgeson. “They can actually help us build what we needed to be able to go to EverQuest Next.”
While the development of the next big fantasy MMO progresses, Georgeson and his team opened up the alpha and beta of Landmark with very different intentions. “Landmark is fundamentally different,” he said. “We give them a little thin wrapper of lore, so that they had something that they could cling to, but in general, it’s whatever they want to build. They’re going crazy in all kinds of different directions. They’re not limited to heroic fantasy like we are in EverQuest Next. They can be doing science fiction and wild west and, you know, crazy platformer stuff so it becomes this potpourri of everyone’s imaginations and cool ideas. Then the community is set up in such a way that that stuff rises to the surface and they can find each other really easily.
“Landmark should become this thing that’s unstoppable,” said Georgeson.
I haven’t been able to spend as much time experimenting with Landmark as much as I’d like, but the buildings and sculptures the community has created using the crafting tools in the game are breathtaking. You’ve probably seen some pretty cool creations in Minecraft — what’s in Landmark puts all that to shame. If you plop down the cost for a Founder’s Pack — which is not insignificant – you can get in the game world, create a character, and claim a plot of land to start building once you collect enough resources. The tools to do so are robust and allow very fine details, and the team is always tweaking the user interface to allow players to work as easily as possible.
But there’s not really a game there. Not yet anyway, but it’s coming slowly. Last month, the team added a whole bunch of systems such as player death, PVP, and rudimentary combat. “We have the health and damage, we have armor, health, and energy now,” Georgeson explained. “Armor protects your health. When you start taking damage on it and then if you run away and don’t take damage for a while it’ll regenerate, and protect your health again. When you run out of armor then your health starts getting blown away. Energy is now used to power both your movement abilities such as grapple, double jump and all that other stuff as well as the offensive abilities that you get from your weapons.”
The combat is based on what weapons you wield. “There’s the soldier’s blade, the conjurer’s staff and the marksman’s bow, and they have very different abilities. Each one of those weapons has two abilities, a basic one and an alternate that you trigger with left and right click while you’re playing,” Georgeson said. The weapons generally have abilities that match up with fantasy archetypes. The soldier’s blade has a swing and a dash attack, while bow has a quickshot and a sniper’s mark. The conjuror’s staff shoots bolts and casts a blue bubble of slowness. “You throw it down on the ground and it makes everybody in that area move slower. That can be really effective in conjunction with the conjurer’s staff basic ability, but also it’s really good to use when you’re working with teammates.”
All of these mechanics are being tested in Landmark but they will inform the choices and abilities in EverQuest Next. “In Landmark, you get all your abilities from the items you equip. You want different abilities, all you have to do is equip different items,” he said. “In EverQuest Next, you’re collecting classes. A class has, not surprisingly, a couple of different weapons it can use. So when you equip a class, you’re effectively deciding what weapons you can use, and then when you use those weapons you get different abilities.”
Similar to how Kickstarter and other crowdfunding efforts allow regular consumers be involved with the development of their favorite games, so too does Landmark allow creative players to be a part of the process. “Almost everybody wants to participate in a dev effort, they just don’t have a chance. There’s hundreds of millions of them, and maybe, thousands of us,” he said with a laugh. “So now they can get involved and they can do that stuff and they can help us build the game. We’re just doing it at the same time. It feels funny, because it’s unusual, but it’s no different than if we just made another game off the same engine.”
Running the business of MMO development this way is really interesting because it allows teams to take their time. By selling the game to people who want to be involved in the design at a high price, it alleviates a large portion of the risk. Consider what happened to well-intentioned companies like 38 Studios with the development of the MMO set in Amalur. SOE doesn’t have to worry about burning through a finite amount of budget to develop EverQuest Next in a set timeframe. At this stage, Georgeson can make sure that fun is the highest priority, not profit.
“As long as the game is kind of paying its own way, and that’s really all we want from it. We’re not trying to turn a profit with Landmark right now, it’s not a finished game,” Georgeson said. “As long as it’s defraying the cost that means that we can be soft about when the deadline is. That means that we can listen to the players a lot more, which means the game can be better.
“Subsidized. That’s a good way of putting it,” he said when I suggested the term. “You can’t believe the amount of pressure that eases for us. The dev team can work on the fun factor, and doing the right things for the game, which very few people in the industry are able to do. This team works harder than almost every other team I’ve ever worked with, so it’s not like we’re slacking really. It’s just that, we have a lot of ideas, and I’d like to do them all. So, whatever we can take, the better it is.”