Hey, You Got Your Civilization in My Everquest!

Posted: August 13, 2007 by Kendricke in Everquest 2, General Game Concepts, Guilds

Noble life demands a noble architecture for noble uses of noble men. Lack of culture means what it has always meant: ignoble civilization and therefore imminent downfall.

-Frank Lloyd Wright

I’ve been playing a lot of “Civilization IV:  Beyond the Sword” lately.  I’m still a sucker for turned based strategy games, and the Civilization series has pretty much always delivered for me.  Even the short-lived Alpha Centauri and Call to Power off-shoots scratched the itch just fine.

One thing I really loved with the series, starting with CivIII and moving into the various iterations of CivIV was the concept of “culture”.  It’s a pretty nebulous thing in the Civilization worlds, but it represents so much more.

Culture is a powerful concept in reality.  Throughout history, entire civilizations have been completely subjugated, often through cultural domination driven first by military conquests.  Though, often enough, armed threats weren’t even necessary.  Cultural strength alone was often enough of a tour de force to overtake a people.

So, what has this to do with MMO’s?  In a word: everything.

American Heritage defines culture as “The totality of socially transmitted behavior patterns, arts, beliefs, institutions, and all other products of human work and thought …considered as the expression of a particular period, class, community, or population”. 

It’s a heady description of the word, but what does it really mean?

I’ll answer the question with a question of my own:

What do you think of when I say “Rome”?

I’m sure that most of you thought of large marble pillars, togas, majestic statue lined temples, and rows of Legionnarys when I mentioned the concept of “Rome”.  Rome wasn’t just a place, but an idea – an idea so powerful, that people thousands of miles away from the city of Rome itself would use similar languages, clothing, and architecture.  There would be regional differences, to be certain, but the very concept of Roman culture was very distinct. 

Movie makers use these visual and audial cues all the time.  Watch the Lord of the Rings sometime and notice how Peter Jackson sets the different types of homes, armors, music, and even hairstyles available when moving between Rivendell and the Shire, or Rohan and Gondor.  Watch Gladiator and notice the distinct difference in “feel” between citizens of the outlying Roman settlements when compared against citizens of the city proper.  Even in 300, there are culturally distinct differences between many of the waves of fighters sent from the Persian host. 

If I were to create a game based in such a culture, say “Gods and Heroes: Rome Rising”, I’d want to make sure that everything within the game adhered in some way to the general cultural theme.  If I moved away from area centrally located around Rome itself and started to move into outlying territories outside of direct Roman control, I’d expect to sense cultural changes. 

You should be able to immediately “feel” whether or not you’re within an area dominated by this city or that country based upon musical queues, architecture, character fashion, and so on.  You shouldn’t require a zone line to tell you when you’ve entered a new area.  The very essense of the game’s design, down to the quests and accents used by the NPC’s should tell you where you’re at. 

Now, the idea that travelling through a game server should feel like travelling through a living, breathing world is not a new concept.  However, how often is it done well.  How often is it done right?

In my opinion, one of the biggest issues with Everquest 2 has been a lack of cultural definition.  There were some obvious changes, to be sure.  Obviously Qeynos feels different than Freeport.  Kelethin feels different from Felwithe. 
The villages and slums set up as starting areas feel different.  From an architectural standpoint, the developers and artists have definately learned lessons over the years, and have adapted the game to have better differences between areas. 

However, there was no real racial identity for starting players.  You were either Qeynosian or Freeportite, and really, that didn’t stand for much anyway. 

Even today, armorsmiths half a world apart provided the exact same armors for Freeport players as it did for Qeynos players.  If you were an Iksar Fury buying armor in East Freeport…your armor looked identical to a Halfling Fury’s armor which was picked up in Qeynos Harbor.  Pick up the same basic crafted armor in Neriak or Kelethin if you want.  Chances are it will be the same. 

Architecturally, Everquest 2 has come a long, long way.  From a fashion perspective, we’re all basically buying from the same cut of cloth, however. 

The difference is even more striking to me after an afternoon spent perusing the various artifacts at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts recently.  Seeing the differences between ancient Italian armors as contrasted against French or Germanic suits of armor painted an obvious difference between the different cultures of the time. 

Games like Warhammer Online seem to get the reference as well, with the ItalioGermanic armors of the Empire race coming to game first, and the potential for the AngloFranco armors of the Bretonians potentially set up as an expansion realm later on down the line.  You can bet that a Reiksknight of the Empire will look entirely different from a Bretonian Knight-Errant, even though statistically speaking, both will likely be similar creatures.  Even at release, the concept of a Empire Knight of the Blazing Sun is going to have a much, much different feel from a Chaos Champion.

