Technology catches up with a really great idea in EverQuest Next

Image credit Sony Online Entertainment
Image credit Sony Online Entertainment

Just east of the great city of Qeynos, up a trail through a narrow cleft in the mountainside lay hidden the glade of Jaggedpine. Game hunters are wise to keep to the valleys below, as the Rangers loyal to Karana who keep the glade frown on any who would pursue quarry there. Poachers weren’t the only enemies of the Jaggedpine. Darkpaw Gnolls fester in the lower hills and prey on any who venture the roads, eager to take back the land of their birthright.

EverQuest was many things to many people. It was equal parts social role playing, exploration, character development and classic swords and sorcery combat. It was the apple to whom all others would be compared for over a decade to come. Nineteen expansions later and nearly 15 years since it’s pioneering debut, EverQuest and it’s sequel are a tapestry turned chronology of how the MMO RPG evolved. Future industry leaders like Blizzard’s World of Warcraft were built on the backs of 989 Studio’s EverQuest (now under Sony Online Entertainment) and Turbine’s Asheron’s Call. These first 3d “multi user dungeons” evolved from a niche genre of top-down 2d games and text based dungeon games of decades prior. Even the upcoming Mega MMO RPG successors like Elder Scrolls Online are still borrowing from EverQuest’s success. “We’ve got public dungeons!”, says one. EverQuest had them in 1999.

EverQuest was a very ambitious title that pushed, and sometimes broke, the limits of technology at the time. Beta testers for the original release will recall some features that started as well thought out but did not see light, or not in their intended form. Other game mechanics had to be reworked several times before they were balanced. Some ideas, like the detailed faction system and how your character could develop through choices of allies, deities (and enemies) were simply ahead of their times. More than anything, EverQuest was an eye-popping leap forward so vast and immersive you were almost certain to get lost in the wilderness and have a good time of it. Oh, and die, a lot.

EverQuest tackled many critical gameplay mechanics with little industry experience to lean on. Tuning character death, anti-social behavior, equipment advancement and character personalization were all relatively new concepts in a blossoming genre. While the same issues had plagued and forever altered Ultima Online just a few years before EverQuest, the underpinnings weren’t all too similar. Solutions in one game did not translate to the other, and EverQuest managed to invent several more – like monster AI relevant to zone edges, and how same monsters reacted to unwitting bystanders – and other monsters – while chasing fleeing adventurers. In most cases, EverQuest had to return to the drawing board before finding the right balance.

Despite it’s challenges, EverQuest grew into a benchmark success in the genre. Fast forward to present, and a franchise worth rebooting gets a second day in the sun. Sony Online Entertainment recently announced EverQuest Next, a re-imagining of the world of Norrath on a brave new platform that is powered in part by fan generated content. A far cry from just a trip down memory lane, EverQuest Next sets out to push new envelopes, blaze new trails, and go places few elves have gone before.

Among the exciting new features are permanent, dynamic change and environmental damage. The entire world is built of many small voxel nodes, not unlike “minecraft” or an extremely detailed brick-building set. These make up everything including the ground, buildings and floors and walls of dungeons. They can be set to react to dynamic forces, including spells and other colossal impact, like dragons or giants or siege equipment. The possibilities are staggering, and the same world building tools used to make all this happen are available free to players in the parallel sandbox world of “Landmark”. Landmark leverages modern cloud computing technology and turns players into world builders, allowing fans to self-publish content – content that may even find its way into EverQuest Next itself.

SOE was not content just to cross minecraft with an MMO RPG. In this rebirth, they have boldly left the archtypes and character styles long associated with decades of Dungeon and Dragon influence. They have also established early engagement with the player community to help shape the direction of EverQuest next ahead of beta. Through the “round table” community feature new ideas are laid out for debate and discussion with the fans. At current, one topic was a light humored question to the fans – should dwarf women have beards?

As a member of the same fan community that cheered EverQuest into it’s first release, I am extremely pleased to see the depth of fan community engagement in foundations of EverQuest Next. It’s a daring evolution of many great ideas and technology that simply were not around at the time. I will be delighted to see Norrath with new eyes, without zone borders, and through the power of modern graphics technology. I pray it sees release on Gaming Consoles like PS4 and Xbox One – an announcement on this is due soon from SOE. I may even run into a few old friends upon my return to the Jaggedpine Glade.

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