A little later than usual, in this week's Hammer and Nail the EQHammer team have chosen a more open ended question but one which we hope will stir up plenty of conversation: "How Commercial Will EverQuest Next Be?". There's no easy answer to this and it covers a lot of areas of both game design and public opinion. We're willing to accept any interpretation on this question and as always, are keen to hear your thoughts.
You might think that lowering the cost of entry to zero would guarantee a product's survival. But and as anyone with experience in the genre might know, that doesn’t necessarily ring true. While free to play products unquestionably allow for maximum participation from the gaming audience, it doesn’t guarantee that they’ll even download your product or remain there once they’ve started to play. Dungeons and Dragons Online, Lord of the Rings Online or Star Wars the Old Republic are all successful in the sense they keep their studios alive and in profit, but their numbers are tiny in comparison to the juggernaut of World of Warcraft and half again compared to Guild Wars 2.
Sony Online Entertainment’s approach to going free to play has opened many doors for them and as an individual who regularly plays PlanetSide 2, I know first hand at how well their systems work. Their free to play model is fair, unintrusive and very honest and in comparison to the games listed above, it stomps them into the ground. Sony Online Entertainment do free to play right and that, in many ways, is a great step to securing a commercial product. However, EverQuest Next needs to be so much more than simply free.
For EverQuest Next to be a truly commercial product, I think it needs to strip back most of what makes the genre niche. Similarly to Guild Wars 2, Sony Online Entertainment need to simply open the doors of game accessibility to ensure there’s no grind, little treadmill and with everything available to players from an early stage. Does that answer the question of “How commercial will EverQuest Next be?”, not yet. In all honesty, it is simply too early to tell what area of the market Sony Online Entertainment are trying to penetrate. From experience though and having listened carefully to the noises coming out of their offices, I think it will fall firmly in the Guild Wars 2 camp, rather than something much more closed (see WildStar).
If SOE are to ever see a return on their considerable investment, they need to ensure it attracts as many people as possible and the only way of doing that is opening up the playing field to the point where every person participating feels heavily rewarded instantly. Feelings of that nature only come about from creating content that’s both theme park and easy.
As this question is a bit more open than our usual questions, it gives me a chance to free talk a bit. As Lewis posed the question to us, one part of it involves the genre’s growing divide between trying to stay traditional and difficult versus open and easy. There’s a word that tends to invoke a cringing reaction among the gaming community when they hear it. And that word is accessibility.
While there is nothing wrong with accessibility in and of itself, the term has become the single word equivalent to dumbing down, easy mode, instant gratification, and made for the lowest common denominator. This is all thanks to poor implementation of certain mechanics as well as the literal dumbing down of many other games outside of the MMOG genre. This alone has made “accessibility” a very nasty word in the gaming community.
So this brings us back to EverQuest Next. How commercial will it be? I think that SOE is certainly shooting to make it as accessible as possible to as many players as possible. They’ve already axed traditional raids in favor of something else that hasn’t been fully discussed yet, though my speculation would put that as being a new iteration of dynamic world events similar to those of Rift or Guild Wars 2.
Alts are also pretty much being ousted as every character can collect classes to build their own multiple playstyles. And while this can make for some flexible options, SOE’s biggest challenge will be avoiding the same pit trap that every other multi-class line MMO falls into. And that’s having maybe a couple of really viable builds for each class or others will see it as you’re doing it wrong.
Levels aren’t necessarily out, but EverQuest Next will be more of a horizontal progression MMORPG. But, as Lead Game Designer Darrin McPherson once put it, “emphasis on horizontal progression doesn't exclude vertical progression.” So there could still be a bit of that there.
SOE really set the bar for the old school of MMORPG difficulty with EverQuest, so with EverQuest Next, I’m sure that they’ll find a happy medium to challenge players without going too far down the easy path. We’ll just have to wait and see just what form it takes.
This is a tough question to answer. Obviously EverQuest is Sony's crown jewel when it comes to franchise IP - so it's definitely going to be heavily marketed, and when you go that route accessibility factors in a lot. I don't believe that Sony will be able to really key in on their hardcore EQ niche fanbase too heavily with this game. As much as they might want to please and pay homage to that crowd, I think the extremely hardcore fans will be unsatisfied with EQNext if they're not prepared ahead of time for drastic change.The reality is, that the market is changing. As many proponents as there are for more traditional styled MMOs akin to the original EverQuest - it's really not a viable model anymore, from a business standpoint. To get the really polished content that we've come to know and love out of Sony, it's got to market well to a much wider demographic. So the ease-of-play has got to be there for the casual gamer. Casual gamers really do make up the majority of the market, and if you don't cater to them - at least somewhat - you're not going to be a huge game.All that being said, I do think the minds behind EQNext are savvy and want to make a game that's fun for everyone - so the difficulty will be layered in there. I just don't think it will be present in the way that many of the hardcore traditional MMO gamers are used to. It's going to be radically different - which I think is actually a good thing. The genre has gotten stale. That's why we are seeing so many games pushing out with radically different styles. Everyone's trying to break the old traditional model, but so far nobody has really done it successfully in my opinion. I believe Sony has the ability to be that mold-breaker, with EverQuest Next.Already Landmark shows excellent signs of change and innovation, but its a long road getting there and developing all these new tools and mechanics. Just look at Landmark, it's been fun while it's been in Alpha and Closed Beta so far, but it doesn't yet have that "come back and keep playing" nature quite yet. More systems have to come out, especially the combat and AI systems. If those two systems fall short of expectations and hype, then even Landmark and EQNext will just be another pair of MMOs to hit the market, just with voxel-ized worlds instead of poly-planes.I believe they'll pull it off; and I also believe we'll find out soon enough. Get into Landmark to keep an eye on this franchise's future. It's really going to tell us a lot over the next two months about the intended difficulty and ease-of-play traits that EverQuest Next will likely employ.
