A decade after the launch of EverQuest 2 we are once again on the precipice of another EQ adventure. I say precipice because the launch of EverQuest Next is going to spell doom for a legion of excited fans, whom will surrender huge chunks of waking hours to the allure of Norrath and the adventures that await therein. I, for one, count myself as a member of that legion and have already resigned myself to what is assuredly a sleep-deprived existence, forever cloaked in the shadow of my wife, (known in this household as She Who Cons Red).
Let us not get ahead of ourselves, however; EverQuest Next is still months, if not years, away (foolish is he that trusts an official MMORPG release date). Until then, those that cannot wait to plunge into the next EQ, have the opportunity to participate in SOE’s grand, crowd development experiment- Landmark.
What SOE is attempting to do with Landmark is both audacious and significant. This isn’t a game, but a crowd-sourced tool with more in common with Photoshop or Modo than its sister software, EverQuest Next. The question millions of gamers and industry watchers are seeking to answer is whether it lives up to its name as an actual paradigm shift in how developers generate content for these behemoth-sized games; or whether Landmark is simply the moniker for another failed mutation in the MMORPG evolutionary chain. It’s too early to dive down the rabbit hole which is the big picture ramifications of Landmark as a crowd-development tool, so we will focus on a more immediate question- is it worth your time and money?
Here we are one month and a multitude of updates into Landmark’s closed beta. Over that month players have seen steady improvement in all areas of gameplay, as well as a smattering of content additions. The current iteration of Landmark resembles early Minecraft Survival Mode when the basic elements of gameplay were present but the player was in no jeopardy, save that caused by lava. Currently in Landmark you can enjoy all of the aspects of the sandbox without ever being in any danger- whether it be from monster or environmental hazard; ideal for content creation but lacking the necessary stakes to create excitement or conflict.
My time in game can be distilled into three things- harvesting, crafting and building. The lion’s share of time is spent harvesting. Unlike other sandbox experiences, Landmark has to be balanced within the context of MMO gaming. What that means, for a player, is an exponential difference in how much material needs to be harvested in order to create anything; an item isn’t going to require ten units of material to create, it is going to require ten thousand. This, unfortunately, leads to an exponential growth in the levels of tedium. For every hour of crafting or building I do, I easily spend four to five hours digging holes and cutting down trees. Compounding the slog is the knowledge that there are no rare materials to uncover. Yes, each material type has an uncommon variety hidden in it, but those are perfunctory discoveries embedded in every material node. Knowing the last swing of an axe will always produce the secondary material type is hardly excitement-inducing.
Crafting is a bit more interesting than harvesting, even if it lacks any sort of skill or engaging gameplay mechanics. Accumulating the needed materials and then processing them, via a button click, produces the desired product and that is the extent of the procedure. Early on you are creating tools and crafting stations, as well as basic stat buffing gear, but it feels very transitory since you are constantly upgrading your equipment to higher tiers. As things progress, you begin to branch out into more advanced items, which includes an array of cosmetic items to trick out your toon and utility items to make the slog a little less… well, sloggy. Landmark uses a standard tier system ranging from Tier 1 up to (currently) Tier 6, with server zones broken down by the range of tiered materials they hold.
Anyone hoping that the crafting would engage on the same level as it did in EQ2 (to date my favorite of any MMORPG), will be disappointed. This is just pressing the pellet dispenser button and being rewarded with a treat. We’ve all played WoW and its ilk enough to know how that is. The process might eventually evolve into something more engaging- like the addition of Eureka! moments on completion of an item- but for now we have to assume that any chance of a truly fulfilling tradeskilling experience will be reserved for Everquest Next. Harping on this, or the aforementioned tedium of harvesting, is largely academic however, because it is all designed to be a means to an end; and that end is what Landmark is all about: building.
In order to build, you have to stake a claim. This is done with a Claim Flag, which can be constructed on a Tier 1 crafting station. Flag in hand, you then look for your ideal location to stake your claim, which basically means you prohibit any non-authorized building within your boundaries. You may adjust the region of your claim on the Y axis to allow for building upwards or digging downwards. I wanted to create a subterranean temple to Our Lord and Master Yog-Sothoth, for example, so I lowered the claim as deep into the ground as I could to maximize my inner Dig Dug. For a slightly steeper cost, you can create secondary Claim Flags to increase your workable space. If you are working in conjunction with others (guild members and the like), you can daisy chain all of your claims together to create some expansive settlements.
The tools that SOE have made available to its players are astounding, rivaling (if not surpassing) those of many MMO development teams. While scouring the land for the necessary marble (for my temple to Our Lord and Master Yog-Sothoth) I came across some truly impressive structures, ranging from golden citadels to stout wooden palisades to multi-story guild halls with atriums of alabaster and silver. It becomes quite clear, when you travel through Landmark’s zones, that there is very little in the way of limitations on the tools. If you can envision it, you can pretty much build it. And that is precisely what I started to do.
When gazing upon the architecture throughout the zone, it is easy to feel a sense of intimidation. You are struck by the scope and intricacy of some of the buildings and wonder if that is indicative of the overall complexity of the tools. An experiment like this succeeds or fails based on usability and anything short of intuitive would have signaled Landmark’s death knell.
The building tools are as joyfully easy to use as they are robust. For new users, who are just beginning to dip their toe into the artistic waters, things couldn’t be more intuitive. With no help from player or forum, I immediately set out establishing my foundation and setting up my work benches. The excavate and fill tools made this process surprisingly simple and, more importantly, quick. After grinding away for hours, amassing building materials, the last thing I was in the mood for was a drawn out affair that had me clicking back and forth from the game to a YouTube video decrypting how to properly use the tools. I had already spent a lot of time working towards upper tier crafting stations so once I had my foundation set up, I was able to dive right in to phase two of temple construction: shaping stone. I was well on my way to erecting my monument to Our Lord and Master Yog-Sothoth…
The tools do get a little more difficult to manipulate but only when you start to push the boundaries of what you are trying to do. More often than not, they respond well and you are able to get a proper facsimile of what you had in your mind’s eye, onto the three dimensional canvas.
Having said all that, I don’t feel comfortable recommending Landmark as a paid beta experience. While I certainly enjoyed my time building, the reality is, on two separate occasions, I had to start all over because I failed to log in and pay my upkeep. I am not criticizing the upkeep mechanic (which currently caps at 5 days but will be expanding) but offering anecdotal evidence of Landmark’s ability to sustain interest. As stated at the beginning, this isn’t a game, but a content creation tool and that makes Landmark a niche product at best, and an esoteric curiosity, at worst. The potential of Landmark to change the way MMORPGs are developed and played, is apparent, as is the future enjoyment of it as a companion product for EQ Next. For right now though, the tedium and relative lack of things to do, outside of building, cement it in the category of “wait and see.”