[EQN] With a Procedural Eye

It takes a bit longer for me to mull MMO news over now. As exciting as some breaking developments can be, I guess there is so much now that the barrier-to-entry (to-blogging?) is higher. EverQuest Next is of course a very worthy subject, but I needed some time to step away from those that chugged that Kool-Aid without pause or dumped it out on the floor for no particular homey.

There’s plenty of things to get excited for. Putting Minecraft in an MMO was a hindsight-obvious move especially since that crumbling tower Mr. Hikikomori took 40 hours to perfect is about a magnitude higher than the time budgeted for an in-house artist. Destructible environments are an interesting, albeit concerning, prospect. And, action-oriented combat in this day and age is pretty much required.

What I really care about in MMOs is how content affects players and their communities. It’s why I was chugging Guild Wars 2 Kool-Aid from the start because I believed how they were designing content would make player interactions more organic.

Whereas the changes in Guild Wars 2 were more easily envisioned, especially with Rift and Warhammer Online’s versions of public quests already in play, the ideas of EverQuest Next have pitfalls on all sides. Developers are by no means dumb. I know that a good designer with any MMO experience is worth way more than me and my armchair put together. It’s just that what they describe is hard to play in my head using all the MMO evidence I have.

Take their nomadic orc bandits example. These bandits take stock of the guard situations, the “mark” situations, hideability, etc., and decide to plunk down a good ol’ bandit camp where they can easily take down NPCs and PCs alike for gold. If a posse of players decides to change one of the variables, “forcing” the orc bandits to move, what then? Will all that remains be a quiet, peacefully-patrolled road? In a game genre where loot-drop efficiency is a thing, players usually want a constant stream of content.

Guild Wars 2 fixes that by having non-dynamic enemies and strongholds scattered around the zones. A dredge (mole people) operation might have a few events, like assassinating the foreman or blowing up rock crushers, but by and large the mine remains filled. The reason for this is because to ensure that content would always be available, there had to be portions of static content. Having static content takes huge chunks off that feeling of a dynamic world.

So, is EverQuest Next going to  place a safety net in that regards, turning much of their procedural change in to an artificial whack-a-mole (yeah, you can’t move those orc bandits) or are they going to allow players to create virtually content-free safe zones? Of course, they can make the environment push back harder and harder, and then there is the danger of placing players in an “unfair” or “unbeatable” situation, which also isn’t fun. How will the extremes react at launch?

Don’t get me wrong. A procedural PvE sandbox sounds amazing. I want to play it, but it does not sound very easy. It’s one thing to be within the boundaries of scripted events found in Rift and Guild Wars 2, but it’s another to have players really push at the sometimes non-apparent boundaries of procedural content.

The other thing I want to rope in to this post is the rallying calls. Rallying calls are basically EverQuest Next’s take on a (to steal a Guild Wars 2 term) living world painted by dynamic events, where there is a problem and stories and of course plenty of procedural happenings surrounding this event. The example is the starting of a tent city, which can become a small village with a palisade, and then local goblins attack, people mine too deep, and ultimately at the end of 2-3 months this rallying call will conclude with permanent world change, perhaps the end of this rallying call is the new, fortified town eternally at war with the local goblins who have allied with cave trolls.

First, I applaud EverQuest Next for promoting the idea of rallying calls. There is quite a backlash with the temporary content in Guild Wars 2, and while Guild Wars 2 is on a much shorter two-week cycle, the idea is “you had to be there, man”. I think that this type of content is going to become normal in MMOs. The first worry in EverQuest Next is that the rallying call is 2-3 months without players understanding the stages that advance the rallying call. (By comparison Guild Wars 2 has a very easy to understand 2 week window-in-time.)

Let’s assume that they are on the “goblins attack outlying villages”-stage. Players are defending those villages, rebuilding the villages with supplies, and even attacking goblin outposts. For how long? I know if I spend a whole night on goblin genocide, I would want to know progress has been made. If on a Sunday night my server rallies to the degree where goblins are crying and hiding, but the next stage doesn’t advance because the rallying call needs to be 2-3 months long… it’s not going to feel fun. In other words, it feels like rallying calls could feel like running in place if players don’t have immediate feedback on their contributions.

