Monday, August 26, 2013

The Post D&D World

I remember when everything used to be talked about in the terms of "Dungeons and Dragons." Final Fantasy? Oh, that's a roleplaying game on the Nintendo, kinda like D&D. Traveller? That's kinda like D&D in space. Everquest? That's an online Dungeons and Dragons type fantasy game on the computer.

Today, you ask what a RPG is to your average game playing demographic member, and you'll probably get answers like: World of Wacraft, Skyrim, or Mass Effect. Many World of Warcraft players have never even touched or opened a pen-and-paper RPG, ever. To them, the definition of 'fantasy roleplaying' is World of Warcraft - that is the world they grew up in, and that is what they know.

Interesting times, and if I can crib from the greats, I will. Steve Job's Post-PC World comes to mind, and I shall toy around with the term, Post-D&D World. Pen and paper games have not kept up, and 4th Ed made it worse by trying to be like MMOs, from the world to the powers, and especially the progression, you can't compete with MMOs. It's like trying to compete with Apple with the same product and a different OS, sure, if you are a fan of the OS it's great, but most people, average consumer types, will buy the iPad or iPhone and call it a day. Yes, there will be a day that changes, and yes, this is flameworthy, but at the time of this writing, it's the truth for everyone that's tried to compete based on the mantra 'competing with Apple.'

Post-D&D reflects people's perceptions of what fantasy is nowadays. It's not Elminster running around a dungeon with fireball and magic missile anymore, nor are thieves perceived to be the people who are only good for climbing walls and picking locks. Fantasy is more broad nowadays, more ingrained into popular culture. Orcs can be seen as heroic, noble characters; these aren't Tolkien's mindless brood with 1 Hit Die anymore. Elves just aren't happy tree creatures or knock-offs of the residents of Rivendell, they are living breathing spirits of the elements, such as night, magic, or fire. Our view of fantasy has evolved beyond Tolkien-isms, and the Tolkien movies are taking back the things D&D borrowed from them in the first place. I am sure when you say the word Elf, people will say, "Oh, like the Lord of the Rings Elves?" rather than, "Oh, like D&D's Elves?"

D&D4 tried to strike out on its own, culture-wise, and that was cool. The new world construction, the races being a part of things, and the entire vibe was interesting. The rules, a step forward compared to D&D3, but too MMO and heavy for a pen-and-paper game. Now it seems we are back to the Tolkien-borrowed standards, and somehow, I think that's a step backwards. I feel you can't go back to the future here, D&D needs to make its own lore and strike out as something new. Yes, D&D needs to change from its Tolkien-borrowed roots, and let Middle Earth be Middle Earth.

There are a bunch of thoughts here, trying to define what happens after the market has moved on, after technology has replaced you, and that thing that was once cool is searching for a new identity. You can't grow without changing, and you can't change without looking at what you are. The world has moved on, and it's up to D&D and Wizards to prove 'why should I care about D&D?' Yeah, it's a big task, and I enjoy the game, so I hope they can answer that. A big part of the problem with D&D is D&D itself, refusing to move on from the Magic the Gathering styled complicated rules of 3E that are too heavy for new and casual players to grasp.

Lots to think about, and a Post-D&D World is an interesting term to use when thinking about the question, "What is fantasy nowadays?" You can't think along the lines of , "Oh, let's start with D&D." Things have moved on, and your thinking must too.

Monday, August 19, 2013

EQNext: The End of Opposing MMOs?

One fascinating part about Everquest Next is its abandonment of the two-sided MMO model. It seems as if everyone starts out on the same side. The lore is such that one group of survivors of the dragon wars returns to their homeland, and they begin the long, arduous process of reclaiming their lands. Even the Dar kElves have been recreated as a somewhat-friendly faction of elite warriors, so there isn't two sides returning home - there is one.

