Monday, March 31, 2014

A Landmark Occasion

If you haven’t heard of Landmark, it’s a new MMO by the Everquest Next folks. At its core, it’s effectively Minecraft the MMO, but boiling it down to that really does the game a complete disservice. A friend of mine gave me a Closed Beta key, and I played around for a good 15 hours or so over the past few days.

First, the developers are advertising this stage of development as a beta, but in reality it’s more of a late alpha. They’re absolutely nowhere near feature complete, missing a few basic things like caverns, water (static, let alone dynamic), health, combat, real crafting, and so on. Actually, the developers are pretty freaking awesome in that they have a blueprint for what they want to achieve in this stage of development, taking the transparent development cycle to the extreme. It’s a fascinating window into their thoughts as a team. It’s a minor quibble in the end, beta versus alpha, but it is a difference of expectations I had given the term “closed beta”.

So what can you do? Explore; harvest trees, plants, and minerals; perform really basic crafting; and build stuff. When I entered the game, after creating a quick character, I ran off to do things!

I made a decision early on not to rely on outside information if I could, because exploring is quite fun. After about three hours of mindlessly wandering, mining copper and chopping down trees, I had staked out a spot and realized…I couldn’t build. I needed to claim it! Which required building a claim flag as far as I could tell from the map UI. Of course, I didn’t know how to build anything, but I figured there might be something by the entry point, and lo, there were basic crafting stations.

But to make a Claim Flag, I needed Elemental Iron, which meant I needed a better pick than my stone pick. After making a copper pick, I ran off to find me some iron. After about 5 hours total playing, I had finally crafted a Claim Flag. When the developers mentioned on the closed beta intro video that, “this wasn’t a race,” they weren’t joking. It seems a little bit ridiculous that it took me that long to be able to actually put down roots somewhere. It’ll be especially vexing later once you can die.

Look at those pretty voxels! LOOK AT THEM!

One of the first things I noticed when mining things was how natural the voxel system felt. Don’t underestimate the feeling of chipping away chunks of earth and minerals, rather than breaking blocks: I still haven’t tired of the mechanic, it is awesome! It does lead to some interesting floating artifacts sometimes if you chip away at either side of a voxel, but it generally didn’t hinder me at all.

What did hinder me was the camera system, however. When you’re inside a hole you’ve dug out, your camera goes right through the wall with great ease, making it impossible to see anything at all. I found that the only recourse was to be in first-person mode when mining. Over-the-shoulder failed to be useful underground pretty well entirely.

Anywho, I went and found a spot to place my Claim Flag, in a nice pretty tropical forest valley. Most folks seem to place theirs on top of a hill or mountain, but like the hermit I am, I found a quiet, secluded spot way off in the middle of nowhere to stake my claim.

You can actually claim more land around the initial claim by crafting a different type of claim flag, but I certainly didn't need it yet.
Once I had put down my claim, I started clearing stuff out. Trees, rocks, and so on. I even laid out a stone foundation for the house I wanted to build. Once you’re in your claim area, you can’t mine or chop trees. Instead you use the building tools. If you want to get rid of a tree or a rock, you can just right-click and select “Delete” and bam, no more tree or rock, which is super handy. Unless that tree or rock rests partially outside your claim space, in which case nothing works. You can’t harvest it outside your claim, and you can’t delete it inside your claim. Also annoying, if a large tree has branches that rest inside your claimed area, you still can harvest it. Minor known issues, but interesting nonetheless. Really, just clear out the space before making your claim so you don’t need to worry about it.

After making everything neat and organized, I realized that I didn’t have any crafting stations to make props, or smelt ore, or anything really. So back to the portal I went to make a Forge. I also required a Tinkerer’s Workshop, and an Alchemist Station, too. But each of those required higher level materials than what I had.

I could mine Copper, Tin, and Iron, but I needed Silver and Tungsten as well. I also needed higher-level wood, which required a higher-level axe. So back to resource gathering I went. To upgrade my pick, I needed a better axe to get the wood. To upgrade my axe, I needed a better pick to get the minerals. The upgrade path alternates between the two: pick, axe, pick, axe, and so on. It feels good, and natural. However, like everything in this game, it takes an inordinate amount of time to get the resources needed to upgrade my tools, and make the crafting stations I needed. After about 12 hours, I finally had the resources I needed to have the crafting stations and building tools I had to have to build cool things.

