[Preface: I try to be positive in my attitude in life and here on the blog. It is a personal failing of mine that when it comes to certain people -- Brad McQuaid being one of them -- I tend to become extremely cynical and sarcastic, so apologies.]
So. Brad McQuaid is back. Again. Guess what he wants to do? Kickstart yet another attempt at an EverQuest reboot. Broken record, much?
And the project name. Rise of the Fallen. Up of the Down. Front of the Back. Smile of the Frown. Cat of the Dog. Really? That the best a “Chief Creative Officer” has to offer?
I should probably go ahead and get it out in the open that if you hadn’t noticed from the previous paragraphs, I am not a fan of Mr. McQuaid. Why? Glad you asked. For starters, I’ve always seen him as sort of like Elvis. Not in the good way. He was just part of the whole EverQuest team but because he was out there in forums like Fires of Heaven back then, he became Internet Famous. And it went to his head. He started believing his own hype. Thought he was a Rock Star game developer. Arrogant. Smarmy. Drug abuse. Never learned from his mistakes.
Have a favorite actor? Author? Painter? Ever notice in random interviews that the best actors rarely, if ever, watch their own films or performances? The best authors read other authors’ works, they don’t re-read their own? Artists grow, branch out, push boundaries, forge new paths. Then you have people like, well, let’s say David Spade. Sure, he’s been in a number of movies and television series but let’s be honest, calling him an actor is pushing credulity to the limit. No matter what he’s in, he’s always just David Spade. That’s how I tend to view Brad McQuaid. I’ve yet to see any growth, any branching out, any creative development. Any semblance of artistry. I just perceive him as re-reading his own works and trying to replicate them.
Anyway, let’s talk about the project and its bullet points:
- An MMO developed by gamers who aren’t afraid to target an audience of like-minded gamers
Much like Jaedia wrote, this immediately makes me think of McQuaid living in the past, posting in the FoH forums late at night, appealing to the same angry, bitter hardcore people. And sure, those same people will fork over some Kickstarter cash based solely on the vague promise of reliving their first MMO romance. They’re deluded, of course. Once the first few days of crowdfunding by those deluded adults who are now fifteen years older than they were in 1999 playing EverQuest dries up, as Wilhelm points out, the team – oh wait, McQuaid doesn’t really “do” teams, it’s his face in the public or nothing – will have to get out there and start the hype wagon. More to the point, however, if McQuaid believes his old-school design thoughts promote "social" interactions, are we sure the angry, bitter hardcore veterans are who we should be appealing to? In my experience, they tend to create horrible communities, after all.
- A fantasy themed Massively Multiplayer Role Playing game (MMO) with a heavy focus on character development, an immersive world, and teamwork
This is the first time “immersive” comes up, and the thing with simply saying “immersive world” is that relates solely to “spatial presence” as I brought up a few years ago. Spatial presence is mostly in the hands of the artists and modelers. However, later down the page we find a commitment to a style of play that focuses on immersive combat, and engaging group mechanics and a belief that an immersive world requires intelligent inhabitants so with those two, it’s sounding like they’re focusing on “flow” therefore encompassing both definitions of “immersion” in the technical sense. I’ll give them credit if that’s the case rather than simply parroting the “immersive” phrase because it’s a marketing mating call to MMO gamers. In particular I am hoping they can back up their claims on "intelligent inhabitants."
- Group-focused social gameplay using a class based system to encourage teamwork
- A commitment to a style of play that focuses on immersive combat, and engaging group mechanics.
- A commitment to creating a world where a focus on group play will attract those seeking a challenge.
- A belief that the greatest sense of accomplishment comes when it is shared.
Four bullet points saying this game is all about group content. That’s all good and fine on paper. Anyone who’s ever MMO’d with me knows I absolutely love group content. But not everyone can play during prime time hours only, or play 18 hours per day in order to group. The days of 7 hour raids? I’ve done those. I don’t have time for that anymore, regardless how much I may have enjoyed the challenge at the time. And as much as Ye Olde EverQuest Geezers rail on and on about group this and group that, they’ve worn those rose-colored lenses so long they don’t even notice anymore. Plenty of people made a point of putting in the effort to be able to solo what they could as well. Which leads me to:
- A mindset that Designed Downtime should be a part of the game to ensure players have time to form important social bonds
It’s no secret that I’ve called bullshit on this for a decade now. In one of the more honest (finally, an EQ vet scrapes off some of the rose tinting) statements, Bhagpuss admits that EQ players were only social because there was nothing else to do.
We didn’t talk to each other and form social bonds because we were better people back then – we did it because the choice was that or sit in silence. The moment we got the opportunity to do something other than make small talk with strangers we jumped at the chance. Remember when they added Gems? You didn’t hear a word from anyone for weeks!