Frankly, I don’t think there’s enough information yet to make a definitive call on this. But let’s be real - SOE is not an indie developer looking to serve a tiny, but dedicated niche. They make AAA games with budgets in the seven figures. They go big or they go home.Games that big need widespread success in order to recoup their development costs. This is often why they can’t afford to take risks, which translates into a reluctance to innovate. But EverQuest Next is innovating, in some ways, at least. And in others - action combat, and so on - they’re embracing the cutting edge of the MMO genre.How commercial will EverQuest Next be? Pretty damned commercial. The experience will be polished, noob-friendly, and easy to get into (though hopefully hard to master). But that doesn’t mean there won’t be substance there. Sandbox games always have plenty of substance, and much of it emerges from natural interactions between players, and between players and their environment. And that’s awesome stuff, and is, in this writer’s opinion, the essential best thing about the MMO genre.But I digress! Ultimately, commerciality, in my mind, comes down to two metrics: Accessibility, and familiarity. A game can be very extremely familiar in its mechanics and the way it plays, and even without a lot of tutorials and handholding to make it accessible, most MMO veterans will figure things out pretty fast. Or, on the other end of the spectrum, a game can be innovative in its mechanics, offering players a lot of strange, new stuff to do and strange, new ways to do it, but the entire experience is so polished, the tutorials so excellent, that players won’t have a hard time figuring out the new landscape.I expect EQNext will belong in the second category. It’ll definitely be commercial - a big-budget AAA game has to be. But that doesn’t mean it won’t innovate. It’ll just have plenty of polish.
This week’s Hammer & Nail asks a very open-ended question, so it took me a moment or two to decide how I wanted to respond. How commercial will EverQuest Next be? I think the bigger question is: how will EverQuest Next be commercial without alienating the dedicated EverQuest crowd?
There’s no doubt that SOE is walking a fine line with EverQuest Next. Make the game too accessible, and they’ll be accused of making our beloved EQ franchise easy-mode. I’ve mentioned this before, but Ten Ton Hammer had a guy in its Facebook fan page who, for a while, responded to every post about EverQuest Next with the words, “WoW Next.” Clearly, this disgruntled EQer felt as though the EQNext presented at SOE Live last year was not going to be the hardcore game he demanded.
We can all agree that EQ was unforgiving - if you didn’t play the game well, you suffered the consequences. Although we moaned about things like difficult corpse runs or having to trek across multiple zones (pre-Nexus and, later, Plane of Knoweldge) to meet up with our group or raid, the difficulty factor made us develop strong attachments both to our characters and the players, our friends, who helped us make our way through the treacherous wilds of Norrath.
There’s no doubt in my mind that EverQuest Next will not simply be EQ reskinned with modern graphics. As much as some hardcore EQ players would love it, repackaging EQ isn’t going to attract the vast amount of players the game needs to be commercially viable. But I do think that SOE is trying to make EQN both an evolutionary and revolutionary step for the franchise. And I believe Dave Georgeson (Director of Development) when he says that his team is trying to bring some of the bite back to MMOs with this game.
Accessibility doesn’t have to mean that a game is easy; it can mean that a game isn’t unnecessarily frustrating for the time-limited player who only has an hour to devote between dinner and doing homework with the kids. (Do any of us really want to spend our one hour or so of quality time with our chosen game trying to find help dragging a corpse out of a dangerous dungeon?) SOE is tasked with making EverQuest Next challenging without keeping players locked out of the fun parts - the grouping, the actual combat, the crafting and socializing and all that comes with it - for long periods of time because of overly harsh or restrictive mechanics. Their balancing act with EQN has a high degree of difficulty itself, and I’m looking forward to seeing them pull it off.
What are your thoughts on EverQuest Next's commercial success? What could hold it back? Do you think it will reach as bigger an audiance as Sony Online Entertainment hope? Let us know!
The only game to have distracted Lewis away from MMOG's over the last 15 years was Pokemon Red. Despite that blip, Lewis has worked his way through countless games in the genre in search of something that comes close to his much loved (and long time dead) Neocron. Having written for several gaming networks before Ten Ton Hammer, Lewis likes to think he knows a thing or two about what makes an MMOG and its player-base tick.
Lewis writes the weekly column "The Underfoot" published every Monday and "Hammer and Nail" when a good topic arises!
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