If your crafting interface looks like this, you're stalling the game industry using a 15+ year old mechanic.
A slight aside, they are working on Crafting 2.0 (as they put it), but like every other MMO, “crafting” currently consists of having the ingredients, pressing a button, and waiting. There is literally no good reason to have that as a mechanic, other than that’s how it’s always been. WoW does it too, and it irks me greatly. If you want it to be time limited, then make the time count for something! Make it take 6 hours to smelt that iron. Or better yet, make it take 0 seconds, just have it happen when you press the button. There’s no gameplay here, it’s just tradition.

When you look how Minecraft does it, that’s where time can make a difference. When you’re making 64 wood sticks, it just happens. When you have to smelt 64 bars of iron, it takes time, and the limitation isn’t just time, its inventory space as well. Unless you build an automated smelter, of course! The trick for Minecraft, however, is that you can do other things during that time period.

FFXIV does away with all of this, and makes crafting like combat, which is far more engaging and fun in my mind, but not really necessary.

Be bold, SoE developers! Don’t do something just because it’s always been done. Make it better, or cut it!

Crafting stations in a very pretty stone room. I think the floor is some sort of gemstone or metal. Also note that you can give someone's claim a thumb's up if you like it, and folks can see how many people have done so.
Once of the cool things about exploring and looking for resources is getting to see other player creations. I’ll be the first to admit my creativity is severely lacking when it comes to architecture, not to mention my patience. What other players have done is absolutely astonishing. In a desert biome, I ran into a desert palace under construction, and further back another player had built a statue in embedded in a pyramid in the side of a mountain.
The "stained-glass" windows are raw metal I believe. You can see the pyramid in the background.

The statue is awesome, and there's an entire set of rooms and such inside the pyramid as well.
I wouldn’t even know where to start on that.

But! I had been gathering, exploring, and digging through menus long enough! The time had come to finish my house. Or well, start it.

And this is where Landmark really shines. Ignoring the fact that it took me nearly 12 hours to get the materials to create the building tools, Landmark absolutely will change the way sandbox building games will be made in the future.

The building UI really, really shines. Landmark at its best is building things.
While inside your claimed area, you get to use your building tools. You start with the basic tools of add, delete, and heal. Add and delete either create a cube of stuff, or remove a cube of stuff. You can technically change the shape from a cube to a slope, a sphere, or a number of other shapes, and using the menu on the left, you can also change the material.

Now, if you had to place walls and such tiny cube by tiny cube, it’d take you forever to get anywhere. In the screenshot above, I was using the selection tool. You select some voxels (the white ones on the right), hit Ctrl-C, Ctrl-V, and bam! You have that exact shape and material to place (assuming you have enough materials in your inventory to do so. Cut and paste! Seriously, amazing!

The placement controls are pretty clever as well. In the image above you can see the axis I’m controlling is the vertical axis. Using the mouse scroll wheel, I can slide the placement cursor along that axis. And as the instructions indicate, I can switch axes, and I can also switch to rotation. I’m completely floored by these controls and just how well they work. My only complaint is that there is no strafing yet, so moving my character while trying to see if my placement is correct is incredibly difficult.

Now, in the screenshot above I’m clearly placing more of the wall, but I didn’t realize at the time that I could just make a selection using the selection tool and fill it with a material of my choice. So while it took me an hour to make the shell of the house, really, if I were to do it again now with the selection tool it’d likely take me 5 minutes.

Other tools you get are a line tool (which I have yet to use successfully), a smoothing tool to make your voxels mush together all pretty, and a fill tool (which I have also yet to use successfully).

But of course, since we have a fully-functioning voxel rendering system, all sorts of interesting emergent building techniques have surfaced, like inlaid patterns, and zero-volume voxels. The techniques used to generate some of these structures is crazy, and apparently the developers didn’t even have an inkling of many of these techniques. They’ve hit upon the holy grail of emergent game play.

Eventually, when they complete the ability to save off templates of your work and sell them to other players, I’m fully expecting to purchase awesome windows, doors, etc. so I don’t need to spend an hour just putting together railings, for example. But that will also be an amazing game changer as far as the industry is concerned.

After building the shell of my house, I spent a little time making stairs to it, and used my crafting stations to build props like lights and furniture. So now I have a cozy little (unfinished) house:

My gravel garden path all lit up, leading to my front steps.