The idea of rallying calls is awesome. The idea of a player-advanced living world as opposed to a developer-controlled window-in-time is a yummy one, but it is filled with unhappy extremes just like the procedural content. If the rallying call advancement is not clear, players are going to feel like they are running in place. Players want to see where they are going, especially if a rallying call is intended to be around 2-3 months. Right now I can’t imagine a happy medium between clouded progression of the rallying call and a combination of stages that have to last 2-3 months. I hope SOE finds this happy medium, and I am rooting for them.

All told, I am really on board the EverQuest Next train of interest. I like that they are designing to advance player/content interaction. For me, those are the most exciting MMOs to look forward to. I definitely have worries about the way they presented procedurally-generated content, but they are a bunch of trailblazing MMO veterans. I’ll be following their path through the jungle.

–Ravious

19 thoughts on “[EQN] With a Procedural Eye

  1. Mika Hirvonen (@Hirvox)

    Also, the designers and the players might not agree on what is the ideal state of a specific area. AFAIR, there was a system in Ultima Online where wrecking the ecology of an area caused the dragon to come down from the mountains in search of more food. It was meant as a negative outcome, but players wrecked the ecology deliberately to tame these high-level monsters.

    In the tent city vs goblins scenario, some players might sabotage any attempts at peace to turn it into a warzone. Or even keep the conflict going back-and-forth to ensure that it doesn’t end.

    1. Ravious Post author

      Yes, there’s another danger: players as moving forces. If everybody roleplayed how they wanted and reacted within some boundaries, the system would work. However, there will be people trying to game the system or grief it.

      In Guild Wars 2 there are some events where players find that if they don’t advance the event, they get a beautiful farming zone. So happy player enters the scene, tries to complete the event, and gets screamed at by the farmers. I can easily see situations like this in EQN, where if we build another wall the next stage will come, and then we lose awesome goblin farming.

      1. João Carlos

        From what I read, EQN don’t have xp or skill points, the tier advancing is diferent someway. My best guess is that they will use an achievement system (similar to GW2) for open tiers and new classes. So, a warrior need kill 50 goblins, kill 500 mobs using axe and use a full set of t3 armor for advance to tier 4 (pure conjecture, except for the tier 3 armor, a dev just said it). So, the achievement system will substitute the xp bar…

        Can be interesting how that affect players trying advance rallying calls. If they need them advance to diferent phases for open tiers and classes (GW2 have complete x numbe group events achievement), IMHO we will see a good quantity of players trying make that rallying calls advance.

        Looking at your example, built that wall for defend the city can be a requirement for advance a crafting profession. /a crafting profession can have a requirement like “built a city defense structure”.

  2. darkeye

    It sounds like the MMO that a lot of people imagine in their wildest dreams but if will it turn out to be a fun experience for many people is anybody’s guess right now. A lot of things remain me of how things would be in GW2 as described by Arenanet without actually having played the game and then the difference to that perceived notion when actually experiencing the game for the first time.

    A destructible landscape sounds fun in theory, but in a MMO? They already had to cheese it slightly by having the landscape repair. Why not have it only in ‘warzones’ where they’d let the players go nuts. Like if GW2 allowed some destruction of the environment in WvW only, destroying bridges, setting up bulwarks and chokepoints, with it all persisting for the length of the match, which is something they should totally consider. I think that would be more fun than having completely destructible landscape everywhere that self-repaired after a short time.

    Not a big fan of procedural generated content underground either, if I discover someplace special, I’ll likely want to return and explore bit more. I like that they will have a complex underground, but why does it need to be changing. That kind of random content detracts from the character of the world. That’s a big problem with sandboxes, by their very nature they tend to be spacious but bland. Can honestly say the Everquest world and lore has not drawn me into the game yet at least past the starter areas.

    1. Ravious Post author

      I felt I would’ve diluted my post too much with the following, but here goes now.

      Around our TTRPG table, we have problems with GM. As a bunch of “adults” finding a person that wants to put blood and sweat and tears and most importantly time in to GMing, can be tough.