From the panels we attended, it seems the EQ Next team wants to start everyone out as equals, and let your actions decide your fate. If you want to walk an evil path, you will choose to do that through your actions. You will find the evil factions, ally with them, perform quests for them, attack the good guy factions, and your choices will lead you down that path. It is a fascinating setup, and one eerily similar to SBRPG's sandbox mode of play, although we do assume there are factions in the game world that are both good and bad, we don't say you have to ally with them.

Note up until this point in MMO-land, most games have been bi-factional, when you create a character, they force you to pick a side. World of Warcraft's Horde vs. Alliance, Warhammer Online's Order vs. Chaos, SWKOTOR's Imperials and Rebels, and a bunch of other games where the sides really feel sort of arbitrary and forced upon the story (Rift, Guild Wars, etc). Here, you pick the side your character ends up on based on their actions - it is up to you.

It is an interesting setup, one I wish was used in World of Warcraft and other games, since there are some factions in each of those games that sit between the sides (Goblins, Pandaren, etc). A problem with WoW is that part of the design was to keep the two sides unique, if you saw a Tauren of any type, you could be sure it was Horde. With the new expansion and the Pandaren, that is not true anymore, and by the original design goals, this is a mistake. Wouldn't it be more interesting to let players form up battle lines along ideals they believe in, instead of artificial allegiances to some faction picked for them during character creation? If I want to be a warlike Human-hating Orc, let me join that faction; or if I support Thrall and his Alliance-supporting faction of peace, let me join them. It seems disingenuous to force all Horde down a narrow path just because the (non-existent) world PvP requires forced factioning. It's why the game seems so limiting and cold nowadays as well, there's simply no freedom.

I hope EQ Next forces game designers to think hard about factioning and forcing players into roles. Let me pick a race, and let me decide. If one race trends towards one way of thinking, make that an easier path (Orcs and war), but never limit me from choosing my path, or choosing it for me. This is one of those key design goals we had for SBRPG1, and it is reinforced for SBRPG2. You deserve to pick your character's fate, who they ally with, and what factions they support.

In a way, even games like Pathfinder and D&D4 force you into a role. With Pathfinder, there's an assumed Pathfinder Society membership implied; and with D&D4, the game puts everyone on the side of the good guys. These games were built with the MMO mold in mind, and it's an interesting choice. As a result, the factions trend towards the good guys, and the evil factions are relegated to monster status. You could never join them, nor expect these factions to have anything more than a simple, "bad guys of the next adventure" motivation.

Freedom, it's what makes games epic. Supporting it in the game's design matters a whole lot too.

Monday, August 12, 2013

"Change comes when you want it."

A very wise friend of mine said that to me, and it is one to think about. For many people, this should be followed up by, "Why change?" If you are happy with what you have, fine, don't rock the boat, change would be bad for you. If you are unhappy, then the question of "why change?" is already answered, and you must.

The entire EQNext experience changed me. Sometimes, when you see something new and different, you want that instead of what you have. For MMOs, the same-old static worlds and terrain of EQ2 and World of Warcraft have gotten stale, and yes, I would like to see something new and different for a change. It does not mean EQNext is going to be better, and I think that is where people get defensive and confused. EQNext has to prove itself, and it deserves a fair chance. If you are happy in your current MMO, fine, don't rock the boat, and change would be bad for you. Others may be unhappy with what you are happy with, and that is fine too, I accept that, and you know, it is life. Who knows, the old games may be more comfortable for some, and even me, I don't know, but I am excited by the future and all its possibilities.

Same thing with Pathfinder, D&D4, D&D3.5, and to some extent D&D Next. All of these celebrate the past, and it is a fun, wonderful past, mind you - I enjoy all of these games. Something on the edge of my conscious says, there is something better out there, something wonderful and fantastic with new worlds never seen before. There comes a time when I don't want to live in the past, I want to explore the possibilities of new games, so I head out and try new things. I design too, game design is my hobby, and I enjoy it to no end. However, the twentieth time through Keep on the Borderlands and the Tomb of Horrors gets the same after a while, and yes, there are the Pathfinder adventure paths, but those are still in the same D&D Normal worlds where you know what to expect.

