Landmark Closed Beta Review: Bold Ideas Constrained by Designer Timidity

Watch most Twitch.tv streams that showcase SOE’s Landmark “sandbox” virtual world and you’ll see a familiar sight to those that follow the comic book and the superhero genre. You’ll see a superhero character with a flowing cape that seems to effortlessly fly through the air. Instead of fighting crime, this superhero is gathering resources.

The typical landmark avatar is a cross between Superman and Spiderman. Like Superman, the Landmark character has limitless strength and boundless energy. He can effortless dig holes, chop down trees and carry thousands of tons of earth and rock without the slightest of encumbrance. Like Spiderman, he leaps like an acrobat on steroids from object to object with his magical grappling hook.

What is all this for? Not to fight crime or vanquish a dragon? No, it is so this superhero can build his own private architectural creation, much like the way Superman built his Fortress of Solitude.

What Landmark Is Not

As a long-time EverQuest veteran and enthusiast, I with thousands of other hardcore fans made the pilgrimage to SOE Live in Las Vegas in 2013.  We came to see the next incarnation of EverQuest, instead what we got was Landmark — SOE’s version of Minecraft. It’s almost been over a year since the grand reveal at SOE Live and there is still next to nothing known about EQ Next except the odd lore novella and the occasional video from the developers.

From the outset, the big problem with Landmark is that it doesn’t really appeal to the MMORPG fan. It is not a MMORPG. It’s not even a true sandbox virtual world as there is no danger, no challenge, no social component and frankly no real sense of urgency.

Even worse, there is not an iota of EverQuest found in Landmark except the mysterious wizard spires. At this point, I can’t believe that any serious EverQuest fan would find anything appealing or worthwhile about Landmark in its current skeletal state.

Landmark is currently in closed beta and is in such an unfinished state, that if this was another MMO it would not even be considered to be in alpha yet. There are no NPCs, no enemy mobs, no character abilities, no combat, and no magic. Of course all of these things are planned for the future but the fact is they do not exist currently.

If Landmark is not all those things, then what is it?

What Landmark Is

Landmark is essentially an architectural development tool that SOE will be leveraging to get free crowd-sourced graphical assets for their future MMORPG EverQuest Next.  The free labor strategy, is a very clever and audacious move by SOE and they readily admit this is part of their plan. Players create buildings and SOE will take the best ones and put them into EQ Next. Great for SOE, not so great if you are an EverQuest fan.

Landmark has three components: harvesting, crafting and building. Players go out in the world and harvest raw materials so they can come back and craft better tools, props and build structures. That’s pretty much it.

From a game-play perspective, harvesting is very one-dimensional and boring — there was no challenge to it whatsoever. The formula is simple: low tiered materials are found in low tier islands and high tiered materials are found in high tiered islands. There are a few variances as some rare items are exclusive to certain biomes.

Most people that play Landmark are not playing for the harvesting aspect, they are there to show off their creativity via building.

Landmark: The Superhero Simulator

One area I’d like to explore a bit is SOE’s obsession with creating a superhero simulator. There is a definite superhero feel that permeates Landmark and it’s intentional. It was very evident from the initial panels at SOE Live in 2013 that SOE is fixated on making everything epic and heroic regardless of what the players want.

The heroic design mantra is repeated often by SOE devs such as Dave Georgeson and Darrin McPherson. Seems SOE is just discovering a design philosophy that was in vogue almost 10 years ago when World of Warcraft made its debut on the MMO landscape with Blizzard’s mantra of concentrated coolness which is just another name for heroic design. As usual SOE is late to a party that has come and gone.

This heroic design ethos manifests itself mainly in the unrealistic superhero movement mechanics and the ability to carry unlimited amounts of weight with no fatigue. Watching the spectacle of players moving around in Landmark with the excessive tumbling and the boundless jumps is painful and cringe worthy. It looks silly and childish. It is so ridiculous and awful that it ultimately detracts from any semblance of seriousness that one might expect from a sandbox virtual world.

Pandering to the Millennials?

I wonder if the heroism philosophy was created to pander to the millennials — a generation who are notorious for being selfish, coddled, with an over-inflated sense of entitlement thanks to their misguided parents. From a superb article by Jen Wieczner about Millenials or Generation Y as they are also known:

And many experts lay the blame for some of these problems at the feet of the parents, specifically those who bought into the then-popular “everybody gets a trophy” school of child-raising—showering their kids with positive affirmations and telling them they could be anything they wanted to be, says Twenge, also the author of “Generation Me”.

