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Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Standing on the shoulders of minnows

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Or, how SOE are using indie-game developers to build Everquest Next.

Now that the initial excitement over the announcement and reveal of EQ Next has died down a little I've already discussed some of the concerns I have about the game. However, there are a couple of areas that have me really interested and offer the greatest potential to offer something new.


In his reveal speech for EQ Next, Director of Development Dave Georgeson said that the game philosophy was about delivering three holy grails of MMO game design. Grail number one was the core game mechanics, and this is an area where SOE have plenty of experience. It's the last two "grails" that I want to discuss now however.

Grail two, Georgeson said, was...
...to be able to blow up anything, any time, any where. So we built the entire world out of little tiny pieces called ‘voxels,” so we can literally blow up anything, any time, any where. So the second grail is destructibility, and it changes everything in the game.
The third grail according to Georgeson is...
...‘A Life of Consequence.” And what it really means is that we completely redid the way AI works in our game. As you play this game, you will be making decisions, and those decisions will have consequences. What that means is, the game is remembering everything you did, and it is reacting. The different NPC’s, the different quest opportunities that are available, all those things are reacting to you based on what you have done.
What I find interesting about both of these core game functions, the two things that are really going to make EQ Next stand out from the crowd, is that they are both based on technology developed by small, independent game designers.

Grail 2 - Voxel Farm

Former game developer at Oceanus Communications, Miguel Cepero, has been working for the last four years on his procedurally-generated voxel-based landscape engine (voxel means "volumetric pixel"). He's single-handedly developed a world building tool that allows complex landscapes and structures, featuring full deformation and destruction of anything in the world, all from what started as an experiment in procedural landscape development.


There are several things that are quite amazing about Cepero's technology. The resolution and fidelity of his environments are stunning, achieving an almost photo-realistic effect. That this can be done on low end machines and run well is a triumph (Cepero has designed the engine to be able to scale and run on an iphone for example).

In his blog Cepero has now admitted that Everquest Next is built using his Voxel Farm engine. He says that Voxel Farm is being used to procedurally generate the underlying voxel world, giving the destructive properties and geography, and that SOE's Forgelight engine is then doing the rendering over the top.

What has me really interested and offers some optimism for the game is one of his quotes in the comments section:
At this point I really cannot comment anymore. I do not want to reveal their road map, this is up to SOE. One thing is certain, this is no marketing BS: After working with the EQNext team for a while I now have the realisation they will be taking this tech to levels far beyond anything I have been able to do and show here. The best is yet to come.
If you're interested in finding out more about Voxel Farm read the fascinating article at Edge, from 2011, in which Cepero discusses such things as how the technology works, the problems with procedural generation, and how regular structures such as buildings can also be generated.


You might also want to check out the Voxel Farm blog and Cepero's YouTube channel.

Grail 3 - Storybricks

Storybricks is a little better known than Voxel Farm as their involvement was Everquest Next was announced back in April. What the hell is Storybricks though?

Storybricks is a narrative building toolset based on emergent artificial intelligence, developed by the small team at Namaste Entertainment. It's based on the idea of giving NPCs emotions, needs, wants and behaviours, and that it's these that will drive their interactions with players and the game world, rather than pre-written scripts.


Whilst they may be a small team funded by Kickstarter, Storybricks come with a wealth of experience. Co-founder Brian "Psychochild" Green was one of the team behind Meridian 59, widely credited as the first 3D MMO. Not only that, they have such impressive names as Richard Bartle and Chris Avellone involved too (if you don't know who those guys are shame on you and head on over to Wikipedia right now!).

It's the Storybricks system that is behind the much-trumpeted emergent AI of Everquest Next. It's the system behind the NPC behaviours, quests, rallying calls, heck even the character pet system. it's a system that is dependent on interaction, between NPCs and PCs, between NPCs and NPCs, and between NPCs and the world, and is designed to create emergent rather than scripted stories and quests. What's more the system allows the NPCs to have memories, and they will remember the player and previous interactions.


Like Miguel Cepero, the Storybricks team seem excited and impressed by what SOE are doing with their technology. They said they are doing "remarkable things", and Brian Green has made several positive comments via Twitter, such as "The good news is the team really understands what we want to do with AI and pushing MMOs forward."

You can find out more about Storybricks at their Kickstarter page and in this article with Massively. You might also want to check out their YouTube channel.

Standing on the shoulders of minnows

Despite my concerns over the Everquest Next reveal there is no doubt that SOE are being very ambitious. Their three stated "grails" really could deliver an amazing experience unlike anything else, an MMO world that really seems alive. The potential is certainly there.

Indie game development is surely at its strongest point for years, decades even. The influence that games like Minecraft and Journey are having on the direction of triple-A titles is obvious. It's something that SOE have definitely picked up on.

If they do manage to achieve their lofty ambitions then I think it's important we remember that it would not be possible without the innovative groundwork, the "heavy lifting" of the systems development, done by two small independent development teams that have displayed the vision and ingenuity to do things a little differently.

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