If there’s one game the MMO consumer really seems to enjoy, it’s playing “the next big thing” game. Hopeful fans project their best wishes forwards onto the next game, jaded players are certain that the next game is just “the next WoW clone,” and fervent players are certain the next game is the much-prophesied “WoW killer.” In each case, what brings us all together is looking at the next shiny toy. With TESO, Wildstar, and now, Archeage released, the horizon is looking pretty barren. EQ:Next is most likely the next big thing, but it’s still quite a ways off of being a thing.
In the recent Youtube release “Devs Talk of a Life of Consequence in Everquest Next,” we were given a really interesting reveal of what’s happening under the hood of Story Bricks and the proposed adaptive world of Norrath:Next. The real culmination of the video is the game-world simulation of a three NPC faction battle between Dark Elves, Dryads, and some really nasty deep dark beasties. Spoiler alert: in this simulation, the Dark Elves wind up winning. However, the really interesting statement comes from Stefan at Story Bricks noting that they didn’t know which faction would win. In other runs of the simulations the Dryads win, sometimes the deep dark wins. It could genuinely go any of the three ways and different servers are likely to see the event play out differently.
This idea of an adaptive world is, far and away, the most ambitious part of EQ:Next that we have been made aware of. Voxels got all of the hype last year and there’s been plenty of opportunity to see what a Voxel like world can look like with the EQ:Landmark beta playing out. But an adaptive world, where the various NPC factions dynamically create content based on, and driven by, the players agency is a complete upheaval of the classic MMO. In many ways, this aspect of EQ:Next is a graphically rich, massively multiplayer adaptation of the game Dwarf Fortress. For those who aren’t familiar, DF allows you to build and simulate a world of Dwarves, replete with drives and needs.
What EQ:Next is offering us is the promise of a game where the world is different each time you play. The things that happened while your character leveled up are now part of the history of the region. They are no longer available to new characters (yours or someone elses), but the content the new character has access to is itself material your first character didn’t experience while leveling. Even more jarring, were you to transfer servers (assuming that’s possible), the content and history of content on your destination server could very well be notably different than the one you came from.
This is, quite possibly, a genuine game changer in an MMO marketplace which is largely about refining and iterating a few recurring themes. The direction they are taking EQ:Next opens itself up to some genuine questions. In this list, I present five questions that we will hopefully see addressed over the next year.
5. What happens when players actually show up?
German Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke coined the military theorem commonly expressed as ‘no plan survives contact with the enemy.’ In military theory, it’s the realization that war is dynamic and requires adaptiveness. This quote, though, could easily be adapted to MMO-space by simply noting ‘no game system survives first contact with the players.’
MMO players have been compared to Locusts. It’s not the most flattering analogy, but it’s not exactly an incorrect one. MMO players congregate around, consume, and move through content at an alarming pace. It’s a pace faster than any development house can keep up with, hence the promise of an adaptive world AI. But can a world AI survive first contact with the players?
Picture a video of a Wal-Mart opening up on Black Friday (the shopping day immediately after the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday). That’s what every starting zone looks like in every MMO launched in the past fifteen years. In an MMO world where players can choose to side with virtually any NPC race, every NPC race will be chosen. In a world of consequence, this means every village, every campsite, every moving NPC object will be attacked and (most likely) destroyed. How does an AI keep pace with that?
Picture the landscape of Mars. Is that what a starter zone will look like after a week of player exposure? This isn’t entirely speculation on my part. It’s exactly what happened to Ultima Online. They originally built a dynamic, reactive ecosystem. Brilliant in concept, until every living, breathing animal was killed in short order. Their solution: the static spawned NPC world we have come to accept as the norm in MMO’s. EQ:Next is overturning an old card here, what’s their solution to it’s accompanying problem?
4. How does this not turn into an unplayable lag-fest?
EQ:Next promises us a world where every single NPC has a set of motivations. Some of these motivations are individual (or more precisely role-specific) based on the NPC’s class-template. Warriors seek different things than do Priests, who in turn have different goals than do Mages. On top of those role-specific motivations like group motivations. The Dark Elves have one set of objectives, the Kobolds another, the Dryads still another.
Each of these group and individual motivations are turned into player content with the NPC’s and players participating in a principal-agent relationship. The NPC’s have needs that are fulfilled or obstructed, at least in part, by player actions. Content is generated dynamically in-game based on these needs and players in the vicinity are pointed to these needs via a player journal.
New game content from the developers largely becomes setting up events (Rallying Calls) that trigger off certain world conditions. These Rallying Calls can be placed in different parts of the world specific to how each server has evolved if I’m following the video correctly. Alternately, simply changing faction alignments creates whole new conflict possibilities. I can visualize patch notes now stating, “do to recent events at a wedding, the Frey faction is no longer aligned with the Stark faction. For the moment, the Frey faction alignment is tied to the Lannister faction. Please enjoy.”
How does this not turn into an unplayable lag-fest?
It’s a brilliant idea, but it’s going to require a fairly ridiculous amount of data generated, communicated, and responded to, nearly instantly. Each NPC needs constant status updates on the world around it. This in turn has to be processed into a set of “quests” or actions the NPC’s wish for players to engage in. That, then, has to be communicated to every player and this has to all keep up with the actions of the players (locusts, remember).
As a birds-eye level simulation, sure I get it. It works. As a single player game, I get it, it works. As a small-world cooperative emulator, I get it, it works. But how does that keep up with dense player clustering? In every MMO we have seen recently, player density and clustering behaviors wreak havoc on game stability. That’s in worlds where the NPC’s are functionally dumb-as-a-stump. In EQ:Next, the NPC’s are far more active than in any prior MMO, seeing that scale up will be very interesting.