But in Everquest 2, Steel Vanguard Greaves are Steel Vanguard Greaves are Steel Vanguard Greaves – regardless of where it was made. 

See that dwarf over there with the shield and hammer?  Without inspecting him, can you tell if it’s a paladin, guardian, berserker, templar, or inquisitor?  Ha!  He’s a shadowknight!  What’s more, the barbarian he’s standing next to who is dressed identically?  That’s a templar. 

To be fair, SOE is trying.  They eventually came out with class “hats” for all of the classes.  The problem with this is that some of the hats are much more appealing than other hats.  You may spend weeks or even months grouping with Guardians before you see one of them actually showing their class helm, whereas you can barely swing a dead cat without striking a horned-helm berserker.  Furies and Wardens all over seem to love their leaf-particle wreaths – well, at least females seem to.  Most male druids have either not yet earned their class headgear, or have opted not to show the particles at all.  For those tree huggers who feel a need for something a bit more manly, there is no real option…yet. 

I say “yet”, because SOE is working to alleviate the problem.  Indeed, the work being put into the improved character model system is said to be a huge step towards rectifying this issue.  I look forward to the day where Halasians regain the knowledge to make their kilted armors, and when halflings finally remember that they no longer need to wear foot covers. 

Once the eventual changes are made to the character models, design time for new armors would be cut to a fraction of the current time needed.  The only realistic constraints on new armors at that point would be design team priorities and the all-important minimum requirements of the game itself (thought I’d love to see 20 new armors per update, every one of those new geometries has to live in memory). 

Beyond the Armor:

Even beyond armor changes, I would love to see additional cultural changes. 

Frankly, I’d love to see guilds and players given the opportunity to choose “cultures” as part of creation. The choice could be limited by race and starting city.  This selection could impact any number of choices throughout the game.

For example, imagine bards from different parts of the game world who learned to play actual in-game music based on their own cultural choices.  Join a group with an ogre dirge and even the combat music might sound completely different from a fae troubadour’s.  Or, depending on what cultures they chose, they might sound utterly identical. 

In fact, imagine the music in your home changing depending on which village or section of town your home was in?  Imagine music as a customization option, alongside opulant eldar flooring or coarse willow walls.

More than player housing though, the opportunities to introduce culture into the guildhall feature are enormous.  If the designers see fit to create more guildhalls elsewhere in the world, I could easily imagine guildhalls built near Butcherblock, Steamfont, or Rivervale which felt culturally diverse and distinct.

Even then, creating a guildhall shouldn’t be an excercise in cookie cutter copy n’pasting.  One of the most essential reasons for creating guilds in the first place are the very real cultural differences which exist even between players.  Players join guilds based on a myriad of reasons, but one of the most common I’ve seen is the search to find a guild which contains like-minded players.  It makes perfect sense.

People are essentially tribal.  We seek to belong.  We desire groups where we fit in.  What we’re really looking for is a cultural match-up. 

Though not purely a function of game design, designers should pay close attention to the cultures and subcultures of guilds.  These cultures should be encouraged through game mechanics.  Provide guild leaders with options to help create their own content for their guild members. 

Guild cloaks was a great example of how this could be done.  It’s a framework which gives guild leaders the chance to customize their guilds how they wish.  It helps them to encourage their own internal cultures. 

Move beyond the guild cloaks to banners, shields, mounts, barding, and of course…guild halls. 

A guild based on a Romanesque theme (such as mine) is going to feel much, much different from a guild based on a Arthurian theme.  Our websites will be different.  Our ranks will be different.  Our websites will be different.  And, if given the choice, our guild halls will be different.  If a guild full of Ratongas (such as Vermin on Antonia Bayle) created a guild hall, I’d love them to have the ability to set up a guild hall which felt…well, more ratlike. 

Even guilds based on no particular existing cultures will no-doubt have ideas of their own which may or may not mesh up well with the two-sizes-fits-all type of guildhall that guild leaders are essentially being asked to choose between.  (Of course, having two choices is heaps better than no choices, but that’s a different topic altogether.)

Add in a few more locations for the guildhalls, toss in a few options for customization based on location (music, general look/feel, etc.), and watch as players get creative. 

Players want to be distinct.  They want to feel a part of the story.  More than that, they want the game itself to feel a part of a story.  Creating more cultural diversity options opens up all of these things a bit more for players, which can only be a good thing.

  1. Exeter Redwyne says:

    No. Yewz doingz it all wrong! It’s ‘Vermin’ wif an “i”. Yewz has to gives me five plats now. Yis.

  2. kendricke says:

    I’ll not only correct it. I’ll link to your page!

