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.
“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.
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.
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.