As I anxiously wait for servers to come back up and see Landmark reimagined with its new biomes, new islands, consoldated systems, and streamlined gameplay - I can't help but look back at the process so far. It's been a bumpy ride. I've had my ups and downs, my highs and lows; and I know I'm not alone. I personally feel so strongly about this genre seeing significant change and evolution that interest in Landmark and EQNext is guaranteed, regardless of what state they're currently in. Still though, I keep getting asked:
What is Landmark?
For the past year, myself and many others in the Landmark community have been frequently asked this question (I honestly don't think the developers will ever stop hearing it at this rate). It's been a tough question to answer, for over a year now, and it really hasn't gotten any easier to explain. A large part of that problem is due to my preconceptions and assumptions about what Landmark will ultimately be. When I really stop to think about it, that logic is absurd. Landmark is an MMO - which, as ambiguous as the term may be today, likely means that the game will be iterated on for years to come.
Our Logic is Outdated
The real crux of the issue, I believe, is that SOE's core fanbase was sold a concept that is so far-reaching and potentially impactful with the impressive new technology and concepts - that we are currently struggling to focus on what it actually is right now (and will be for some time). I'm finally coming to accept that there will be no "magical update" that is going to complete the theoretical "full game loop" for this game. What Landmark aspires to be is so incredibly complex that trying to say any client version within the first couple years could be a snapshot of the end-goal isn't just unrealistic - it's naive too.
It's really not philosophically different than if someone were to ask me "What is EverQuest?" back in 1999 and me trying to give them an answer that accurately describes EverQuest today with almost two decades of life and numerous expansions that have forever changed it.
Except for a few games that never really got to live, the majority of SOE/Daybreak's titles are still running strong, many years later - especially the games they had the most initial design influence on like EverQuest and EverQuest II. That success and the longevity of those titles has influenced their future design plans, as emphasized by my recent interview with John Smedley where he was adamant about pointing out how the studio plans to build games that will last for years to come.
I think a lot of studios want to do that, but very few actually have experience successfully doing so. Daybreak has that. They know what it takes to keep a game alive for the long haul, and they're taking that into consideration as they've been designing and building both Landmark and EverQuest Next. I see evidence of that everywhere I look.
One Answer to Rule Them All
Now that I've established that, I think answering the question "What is Landmark?" becomes exponentially easier. The game we've been playing since January of 2014 is Landmark. The game as slowly and steadily seen improvements and additional features since the very first days of Alpha, but the fact remains that it has always been Landmark the entire time. For whatever reason, the developers felt the desire to share this project with us early - and whether they like how it sounds or not, it has been released. Anyone who wants to play it, can. All you have to do is buy-in (at a fair price of just $20 or less if you catch a Steam sale - which is even cheaper than Minecraft, FYI).
I know that plenty of people will hate the way I stated that, some may even take offense; but it is fact. If your game is open to the paying masses, it is released. Now, it may be the case that it is technically an "early-access release" but it is a release none the less. Like the original EverQuest and also EverQuest II - this game is guaranteed to see additional features, elements and future systems added on over the coming years (especially right now with such a large team working on it while pushing forward into EverQuest Next).
A Warning to Players Everywhere
I would caution new players (and even existing ones) in trying not to think or picture Landmark for what it could be, but rather to take it at face value. It's a tough pill to swallow, but I believe that is the reality of the situation. Landmark is a rough experience right now (though it is getting better and better with every update). I'm not sure when it will ever become the game I know it can be, and I think that's part of the issue here.
Not a lot of people are playing Landmark right now. A lot of people aren't playing Landmark because of what it is; but I think a much larger group of people aren't playing because of what it currently isn't. Technically that reasoning isn't fair to the developers or the game itself, but that's why I'm openly opposed to most early-access plans. You simply cannot warn people enough, or explain to people sufficiently what this entire process entails. You also cannot prevent people from seeing your game as it truly is right now - which may or may not be all that great (and often times, not even close to complete).
In the case of Landmark and the vision we were sold - the game is very far from the "end-goal" (if there can even be such a thing for one of Daybreak's endeavors). I've often brought up my thoughts about this whole open-development experiment, and for most of the past two years I've been largely optimistic. As I look back, knowing what I know and seeing where things are sitting now - I'm starting to wonder if the benefits will ever outweigh the costs.
It's challenging enough to get players to notice your game these days, and even more difficult to entice them into playing it. The game market is so saturated right now, not just by major studio titles, but also indie developers and the self-publishing power the internet has brought about. I just don't think it's wise in this new environment to let the first impression of a game happen at such an incomplete state.
It's inevitably going to get perceived as lacking, hollow, empty, and unpolished - and in such a crowded market with plenty of quality games being advertised and many more coming out of the indie woodwork... I fail to see the benefits of this kind of process. Its so counter-intuitive to the idea of getting players to like your game that it doesn't make sense to me at all anymore. When I look back at myself two years ago and the intrigue I had for open-development, all I see is a starry-eyed fool.
I Still Want to be Optimistic
I'm still pulling for Daybreak. I love them. I love their games; and I have a high amount of faith in the concepts proposed for Landmark and EverQuest Next. They are doing so many things right that I have no problem getting on board with, financially supporting, and eagerly watching this evolution. However, open-development is not one of those things. It's an experience that drains me, and I know now I'm not built for it. Unfortunately I didn't even know that early-access wasn't for me until it was already killing the experience for me.
I know now that I can continue to follow it, so long as I pace myself, monitor my interactions and contributions, and keep energizing myself by dabbling elsewhere - but I wonder how many others out there are like me that are cognizant of that? How many other people are as excited as I am and willing to express the patience required to see it happen? How many will branch out to different games and still have enough passion and interest in the project to keep checking in and come back when the game gets close enough to the advertised vision?
My Final Answer
We have to remember what industry we're talking about here. People play games for fun. People play games to socialize. More often than not, many people play games to take a break from work, stress, responsibilities, and other trials happening in their lives. So when I see a game that doesn't offer many of those things right now for the majority of the population, I am bound to be skeptical. How do you entice an audience to participating in open-development, which isn't necessarily fun for most people?
More importantly, how do you maintain the image and perception of your game when those who have turned it off get asked about it? I don't know the answer to that question yet; and I'm not sure I will anytime soon. However, if someone comes along and asks me "What is Landmark?" - I'm only got one thing answer I can give them right now:
It is what it is, and nothing more.
[Thanks for reading this article. If you enjoyed it you should check out some of the other articles I've written here on TenTonHammer. Specific to this train of thought and the changing MMO genre, I've written a short mini-series in my Gravity Well column titled "Insight". You can find all of the installments in that series by following this link. Additionally my most recent column entry (not a part of the Insight mini-series) also talks more on the challenges that Early-Access programs bring, specifucally in regards to Daybreak's upcoming lineup of games.]
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