Landmark: What’s the Point?

I have been following certain threads with interesting titles in the Landmark forums (“Ummm.. so what’s the point of this game?“,  “Progression is frustrating and not very fun“, “Very Unrewarding” ) in the search for various perspectives, while pondering the point of Landmark.

Oh, don’t get me wrong.

I play GW2, a game of lateral progression, and we encounter a great many people who find it difficult to understand the point of GW2, especially after being trained by WoW or other traditional MMOs.

I willingly played A Tale in the Desert, a literal crafting sandbox of -significant- grind which had progression on a mandatory to optional spectrum via a levels unlocking skills system. It appealed to a very niche audience only because other folk couldn’t figure out what to do with themselves in a game with no combat, and which took forever to walk anywhere.

I fully expect there to be a subset of people who will walk into a creative building game, be it Landmark or Minecraft, and go, um… where’s the game? What’s the point? What do I do?!

Some of them will get it if it’s explained to them. A few of them might try it and like it. Still many others will fade away from the game, having decided it’s just not their cup of tea.

I understand that Landmark is more of a “software toy” – if anyone is ancient enough to remember Will Wright and the original Sim family of games and the term as used then. You played with the software as it was, tinkered with whatever parameters you wanted, created your own goals and “what ifs” and then when you were done, you put it down and forgot about it until you got the urge to mess with it again.

Thing is, putting it down and forgetting about it is not a concept that sits very well with MMOs and the desire of its developers to be paid (though other free to play games like League of Legends, TF2 and Dota 2 seem to be doing just fine with a broad base of folks who do that, perhaps since they have a very hardcore cohort who play ’em daily and pay enough to keep development going.)

And that sort of unsettles me and makes me want to lay a finger on what specifically makes me feel that way.

I think I am less worrying about what the exact point of Landmark is (since it can be many things to different people – a place to build, socialize, craft, gather, roleplay, tell a story, design for other players or for future Everquest Next, be creative, indulge in artistic expression, make a virtual home, play with a virtual dollhouse, have an adventure, explore, learn, etc.)…

…but more trying to answer a burning question with incomplete information and stuff that is yet unknown, undecided and/or undetermined.

And that question is: Should I be investing my time or money into this game?

Of course, that answer is different for different people.

Some people have even willingly spent $100 on its Alpha stage. They were happy to pay for the privilege of being involved in the game’s development from the ground up, have a voice (such as it is) in where the game is going, to playtest with unpolished tools and systems and be the first guinea pigs (or *ahem* first to get to play around with the game or have a headstart), to create and design and maybe, just maybe, have it included in Everquest Next. They’re dedicated fans of the franchise and the studio.

I mean, if you asked me if I would do the same for ArenaNet and Guild Wars, I’d -seriously- give it some thought. (Though the initial payment would put me off.)

But here’s the thing, I’m not them. And since this is my blog, we’ll dig into my perspective today while I try to get it sorted out in my own head.

I didn’t pay for Alpha. I didn’t pay for Beta. What kind of game would I pay or not pay for?

WoW’s design is primarily a raid endgame centred around vertical progression of gear. Eve Online encourages very dubious player behavior and morality in its design. For me, the answer to both is no. Because I don’t want to support games whose design I’m not in favor of.

Other people play them, and pay for them, and keep both games going just fine. To each their own.

I paid and played games like City of Heroes, Guild Wars 1 & 2, A Tale in the Desert, Minecraft, but not games like Wurm Online or Darkfall or Fallen Earth.

I generally support games that foster friendly and cooperative groups and social experiences in their design, but also give leeway to solo at one’s choosing. I’m drawn like a moth flies toward light to games that show off innovative design and interesting novel systems to play with and learn, but I’m turned off by games that have room for nonconsensual PvP, take forever to progress or get anywhere (aka too much time grind) or are sluggish and buggy.

My fascination for grokking systems may see me knowingly put up with some annoying game design choices. at least for a short while.

Mob Wars: La Cosa Nostra is one example. I played it religiously for a month, logging in every day, doing all the stuff, incrementing numerically for the sake of incrementing numerically, but one day I just decided to skip a day. It stretched to two. Three. Then I didn’t bother logging in anymore. The addiction/compulsion was gone. Gimmick design works for a while, and then it loses its hold, especially when you break the habitual pattern formed and find other more prioritized things to do.

