How Landmark forced Sony Online to change its usual development model

Sony Online Entertainment's Landmark, née EverQuest Next Landmark, left its relatively brief alpha phase for a closed beta less than a month ago. Dave Georgeson, director of development on the EverQuest franchise and a 25-year veteran of the game industry, told Polygon during an interview at PAX East 2014 that for many games, "alpha is a joke" — an almost meaningless internal milestone. Not so for Landmark, the build-anything sandbox title from Sony Online that is also a massively multiplayer online game: Because of the company's decision to give players early access to the project, Landmark had to be a playable game much earlier than usual.

Landmark was announced last year alongside EverQuest Next, the ambitious next step in Sony Online's long-running fantasy MMO franchise. The studio's pitch was that with Landmark, it was giving players the same development tools it was using to make EverQuest Next, in the form of a voxel-based building game that anybody could use to create anything they could think of. At the same time, there is a core game within Landmark.

"an MMO is supposed to be a social experience"

"We didn't want to just be Second Life, where they get a lot of tools and then they just kind of make stuff," said Georgeson. "We wanted to make sure that there was a core of entertainment in the center of [Landmark], so that there was a real game there for people to play, and have reasons to talk to each other, and reasons to support each other — because ultimately, an MMO is supposed to be a social experience. If you're not with friends, if you're not hanging out with friends, then it's not an MMO; you're just playing a single-player thing and there just happens to be people around you."

Sony Online began the alpha phase with the intent of ensuring Landmark had a solid foundation. The developers provided basic building tools, which meant they had to make sure the game's claims process had to work properly — the first thing players do in Landmark is plant their flag on a patch of land to stake their claim on it. Landmark's alpha also included socialization mechanisms so players could find each other and start to form relationships, which Georgeson characterized as key for any MMO that hopes to be viable for years. And of course, Sony Online needed to build a server infrastructure to support it all.

As Georgeson put it, Sony Online won't ever be finished making Landmark, but even the game's alpha had to be a much more complete product than much of the experiences available on Steam Early Access.

"By opening it up so that players could be in the alpha, we had to make sure that the alpha was pretty darn tight. It had to be entertaining. Because gamers won't stick around if the game's not fun. Which meant that our alpha couldn't be bull," he explained. "By bringing them in early, that actually let us be serious about listening to the players."

"our alpha couldn't be bull"

While Landmark's alpha lasted only six weeks or so, the closed beta will run for a much longer time frame. It's during this period, said Georgeson, that the developers will complete the feature set that they feel the game needs to have in order to be ready for prime time. Sony Online will expand Landmark with elements like caves, which will provide procedurally generated subterranean areas to explore and plunder; water; a risk mechanic; player-versus-player combat; and Player Studio.

That last part is perhaps the most important piece. Sony Online launched Player Studio in 2012; the initiative, which is currently available in EverQuest, EverQuest 2 and PlanetSide 2, allows players of those games to create content like items and textures and then sell it on a marketplace to make real money — they get 40 percent of the sale price, while the rest goes to Sony Online.

However, those titles require players to build the content outside of the games, so creators need technical expertise with software such as Maya and Adobe Illustrator. Because Landmark gives development tools directly to the people, Landmark players will be able to build structures in the game itself — nothing required beyond their own creativity — and then sell them from there. In fact, said Georgeson, Sony Online is making a huge bet on user-generated content for Landmark: The studio plans for most of its revenue for the game to come from Player Studio sales.

"When we gave the tools to the players, they started doing stuff with those tools that we literally didn't know you could do"

"When we gave the tools to the players, they started doing stuff with those tools that we literally didn't know you could do," said Georgeson, speaking about the beginning of Landmark's alpha phase. For example, players figured out that they could use a cube-smoothing tool within the game to whittle voxels down to very small dots, which allowed them to do fine detail work for ornate designs. That's the kind of ingenuity that Sony Online is banking on, and as the studio continues to add content to Landmark, it hopes that users will only come up with more creative solutions for their grand ideas.

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