Part of me wants to head out into the unknown, and experience worlds never seen before. It's part of the original spirit behind SBRPG1.0, to cut players and groups loose with a full set of world creation tools, and let them come up with the world. This spirit is back in EQNext, where players shape the world, players create it, and the shared "live" experience is more important than the written module. It's part of why the game calls to me, and why we are recreating SBRPG in a new and exciting form. To adventure in games where magic does not work the way you are used to, you can never expect what's down that deep hole, and the dangers lurking out there you have no idea what they are capable of - that is a truly dangerous and exciting world, and ones people love playing in.

There will come a time when the pen-and-paper world wants change, something new, something cool. It's a natural cycle and renewal and rebirth. It only comes, however, to those who want it.

Wise words indeed.

Monday, August 5, 2013

SBRPG2 and 7dRPG Plans

Now that SOE Live is over with, we are finalizing plans in regards to SBRPG2 and 7dRPG. 7dRPG will become the core-engine of SBRPG2, and the steampunk elements will be moved off into a steampunk world book. We envision 7dRPG as being the licensed part of the game, just like anyother roleplaying system license. People will be able to build world books and other fun stuff off the 7dRPG core. More on this later.

SBRPG2 will be its old 'create a world and play' self again, although using 7dRPG as the core of the game. This will be a showcase game with support for lots of cool stuff, with a more generic focus, but still supporting all the crazy and fun stuff we had in the original SBRPG way back when.

We have a number of worldbooks in the works too for specific games and worlds we would like to see, with a lot of this coming from our playtesting and other work.

Expect the events of the previous four days to have a huge impact on how both 7dRPG and SBRPG2 will look, the pen-and-paper world is shifting, and we have to stay ahead of the curve. Oh yes, nothing is staying the same, we need to push the envelope to compete with what we just saw, and yes, we plan on competing with all that. Very cool stuff, and an exciing time to be a RPG designer, either PnP or MMO.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

SOE Live: Final Day

Wow. What an incredible trip. Our final day of coverage begins as I think back at everything we have done and saw here at SOE Live.

We have breakfast with the director of the SOE game Dragon's Prophet, and got to give him feedback on the game. It is a fun game, worthy of holding us over until EQNext comes out, and looks to be a fun experience. He has been with SOE for about 12 years, and worked on everything from Clone Wars to Everquest Online Adventures, so he had a great pedigree of titles. It was fun just being able to sit down with him, share ideas, talk about games, and different ideas we had about MMOs and gameplay. I will keep what we talked about with him a secret, since it is a very cool thing, and we would love for him to run with the ball and get it implemented. Regardless to say, the gameplay idea we shared with him would change the game with MMOs forever, and truly bring these games to the next level.

We share because we're cool guys, and who knows, maybe SOE wants to work with cool guys like us someday. Yeah, we're like that.

EQNext is just 50 Shades of Awesome. It won't be out for another year or two, but the creator toolset portion will be out this winter. This is a smart strategy, the days of building gigabytes of pre-chewed content and stories and delivering them at launch died with the Star Wars Old Republic MMO, and Sony recognizes that. You can never build enough story and one-shot content to satisfy your players, they will burn through it in a couple months, and leave. That model does not work anymore. Instead, they are going the route of player-generated content, both before the game launches (with the toolset), and after launch with a changing, dynamic world.

It's a sound strategy, and exciting to support. There will always be games now to play and experience, plenty of stuff to do in Planetside 2, Dragon's Prophet, and the Everquest franchise. I support this because the focus here is clearly on the players, and not the company's story lines and canned experiences. The players here will be the ones creating the cool places in the world, creating the history together, and changing the game to be what they want it to be. George and I have always been about 'rolling your own experiences' in pen-and-paper games, and really, it is a great-great thing to see a company embrace player-created content, and be open to totally changing the history of the world based on what happens on the game's servers (yesterday, discussion panel). For this openness and welcoming of player-content, EQNext is our game.