      Enter Mythic GM Emulator, which is a great system to kind of procedurally generate content and GM. I proposed that I would be fine running a campagin, but that I would rely heavily on Mythic.

      This was not met well because “it wouldn’t be real”. We would be making up stories as we went along, and it was possible that some stories would suck. (All my solo attempts with Mythic GME have been amazing, one was so intense and deep I had to drop it because it got too complex.)

      They would rather have one RPG session/month that I handcrafted than weekly/bi-weekly sessions where content was provided, but it was procedurally generated.

      How this applies to EQN? I’m not sure, but in my head, the voice says it’s relevant.

  3. Retro

    The problem with player generated content is that it’s generated by players.

    MMO Players, to be specific, who for the most part seek out the path of least resistance, happily check Allakhazam / Thottbot / Dulfy for (bad) info rather than waste time finding things out for themselves. Players who make theorycraft and min/maxing into an artform, who find and grind the optimal farming locations and then complain about a game being ‘too grindy’.

    The real battle in Everquest Next isn’t the people of Norrath versus the Dragons. It will be between the Developers’ goals and the deeply-entrenched behavior of players coming from other MMOs. They are setting the board for a battle with the MMO Mentality, and given the rabid spewing nonsense we’ve seen over EQN’s removal of the Trinity, it will likely be a Pyrrhic victory at best.

    The only ones who win are the ones who embrace change, the sort of people who poured into Guild Wars 2 in droves because it was a breath of fresh air after a decade of stale WoW clones. Conveniently enough, with both EQN and GW2 being subscription free, it might just be the right time to break another MMO “tradition”; not playing more than one MMO at a time.

    I loved KTR’s coverage leading up to and after the launch of GW2; looking forward to hearing your ongoing thoughts about “The Next Big Thing”, the hype mercifully tempered by having seen the process repeatedly before. Keep up the good work, rat slayers.

    1. Ravious Post author

      That really surprises me. I know GW2 has only sold 3+ million worldwide, but I figured it’s lack of holy trinity more or less crudely paved the way for EQN. It is clear that EQN is not a game about raiding. Raids seem more to be people rounding up citizens in town to go strike at a very well defended goblin fortress that would be impossible to attack without bodies.

      1. João Carlos

        Raids can happen in EQN, but they can be GW2 style. For example, there is a long rallying call that at the end awake the Sleeper. Then players need deal with an angry dragon walking the land and destroying everything, similar to how players need deal with dragons in GW2.

        However, the Sleeper will be an one time event. It was an one time event in original EQ anyway…

        PS

        I cannot see SOE not thinking about create a Sleeper event in EQN. If they revamped the world, they revamped Sleeper too. Think about, Star Trek too revamped Khan…

        Khaaaaaaaaaaannnnnn!

  4. bhagpuss

    I no longer have any idea even what I want out of MMOs, far less what “works”. About the best I can do is use that old Robert B Parker quote I trot out from time to time, the one where Spenser says “The worst beer I ever had was wonderful”. I wouldn’t go quite as far as to say the worst MMO I ever played was wonderful but I’d have to think long and hard to come up with more than a handful I didn’t actively enjoy.

    I’m more than happy to sit back and wait for whatever SOE come up with and then play the hell out of it. Whether any particular aspect “works” as hyped, or even works at all, isn’t likely to come into it. Failure can be just as fascinating, and just as much fun, as success.

  5. Brian 'Psychochild' Green

    Caveat: My company Storybricks is working on the AI for EverQuest Next, but I’m limited in what I can talk about. Let’s just say I’m super-excited by the game and the possibilities.

    In the article, Ravious wrote, “it does not sound very easy.” My response is: that’s exactly the point. The easy solution is to clone EQ1/EQ2. That’s what SOE did in the first few iterations of EQN. They realized that churning out the same game was going to give them the same results as before. As Dave Georgeson said in the reveal, they wanted to redefine how MMOs work. They’re tackling the hard issues head-on. They’ve gone out and found some indie groups (Storybricks and Voxel Farm) to help them in areas they realized they needed more expertise.