I put up with quite a bit of crap in A Tale in the Desert. The endless running across large tracts of land, for one. I avoided doing that as much as possible, and credit to the game, it wasn’t excessively forced. Mostly because the multiple systems and minigames in ATITD just kept blowing my mind. Each required days to learn and probably months or more to master. Observing the social interactions and conflict between cooperation and competition was so fascinating that I was willing to put up with a few not-so-comfortable things, since there was nowhere else to get the same experience in more convenient form. And there were always many lateral progression options and ways to get regular feelings of accomplishing something too.

As for Landmark, well, I can’t quite get a proper grip on what kind of a game it is and where it intends to be going, leaving the existing Closed Beta experience sitting smack dab in the middle of the Play-Don’t Play spectrum.

You see, for MMOs, I want to know that the game is still going to be around for a bit and popular enough to have some people playing it, for me to want to invest time, money and energy into playing it. How is Landmark going to work, exactly?

I’ve kind of read the Blueprint. But it still leaves me with questions as to what exactly the game is going to entail.

Harsh death penalty and PvP are big twitching red flags for me, for example. Waste too much of my time, threaten me with resource loss, and your game goes right into the Eve Online pile. It may be a great simulationist sandbox in the vein of all those others, but Trammel killed Ultima Online for a reason. If you can still find your niche to play and pay, all power to you. I’ll just not be there.

(The Everquest brand is not particularly promising on this front. Time-wasters and harsh penalties aplenty. And Landmark is already actively showing signs of time-wasting.)

How is the payment model of the game going to work? What kind of economy is going to drive this game? What types of playstyles and gameplay niches are we expecting to see?

The Bartle model may not be the most ideal one to use, for this sort of game. This is pretty much unexplored territory for triple A MMOs – it’s more the purview of games (*ahem* “virtual worlds”) like Second Life and Neverwinter Nights (the old one, with the Aurora toolset that players created content with) and maybe multiplayer Minecraft.

Here’s my best guess on what playstyles we might see in Landmark:

  • Adventurer – resource collectors, explorers, seeking thrills, adventure, exciting experiences
  • Builders/Designers – artist builders, artisan builders, home builders
  • Roleplayers/Storytellers – using the world to create and tell stories of their own choosing
  • Crafter?

I am a so-called Adventurer. In truth, I’m probably a harvester-gatherer. I collect resources and enable the larger game to function. I may have to put up with some grindy aspects via number accumulation and vertical progression tiers. I ought to be able to walk in and play for free in Landmark because I pay in time. (Caveat: I am not SOE, I do not come up with their payment models.) I exist as content for the other more dedicated players because I bulk up the game with more player population to socialize with, to admire their constructions and perhaps run their scripted dungeons/adventures/experience the stories they want to tell (assuming those systems come in.)

My payoffs? I should be able to sell or trade resources to the other players who need them… but in exchange for… what? I need an in-game marketplace or auction house or trading exchange. Perhaps I can trade for some amount of currency or Station Cash that enables me to keep a small-sized claim and cross over to the other playstyles. I should be getting in return the thrill of adventure, the fun of exploration, some sense of accomplishment, the excitement and novelty of seeing what’s over the next hill and around the next corner, etc.

Builders are a pretty broad category, since this is, after all, a building game:

I am an artist builder. I want to make large towering works of art out of voxels. I need large-sized or multiple claims. I need lots of resources. I have the option of buying templates from the Player Studio like windows, railings, decorations and more to copy-paste stamp them into larger pieces. My payoffs? I get to express myself artistically and show off works of great beauty. I develop a name and reputation for myself.  I perhaps contribute to parts of scenery in Everquest Next (assuming that’s a plus in your perspective, having paid $$ for the privilege.)

Seabiscuit's Blackheart Castle is an example. (Image taken from screenshot on forums thread linked.)
Seabiscuit’s Blackheart Castle is an example. (Image taken from screenshot on forums thread linked above.)

Big question is: Am I going to have to pay real life money out the nose for these things? If so, why should I be choosing this game to build in? Minecraft is looming as the equivalent of WoW in the creative building genre, and it’s buy to play. More such games are on the way as competitors.

I am an artisan builder, I make works of art that can serve as templates to be used in larger pieces. Besides all the regular perks of the artist builder – name and rep, EQN contribution, creative expression, etc., my payoff is potentially selling them in the Player Studio (assuming you live in the correct country for it), or the satisfaction of giving them freely away to others to see them used in larger works of art.

Image from forum poster Gizeh - Alpha Thread on Template Swap meets.
Image from forum poster Gizeh – Alpha Thread on Template Swap meets.