Also consider the time difference. It’s no longer 1999 where your choice of MMOs was essentially EverQuest or Ultima Online. Back then the video game industry was smaller than today. Getting your average gamer to fork over $15 per month? Squeezing blood from a turnip. My impression remains that the vast majority of early MMO adopters were tabletop RPG and/or MUD fanatics jumping at the first opportunity to take their adventures online with hundreds or thousands of others like-minded people. Today? Gaming is mainstream. MMO gaming is mainstream. Not only is there a different overall audience today than fifteen years ago, all of us have different lives, different demands on our time and different expectations out of our games and what we wish to accomplish in the time we allot to gaming. Whether we’re willing to admit it or not. Forced downtime in 2017? Perfect time for everyone to AFK Alt-Tab out to a browser, check Facebook or Google+, maybe check a YouTube or Twitch video, or whatever. We’re not going to sit around the old pixel campfire chatting about how great this new virtual world thing is. At most we’ll yammer about how World of Warcraft still sucks, refer to Pantheon as another "WoW clone" then fire off a few Chuck Norris jokes for good measure. It’s a different world. It’s a worse world in that regard, no doubt about it, but take an honest look at the waters of the Gamer Pool. It’s nasty. It just is. The majority of what passes for "social interaction" today is the malcontents taking up most of global chat to the point that the outnumbered "normals" you might desire to find have already disabled global chat and either stay solo or find a guild and limit themselves to guild chat.
How about Terminus, the world Pantheon is set on?
- An open world in which you explore to obtain not only more powerful items but also new spells and abilities.
- Travel where and when you want to in a non-linear world.
- A huge world to explore, trade, and adventure in. Travel the world and profit from selling exotic items collected from distant realms.
- Different cities and outposts may have local Bazaars
Despite the terms "open world" and "non-linear world" tempting me towards sandbox-ish curiosity, that is immediately quashed by reality. Obtaining more powerful items, spells and abilities are big cues to yet another typical vertical leveling game. And if that’s the case, well I can’t really travel "where and when" I might want to, no? Non-linear world? More likely meaning a non-linear leveling experience. No hand-holding quest lines pushing the player from quest hub to quest hub. Pick a zone in your level bracket and go kill monsters there. That last bullet point makes it sound like either there will be no global auction house (bazaar) or perhaps there will be one alongside local bazaar.
- Limited and class based teleportation may get you close, but in order to reach many destinations you will have to traverse the planar scarred lands of Terminus through the use of your own two feet or on the back of your mighty steed.
In other words, just like Vanguard before it, Pantheon will promote no fast travel, limited teleporting and mostly rely on [insert heavy sarcasm] "meaningful" travel. Now wait! I’m all for huge worlds, and I enjoy exploring or just enjoying the scenery as much as the next screenshot-happy player. But when you have a "forced grouping" game, "forced manual travel" can easily impede the grouping part. I’ll refrain from re-quoting the entirety of my Vanguard "30 minutes traveling to my group" story here. Suffice to say that again, the players being initially pitched to are fifteen years older. We don’t have time to fart around for 30 minutes before the group content can even begin. I’m unconvinced that McQuaid has learned his lessons yet in this regard (and many others) and considering the realistic consequences of his design choices.
Remember when the BioWare guys very early on admitted that The Old Republic was only going to have crafting because it was an MMO bullet point? Take a look at Pantheon’s stretch goals. Crafting is down there at the 2.5 million mark. So the game is being designed without crafting. Meaning that if crafting gets tacked on later, it will be exactly that: tacked on. Now, honestly that isn’t a bad thing. Crafting is nothing but a gold- and time-sink in the majority of MMOs, namely the "theme park" variety. If Pantheon (or any MMO) is being designed around combat and gaining new loot as drops or rewards, then for my two cents: have the fortitude to stick to that design goal. Drop the crafting altogether and put those resources to better use. Besides, would a "legendary hero" (per the Game Summary of the Kickstarter page) really be sitting around smelting armor? No, he would not. If you’re appealing first to the old-school raiders, are those people today (or then) necessarily hard-core crafters? Just have an awareness that once the "mainstream" MMO crowd starts getting wind of the game, there will be some backlash by people who demand all the generic bullet points be filled regardless of their worth.
Ok, so we know the game is being developed strictly around combat. So lets look at what they say of combat, as it’s been one of the more provocative bullet points among some commenters on the blogs covering Pantheon:
Pantheon’s combat places a focus on preparation and awareness of your enemy. The player can actively dodge, block, counter or deflect incoming attacks. You’ll want to choose different spells and abilities before an important encounter, selecting from a mix of offensive and defensive abilities. You’ll also see where the NPC’s spells and abilities are going to land and have an opportunity to avoid the attack.