  3. Cheston says:

    While reading this article I could not help but think of Star Wars Galaxies, and their use of culture(though limited) throughout the game. This cultural expression came in the form of a different set of houses/guildhalls for each planet, each with their own unique architectural design. For example a home on Naboo looks completely different than a home on Corellia. There were also different styles at different tiers of housing, also with the plethora of display items one could customize their house/guildhall quite particularly with regard to what their cultural identity might be. I really enjoyed this “build a home on this planet and it will be completely different than a home you build on this other planet” idea, and though I don’t really think SWG went into as much cultural detail as they probably should have, I think it represents your initial idea of in-game cultural identity.

  4. Stargrace says:

    *coughs* Speaking of links… who is this “strargrace” linked on the right hand side? *grins* Looks sorta like stargrace but not quite… *ponders*

    I love the idea of having a cultural aspect through out the game, not only with guild halls but with armor and weapons as well. People already plan out different “themes” using their own creative decorating ideas, it would be great to see it get a little more specific.

    “But in Everquest 2, Steel Vanguard Greaves are Steel Vanguard Greaves are Steel Vanguard Greaves – regardless of where it was made.

    See that dwarf over there with the shield and hammer? Without inspecting him, can you tell if it’s a paladin, guardian, berserker, templar, or inquisitor? Ha! He’s a shadowknight! What’s more, the barbarian he’s standing next to who is dressed identically? That’s a templar”

    Fantastic point here, one that’s made often. When I’m walking along it’s the shields / weapons carried that give them away. A tower shield? Well they’re some sort of tank. They’re weilding a mace? It’s a plate-wearing healer of some sort.. But there’s nothing defining about their armor — until you hit T7 and the class specific fabled gear. So, SoE is learning. We want to look different. Unique. Even if it is just by class. My inquisitor doesn’t want to look like some holy Templar. *shudders*

  5. Staranah says:

    Totally agree with you – the fact that there is little to no diffference on the PVE servers between the good/evil aligned is not a good thing!

    I would love to see the food, armor, housing items, etc., recipes and raws in the areas populated by those classes/races. Ex. a Troll wouldn’t have access to a High Elf based armor set without the black market and could purchase/earn the recipes to make food that Halflings eat, but would have to go to Enchanted Lands to obtain. You can call a rock or a root by a different name, but if the rock/root gives the same result in TS or Ant whats the point?

    Or a Zerker in FP couldn’t get the armor a Zerker/Guardian in Qeynos can wear without the black market. What good is the black market now anyway when everything is avaiable on the broker?

    I like the way Neriak is in the fact you can’t easily get in/out with the guards – Kelethin should be LESS accessible to evil aligned toons too.

    I really enjoy EQ2, but do wish they’d quit nerfing some of this – who wants a homogonized class/race in a bland world. You read on the Forums about racial differences and there is such a small advantage to playing a race/class combo when it should be a bit more significant.

  6. Amonost says:

    I couldn’t agree more with this entire blog post, this issue has been on my mind a lot lately. I would also like to add that perhaps more cultural activities be put in game (if possible at this point). For example having halflings have a few meals a day and share it with their group mates, or have wood elves sing, or talk to animals, dwarves and barbarians drinking ale, ogres starting duels with one another. I am not sure how to implement this, mini game or something else, and it would have to reward the player to encourage use (small xp gain or something else enough to be worth it but not enough to unbalance gameplay). And of course the refresh timers would need to be somewhat long as not to have it abused. In any case I think EQ2 needs a little more of these types of ideas in this blog to create a greater sense of immersion.

  7. Amonost says:

    I’ve thought even more on this, and came to the realization that there are several cultures in EQ2 that need a great deal of fleshing out. More specificaly Kerran, Froglocks, Ratonga, and Arasai (and probably the new Sarnak), though all the cultures in this game could use some fleshing out in one way or another.

    Think about it, what do you know about a Froglock? We know they’re frogs, good swimmers, hop around, they believe in Marr so one could assume they are honorable, and they of course cannot stand Trolls.

    Other than that we don’t know much about them, I mean what is a typical day for a Froglock village, what do they belive in, do they have their own types of housing (when not in a refuge camp) or architecture, their own type of armor, clothing, do they have Froglock only ritiuals or customs. It can be said we know their history, how they where born, but we don’t know how they live, we don’t know their culture.

    The same can be said for several if not all the races in EQ2. I think fleshing out the races should be a focal point, and it’s far easier to do than adding cultural armor or the like (though I still want cultural armor in the game *wink wink) as it doesn’t require anyone to change any game mechanics, it only requires someone to come up with a background for the races and put in the lore of the game somewhere.

  8. kendricke says:

    Sorry, Stargrace, I’ll fix it right away.

    As to the rest of the comments, keep them coming. I’m a big fan of building off of community discussion.

    Even if you hate what I’ve written, feel free to let me know that.

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