There's a ton of other things happening here as well, and games from Everquest, EQ2, Planetside 2, and DC Heroes Online are getting small ways to incorporate player content. It's a sea change over here, and a welcome one to see. There's tons of expansion packs, new stuff to do, and cool little changes they are making in each game to improve things. Keep in mind, making changes in these games is a big project, and the company does the best with what it has to keep stuff cool and fun, even in games coming on 15 years old. We appreciate the support, and it is a great thing to support a company that doesn't abandon its games. Yeah, I know, SOE had some it shut down too, but for the ones still played by many people, it is a cool thing.

Nothing changes on the pen-and-paper front, and in fact, as we see more and more games move towards virtual dungeon masters and player-created content, PnP games are going to increasingly become obsolete. Think of the benefits of pen-and-paper games as being a series of goals that MMOs need to reach, and there still are a number of them out there that have not been reached yet, such as a referee, user-created adventures, user-created worlds, referee-controlled NPCs, referee-spawned monsters, adventures that can change mid-stream based on party actions, and a bunch of others. EQNext is knocking some of these milestones down, and I expect MMOs in general to start seeing these technical challenges as features to implement.

Think of that. We are now moving in a direction with MMOs that is towards replacing the human-referee entirely. I know there will still be things a human referee can do, but with advancement after advancement, the human referee will become obsolete, and in fact indistinguishable from a computer AI. This isn't far-fetched, it is just a normal progression of artificial intelligence, and in fact, expected. EQNext's user-generated content may start with structures, terrains, and props - but what's next? Monsters? World factions? Adventures? AI referees? There will be a time when the computer does a better job than a human referee, and that day is coming quicker than we think.

There are cool opportunities in here as well for the human referees, and SOE sees that too. We are getting tools for human referees to generate adventures in these games, and that is only the beginning. Someday, it may be possible for a player to 'jump out of body' and become a temporary referee in the game world for a group of players, spawning monsters, creating goals, and speaking as the NPCs We are heading towards that world too, with even more chances for creative people that want to tell stories to be able to do so through the game's tools. The combination of AI referees and human-created and managed MMO content is coming, and again, probably faster than we think.

Exciting stuff, and I do feel SOE Live this year was a glimpse into the future of gaming, both pen-and-paper and MMO. It was a special honor to attend, and also give the developers and execs here a taste of the SBRPG magic. What a fun, cool couple days this has been; I hope we could share with you a little look into this, and give you a glimpse into the crystal ball as well.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

SOE Live: Day 3, part 2

...and then everything changes. Oh yes, another post today since so much is going on here.

Levels and the holy trinity are gone. EQNext is moving towards a more Minecraft or Terraria system of character power. Your crafted gear determines your stats and character power, levels are gone. Also, you collect and possibly tier-up your classes to increase and accumulate powers. It looks like character level in EQNext is gone. Spec-ing a character to be a tank or healer is gone. Everyone is DPS. What determines victory is likely gear power, the tier of your class powers, and a majority of it is player skill.

You will be able to re-spec your classes, and change yourself up. It is a dynamic system, and yes, while radically different, I suppose their answer to people that miss the old class-level combo is go play the infinite number of games that use that system. It is a radical, incredible departure from the norm, and they even brought the old AD&D Player's Handbook up on the screen to illustrate 'these are the old ways.'

Your character power is determined by what you collect, what you craft, and the time you put into yourself. They mentioned that a new player could tag along on a high-level raid on day 1 and still contribute. It is a flatter system for participation, but I suspect an incredibly deep one for the amount of time you can put into it and what you get out of it. I do suspect, like in Terraria, that an un-geared character will absolutely get one-shotted in the high-level areas. But like in Terraria, a twinked character with good gear, low ability power, and no player skill will suck just as hard.