It is also possible that after years of the heroism concept saturating video games, the heroic design of Landmark is natural reflection of the mentality of the designers who themselves were weaned on copious amounts of parental coddling aimed at raising their self-esteem.

Unearned heroism as a design concept has been a plague upon the MMO industry as it creates a sense of entitlement in the playerbase at the expense of gameplay. Blizzard being the worst offender of this design malpractice. Yet in recent years, an increasing number of gamers are starting to realize the shallowness and vapidity of the hero design mantra and are rebelling against it with titles like Dark Souls and Dark Souls 2.  I sense that players are looking for video games and MMOs that allow them to earn their heroism instead of serving it to them on a silver platter.

By seemingly pandering to millennials and other assorted slackers, SOE is demonstrating they could care less about catering to the demographic that played the original EverQuest. Since the announcement of EQ Next and Landmark, SOE has alienated most of their original fans and I believe that is a terrible mistake. It is very clear that SOE seems to have been seduced by the promise of riches by catering to the millions of players who have purchased Minecraft — 15 million to be exact.

 A Virtual Life of Consequence?

While one of SOE’s pillars for EQ Next is a life of consequence I have to wonder why this design ethos does not apply in Landmark?

For example, there was a point in time when players had to face a world of consequences and could only carry so much weight and the player’s movement was slowed down when they reached a threshold of weight. So MMO’s like Word of Warcraft removed the concept of weight altogether. A virtual sandbox like Minecraft followed suit as it has no weight and no real inventory restrictions.

So here we are with Landmark where players can carry unlimited amounts of weight and jump and bounce around with impunity. A player could conceivably carry the weigh of the great pyramid in Egypt with him and replicate that pyramid within a few minutes. Just because Minecraft has gotten away with this convention, doesn’t make it right for Landmark.

Other reality bending questions comes up:

Where is the player storing the thousands of tons of earth, rock ore and wood?

With regard to the laws of physics, how is it that houses and objects can magically float in the air with no explanation as is common in Landmark and sadly in Minecraft as well?

The level of suspension of disbelief that is required to play Landmark is just too much for me. Believing in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny requires less suspension of disbelief.

No Persistence in the Fake Sandbox

If there is one  glaring failure about the current incarnation of Landmark it is certainly the absence of persistence in the world outside of a player’s claim. Chop down a tree and dig a hole, the tree magically grows back and the hole is mysteriously filled within minutes. It’s like you were never there (TM).

This lack of persistence affects not only the subtractive nature of interaction but the additive nature as players are unable to make their mark on the world at large by doing simple things like planting a tree, placing an item such as a torch on a hillside, or make their mark on any common area that is not on their claim. What a pity that there is no real persistence at all in this fake sandbox.

Where Landmark Shines: Unleashing Creativity and the Pride of Ownership

To be fair, there are two major things that SOE does exceptionally well with Landmark. The first is that they allow players a high degree of creativity.

Considering the limited tool set that SOE has provided, some of the player made creations are absolutely breathtaking! But most of us do not have that kind of talent nor do we have the patience to pour over the multitude of Landmark tutorial videos on YouTube.

The problem is that only a tiny minority of players will ever be able to surmount the steep learning curve and time investment that is required to learn the tools and techniques that can create magnificent structures. I think many players will see some of the very best structures and try to duplicate them but will fail and just quit Landmark altogether.  Better tools are needed to give everyone more of an opportunity to make great creations not just the elite and masterful few who have easily spend hundreds of hours creating things and practicing various building techniques.

The pride of ownership is a very powerful force and I found that having my own claim that I could visit every day and improve my humble temple was somehow gratifying.

I actually wanted to log on every day until SOE took away my claim after I failed to pay “upkeep” after I was away for a week. That was demoralizing for me and after that happened I pretty much lost all interest in Landmark. Up until that point I had paid a couple thousand copper for upkeep and to have it all taken away due to some arbitrary rule was disheartening.

Landmark’s Existential Deficit

For me, one of the core problems in Landmark is that there is no explanation or lore to explain what the world is about of why people even exist. Players are dumped into this inexplicable world of unattached islands and show up beside mysterious teleportation spires. Who created the world? Who created the spires? Who created the crafting tables that show up? Who created the recipes for the crafting tables? Who gets the money for the upkeep? None of these questions are ever answered.