    The team is also super-experienced; many of the developers on the EQN team worked on earlier MMOs. Obviously I have a long history with MMOs. So, yeah, there will be challenges. But, there have been a ton of discussions about issues like what is brought up here.

    There’s a lot of space between the immaculate conception of a game and the reality of it being implemented. But, consider that anything mentioned so far is stuff that SOE Is 99% sure of. They weren’t even going to mention the AI stuff, but because we kicked some serious ass and proved a lot of the design requirements in our work, they felt confident enough to mention feature it in the presentations.

    Anyone who has read my blog knows how much I’ve been waiting for something like this. As I said above, I’m very excited about this game.

    1. Ravious Post author

      Thanks for dropping by! Yes, I am very excited. Perhaps not as much as I was about GW2, but like I said above. I ike MMOs that focus on interactions, and EQN sounds like it does. That makes me very excited, but also nervous because also like I said… there’s no evidence to pull from.

      Needless to say, I will be following this very closely, and you know, if SOE wants me to test I’d be more than happy. ;) ;) ;)

      1. Spen

        My concern is that while it all sounds very good (like gw2 did b4 launch), all these shiny developer toys aren’t going to translate into an mmo experience that’s dramatically different.

        Sure wandering orcs may have different motivations, but that’s transparent to the player. To the player, it’s just another bunch of mobs in a different place.

        Sure event A cascades to events B and C. To the player, it doesn’t really matter whether the events were scripted or dynamic, since the notion of cause and effect is pretty impersonal in a multi-player scenario.

        Many mmo players’ attentions are directed inwards, to their avatars: how they advance and how this growth changes the avatar’s ability to deal with the environment. Unfortunately, an environment with lots of moving parts is just going to be lost on the average player, other than explorer types.

        1. Julian

          Disclaimer: All I know of EQN I learned by looking at that presentation. Sounds very exciting and I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt since, like Brian said, it’s stuff they seem to be sure about. That’s the extent I’m biting on the hype hook.

          —–

          It has a chance to matter, depending on the execution. Yes, we can say “Well all that happens is that the mobs move to another place, woohoo” and leave it at that, but it’s a simplistic argument. If done well and properly it has a good chance of changing more things than it seems at first glance.

          Think of it in terms of challenge-appropriate, ad-hoc levels or tiers of content. Silly example: When you first start out and for the first few levels, your tiers of content are the (ten) rats and the occasional Kobold, let’s say. Fantastic. Yes, you might know there’s an Ancient Black Dragon nesting 5 zones away, but that’s not your tier. Not yet. You’ll get there, or not, but it doesn’t matter to you -now-.

          Now enter this. Assuming it works as advertised (!), the paltry, level-appropriate Orc band who camped right outside the starter city of Hubb suddenly got tired of getting kicked, pack their bags and move elsewhere. They might have been replaced by something else, they may have not been. Regardless, your level-appropriate challenge just moved away. Maybe to the adjacent geographical zone, maybe further.

          Suppose there’s something you still need from them. Are you feeling up for the trip by yourself? Or will you need help to venture into these deeper areas? Oops, suddenly you might need a player escort. On the fly grouping (as much as I hate it, but hey there it is).

          You finally get there and find that, much to your dismay, they’re closer to their kingdom, fiefdom or whatever and they seem stronger, with more reinforcements and better supplied. You still brave it? You call for more help? You give up? You still have the quest, so what do you do?

          Admittedly this is an ideal example of this kind of thing and not necessarily what we may see in EQN, but it serves to illustrate the principle. Static spawns and mobs anchor content to particular points in the space and time of your adventure. This kind of AI behavior frees you from that and makes the game world at least a sliver more unpredictable. It opens the door to interactions which would be absent or nonsensical otherwise.

          At least in theory, and at least until players figure out how to game the thing and figure out the formula to gain a desired result of needed mob + place + time, as it inevitably will happen.

  6. Spen

    @Julian, exactly. However the player isn’t that concerned with *why* the orc band has moved. He or she is more occupied with the wheres, whens, and the hows of dealing with them.

    Is there a real need to create a dynamic simulation of causes and effects, when a more smoke-and-mirrors (read quick and dirty) approach to create an *illusion* of causes and effects would suffice?