(There can be, of course, plenty of overlap between artisan and artist builder playstyles in the same person. Or the other playstyles, for that matter. The more playstyles one enjoys, the closer match Landmark is going to be for one – though I don’t know how much more money you’re going to end up paying. But we’re separating them here for clarity.)

homebuilder

I am a home builder. I have a vision of something I want to build – likely a house or a castle or something cool for me to stay in. I likely value environmental immersion of some kind. I may not be that great artistically. I might be able to supplement my not-so-great artistic skills with a few choice templates bought off the Player Studio, or trading in-game resources with artisans and artists, or even getting them free off social interaction (providing value by being there as a player.) I will probably be willing to foot a small upkeep for a small to medium claim, though having the option to pay in in-game resources might be better for a subset of these players.

What happens though when I am “done?” When I have created the house I want? What do I do next? Stop playing? Move to another playstyle, assuming I can find one that matches?

I am a roleplayer/storyteller. I tell stories and make them up using the game’s voxels and props. I interact with other players in some fashion, be it via chat or posting on the forums. (See a great example in progress here with a builder/immersive roleplayer combined in one person, creating some very natural constructions to tell a story in time.) My payoff is the stories I create and the people that see/view/experience them.

Eventually, assuming scripting and NPCs make it into Landmark, we’ll have crossover designer/builder/storytellers that will be similar to GameMasters of tabletop roleplaying games, designing adventures for others to experience – probably similar to how existing player-created content in other MMOs like Neverwinter Foundry or adventure mods in Minecraft work.

Crafting is the part that still puzzles me at this point. It seems to exist for the sake of existing and time-wasting. Here’s a bunch of technology trees. Go get the required number of resources and then come back and click a button to make it. You need to do it to unlock other things, like the tools you want for other playstyles.

Maybe, just maybe, one might have a dedicated crafter niche who pretty much goes out to collect resources and bring them back to craft, and then trades the finished, desirable products to others? Like those elusive Legendary picks and axes?

I dunno though. There is one danger of trying to add such niches though, taking lessons from A Tale in the Desert, there is the possibility that time-plentiful veterans will learn how to do it all, and do it much more quickly than newbies. This leaves newbies with nothing of value to offer veteran players.

How does the food chain function here?

Are there going to be enough players willing to pay for convenience and shortcuts to make up for playstyles that they don’t want to crossover to?

Are the rich folks on the very top willing to pay lots of money for what? Vanity? Prestige?

On one hand, lots of cosmetic options in other games say yes, there might be sufficient people willing to pay for pretty dresses. On the other hand, Glitch did die from lack of participation in the clothing shop and insufficient thought about a viable payment model…

I guess what I’m wondering at this point is… what’s the Landmark demographic going to be like? How much of each playstyle is there? Is there going to be a viable monetization strategy, and how acceptable is that strategy going to be for the various playstyles? And is it going to be enough to keep Landmark afloat and/or making oodles of cash?

And even, -does- Landmark need to stay afloat or make oodles of cash, or will it be shielded by SOE as the parent company, bundling the game along with its All Access Pass and/or profiting from whatever is designed in Landmark going into EQ Next?

Back to me. I’m not much of an artist builder, I can tell you that.

Nor am I much of a home builder. I can’t seem to understand the compulsion to build a pretty virtual house to stay in.

Seriously, everywhere I go, the early beginnings of a house of some kind.
Seriously, everywhere I go, the early beginnings of a house of some kind.

Further thought reveals that I am more of a -functional- builder. I build stuff to fulfill some kind of in-game need.

Zombies going to eat my face at night in Minecraft? Well, I better hack a hole into a cliff and hide in it. Or build walls to surround myself. And I may as well put a door in it so I can get in and out more easily.

frontdoor

Eri can tell you that in Terraria, my hobbit hole is good enough for me. Design and decorate a castle? Umm… no.

Landmark may not fit that building playstyle as well. Perhaps only mining for ores and designing those temporary tunnels into cave systems might fit.

Yeah, caving for mines has some promise. Though a) desert underground gets weirdly colored - bug? and b) if it's going to take forever to find enough ores for stuff, then that's not fun either.
Yeah, mining tunnels for ore, in conjunction with upcoming caves, has some promise. Though a) desert underground gets weirdly colored – bug? and b) if it’s going to take forever to find enough ores for stuff, then that’s not fun either.

Or for example, hacking a hole into the ground because I want more studio space but don’t want weird geometric creations floating in the air ruining my nice wilderness desert landscape immersion.

Not so secret hidey-hole. I made some steps for the unwary, in case they fall in.
Not so secret hidey-hole. I made some basic steps for the unwary, in case they fall in.

