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PAX East 2013: SOE's Dave Georgeson on EQ Next and the future of online gaming

Karen Bryan

If there's one pastime that MMO fans share, it's making predictions. Which games will succeed, and which ones will struggle? Which will go free-to-play, merge servers, or even shut down? And will there ever be an MMO that's crowned as the WoW-killer?

But what about the bigger picture of online gaming in general? We've seen it come a long way over the past decades, and it's not always easy to see where it's headed. SOE's director of development of the EverQuest franchise, Dave Georgeson, sat down with Massively at PAX East this year to prognosticate on the future of online gaming. And of course, part of that future includes EQ Next, and while he still can't talk specifics, he did shed some light on the philosophy behind the game's design, with some hints about what players might see when it's revealed at SOE Live this summer.

We began with a discussion about what the future looks like and how EQ Next plays into that future. Georgeson said he feels that SOE is already tipping its hand somewhat with what it's added to EQ and EverQuest II. What the studio is essentially doing is making the game more open to players, with features like Player Studio and multiple free-to-play revisions. When the players can participate along with the developers in creating the game, the developers can continue making professional content, like the upcoming blueprint feature in EQII. There are many ideas being pushed along the way, and those ideas are "seriously on steroids with EQ Next," as he put it, but that won't be revealed until August at SOE Live.

In order to look at the future, we must consider the past, so we took a little trip back in time to when Georgeson took over as Executive Producer of EQII. His handle, SmokeJumper, originally came from his work with PlanetSide when his job was jumping in and putting out fires, so to speak. When he later rejoined SOE, EQII wasn't in trouble, but he felt the team needed a recharge. There was too much lather-rinse-repeat going on, and he felt the team needed to be reminded that the game was really cool and doing better than many other MMOs newer than EQII. After that, he focused his efforts on getting the game into the press more, partially through increased marketing but also by releasing things like Dungeon Maker and SOEmote. While some watchers questioned whether these were things the game needed, his answer was yes because it gave the game global press and kept the game became "alive" in people's minds. As a result, the game's numbers are stronger than they have been in years.

The future of free-to-play

Free-to-play was also a really good move for EQII; F2P doubled the game's numbers overall. But Georgeson acknowledged that it was a risk and that SOE was worried it might lose core players who had been loyal through the years. So the devs launched it with a very tight matrix at the beginning and watched it closely over time to see the effect. What they saw was that the original free-to-play model was actually driving people away because they felt SOE had its hand out all the time, and that's not what anyone wanted players to feel. Over time, SOE has eased many restrictions to make it feel much less intrusive.

In a perfect world, Georgeson hopes for a free-to-play model in which the free-to-play part is "invisible until you want it." SOE's devs want to be "white hats," to be able to entertain and have players want to opt in to pay. Going forward, Player Studio will be bigger and bigger, and the game will be even more opened up to players. That allows the devs to focus on making better and better professional content and let players create items for the Marketplace.

EQ Next is "an MMO you've never played before"

Shifting gears to EQ Next, Georgeson still wouldn't reveal what it was that caused SOE to scrap its original plans and start over, but he did say that what the studio was originally making was basically "EverQuest 2.5," and that wasn't going to make anyone excited. When he took over the project, he brought in new people to sit down to make big lists of "Holy Grails" for MMOs and lists of things they hated in MMOs. They didn't allow themselves to stop retooling what the game was until they satisfied those things. The end result is "an MMO you've never played before," he told me. "It's a completely different critter."

The EQ franchise has a wide variety of players, from the longtime fans who are still nostalgic about the early days to more casual players who enjoy a relaxed pace of home design and dungeon-making. When asked about how he plans to make a game that appeals to both camps, Georgeson told me that his team does have to identify what flavors of players there are and then make sure there's something for everybody. When creating something from scratch, he said, there are a lot of ways that SOE can make sure that "the things you want to do are the things that are available to you." He acknowledges that most MMOs basically require you to do combat, and that if there are other opportunities, players will have to wait a while to find them. That's not where SOE is headed with EQ Next. The devs have learned a lot from their games, and this is really the first opportunity for SOE to make a high-fantasy MMORPG since EverQuest II almost a decade ago.

