The Game Archaeologist: The rise and fall of Landmark and EverQuest Next

    
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The Game Archaeologist: The rise and fall of Landmark and EverQuest Next

The year was 2013. Sony Online Entertainment was still a functioning and seemingly robust MMORPG studio, and its yearly SOE Live convention was a highlight of the community’s social calendar. While there had been important events in the past, 2013 blew them out of the water as the studio announced not just one but two huge MMO projects in the making: EverQuest Next Landmark and EverQuest Next. The games would be intertwined and symbiotic, with Landmark being more of a construction set that would feed player-created structures into Next’s world.

It was a bold, audacious move that rallied fans who were sick of World of Warcraft continually robbing the EverQuest franchise of its glory. John Smedley swung for the fences as he boasted to reporters, “We’re not just making the next MMO, we’re really inventing an entirely new genre within online gaming — and we’re moving our entire company toward the concept of emergent content.”

With that, the MMO community had an exciting new game to anticipate and hype. Yet three years later, SOE was a sold and renamed shell of its former self, SOE Live no longer existed, and both Landmark and EverQuest Next had been tanked for good. Today, we’re going to look at the rise and fall of what once seemed like the next great hope of the MMORPG genre.

Power whelming. Power with just the right amount of whelm.

“Remaking Norrath unlike anything you’ve ever seen”

There is little doubt that EverQuest II’s launch in 2004 came as a disappointment to Sony Online Entertainment. Released in the same month as World of Warcraft, EQII was the heir to the mighty EverQuest lineage that had been reigning since 1999. SOE took a bloody nose and began to pivot EverQuest II more in line with WoW as the years progressed, and while EQII did decent for what it was, it wasn’t raking in millions of subs or generating big media headlines.

But SOE loved its MMOs and believed in its flagship franchise, and so it kept throwing its weight behind EverQuest II and many other EverQuest spin-offs. Both the studio and its fans hoped that when the time came for an EverQuest III, there would be a chance to do much better all around.

By the late 2000s, the anticipated sequel was confirmed to be in development, although SOE wasn’t saying much about it. At SOE Live in 2012, John Smedley promised that the full reveal would come next year, but until then, he asked fans to trust that SOE was working on “the largest sandbox-style MMO ever designed” that wouldn’t be a strict sequel, but rather a parallel universe Norrath that could diverge from the timeline as needed. The theme of delivering content in a new and exciting way ran through his speech, and expectations ran high by 2013.

WE CAN BUILD IT

The Emergent Era

The so-called “Emergent Era” of SOE officially kicked off in 2013 with the one-two punch of the EverQuest announcements. First there was Landmark, which was scheduled to launch later that year, giving players a hands-on way to experiment with EQN’s tech and the freedom to make their own slice of the world. SOE hoped to leverage player creativity into future content, solving the issue of players outracing developer-crafted goods.

The alpha for Landmark didn’t come until January of 2014, and even then it was barred to any but those who lucked into a key or paid $60 and up for one of the founder’s packages. The game itself wasn’t strictly a game, but more of a toolset that was in early development. Some groused at feeling ripped off, but other fans gladly took to the world and started to make incredible structures and plots.

Whether or not people were into Landmark itself, EverQuest Next had a strong following. SOE had gone all-in on the concept of a full-featured sandbox that would let players collect and mix-and-match classes, reshape parts of the voxel-based landscape, run around like parkour experts, and experience reactive NPCs and world-changing quests. Composer Jeremy Soule (Guild Wars) was signed on to make the music for both the games, and SOE even collaborated with Storybricks, a gaming start-up that offered advanced, branching-choice artificial intelligence for NPCs.

Fever pitch

With Landmark functioning as a (for pay) testbed for EverQuest Next tech and design, SOE continued to push forward with development. The PlayStation 4 version was confirmed, and the studio even floated the possibility that the Oculus Rift would see EQN spread to virtual reality.

By SOE Live 2014, excitement over EverQuest Next reached a fever pitch as the developers showed off the game’s combat and revealed three of the collectable classes (Elementalist, Cleric, and Tempest). Everything seemed to be on track, especially as Landmark continued to receive patches with new abilities, tools, and biomes.

Daybreak crashes the party

In early February 2015, ominous music started to float about the industry, which was then followed by the announcement that Sony Online Entertainment had been sold to Columbus Nova, an investment firm, and was going to be renamed the Daybreak Game Company. Soon thereafter, a huge round of layoffs rocked the studio, and Daybreak began shedding itself of its smaller properties. Big EverQuest names such as Linda Carlson and Dave Georgeson were among those let go, and the collaboration with Storybricks was called off.

Uncertainty and worry began to crop up around the future of the twin EverQuest projects, but Daybreak’s remaining staff assured fans that it was going to be “more than OK” and that it wasn’t vaporware. But that, alas, was a big, fat lie. Our own optimistic MJ began to fret that EverQuest Next was in trouble, but tried to give the restructured studio the benefit of the doubt.

Yet for a little while there, it seemed as though development on both games was continuing. In March 2015, EverQuest Next started to work on the key city of Qeynos, and Landmark abolished claim upkeep while promising just one more wipe before launch. Dungeoneering was later added to Landmark, slowly turning the game into an actual MMORPG with a whole variety of activities beyond home building.

Two worlds dying

Things got painfully real in June 2015, when Daybreak finally admitted that it was shifting developers and resources away from Landmark and toward EverQuest Next. Development on the former wasn’t ceasing, but it was a red flag that the studio didn’t have enough manpower to continue to fire on all cylinders.

