Norrathian Notebook: The ups and downs of Landmark's open development

Open development: It definitely has its ups and downs. And Landmark players are getting plenty of first-hand experience with this fact.

Back in the early stone ages of MMOdom (think baby Ultima Online and EverQuest first crawling on the scene), massively multiplayer online games were more like boxed single-player games: You waited and pined for it until it shipped out (in yes, an actual box!) and then you ran to the local games shop to nab your copy on the launch date. If you even knew about the existence of the game before, you still had to wait until that box was in your physical possession and the game loaded on your PC to find out what it was actually like. Before that moment, only the devs and reviewers at gaming magazines really knew.

Boy, have things changed!

No longer do we wait until we own the box to know what's inside; with the popularity of open betas, most folks have already played the game they are waiting for. Heck, there aren't even boxes or beta disks anymore! Most MMOs are just downloaded straight from the internet. But one thing has remained more or less the same until recently: Players didn't get to see or experience the upcoming game until the development was in a fairly complete state. The betas, while allowing players in early, were all about testing server loads and such. The entire framework and mechanics of the game were already in place, and testers were just making sure things worked right.

With Landmark, however, that has all changed. The game is most certainly not done! We're watching the development unfold from a much earlier state than would once have been possible. In fact, we're even actively participating in said development as a whole community. That results in some advantages as well as unique problems for the upcoming sandbox.

Having a hand in it

One of the big benefits that players get from this open development is the chance to actually be a part of the development. In closed development, the devs are making the game they want, or at least the one that they think the public will want. With open development, the devs are getting to hear what the gamers want from the gamers themselves (even if they don't always know what they want!). The amount of community input and collaboration for Landmark is virtually unprecedented. Devs are hearing what is important to players and what isn't, on top of what's working and what isn't. The community is also introducing ideas to the game that the devs hadn't thought of!

Players get more than just a voice; they get in on the action. Beyond input, players can even have physical things they make become a permanent part of Landmark and EverQuest Next. Talk about getting players invested in the game! Even if they don't want to go that far, gamers can still delve in and check out the new systems as they are developed instead of having to wait until the very end.

But therein lies the problem.

I want it now! -Veruca Salt

Folks want the game now. As in, all the game, right this very minute. Because they can see it, players feel they should have it. To be fair, that is exactly what previous development has conditioned us to think. Even now, most other alphas still let you consume vast quantities of the game in a nearly complete state. Landmark, on the other hand, has a different approach.

With Landmark, we're getting only small courses of the game served to us over time instead of being let loose at a buffet and stuffing our faces with whatever we want whenever we want it. I'll readily admit that it is hard to have just a taste and not be able to dig in to a whole meal, especially when that's what we are used to doing. And it's not just a matter of getting your fill of one course before moving on to the next, either. The game is in active development, and that takes time. Collaboration takes time, coding takes time, pretty much everything about making a game takes heaps of time. Devs can't snap their fingers and make the ideas come to life instantly. That means the next features aren't ready right when players are ready for them.

In this respect, opening the development doors has gone so far against the norm that people just aren't able to accept the fact that the game is not done. I cannot stress this enough: The game is not finished! No, really -- it's not done. Devs aren't holding back to slowly release things so they can draw out your pain and agony; they are literally developing these systems as they go. And many times these systems are brand-new and are being built from scratch. As such, we have to wait between our servings. We're just not used to being allowed to see development from such an early stage, let alone take part in it, so those who are still stuck in the mindset that being in the game means they should have the whole game will definitely get frustrated while waiting on new features. We need to break out of that mindset to avoid this common frustration.

Would it be better instead for gamers to have no idea about what's next, to remain oblivious until the game is nearly ready to consume in its entirety? Should SOE just remain mum on development? With the development doors closed, you wouldn't be left staring at the menu with your mouth watering while waiting for the next course of features, but is that the answer? No. We need to change our conditioned response to adapt to the new condition!

Adapt or perish. -H.G. Wells

Personally, I really like this new direction that SOE is taking development-wise. I've heard from many others who approve of the transparency as well. Our society has moved into a time when information is not just shared more readily but expected. We want it, so we need to deal with it! We need to adapt or risk getting left behind.

First off, I think it would help if we adjust our terminology. Let's dispense with the terms alpha and beta here as those terms elicit preconceived notions from gamers based on the history of the genre. Previously, games in alpha were predominantly still hush-hush, with NDAs in place and very few gamers participating. In this phase, some mechanics were being finalized and included in the game, but most systems were still implemented. Although alphas are increasingly more open now with more players experiencing the game, the systems are still largely in place. Come beta, everything is in place and you just add more players to make sure things work right. This is nothing like what's happening with Landmark. We need to ditch the baggage those terms carry with them stop expecting Landmark to conform to those meanings.

Instead, let's call them stages, with stage one equating to the alpha period, stage two closed beta, and stage three open beta. Or more stages could be added in for each major feature, say one for when water was introduced, one for caves, and one for combat. This immediately brings to mind the fact that the game is in stages of development. We could even just co-opt the term phase that is already used in the roadmap. Just this simple change in the lexicon will help.

Secondly, we just need to learn patience. (It is a virtue, after all!) As a whole, the industry has been sliding further and further into the quicksand that is instant gratification; the more you cater to it, the more it is expected. Now that a part of the industry is stepping back and extricating itself from that mire, we need to update our expectations accordingly. Remember, good things come to those who wait! The alternative is to be totally in the dark and just wait to see what the devs come up with. And I don't think there's any going back now. And I wouldn't want to go back.

What about you? Which do you prefer: open or closed development? Vote and add your comments below!%Poll-88828%
The EverQuest realm is so big that sometimes MJ Guthrie gets lost in it all! Join her as she explores the franchise's nooks and crannies from the Overrealm to Timorous Deep. Running biweekly on Thursdays, the Norrathian Notebook is your resource for all things EverQuest Next and EverQuest II. And keep an eye out for MJ's Massively TV adventures!
This article was originally published on Massively.