    In other words, I’m wondering if the EQN devs are creating a Rube Goldberg machine. Sure the interactions and mechanics are fascinating if you have insight to what happens backstage, but to the average person, it’s just an overly complicated machine to, say, crack an egg.

    Having said that, if the various moving parts do give rise to emergent interactions and gameplay, I’ll be the first on the bandwagon!

    1. naqaj

      The long-term response to GW2s system of smoke and mirrors would lead me to answer that with “yes, the simulation does actually matter”. If the players can see through the mechanic and understand their actions do not have an actual effect, the motivation drops to zero. The promise of being able to really change the world with ones actions is so powerfull to roleplayers I think this cannot be overstated.

      Minmaxers, hyperachievers, gearcollectors, progression raiders, likely don’t care about this. They play a different game really, and for entirely different reasons.

      It remains to be seen if they are actually interested in playing an MMO for other reasons.

  7. Dahakha

    “Is there a real need to create a dynamic simulation of causes and effects, when a more smoke-and-mirrors (read quick and dirty) approach to create an *illusion* of causes and effects would suffice?”

    Yes. Yes there is. If SOE are committed to truly being trailblazers (as opposed to simply cashing in on a game with minimal effort, which clearly they are not) then they need to lay the foundations for future development. You don’t do that by being ‘quick and dirty’ about it. The implications for their Storybricks-based AI are massive not just for the experiences of the players, but for future development direction as well. If they do it well, then not only do they save time and effort in creating new content – just imagine ‘new content’ being them just releasing a new set of npcs/mobs into the wild! – but they save time and effort in maintaining current content (maintaining the ‘illusion’). Furthermore, future expansions or games can improve on the design process, leading to truly next-gen games.

    Frankly I’m a little tired of the constant negativity from both bloggers and commenters. Why can nobody (except Bhagpuss, it seems) just look forward to the possibilities on offer, instead of dwelling on all the possible ways that your fun will be ruined? Acknowledge that those pitfalls exist, sure, but assuming that the devs have also thought of them and are working on solutions is a reasonable position to take, as opposed to treating them as blind or dumb or somehow disconnected from what the gaming community is like.

    Several comments I’ve seen (not just on this blog) have implied or outright asserted that gamers need to be coddled, that they will not tolerate content that doesn’t give immediate and unambiguous feedback, and that they are simple creatures who won’t appreciate a longer-term, more complicated world where things are not spelled out for them every step of the way. This seems to be a common theme when discussing pitfalls, actually. My response is, that had better not stop SOE from making the game as involved as their portrayal in the reveal implies. If you cater to those players, all you will get is the same old formula that you’re trying to break away from.

    Let me give an example from this post. Ravious has concerns with the rallying calls. Why should players not have to use their brains to figure out how to advance the stages? Let’s say the players are going out and murdering goblins, but nothing seems to be changing. Why would that be? Are they getting replacements from some key location that needs to be discovered first by some intrepid explorers? Do the players need to carry the fight further into goblin territory to unmask the npc or item needed to advance the stage? Do they need to keep an area or areas cleared of goblin activity for X amount of days to trigger something new? Or, what if, the very act of players getting bored and leaving the villages open to attack again is what triggers it? What if it is triggered by some players exploring in a completely different area and discovering some other mobs that the goblins are negotiating with? The point is that there are so many possibilities that a well-constructed campaign can utilise that it seems useless to me to worry about some players being turned off by it. Hell, there is no reason, in a truly dynamic, living world, why some rallying calls can’t just be abandoned partway through without adversely affecting the world. If players can’t figure out how to advance the rallying call after the palisades have been built and a ramshackle town has sprung up, and the goblins have been driven off, why not just leave it there rather than trying to force players through that content? Eventually the AI system will bring the goblins or some other threat back, and then some hapless player might inadvertently trigger the next stage. Isn’t that what is exciting about a living world?

    I’d like to see more enthusiasm for the possibilities on offer by these kinds of games, and less listing of all the ways it will Ruin Our Fun. A simple “as long as they avoid X” or “if they can deal with Y” in passing is all that is needed, in my opinion. As Bhagpuss says, failure can be just as much fun as success.