By late summer 2015, we had learned a lot about the shape and features of EverQuest Next, and fans were still greatly anticipating its arrival. A big internal test ran that fall, although players went the rest of the year without being invited.

The other shoe finally dropped in March 2016. A day after the studio announced a chunk of new content for Landmark, Daybreak officially cancelled EverQuest Next. Daybreak President Russell Shanks wrote a letter to the community saying that the game simply wasn’t fun and failed to meet the internal expectations of the company. Fans were angry and saddened, with the general consensus that Daybreak was just giving up instead of figuring out how to bring EQN to fruition. The death of the game became the biggest MMO story of 2016 and the biggest disappointment, according to MOP’s year-end awards.

Meanwhile, Landmark continued to endure, changing its focus from being an EverQuest Next content feeder to a self-contained game in its own right. Another wipe happened, additional races were added, and Landmark officially launched in June 2016. Unfortunately, no launch was able to save this beloved game from the chopping block, and Landmark’s lifespan only extended until February 2017, when the MMO — and all of the player-built structures made in it — were wiped for good.

With that, many EverQuest fans turned their backs on Daybreak for good. Sure, the studio continued to make — and still makes — claims that it’s working on some sort of future for the EverQuest franchise, but Daybreak’s big shot to get a major MMO contender on the board was killed, twice. Several years later, and the wound from these cancellations still festers among MMORPG fans, who lament what could have been, what briefly was, and what never will be.

Believe it or not, MMOs did exist prior to World of Warcraft! Every two weeks, The Game Archaeologist looks back at classic online games and their history to learn a thing or two about where the industry came from… and where it might be heading.

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Ald

EQN was the last time i was really excited about a new MMORPG. Almost half a decade of “meh” since. I’m not saying the game would have been good though.

Just give me a new game in that world with those classes and updated visuals and i’m there!

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wratts

So with all the EMU servers out there, is there really not a Landmark rogue server anywhere? From what I remember, the client toolset was really the impressive piece and the server side seemed way less complex that some other games that have gotten the EMU/rogue server treatment

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hooby _

I never followed the entire thing more closely, despite having rather high hopes for EQN.

But when SOE was sold off and the layoffs happened, I immediately surmised that EQN had been cancelled then and there and that those claims to the contrary were only made because officially cancelling EQN would hurt Landmark revenue.

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Zero_1_Zerum

I didn’t play MMOS back then, or follow MMO game news, so I completely missed out on this whole fiasco.

But, dang it, both EQ Next and Landmark sounded cool.

Remind me never to trust Daybreak with even a cent.

Wait, they do DCUO, too? Dang it.

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Nate Woodard

DCUO and Everquest are their flagship titles at the moment, and not much is happening with DCUO lately.

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Does not check email

Mmo companies love to throw away their customers

Covynant001
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Covynant001

I recall 2013 a bit differently. At Pax East in March SOE teased the world by revealing to the world EQNext via 5 or 6 video clips supposedly from the game itself.

No mention of Landmark until August’s SOE World and I knew right then SOE lacked the funding from Corporate SONY, therefore Smedley came up with the idea of getting gamers to pay for it by selling Landmark to the same folks who were tossing free money at every KSer which came along.

From then on news about progress on EQNext pretty much came to a halt, all the devs focused on was making Landmark a sellable game, with lip service on how all its features and assets would be transferred over to EQNext despite never actually showing such.

EQNext never really existed, the entire affair was almost as much of a shell game as COE or some others have turned out.

The reason Daybreak immediately killed EQNext after the takeover wasn’t because it wasn’t fun, it didn’t really exist in a form discernable from Landmark.

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Bruno Brito

I wasn’t invested in EQN, and i was already aware that SOE/DBG would be a bastion of incompetence. You just needed to look at their other games and you would know they were keeping them with minimum effort.

This is a company that deserves every single crushing blow that it receives. I feel absolutely nothing but a small amount of satisfaction when this miserable parasitic existence of a disgraceful corporation sends us their bad news.

I hope they burn spetacularly, and i can watch it all. And then, and just then, we’ll be allowed to give their franchises actual, loving homes.

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Andy Ryjax

I made the mistake of letting myself get swept up in the idea of EQN. At the time I was looking for something to play aside from WoW. Still bums me out to this day the way it all went down.

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Coldrun ??

Same here. I’m enjoying original EverQuest on the side these days, because that world still holds a special place for me (as dated as it is), but I got so excited at the prospect of seeing a new Neriak and Plane of Fear and all that in a modern setting.

I won’t get too hyped for any other EQ properties until they successfully launch. Lesson learned.

taradyne
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taradyne

I still miss Landmark.

kjempff
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kjempff

The only next gen mmorpg, the last hope (until someone picks up the torch again).

I hope the idea of emergent gameplay and dynamic virtual world will reappear in another game project. And I hope those with the same ideas are not blocked with reference to the EqNext failure.
EqNext did not fail because the idea was bad or impossible, but from numerous other factors possibly including …
mismanagement, funding problems, not working & believing the vision as a unit, unwillingness to recognize bad decisions and adapt, trying to develop two major games projects at the same time and making them dependent on each other; yeah voxels was that glue mistake, internal power struggles?, feature creep, etc).

And obviously the sale of SOE was the death mark. They just refused to accept they were already dead; but I understand, when you sit on the concept for the future of mmorpgs, it is hard to believe that someone killed it.