The inside is simple, but having actual props like tables, chairs, chandeliers make a world of difference compared to Minecraft.

Granted, what I’ve thrown together pales in comparison to what others are capable of, but it was still a tonne of fun. Seriously, the building aspect of this game is the best, bar none. Which is unfortunate that it’s saddled with some uninspiring, lengthy gameplay surrounding resource collection and “crafting”. If this were an actual beta, I’d write the game off and say, well, it was fun for a bit, but given that it’s really an alpha disguised as a beta and we have more features coming down the pipe, I’ll be interested in seeing what other things they add.

Overall, the systems that exist are quite polished and relatively bug free. The client bailed twice, and I had to kill it once, which for 15 hours of play total is actually really good for a beta in my mind. I fell through the world once by using the add tool on top of me (makes me think that geometry calculation is done at the edges of materials and it figured I was “under” the earth rather than above). And of course the camera is extremely wonky. Everything else can be charted up to either missing or incomplete features.

Much of what Landmark is doing is pushing the envelope in the Minecraft-y genre, and I’m extremely impressed by what they have so far. I cannot wait to see what else they do. And I can’t wait to see what other creations players make, because the screenshot below from the alpha tells me that what players can do in Landmark is only limited by imagination and time.
I don't even... the level of detail is freaking fantastic!

#BadDesign, #Building, #FirstImpression, #GoodDesign, #Landmark


  1. While I'm not the biggest fan of mine-craft type games, I'm most excited for what this is going to do for Everquest Next. They've basically found a way to have a team of hundreds of thousands working round the clock (for free, potentially) creating dungeons, encounters, etc for them. If it works the way they're claiming, it has the potential to revolutionize the MMO industry.

    Tell people your new planet has setting X, let them go wild for a couple months, and you could have a brand new expansion you didn't even have to develop. Pretty crazy.

    1. The idea is pretty neat. Given SOE's title change, removing the EQN portion of the name and just making it "Landmark", I'm not sure that part of the vision will materialize, however.

  2. Wow, that's lucky. I've been tempted to buy into the alpha; I spent quite a long time in EQ2 working on my own mansion (got into the top 10 housing leaderboard!) and haven't found any other games that scratch the same itch. Other MMOs have tried similar "place items to decorate" housing systems, like Rift or LotRO, but they fell short in their flexibility. Minecraft, obviously, was much more flexible but lacked detail; I always felt like I was just playing with 2x2 Lego cubes without access to any fun pieces.

    In response to the poster above me, though -- EQ2 already has this sytem in place. They've been trying to get players to design items and dungeons for around two years now, with limited success; a few cool items make it on to the marketplace every few months at stupid prices, and the player-created dungeons are usually treated as extensions of house decorating. And rightly so: players don't have a very large toolbox for dungeons, basically just monster placement and room flair, and there's no real in-game support for budding 3D artists or modelers. Here's hoping that in EQNext, Sony finds better ways to distribute new item looks ($5 per aesthetic trinket! buy more today!) and offers more freedom in not just creating dungeons, but scripting them.

    It makes me wonder, though -- a lot of games have had their origins as mods to others. The entire DOTA genre started out as a Warcraft 3 mod. How many World of Warcraft or Diablo 3 boss encounters started out as a Starcraft custom map?


    1. "It makes me wonder, though -- a lot of games have had their origins as mods to others. The entire DOTA genre started out as a Warcraft 3 mod. How many World of Warcraft or Diablo 3 boss encounters started out as a Starcraft custom map?"
      ~ Probably a large number of them. Even as a DM, when I'm building large encounters I liberally steal from other games, genres, movies, etc., revamp it to fit the world and rules, and voila, something awesome.

      But Landmark's level of details is absolutely amazing so far.

  3. EQ2 does not have the systems in place that Landmark is claiming they will have. Every tool they use to create EQ:Next they plan to implement in Landmark. That means full fledged scripting of encounters, mobs, skills, etc. You will literally be able to design a dungeon that people can use. Will it work? Who knows. But it's potentially revolutionary I think.

    Also, the level of detail they're allowing in world building is second to none, from what I've seen.

    1. The detail is absolutely there, already. Scripting, etc. is not even on their blueprint however. I think the vision has changed.