I suppose I -could- learn to be a bit of an artisan builder. Experimenting with microvoxels and seeing what kinds of odd geometric shapes get produced is pretty much the only thing keeping me hooked to Landmark at present.

Other people build houses. I build... um...phallic structures. They're wannabe obelisks, I swear!
Other people build houses. I build… um…phallic structures. They’re wannabe obelisks, I swear!

I probably couldn’t produce anything worth selling – far more skilled players could probably recreate them in no time flat – and besides, I bet Player Studio will never quite open for my country, with all those legalese concerns.

Problem is, the tools and various controls as they exist in Beta are somewhat awkward and not very smooth or intuitive to use.

One example and big culprit here is Shift-Tab to switch between translate, rotate and scaling, plus Tab for the directions. Having twisted my wrist far too often to the left to reach Shift+Tab one too many times, I gave up and wrote an AutoHotkey macro to keybind them elsewhere.

If you’re interested in it, it’s here:

r::Tab

q::
SendInput {LShift down}{Tab down}
SendInput {LShift up}{Tab up}
return

You can replace R and Q with whatever keys you want.

I have an entire profile on my mouse dedicated to Landmark, just to give myself two buttons for left-click (Button 5 uses the thumb and spares my index finger when it starts to scream), and to bind Numlock (Autorun? Who puts that -there?- Obviously I don’t play Everquest!) to the middle mouse button and button 4, which I use in GW2 and has become natural.

Proper keybinding cannot come soon enough in Landmark. No idea how Alpha players put up without it.

Said building tools have quirks that some dedicated builders are learning and sharing. Apparently all I had to do to fix my misshapen arch which was bumpy on one side, was to just copy the good side and mirror it. But how did I get a misshapen arch in the first place? The circle used to cut the arch and the smoothing tool used to round out the arch wasn’t consistent on either side.

The line tool acts funny. Hours are spent by players trying to work around it – avoiding holes in conical roofs, while some other player shows off how they got a straight one-voxel diagonal line from manipulating and cut-and-pasting microvoxels…

It all begs the question: Should I invest my time learning to build here, with its unique idiosyncrasies, or spend my time learning how to use a free alternative like Sketchup or Blender instead (which admittedly uses polygonal modeling, not voxels) or locating voxel modeling software or just build for fun in creative mode Minecraft when I can spawn all the blocks I desire without paying real money or grinding hours for it?

How about the other playstyles?

I confess to being weird and not minding mining or chopping wood. I find it oddly meditative.

But I don’t like feeling forced to go get them in order to get the next tier and the next tier of stuff – that just feels like busywork. I’m not really fond of game design that just exists to waste one’s time – it’s a carryover from subscription-based MMOs that shouldn’t exist in free-to-play ones.

Also, my system is truly on the low-end of the spec pool when it comes to Landmark, and starting and stopping with crashing framerates, falling through the floor and just plain crashing, or getting stuck on loadscreens and having to force the client to re-draw by hitting ctrl+alt+delete and canceling makes me think that I simply can’t participate in an Adventurer playstyle until I have the funds to upgrade to a better computer.

(Pushing the envelope is all very well, but that does restrict the playerbase some. EQ2 was reportedly less popular due to the need for high graphics capability at the time, whereas WoW’s popularity took off into a cult phenomenon – one of the foundational reasons being that people with low end computers still could play and enjoy it.)

I still have big unanswered questions about PvP, griefing and how other players are going to be able to affect you. Big questions about death penalties and potential resource loss, microtransactions and planned payment model. Other questions like:

Will my favored playstyle(s) be available for free, or low to reasonable cost?

Otherwise, why should I start now and invest the time to learn this game?

Well, don’t start now then, some people will reply.

Fair enough, I could just pack up everything, let whatever’s on my claim save into a template (assuming it does, apparently anti-voxels and negative space don’t?) and let the upkeep expire to make room for others. Log out and wait to log in later.

But fundamentally, I’m a little antsy about what the answers to the following questions are going to be:

Why should I spend a good amount of time on this game?

Unnecessary timesinks. Is that valuing my time? (I want to build creative designs unhindered by said timesinks, would be a better answer.)

Why should I keep playing?

Upkeep. In order not to lose stuff in 5 days?  (Or, because there are fun things to do that cater to multiple playstyles in-game?)

If SOE swings one way, Landmark would be dropped like a hot potato. By me, at any rate.

The other way has more promise.

But it’s all a big uncertain gamble right now, isn’t it?