Oh, goodness. It’s time to start getting guardedly giddy for an MMO again. Throughout this 30 minute demo, EverQuest designers throw around words like “procedural” and “simulation” as if the ‘90s never ended and RPG design never grew up to lean on scripting like a zimmer frame.
In EverQuest Next, we’re told, players won’t be pointed in the direction of “NPCs with question marks over their heads”. Question marks are banned. Instead, they’ll participate in dynamic geopolitical events. Events defined by AI groups who roam about the game’s map, guiding by nothing but their own motivations.
If you’ve ever sighed at the conservatism of MMO design, consider this essential watching.
SOE have rejected traditional MMO quest structure outright, in favour of guiding players towards ‘events’ – places where NPCs are gathering, or fighting – and encouraging them to “guide the event forward, or push it in a different direction to see what happens”.
On a granular level, NPC behaviour is determined by their surroundings. The priestesses in the dark elf citadel absorb power from a captured nature spirit, and take it over to a pit where it can be converted into shadow magic. Warriors then draw the shadow energy from the pit and take it to the forges, where they can infuse special weapons with the magic.
Players can begin to alter NPC behaviour by placing objects in the world that they react to – dark elf priestesses will use scrying stones they encounter to spy on enemies from afar, for instance – or by equipping items that will cause a reaction.
“You’ll see that NPCs have their own lives, even when players aren’t around,” says lead content designer Steve Danuser. “And they each act according to the rules assigned to them – so warriors behave differently from scouts or from priestesses.”
There’s cause for skepticism – not least when Dunuser unconsciously paraphrases Bethesda’s claims about Oblivion’s Radiant AI. But SOE are sticking fast to their philosophy of dynamism on a high level, too.
NPC groups have their own goals and drives, defined by existing Everquest lore (“the backbone that drives these stories forward”). Letting groups come together in the world “creates endless opportunities for conflict” – and players will get to steer the outcome.
In the demo, kobolds displaced by the Dragon War are driven by a desire to increase their horde and their stake in the world. If they come across a mine, they will mine. If they meet dark elves, they’ll fight for their territory. It sounds a little like the world-generation stage of Dwarf Fortress, staged in real time.
“These events will play out over days, weeks, perhaps even longer,” says Danuser
Player purpose and direction is found in Rohsong – a quest journal that guides you to where interesting events are happening in the world, and keeps a record of your actions and choices.
NPC groups, too, will seek out players to assist them in their goals – in this case, the dark elves ask for help getting rid of kobolds. But players have agency too – they can pick a side. And the consequences of those decisions can be huge.
Player choices can trigger Rallying Calls – world-changing events, like the awakening of evil spirits by the dark elves. Different servers can be left living with “dramatically different consequences”, geopolitically speaking.
“Suddenly we have an unfolding chain of events that is intimately tied to the story,” says emergent AI designer Stéphane Bura.
I think about Guild Wars 2, and how its event system wound up far shallower than first implied. Will you allow yourself to hope one more time?