Wow. Again, this is a team trying for a moon-shot of gaming. Minecraft and Terraria and their linear systems are the clear model here, along with the unique lore and faction systems that Everquest brings to the table. The emphasis on crafting for power is very cool, starting everyone off similar and keeping them there is also very cool - it is a radial departure from over 35+ years of level-based fantasy gaming.

How it works is you will have 4 primary abilities from your primary class, and then any 4 from your collected classes. There was some mention of tier-ing a class up, so I guess that is how the power of an ability works. How hit points are gained wasn't also revealed, but I suppose it could be almost entirely gear-based, since there are no character levels. I wouldn't mind playing a game like this, since it puts starting people on the sam ground, and makes crafting and collecting good gear a premium goal.

There clearly is a heavy emphasis of pen-and-paper games in the room. They want to create a MMO equivalent of the essential D&D experience, without the limitations of the D&D rules. Artificial numeric character qualities, such as level, seem to be purposefully being gotten rid of; in favor of the real, experience and collection based qualities. How this all works out remains to be seen, but it is an incredible goal if they can pull it off.

More coverage? Coming up:

Another fun note from today, the topic of roleplaying came up, and a player asked if their character could follow a deity. The designers said, 'that is up to you.' In essence, you, as a player make choices in the world, to steal or be honest; be trusting or untrustworthy, or any other number of hidden virtues the game tracks for your character. If your character's values align with the deity's values, or any other number of NPC groups - that group will be act favorable to you. In essence, you have to play the game according to the values your character holds dear. You can't brazenly steal from the villagers in game for loot and giggles, and then go 'roleplay' a kind and gentle follower of the love goddess. The love goddess' NPC will hate you, and you won't be welcome in the village. It's put up or shut up time for roleplayers, and that is a very cool thing.

This is getting closer and closer to the goal of having an invisible dungeon master working behind the scenes of the game to make it different, interactive, and a unique experience for every player - given the individual player's actions. They keep talking about some sort of AI story engine working behind the scenes that alters play depending on what is going on in the world, based on the actions of the population. Also, your individual reputation is tracked, and your actions have consequences - you can become the enemy to groups in the world, and your character can become kill-on-sight to any of the factions in the game. This is really, really close to a DM - and I suspect the designers are programming the game with this invisible DM in mind and working behind the scenes.

If the players do not help a village, and let it fall to the Orcs - a bunch of cool stuff happens. Villagers stop tending fields, and stop going out onto the streets. The level of fear increases, and shops could close. The village could become an abandoned ruins. All this can happen anywhere in the world, and the outcome is unique to every server. A truely dynamic game world run by an electronic DM? I think this team is very, very close. This game just may well be the first serious AI DM the world sees.

We had some great technical sessions today about the voxel engine, being able to flood caves by tunneling under a lake, the destructibility and physics of the world, how the voxels smooth out, particle effects, constructing walls and buildings realistically (dirt inside of a stone wall), and a heck of a lot of other stuff. The world is more real than any other MMO world I have seen, it's not just a shell of textured static polygons.

Again, so much comes to mind when you think about pen-and-paper games, it's going to take me a few days to sort my thoughts out. Level-less fantasy gaming? Gear-based power? Freely-respec-able characters? Collect-a-classes? Powering-up-classes? Just wow, this SOELive is a game designer's tour-De-force, just so many ideas coming out of this team it is just insane. For the EQNext team to put all of them in one game is remarkable, and I hope they are able to deliver.

If they can, it is not only a game-changer, but a world-changer for fantasy gamers.

SOE Live: Day 3, part 1

Wow, more incredible stuff today, discussions about the world, classes, lore, fiction, and the world reboot. Yes, Everquest is getting a lore-reboot. It is sort of a reboot-plus, where the designers can use the now-invalid future history to pull the storyline of the world from. They are not beholden to it, but it is there to serve as the backdrop, characters, factions, and content from which the future history will be written.

