"Do me a favor and type '/loc' into the console, will you?" the Sony Online Entertainment (SOE) developer asks me. I oblige. The readout is a set of coordinates corresponding to my character's current position on the enormous Everquest Next Landmark continent.
He's particularly interested in the number signifying my current altitude: -2,463.
"Where's the bottom of the map supposed to be?" I ask.
He laughs. "Zero."
It's the culmination of forty minutes of work. When SOE let us loose into the internal build of Everquest Next Landmark, Nathan Grayson of Rock Paper Shotgun and I had one silly goal: Dig all the way to the bottom of the map, just to see how far down this Minecraft-esque world of voxels went.
Instead, we somehow dug "through" the bottom of the map and kept on going, our Verne-esque adventure taking us to a land where caves fill with fog and rain flies through the walls.
This was Everquest Next Landmark in Admin (read: God) Mode—pure chaos slamming head-on into raw creativity. It's the best online sandbox game you'll probably never get to play, and that's a shame, though Everquest Next Landmark is still amazing even without Admin Mode's sheer madness.
Coloring within the lines
SOE released the closed alpha of Everquest Next Landmark—the company's spinoff MMO that's more Minecraft than Everquest proper—last Friday.
When I say it's like Minecraft, that actually does Everquest Next Landmark a disservice. Landmark is voxel-based, sure, and it involves building things out of those voxels. However, the set of creation tools in Landmark is far more advanced than Minecraft. When you start the game you have only Add, Remove, and Heal functions—all fairly self-explanatory and similar to Minecraft's mechanics.
Later, however, you'll craft and unlock four more tools: Selection (which fills a designated area in automatically), Paintbrush, Smooth (which curves an object's hard edges), and Line. You're even given access to special shaped blocks, like corner pieces and spheres, allowing for far more complicated objects than a pure grid-based editor like Minecraft. On the whole, it's a lot more like a simplified version of 3D modeling software (such as Maya) than a creation tool you'd expect within a game.
But the Landmark alpha build is a fairly regimented affair. First, you mine for resources. Once you have enough, you'll strike out into the wilderness and claim a plot of land. This becomes your homestead—you can use your harvested resources to build anything you desire on this land. Build a rocket. Build a log cabin. Build a giant garbage bin and set yourself up like Oscar the Grouch. The choice is yours.
Then you'll most likely mine for more resources, tear down your old structure, and start over again.
Eventually there'll be much, much more to Everquest Next Landmark—more items, an expanded crafting system, proper quests, the ability to claim multiple plots of land, and a full combat system complete with craftable armor and weapons.
In other words, it will be more like a proper MMO that just happens to have this voxel-based building system in it. In other, other words: Nothing like Admin Mode at all.
A world without restrictions
Everquest Next Landmark in Admin Mode is, by game design standards, broken.
You're given an infinite amount of every resource in the game. You can toggle flight on and off. You can use the Select tool to delete entire sections of the game world. You can build anything, anywhere, at any time—you're not restricted only to land you've claimed.
The Admin Mode is exploitable, buggy, broken, crash-prone, error-prone, and—worst of all in the eyes of serious game developers making serious games—silly.
On the other hand, Admin Mode removes the question of "Can I do this?" There are no artificial hurdles to progress through, no bounds on your creativity. Want to do something? Do it. See what happens.
For all SOE's talk of player-driven design and enormous sandboxes, the development team seems set on giving users a fairly specific type of experience. Here are these areas where you can build, and here are the places you can't. Here are the resources you have to mine to progress through the different tiers of the game. Here are the trappings of a real MMO inside this incredible building tool. Now, the details of that experience are still up for debate, but the fundamentals—the "arcs" of a players experience—are set.
This conservative attitude was even apparent at SOE's preview event. In Admin Mode, Nathan and I discovered the Select tool could seize on and delete enormous chunks of the ground. Like, to the tune of approximately 800,000,000 voxels at once. This was how we made our slow but steady progress to the bottom of the map.
Select. Delete. Fall to the new "floor." Select. Delete. Fall. Select. Delete. Fall.
And then we started seeing discomfited faces. "Wouldn't you guys rather...build something?" asked one of the SOE staffers as we bored a hole into the currently-empty depths. (Mineral deposits will be added to underground areas later on in development.) This was not The Correct Way to play Landmark.
Once we'd reached the bottom of the world, we turned on flight/no-clip mode and ascended back towards the surface, our bodies silhouetted against the blue-gray gloom of "outside the level." We flew high above the surface, higher even than a nearby tower someone had built by stacking a house template on top of itself dozens of times.
Here amongst the clouds we founded Sky City—a new continent, far removed from the toils of life below. Once again using the Select tool, we created enormous platforms in the sky, thousands of voxels long. It was a crude structure, a patchwork of grass and copper and riveted metal and ice and obsidian that looked more like a child's failed Lego creation than a place befitting the regal name we'd adopted, but it was home.
Here, high above the Landmark surface, I built a sixty-foot-tall Mountain Dew can out of emeralds. Nathan built an even-larger ice cream cone—so large he had to copy and paste the various portions in three different parts to avoid triggering an error. In other words, so large that Landmark's systems hadn't been programmed to even handle an object of that size.
And that was the theme of the day: take these systems and prod them. Break them apart. Ask that seemingly silly question "Is this possible?" and then force your ridiculous dreams into existence.
"You guys do realize nobody playing the real alpha will be able to do what you're doing, right?" another employee asked towards the end of our session. I do. And it's regrettable.
Herein lies the rub. What I experienced with Admin Mode is incredibly different than the Alpha you can go access right now.
The actual Landmark Alpha is not bad by any means. There's much to be said for gating player progression—psychologically it's a powerful motivator to keep users coming back for more. And regardless, I can't say Admin mode is at all ready for public consumption. I crashed the game client on three separate occasions during the few hours we played, each time requiring a force stop and re-launch.
But wow, what a sandbox. Admin Mode is probably the best example I've seen of the potential for an MMO in a long, long while.
Landmark's mission is to take advantage of user-created content to keep the game fresh over time, and I think it's going to succeed. The building tools are intuitive, there's high potential for selling your creations via the in-game Player Studio to make some real-world cash on the side, and there will still be enough emergent gameplay silliness to set it apart from other community-driven online games.
Or, to put it another way, Landmark's appeal in the actual release is the same fundamental appeal as Admin Mode—except Admin Mode removes all the artificial roadblocks and just lets people go crazy. It's a giant psychology experiment inside a game, watching the dumb stuff people create when all the limits are removed. It's...well, it's my type of game.
For now, I can only hope SOE allows me to at least mimic some of the aspects of Admin Mode further down the line.
I talked to Director of Development Dave Georgeson about the potential for a "Creative Mode," wherein you'd at least have an infinite complement of resources to choose from without needing to explore and harvest anything. He said the team was looking into potentially allowing such a mode on private servers, though that would come in a far distant future—if ever. And only if players actually wanted it. I hope they do.
Landmark is a great game, and one I expect to sink many hours into especially as we get closer to the real release. It's a powerful toolset that empowers players to build most anything they'd like, and SOE's open-ended development approach should allow for the game to evolve in some interesting ways as the team receives player feedback. I cannot stress enough: Everquest Next Landmark is fantastic. Even as someone who didn't love Minecraft, I'm really having fun with Landmark.
But Landmark Admin Mode is one of the absolute best sandbox games I've ever played—right up there with the everything-explodes-and-I-don't-care-because-I-just-attached-this-airplane-to-the-ground-with-my-grappling-hook mayhem of Just Cause 2's multiplayer.
I miss it already.