So-called "active combat" has been a feature of a lot of MMOs the past couple years, but they’ve all been different in nature. Guild Wars (we’ll consider it an MMO for purposes of this discussion) showed which skills the enemy was using along with its progress bar so if you had an interrupt skill you could choose to use it. The Old Republic uses a similar setup where you can at least see a progress bar indicating your target is executing a powerful ability, giving you an opportunity to interrupt. Guild Wars 2 of course relies on constant dodging to mitigate hits and damage. Nevewinter puts a red splotch on the ground covering an ability’s area of effect giving the player a few seconds to dodge, backstep, or otherwise get out of the target area. A modified "don’t stand in the poo," in other words, which is what the last sentence about combat describes above. Then of course there’s TERA where there’s very active dodging, blocking, backstepping plus paying attention to the "tells" any given monster type has prior to a strong attack. McQuaid hasn’t yet of yet expounded on what exactly they mean with their combat description, though I am tempted to say the mention of "pre-selection" of spells or abilities makes me think of Guild Wars 2 or Neverwinter where you can only have a small subset of your overall skillset equipped at any given time. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing. What does annoy me is blog commenters’ attitude. The hardcore types might go on and on about loving challenge and personal skill, then balk at actually needing any personal skill. Twitch? Really? TERA might come semi-close to being in the neighborhood of twitchy, at least for a tank, but really? Maybe I’m just reading into things but it sounds like "I’m getting older, my reflexes are slower" (oh sure, you’ll admit it under this bullet point but none of the others?) which can be reinterpreted as "games are for kids" which is complete crap. If you do a search for challenging (actually I did "challeng" as a catch-all) on the Kickstarter page you’ll get 9 results. They’re building a game where you need to be involved in the fights to overcome those challenges, not playing WoW with one hand while watching TV on the spare monitor.
- An expectation that the path of least resistance should also be the most entertaining
Um, really? After all the talk about how "challenging" the game is, you’re saying the most entertaining way to play the game is to be lazy? Must be a typo. Because in challenging games, the entertainment is the path of most resistance.
- An understanding that a truly challenging game is truly rewarding
Well, to be fair, overcoming the obstacles that a challenging game presents is truly rewarding. Simply having a challenging game exist is not. A game being challenging for the sake of being challenging is not. But being challenging and rewarding players for overcoming that challenge? Absolutely. Dark Souls anyone?
- A belief that the greatest sense of accomplishment comes when it is shared
This would be true. After all, there are more MMO blogs than single-player blogs. The most rewarding content is MMOs is always group content, whether instanced or open world. Remember when open world group content existed? Yeah.
- An awareness that content is king
That’s great to say and all, but the proof will be in the pudding. Plus, again, those stretch goals are holding content hostage. Content needs developers and developers need funding and salaries. McQuaid says additional funding will be needed beyond the initial $800K on this first Kickstarter anyway. Possibly from publishers or investors. Then even with a small(er) team leftover after launch, after the Three Monther Tourists leave for greener pastures, will the remaining subscribers be enough to fund actual content on a regular basis? (Which is another of the bullet points.)
- Stretch Goal – New Feature: UGC Server
Bingo! Here’s my one sticking point about this whole project. It’s 2014. There are already hundreds of MMOs out there. More by 2017. You know what there aren’t hundreds of? Cooperative RPGs. Or if you’d like to scale it up, non-massively multiplayer RPGs. All the people who dreamed of "co-op Skyrim?" Or co-op "Dragon Age" or Witcher or whatever. Now McQuaid is suggesting "hey, we’ll let you run your own Pantheon server and ruleset with a UGC toolset?" If the entire project were based around this and this alone, drop the massively multiplayer baggage altogether, I wouldn’t be spending time writing this, I’d already have happily forked over my money to the project. There’s a tremendous demand for this and I suspect it would be an industry-shaking move if it’s successful, spawning copycats over the next few years to the delight of RPG fans everywhere. Plus, guess what? People bitch to high heaven about normal grouping in MMOs, never you mind so-called "forced grouping." Know where they never bitch about it? Co-op games. ’nuff said. Funding the game post-launch? Lease servers like Battlefield does, rather than releasing Linux server code for free. Sell new content as DLC expansions. Sell access to the UGC toolset because not everyone is going to want to be creators; most gamers are consumers of content.
Ok, I’ve been highly critical of Brad McQuaid here. I don’t like that. I’m really hoping that his third time at bat he proves me wrong. At the very least, I think I did end up highlighting a few areas of the project that I thought were positives. What I do believe is that there is a place in the world for this project. I am skeptical that an MMO is the right direction, but it is what it is. I do hope the project gets funded and released then let the players enjoy and judge the final project. I also hope they’re able to remain independent the whole time to avoid any publisher pressure to release like what happened with Sony and Vanguard. But I also hope this doesn’t become, or remain, Brad McQuaid’s Pantheon: Rise of the Fallen. He says Visionary Realms, Inc. currently has 10 season MMO veterans, and hopes to hire more with the Kickstarter funding. With all those veterans, I’d like to see the entire team brought to the fore as much as possible. Give everyone equal credit for the work they’re doing. Give others besides Brad some public face time, assuming there are some charismatic personalities among those MMO veterans, of course. I can understand from a marketing perspective why you’d want McQuaid’s name up there front and center at the time of announcement, tarnished though that name remains thanks to Vanguard, because it will immediately appeal to those rose-colored lenses-wearing former EverQuest addicts and their wallets. But after that, take down the whole "McQuaid Wall of Fame" portfolio and let the entire team shine.