When asked whether the team drawn inspiration from the current stable of SOE games, Georgeson said that it's no secret that he's a big fan of sandbox games; he's been designing them for decades. He's also very excited about the team assembled to work on EQ Next. He explained that usually, he's the idea guy on teams he's been involved with, but he said that the EQ Next team has such good ideas that he sometimes feels like a fifth wheel.

But is it a risk to make an MMO that's so different from what players are familiar with? Georgeson acknowledges that it's a risk, but he's very confident that his team is on the right track. He said that the unfamiliar is going to be OK because the ideas are so cool that players will want to stick around to find out about them. At the same time, SOE is trying to make the game more intuitive. The longer a game's out, the harder it is for new players to jump into the game easily. With EQ Next, SOE is making sure to take care of accessibility now, not later.

It's hard to make a new MMO not only because they're so complicated to make but because there are millions of lines of codes and art assets imaginable. Games today almost need to have every feature known to man, or they'll see a recurring pattern: Players will visit a new game, realize it's not as rich as what they were playing before, and go back to the previous game. Even with EQ Next, he acknowledges that players will still bounce to and from the game; that, he says, is part of the fabric of the industry today. But with EQ Next, SOE is banking on the hope that with the ideas coming from the game will provide endless possibilities for players.

When we spoke about the franchise as a whole, Georgeson reminded me that both EQ and EQII have been around for 14 and nine years respectively, and as far as he's concerned, there's no reason to ever turn the games off. He's not worried about EQ Next cannibalizing the two titles because it's such a different game from its siblings and because the fans are so loyal to their respective games. Both communities have developed deep, familial relationships with SOE over the years, and he expects that to continue for many years to come.

When asked whether he felt the MMO market had reached critical mass, he strongly disagreed. There's the global market that still hasn't really been tapped into, he said, but even in the States, there are many people who don't play MMOs because the MMO learning curve is too steep. He's not interested in making a mass-audience MMO, but he does want to make an MMO that appeals to a number of different playstyles.

The glue of MMOs

Georgeson argued that it's really the people who are the glue that makes an MMO work. In fact, he proposed two interesting theories that he's noticed in watching player behavior in the SOE MMO lineup. One revolves around whether action combat in MMOs has a detrimental effect on the community. He points out the differences in the communities of action-oriented games like PlanetSide 2 and DCUO compared to EQ and EQII. While he admits there are no data yet, SOE is watching communities very carefully as the debate continues. He also has a pet theory that the players who select themselves to be crafters are the glue of MMOs. They're the ones who tend to organize guilds, run in-game events, placate tempers in a guild, and be social. "So you can pretty much assume that there will be a strong backbone in EQ Next for those players. If players have good reasons to interact with the crafting community, then everything works better."

PAX East 2013  SOE's Dave Georgeson talks EQ Next, and the future of online gaming
Will EQ Next make use of mobile devices? Georgeson said that players want to be involved with MMOs when they're not at their PCs, so it's a big part of the design philosophy with all games in the studio's development. He added that SOE is already doing it with PS2, but that's mainly a stat aggregator that shows leaderboards. He wants to let players be involved in the world through their phones and mobile devices.

And players can expect to see features like Player Studio and SOEmote in EQ Next as well. While he couldn't confirm that EQ Next will be available on the PlayStation 4, Georgeson did say SOE is exploring many avenues for the game. And if you're wondering whether EQ Next will take advantage of the recent partnership between MLG and PS2, here's the scoop: There are no plans in the works. Even though SOE President John Smedley loves e-sports and Georgeson is a fan as well, the team hasn't considered it at all for the game. It's not off the table permanently, but it's just not the focus right now.

Overall, Georgeson is optimistic about the future of online gaming. He points to opportunities to experiment with new technology like armbands and glasses. He added that there are lots of ways that players will be able to interact with games in the future, and will "remove the ability to be harnessed to the PC even though it's a PC game." You can walk around and have your PC driving the game. People will be more and more tied to virtual worlds, and they'll feel less like games and more like worlds because there will be so many opportunities to explore. "People who get that and push the sociological stuff will make really big things that will last for years and years because no one will want to leave them," Georgeson told me. If he's correct, the future of MMOs looks very bright indeed.

Massively was on the ground in Boston during the weekend of March 22nd to 24th, bringing you all the best news from PAX East 2013. Whether you're dying to know more about WildStar, DUST 514, or any MMO in between, we aim to have it covered!

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