As someone who writes about video games on a weekly basis, I rarely find myself blindsided by a piece of industry news. But John Smedley managed to throw me a curve ball from the podium of the annual SOE Live convention last week. The infamous President of Sony Online Entertainment announced to a half raucous, half bewildered audience that the next installment in the watershed EverQuest franchise, tentatively titled EverQuest Next, will be the “largest sandbox style MMO ever designed.”
Anyone who has played EverQuest (or its sequel) can tell you why this morsel of news is so stunning: EverQuest is the quintessential theme park game. The franchise has always relied on static content such as linear quests, raids, and dungeons to keep players occupied. Iconic sandbox mechanics such as player housing, crafting, and open world PvP have only ever been implemented in a neutered form, if at all. Say what you want about roleplaying servers or emergent gameplay, for all intensive purposes EverQuest has long been the anti-sandbox.
I speak with specific pathos on the subject because it was my dissatisfaction with the cardboard cutout world of Norrath that first spurred my interest in sandbox games. My exodus from EverQuest led me to try primordial sandbox titles such as Shadowbane, Dawntide, and Wurm Online. Although my time in these games is often not looked back on fondly, I’ve never stopped chasing my sandbox dream.
When EverQuest Next was teased a few years ago, there was no indication that it would be anything more than a direct sequel to EverQuest 2. Why the sudden turnabout on Sony Online Entertainment’s part? I don’t think it’d be absurd to posit that the success of Minecraft had a hand in this development. Mojang’s mining simulator demonstrated that a sandbox game could attain immense mainstream popularity, and the unexpected surge of player run servers has shown the potential of this model to thrive in the online realm. In short, Sony Online Entertainment now knows that there’s an audience rallying for a triple-A sandbox title out there. There’s also the shadow of Blizzard’s Project Titan hovering over the Sony Online Entertainment offices. If EverQuest Next doesn’t attempt something new and exciting, the developers could lose another decade to their biggest rival.
It’s more than a little exciting to imagine another showdown between Blizzard and Sony Online Entertainment in the near future. Love or hate the companies, one can’t argue that these two are the juggernauts of the online arena. Sony Online Entertainment’s embrace of the free-to-play model and triumphant resurrection of the Planetside franchise shows the company still has game. They really have nothing to lose but their perpetual bridesmaid status to Blizzard by trying something big, innovative, and bold. Hopefully there’s some substance behind EverQuest 2’s flash.