    1. Ravious Post author

      You seem to have misunderstood my fear for rallying calls. I am sure players will get very creative moving the procedural pieces around. It is that to move each piece (stage) it costs 3-5 days of player time. Many of your examples of advancement mechanics simply ignore this fact making it appear you don’t understand that issue.

      “Why can nobody (except Bhagpuss, it seems) just look forward to the possibilities on offer, instead of dwelling on all the possible ways that your fun will be ruined?”

      Because the last decade of evidence has taught me not to chug marketing MMO juice like that.

      1. Dahakha

        Your fear, as I understand it, is that people cannot stand doing something without immediate and tangible feedback (presumably positive), and will lose interest quickly if it is not provided. Why is it such a bad thing for each stage to require several days of player time? Why is it not possible to design the content to react to any waning of interest, should it occur? Also, I should have made clearer, those example mechanics I listed, which appear to ignore your fear, were made with the assumption that you’d already spent a couple of days just ‘killing goblins’. The key point I was trying to make is that once you realise that just ‘killing goblins’ isn’t cutting it, isn’t changing anything, you need to start figuring out what else you might need to do. ‘Killing goblins’ might just be buying time.

        Buying time can also be a legitimate, self-contained goal for a stage. If, for example, the stage advances once the palisade is finished, and the speed of construction depends on how many of those villages are defended and supplied, then your weekend of goblin genocide is simply helping to prevent a slowdown of the event. You aren’t actually progressing anything; it would progress whether or not you contributed. But if enough people got bored and stopped contributing, the stage would eventually grind to a halt as all the villages were neutralised. Maybe your weekend genocide means that, if for some reason everyone left, the villages wouldn’t suffer attacks again for a few days while the goblins get reinforcements.

        Why can the feedback not be longer term and negatively-generated (as in, if you don’t do X, bad thing Y happens)? The whole appeal of the dynamic world, and the AI system, is that what you do has consequences. What you don’t do should have consequences too. I don’t really think you disagree there. What I think is the problem is the perception that if the consequences aren’t made apparent very very quickly, then players will get bored or be unsatisfied. I believe there are many players out there who would be more than happy to know that what they did, contributed in a meaningful way – even if it’s just ‘buying time’ – regardless of a lack of immediate feedback. Surely the sense of immersion in the world depends on such long-term feedback just as much as short-term feedback?

        The best way that SOE could demonstrate this idea of longer-term consequences would be through comparisons of the different servers. If on server A the players are diligent about keeping the goblins in check, day after day without reward, their rallying call event campaign would play out differently than server B, where most players got bored and went elsewhere in the world after a few days. Being able to see that your server’s event is a product primarily of the players’ (in)actions rather than arbitrary switches thrown by the devs would be immensely satisfying, surely?

        I dare say that, since the players who do require immediate and constant feedback to have fun would probably get bored by such events, and that toxic players tend to be like that, the community surrounding the rallying call events would tend to be more open, friendly, and co-operative. That’s my guess, anyway.

        The lack of constant, immediate feedback is not necessarily a bad thing. I think SOE needs to experiment with longer-term feedback if it is going to successfully evolve the genre. Of course, they need to do it right, which leads me to your other comment. I am not advocating just ignoring potential pitfalls of new games. I am simply saying that acknowledging they exist, and that the success of the hyped feature depends on the devs avoiding them, is enough. Too many people focus on “this feature could go wrong in these ways, which will ruin my fun!” rather than “if they can get this to work while avoiding these pitfalls, it’s going to be awesome!” I know it makes for shorter blog posts/comments, I just find the former rather depressing.

        1. Spen

          “If they do it well, then not only do they save time and effort in creating new content – just imagine ‘new content’ being them just releasing a new set of npcs/mobs into the wild! – but they save time and effort in maintaining current content (maintaining the ‘illusion’).”

          I can’t agree more.

          I’d characterise myself as “cautiously optimistic, hungry to know more, but wary of PR bs”, rather than just “negative”.

          It’s also more fun playing armchair developer, than rah-rah cheerleader :)

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