Of course, the history of each server will depend on what happens within the community, but major world events injected into the world will come from the new line of lore. I like this style of reboot, it doesn't throw too much away, while keeping things open enough that anything could happen. We still have the familiar, but what happens with this material could remain the same, change dramatically, or new stuff could be added to the world and things become fresh again.

We went to a writer's panel today featuring Maxwell Alexander Drake, a writer SOE contracted with to help write the lore and fiction for this new world. What's cool is that he is working directly with this developers and creating the written record of the game as development continues. Very cool stuff, and there will be a new line of novels and fiction to go along with the reboot. Yeah, this is a reboot done right.

This reminds me of the D&D4 '100 years later' relaunch of the Forgotten Realms, and how many gamers just hated it. I have always thought a reboot+ is what the world needed, not an advancement into the bolted-on D&D4 timeline and content. Really, the world of Faerun is defined by its cosmology, to wrench-in Eladrin and Dragonborn as party-crashers, and then rip out the planar cosmology and say "Faewild and Shadowfell are here!" just seems incredibly sloppy to me, and shows a lack of care for the creation. It hurts, since now Faerun seems like the old world with a coat of D&D4 on it, and I feel something needs to be done to fix this, honestly.

There is also more on the feedback SOE is getting from gamers, and a lot of MMO-players used to the old ways of doing things are coming out and saying negative things about the fragments of EQNext that they see. The freedom the game gives you, if they deliver on what they are promising, is immense - I mean really immense. Groups of players can change the world, and also work against each other. Every world, and its history, is different, since this is all a constructable/deconstructable sandbox. A lot of what's being said negatively seems like players wanting to go back to the safety and familiarity of the old ways, or back into the cave, as they say.

I have nothing wrong with the traditional MMO or pen-and-paper game, they are great, there are some that are well-designed and cool, but there seems to be a real desire to walk out of the light and back to the way things were done. I mean, EQNext's classes were talked about today, and they are a combination of class abilities, equipment abilities, and weapon abilties. You can multiclass two out of 40 collectible classes, and furthermore, the weapon you use and the gear you equip gives you further special abilities. You can be a paladin-mage type class, have air waking boots, and a sweep-attack halberd. You pick the abilities you want, get some through gear, and others through weapons. It is an innovative system, very cool, and something I wish we could see more of in pen-and-paper games.

SOE Live: Day 2

Emergent game play is the big buzzword this year. SOE is taking the position that content created by the company is not going to sustain player interest. What SOE hopes takes its place is player-generated content, which are experiences players create inside the world, between each other.

A good example of this is PvP, player-built houses and castles, player run events, and a world system that encourages players to compete and cooperate socially on various goals and quests. Another part of this is player submitted adventures and modules, and even 3d models and other assets.

...and then, everything changes in a moment. Check:

Yeah, we were there at the reveal. Let me get the negative side out of the way first, they are promising a heck of a lot. We all know how well that went for D&D4, but something gives me a little more faith in SoE this time.

They are leveraging the power of their fans, the die-hards, the players. The players are going to do a huge amount of work on this coming this winter, actually using the same tools the developers use, ones that will ship with the game, to create the world. The best-of-the-best will be vetted, voted, and added to the world - and I expect this to continue post-launch. There are content creation tools shipping with the game, that creators can use to build content, get it approved, and creators actually get income from sales. There is even a method if someone uses something you created to build something else, you get a royalty based on the percentage of what's yours.

Wow, this game is a mix of Minecraft, Everquest, Second Life, and something else that hasn't been invented yet. The world is never the same, it changes, cities rise and fall, the Orcs shift attention to different places, what was once a settled area is now a ruins - it kills every other static MMO in one fell swoop. The scope of what they are talking about has never been done before, but being here, up close to them, asking questions to them in panels, it seems like they know exactly what they are doing, and exactly what they can deliver. The game was running on PCs at the show, by the Devs, behind the curtains. It is live and it is real.