On my tour of Landmark, I noticed that there was a preponderance of structures that have no legitimate reason for existing. Many of the claims did not look like they belonged there and were modernist looking abominations.

For a virtual world to be convincing, structures should reflect the building materials that are found nearby. A home made from pine wood simple does not belong in a desert, nor does an adobe village belong in a pine forest. There are no such natural laws in Landmark as you can build with whatever you have in your bottomless magical inventory packs. The result is that immersion suffers.

The Modernist Look of Landmark

One of the things that bothers me the most about Landmark is the unsettling look of the buildings and the materials. The textures and shapes all have a surreal modernist look about them eerily similar to buildings designed by Spanish architect Antoni Gaudí. Below is one of his most famous buildings the Casa Mila.

Casa Mila

Image source: Regien Paassen / Shutterstock.com

The main culprit here is the smoothing tool with its uncanny ability to turn everything in its path into a creepy looking Plasticine creation.

The reason why Landmark players must resort to using the smoothing tool so much is because the voxel — the main unit of building — is just too large to create the kind of meticulous detail that most structures require to look realistic. Since smoothing is the only way to reduce the size of a voxel, the result often ends up looking ugly, freakish and misshapen.

Props are one way to help make these structures more believable. While there are some great props that are craftable and purchasable via the Station Store but what is frustrating is that due to the large size of a voxel and limited tools, players would never be able to create these props on their own.

Some Other Problems

One issue that is frustrating beyond belief is that in some islands, there are so many claim that it is almost impossible to harvest due to the fact that there is an abnormally preposterous large buffer zone around each claim that essentially prevents players from harvesting.

The male avatars are pretty ugly, they all look like the French actor Vincent Cassel from the Ocean’s 13 film. SOE has always had a problem creating top notch character avatars and even to this day many of the avatars in EQ and EQ2 are grotesque. The animation rigging is awful as well — just watch a male avatar run without a cape. Currently, there is very little character choice and customization and no option to go back and fix your ugly avatar.

From a distance, claims look like abstract impressionist paintings. The closer you get to to a building, the better it looks.

Chopping wood has a progress bar but mining has no progress bar. SOE has really taken the easy way out here by not making tree harvesting equal to the mining process which works rather well. This is a worrisome disconnect that makes Minecraft far superior with regard to consistency in mechanics.

Most islands are overly mountainous which makes it hard to find flat areas for people to stake their claims.

Another problem is that the overabundance of mountainous areas creates shadows during the day and blocks off moonlight at night which makes seeing your actual claim very difficult. If you can’t see the claim clearly, it’s hard to evaluate it as a possible site for your buildings.

After playing Landmark for a couple of weeks, I can safely say that there is no social interaction and no player interdependence. Occasionally you may see a fellow player but there you do not need them to play and progress.

My Suggestions

SOE’s Landmark has great potential to be something truly original and trailblazing. If this potential is to be realized then the SOE devs will need to be bold and have the courage to step out of the giant shadow that is Minecraft and take only what is good from Minecraft, and then take it to the next level by incorporating the strengths of the MMO genre: it’s massively multi-player and community elements.

Here are my suggestions on how SOE can do this:

1. Enable Creative Mode

Right off the bat, I really think that SOE should emulate the “creative” mode that Minecraft has that allows people to build whatever they wish with an unlimited supply of materials. Remove harvesting completely and allow players to continue to stake their claims. Let the people that want to build continue to build amazing things. Don’t burden them with the pointless mini-game of having to gather resources. You could even charge them money for advanced resources.

2. Enable Survival Mode

After combat is introduced and enemy NPCs later this year, SOE should again emulate Minecraft and introduce a survival mode for Landmark. Players can build and destroy wherever they want. No player claims, 100% persistence and let the chips fall where they may. Harvesting should take far more effort than it does now. No more “magic” harvesting with a player carrying thousands of tons of wood, ore, rock, sand and dirt. Carts must be used to transport resources. Players can pull/push carts or animals can. All resources must be mined properly with realistic mining techniques.

Just as it should take weeks to build something, so too it should take weeks to destroy something. No more magical buildings floating in the air. No more structurally unsound freakish buildings that would collapse and crumble in the real world. No torches and fireplaces that burn forever either.

This would be a true sandbox virtual world. Players would actually band together because of common goals. Player made outposts, towns and cities would spring up.  Players and guilds could hire guards and even monsters to guard their creations while online and offline.

