The dreaded human element
Therein lies the rub. Everquest Next promises to shake up tired old MMO conventions, but there's a reason games like WoW and its ilk have settled into these grooves. Consider Ultima Online's Artificial Life Engine, which is akin to Everquest Next's emergent AI systems on steroids. Ultima Online's developers built a living world with interdependent ecologies, and their paying subscribers simply massacred everything in sight, butchering the delicate balance the developers had envisioned and forcing them to rely on spawning mechanics that are now industry standard. I've no doubt that Everquest Next has the technology on hand to make intelligent, roving bands of NPCs a reality, but what's to stop players from scorching the earth in search of loot, preventing the sort of emergent NPC interactions the developers are envisioning?
Doubly so for destructible terrain. If the first players who join can carve through walls and the like at will, those that follow will be greeted by virtual miles of bland, devastated terrain. That won't do, of course. But if terrain deformation becomes locked to an individual player or group's instance, is relegated to particular zones, or is simply wiped clean at regular intervals then it becomes little more than a gimmick. And then there are things like permanent, player-built cities, letting gamers leave their mark on the world. A careful balance will need to be struck between limiting the rate players can expand and not shutting out players who come to the game years down the line and find all the prime spots have been taken.
There are no easy answers, which makes me doubly excited for what the developers have in store. A companion free-to-play online game dubbed Everquest Next Landmark will be launching this winter, and it would seem its chief raison d'être is to offer players tools to create buildings and items that will have a chance to appear in the Everquest Next MMO. There's also the Round Table, which encourages prospective fans to vote on polls and chat with the development team on social networks and forums.
Details remain scant. But despite my handful of misgivings, my interest is piqued: being especially ambitious is always a good problem to have, and with MMOs like World of Warcraft losing steam it's always good to see developers trying something new with the space. The Everquest Next site doesn't have much in the way of information yet, but I'd recommend heading on over and applying for the beta.
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