Okay, I am sure if you want to know more, hit the links and use the Google. Pen-and-paper wise, here was a fun swipe at D&D (and I suppose knocking the crown off D&D Next's similarly named head) of "we have all been playing something like Dungeons & Dragons for the past 35 years" - and then proceeded to cast D&D in that typical MMO light of static adventures, class-based-play, and so on. To an extent, it is true, D&D has become static and stale. The premier version of the game, Pathfinder, is based off a game system that's 13 years old. Yes, I know, tried and true; but been there, played that applies as well.

Things need to be shaken up, as game designers, watching the EQNext creative team play with their giant box of cool paints is mind-blowing, and makes you think of the possibilities you could build if you just broke yourself free from the tried-and-true D&D tropes. To an extent, D&D4 did not go far enough, and the motivation and execution lacked severely. It fell under a shelf of expansions and errata that made the game a mess. What this creative team did today was 'change the game' and yes, it applies and hits pen-and-paper games squarely in the jaw. I can't think of a reason why I would consider investing in a new pen-and-paper game compared to playing this. This isn't a game, it's participating in a shared history with thousands of players in a world that will never stay the same.

Yes, agreed, it sounds like a dream, and concerns duly noted. Half the criticisms I have read online are flat-out wrong, and we talked about these on the panels today. You will see them in the comments of the above stories, and yeah, many of those are misunderstandings due to a lack of knowledge. This is a skilled team and something cool, don't worry, they have thought of that too. The players in the panel have too.

But seriously wow. Yeah, this is the type of thinking pen-and-paper designers need to think of, getting on that whole next level of fun. Otherwise, we will be sitting here talking about the minor changes to D&D 3.752 or D&D 4.65. Worlds need to be shaken up over this, designers need to be pulled in and asked 'how do we compete?' Seriously. A shot has been fired across the bow of both MMOs and pen-and-paper games today. Nothing out there or in development in the PnP world answers this.

Pen-and-paper - step up. Otherwise, it's horse meet the automobile. Given the last 10 years of MMOs and how they have decimated PnP player bases, that statement is not far from the truth already.

Oh yeah, we got to meet Larry Elmore today too. Damn it, what an awesome day.

Friday, August 2, 2013

SOE Live: Day 1

Planetside 2 sure is the 800 lb. gorilla in the room, this convention is about 50% Planetside interest, with players from all over the world attending. By the time the keynote had rolled around to EQ1 and EQ2, we lost a good portion to the room to the PS2 tournaments and lack of interest. It is a strange shift I bet for those used to coming to the SOE conventions and having the MMO crowds be the focus of attention. Clearly, this year seems to be about Sony's mega-hit sci-fi shooter, and it feels like it is dominating the show.

EQ1 and EQ2 seem to be on longer-term support, with the focus being on recycling older content for the current high-level player base. We had a shocking moment where the air went out of the room when the EQ2 director said basically 'every player will be able to have a fully-geared level 85 character in the next expansion' - for free. No applause, and more of a stunned reaction it felt like. MMO players love their characters and cherish the investment of time put into them, so giving everybody a pocket high-level twink does a couple things: it introduces a population of low-skill players to high-level content, it devalues leveling a character the old fashioned way (since traditional character will not be raid equipped when they hit 85), and it puts a focus on new content only. Of all of those, people seem concerned about traditional leveling, and the mid-level zones may become wastelands without people to level through them.

Regarding EQ1, they introduced a dynamic mission-builder that auto-tunes a special zone to your party size and character level. This is only for the new expansion zones, and how much it auto-tunes is still undetermined. I doubt you could level from 1 to MAXLEVEL on auto-tuned content, this is still unclear. A lot of stuff comes into consideration, the needed level and gear to play these, level and challenge appropriate rewards, solo-ing, and a bunch of other stuff. It does seem, like EQ2, that most of the new content seems to be focused around maintaining the current high-level crowd than encouraging new and mid-level players to get up there and enjoy it. I wonder why a pocket-85 wasn't introduced in EQ1 when it was in EQ2.

