Three things Pantheon still needs to do to move the genre forward

Nephele

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Staff member
Note: This is long – sorry about that – but it’s been on my mind for the last few days and I wanted to make sure I posted it before the end of the year. I hope that it will spark a good discussion and conversation among the community.

Based on everything we have seen and heard from the development team recently, it seems clear that 2020 is going to be a big year for Pantheon. From the December 23rd stream, we know that most of the core systems are in place and functioning, and there’s a focus now on polishing and tightening up things as well as creating content. While there’s certainly far more work to be done, the game we saw in the stream is already a spiritual successor to EverQuest, and with the addition of new innovations like dispositions, climates, and ability customization in the Living Codex, it promises to be a very solid MMORPG when it’s ready for launch.

However, there’s a difference between simply being a solid offering, and really making an impact on the genre as a whole – between being a niche success that gets nods of appreciation from aging GenX gamers, or being a breakaway hit that attracts new and old gamers alike, and gets studios and their investors to sit up and take notice. Most of us are here because we have been disappointed again and again by the MMORPGs of the last 10 years – titles that strove to be games, rather than worlds, and then specialized in giving us treadmills and cash shops, instead of a rich and compelling experience. Pantheon is already better than those titles for us, it’s niche audience. But if we want Pantheon to be the start of a new chapter for the entire industry, then it needs to be more than that.

Here are three things that I think Pantheon still needs to do if we want it to really fulfill it’s potential and be the start of a new dawn for a stagnant genre.

First, Pantheon needs to eliminate Groundhog Day syndrome and make the world truly feel alive.

In almost every MMORPG, content is nearly completely static. Once you learn the maps and the encounters, every time you go back, nothing is different. Nothing has changed and nothing will. That zone you enjoyed when the game launched is still often the same years later. This leads to a tendency for us all to play through content and simply never return. This once-and-done philosophy is made worse by the design of instanced content in most games - often built around a single story or part of a story, with a tacked-on rewards treadmill to ask us to go relive it again (even though we’ve already experienced that story) to help fill out groups for other players.

Some studios have attempted to make their worlds feel more alive by periodically changing or revamping zones, creating “hard modes” with different paths, or introducing dynamic events that aren’t always happening. While these are noble efforts, they haven’t really hit the mark they’re aiming for, primarily because they either don’t go far enough, or they happen only during expansions or major patches.

Pantheon already has a leg up on these games through innovations such as NPC Dispositions and Manifestations, as well as climate and atmosphere systems that can make individual areas more dynamic if leveraged correctly. However, as we saw during the stream, if the team just stops there, the content will still be relatively stagnant once players learn those variations. We’ll quickly learn that when the Bloodthirsty version of the wolf boss appears, we’ll have to handle it differently from the normal version. Once the first explorers have documented an area, we’ll start to care more about what camp we’re headed to or what item the boss drops than we will about the monsters and encounters that we have to get through or past to get there. All that stuff will be known. We can look it up. Our motivation will be the destination, not the journey.

While making zones and their populations completely random would probably not provide a great experience for players, Pantheon still has an opportunity to do more than what we’ve seen so far. Whether it’s special events that only happen very rarely (rather than frequently like most games), larger and more varied spawns and spawn locations, or small chances of very rare items on loot tables, Pantheon can give us situations that we’re not expecting each time we go to an area. Content can still be familiar without becoming stale. Encounters can still be thematic without being trivialized through prior knowledge. Perhaps most importantly, the spirit of discovery can be preserved so that players always have a reason to go back to an area, whether on their first character or on a level-appropriate alt, because they have a strong chance of seeing, learning, or obtaining something new each time they go.

Not only is this good for replayability and keeping current players engaged; It’s good for the long-term health of Pantheon as well. We need to be thinking about the experience not just for players at launch, but for new players that join the game two or three years down the line. Many of us have seen examples of games that become so top-heavy that only a small portion of the world feels populated, or where “watch the video” is a requirement for new people joining group content. I think it’s safe to say that we don’t want Pantheon to turn into either of those types of games.

Second, non-combat content needs to offer depth, engagement, meaningful choices, and strong interdependence among players.

While we have seen a lot of the combat side of Pantheon, if the goal is to present a world for us to experience and explore, there’s another side of gameplay that still needs to be robust and implemented well. The overwhelming majority of the Pantheon experience cannot simply be about hacking down monsters and taking their stuff. Whether it’s chopping wood in the forest or baking a pie, solving a riddle to unlock a treasure or simply challenging your guildmates to a game of dice in the tavern while you wait for everyone to arrive, Pantheon needs to offer strong non-combat content that operates alongside (and hand-in-hand with) it’s combat content.

These things can’t be simply tacked on as “side games” for people to do when they’re not adventuring, but fully-fledged game experiences. They need to offer progression and depth, meaningful choices and engaging gameplay. They need to create shared needs and objectives between players and encourage players to help each other and socialize. They need to be strongly interconnected with exploration, adventuring, and yes even combat. They need to act not only as an impetus to draw people back in from their adventures, but as one to send people out into the world to have new adventures as well.

We know from the December Producer letter that a “basic” gathering and crafting system have been implemented and will likely be tested in Pre-Alpha 5. This is an important milestone, and a great start, but it’s important that the team doesn’t stop here. By the time Pantheon launches, there should ideally be almost as much to do that doesn’t involve swinging a weapon or casting a spell as there is content that requires those things. This will not only make Pantheon far more of a world than a game, contributing to subscriber retention as well as help it appeal to more potential players. It will also provide many more opportunities to make all forms of content compelling and interrelated. Simply put, it will give us more reasons to go explore and adventure. As Pantheon progresses towards launch, we need to see the non-combat side of things continue to evolve together with its combat systems.

Third and finally, Pantheon needs to offer strong support for socialization and expression within the world.

What might seem like tertiary systems such as animated emotes, interactable furniture and environments, communications and chat functionality, community tools, appearance customization, and “flavor” NPCs are actually very important components of enabling a social experience for many players. There are certainly dedicated introverts out there who will simply want to go kill monsters and collect loot and don’t care about these things. However, there are just as many, if not more players who are energized by socializing and interacting with others, both in combat and outside of it. Not to mention that these “little things” serve to make Pantheon feel like much more of a world than simply a game, which will improve immersion, retention, and engagement among its players. Even something as simple as giving bards the opportunity to perform some music outside of combat in order to entertain other players, or adding a few different art models for armor that players can choose between, can go a long way towards improving the experience for everyone logged in to Pantheon. It’s the little touches that make Terminus a place where we want to spend our time, even when we don’t have a specific character goal that we’re working towards.

While it’s true that no MMORPG can ever be perfect for everyone, I strongly believe that it’s very important that the team invests in these three areas both prior to launch, and post-launch as well. If the team is able to do this, it may make the difference between Pantheon simply being a nostalgia play for a niche audience, or really achieving the level of success that we all hope for, and showing the rest of the industry that there is a better path forward than the one they’ve been following. The good news is that none of this is out of reach for the development team. Based on what we’ve seen in the recent streams, it’s obvious they have the skills and talent on their team to be able to do these things – and indeed, they may already be working towards them in the background. Either way, I wanted to call these areas out as being important. Too often, as players, we focus so much on the one or two aspects that we care the most about that we forget about everything else that really makes for a great experience in an MMORPG. If we want to see Pantheon really be successful, we really can’t afford to let ourselves do that, regardless of what our own individual preferences may be.
 
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