For the virtual world sandbox to be complete, food and drink needs to be introduced. Let players grow crops and make their own food and drink.

3. Tone Down the Heroic Nonsense

SOE really needs to tone down the unearned heroism design philosophy that seems to have permeated everything about Landmark. Even SOE’s failed Free Realms didn’t pander to players in such a disgusting and overt way. Get rid of heroic movement. Without some sort of stamina or fatigue penalty, it’s embarrassing, preposterous and downright silly.  SOE already has a super hero MMO called DC Universe Online, they don’t need another one.

EverQuest Next: We Hardly Knew You

I think it is worthwhile to remind the reader that my point of view on the current state of Landmark is from the perspective of a frustrated and jilted EverQuest veteran. I believe that the hundreds of thousands of EQ vets have been given short shrift by SOE. We were leveraged as props at SOE Live in 2013 in a bait and switch scheme. Since then very little has been done to reach out to the original EQ community with regard to the future of the EverQuest franchise. Many if not most of the tenets of MMORPG design epitomized by the original EverQuest that we have come to hold sacred were either ignored or discarded by the SOE devs.

What I am seeing so far in Landmark (which has dropped the “EverQuest” part of its name) is alien and foreign to me as an EverQuest devotee. Any momentum that SOE hoped to create for EverQuest Next at SOE LIVE in 2013 has all but evaporated. The EQ Next content at SOE Live 2014 was almost non-existent and essentially a rehash of what they showed in 2013.  SOE owns the intellectual property of the most amazing MMO and they’ve had years to get this right and it’s a real shame that they have carelessly piddled away the loyalty and passion of their long-time fans.

Conclusion

Landmark has often been compared to Minecraft but it isn’t even close. At least in Minecraft everything is malleable and persistent. The entire world of Minecraft comprised of earth, water, vegetation can  can be mined and transformed. Unlike Minecraft, in Landmark you can only harvest certain plants, trees and the earth which all “heal” within a few minutes and return to their default state. With the exception of player claims, there is no persistence. Even then players who fail to pay upkeep to some faceless unknown entity (i.e. the user interface) can lose their claim after a few days of non-payment.

SOE loves to feature some truly amazing player creations but the reality is that most players will never be able to create buildings with the same level of quality as they lack the time and the talent to do so. SOE needs to introduce better and easier to use tools that reduce barriers to creativity. If nothing changes, Landmark will end up having a very small audience consisting of a small niche group of creative people that like to build things.

Landmark oozes with potential but the die has already been cast with a focus on providing convenience driven “everyone gets a trophy” safe and welcoming virtual world for millennial gamers. It could have been a true virtual world sandbox but the SOE devs chickened out. With very limited persistence, no player interdependence, no game or challenge to speak of, no social cohesion or conflict, or any real danger or consequences, Landmark is more of an architect and building simulator. The infusion of the heroic design nonsense that permeates the Landmark experience is the bitter icing on this upside down cake.

In truth, Landmark is and always has been a clever diversion that exists to buy SOE time to actually create EQ Next which realistically could be years away. This product is an audacious scheme that in theory will allow SOE to utilized crowd-sourced graphical assets from the public to save them high development costs. Whether or not this will actually work, remains to be seen.

In it’s current primitive state Landmark will only appeal to a very small targeted niche of people that like to create buildings and decorate them. I wonder if even the most hardcore Landmark players will soon get to the point where they will finish their building and decorating their claims and then ask themselves what’s next?

If you love EverQuest and MMORPGs there is really nothing for you in SOE’s Landmark. I am genuinely puzzled why anyone in the MMO community would be interested in Landmark in its current primitive state. The only connection to EverQuest is a vague promise that you’ll be able to make graphical assets that might someday be used in EverQuest Next. Even then, the reality is very few people will ever get their creations selected, which makes the appeal very limited at best. I am glad I saved my money and did not purchase the Founder’s Pack.

SOE has done a gutsy and risky thing essentially exposing and involving their players into the game development process with Landmark. I’m not sure I’m sold on the crowd-sourcing idea of having players create your game for you. For many gamers it can be frustrating to be part of something that is so unfinished, unpolished and experimental. Yet Landmark has massive potential to be truly original and groundbreaking experience if only the devs find the courage to stop playing it safe.

-Wolfshead

Latest Comments

  1. Darsh August 25, 2014
  2. Kevin August 25, 2014
    • seanidor August 29, 2014
  3. Zul August 31, 2014
  4. Curtis September 4, 2014

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.