Okay, let's consider pen-and-paper games. One thing Sony gets right is developing a game and supporting it. EQ1 is going on 15 years old, which in pen-and-paper years, comes out to a RPG like 45 years old. D&D has had this annoying history of throwing everything away, especially true in 3rd Ed, and EQ1 proves you can support a game as long as there is interest in it. Monopoly has been around a lot longer, and D&D culd be the same 'evergreen' game. If you have new ideas, build a new world with a new game.

Building a glorious persistent with lore and history is something Pathfinder gets right, and D&D fails at. D&D's rebooted 4th Ed. worlds were bitter pills to swallow and not well received (maybe Dark Sun was best out of all of them), and the 'roll your own' was a welcome change, but it seems we left Grayhawk and Faerun behind, or wallowing in unpopular changes. SOE and Everquest get this right, with a lore, current story lines, and history stretching as far back as the game itself. With pen-and-paper games, it's typical we reboot the worlds every time we get a new version, or alter them so badly they are unrecognizable or too heavy.

A fun thing said by the EQ2 director was 'we polled players and asked them, what parts of the game are annoying or not fun?' Man, I wish more pen-and-paper game designers asked that question. D&D Next has a great opportunity here to make things better, though I fear the gut reaction away from 4E may force the game back into the 2E/3E cave. Pathfinder fares even worse, because to hold the mantle of the spiritual successor to 3.5E, they have to adopt some of its worst rules, such as the skill system and complicated character stats. Innovation? Most pen-and-paper games fall way short here, and the things we saw today with some of the next-gen MMO games should put them to shame.

Really. MMOs are the enemy pen-and-paper game designers, since they play for the same crowd and attention. You tried to ape them with 4E with mixed results, and now the safe course is to hold onto 3E or go back to the tried-and-true class roles and rules (which I fear with D&DN). Where is our innovation? Where is the pen-and-paper game community's answer to Planetside 2? (Don't say Magic: The Gathering, although you could make a case there - more on this later.) Where is the long-term support for older games? Why do we need to throw so much away? Where are the new rules systems with exciting features, or will we be stuck with 3E derivatives for the next 10 years? Where is our long-term world support, with continuing stories?

Pen-and-paper companies throw to much away, and it's sad to say that MMO companies actually have better plans for support and retention. Product development too, you'd think with all that MMO companies have working against them, because PnP companies don't have to code game engines, make 3d models, build tons of content - that innovation would actually be on the PnP game side. It's not. We are stuck trying to repeat the success D&D had during it's golden years, and I am not sure if that can ever be replicated again. Computer game companies actually seem to be more innovative and willing to take risks, which is shocking, to say the least.

Maybe we are stuck to selling to the same crowd of D&D fans, it is shocking to see a ton of Planetside 2 fans here at SOE Live - but these fans are the new blood, important people to get into your world if you want your fantasy titles to thrive and survive. SOE has another game called Dragon's Prophet that looks geared towards new players as well, new rules, new goals, action-oriented combat - just cool new stuff. D&D doesn't have those new fans, it seems we are just selling the same thing to a dwindling group of players. Where are the PnP games that pull people in? Again, computer game companies are the ones attracting new players. PnP game companies need to figure out how to do that before they shrink to niche markets of older-and-older players.

Of course, you need to update your premiere franchise every-so-often, and tomorrow we get to see EQ Next. Will they innovate? Can they pull back the dwindling fantasy MMO interest with something exciting and fun? Can EQNext compete with Planetside 2? From the hardcore innovation and support I saw here, I am wondering if the pen-and-paper vs. MMO fight isn't just a one-sided affair. The most troubling part about all this is most of PnP's wounds are self-inflicted, and could be at least stemmed with proper support of existing editions and worlds, creating new games for new worlds, and marketing everything better.

There is a lot to think about, not all of it good news for PnP games; but really, I believe we need to change the PnP game for PnP RPGs to not only survive, but thrive.