27 Jan 2012

My Struggle with Sandboxes

I’ve been having a bit of a Minecraft kick lately, after finally getting enough time to enjoy the recent(ish) updates. The world generator now spawns features like abandoned mines, subterranean strongholds and populated villages as part of an Adventure Mode overlay.

The great thing about this Adventure mode is that it’s entirely optional. You can either spend time building the huge mine cart roller coaster you’ve always wanted, or you can build the portal, traverse the Nether and defeat the Ender Dragon. Or you can do both at the same time.

It’s also convinced me to check out the limited selection of sandbox MMOs currently available. After digging into EVE, Wurm Online (a previous Notch creation) and the Glitch beta, it becomes pretty obvious who these games are aimed at: builders. Go to this location, harvest these resources. Go to that location and build something with what you’ve gathered. Sometimes there’s a “kill ten rats”, but before you can do that you have to find a tree, cut it down, mine some iron, learn how to blacksmith, until finally… the rats have gone home for the weekend.

I think that this is the biggest problem I have with sandbox MMOs: in a world where almost anything is possible why would you choose to play Sim Peon Online instead of Hero With Fireballs Deluxe? While I like the idea of having my own lair built to my own specifications, I’m not sure I want to spend all my game time building one brick by brick.

I’ll be honest – I’m a fan of the theme park. I like the finely crafted stories and the carefully designed worlds. I don’t mind if my options are limited because I’m too busy running round shooting lightning from my fingertips and cackling like a madman. Sith don’t create statues themselves, they get their apprentice to hire off-world slaves to build it for them!

The part where all my theme park praise comes unstuck is at endgame. Once you’ve hit level cap in almost any MMO you’re on the repeating circuit of daily quests, daily instances, raiding and PVP. Your choices then are to start at the theme park entrance again or going round that endgame loop until the next content update. It gets old no matter which game you’re sitting in.

There have been some experiments with bringing in sandbox elements, such as player or guild housing, player cities and so on. But permanent structures in a game inhabited by a transient playerbase always seems like an odd thing. As a game moves into later life, derelict monuments to hundreds of patient hours stand there slowly gathering digital detritus till the servers are finally deactivated.

But could it go the other way? Start out with a malleable landscape and a set of rules and layer the adventure over the top? Allow players to choose the path of the hero or the craftsman, with both just as wide in scope and value? Would a world in which the learned magus and skilled mason can coexist be an idea that resonates?

I’m constantly surprised by the pace of endgame and the thirst players have for new content. New MMOs are now launching with enough new content to last through a year of continual updates. As production values and player expectations increase, the cost of providing this content buffer is only likely to grow. Whether this kind of growth is sustainable is a good question.

While I don’t think that a game like this will emerge any time soon, it wouldn’t surprise me if there are handfuls of coders and designers in sealed off rooms experimenting on something like this. While the theme park is great for providing direction and structure to MMO gameplay, I’m beginning to feel that a sandbox foundation may be the answer to the frequent delivery of new content we now demand.

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9 Responses to My Struggle with Sandboxes

  1. Azuriel says:

    The funny thing is that the “solution” is quite obvious: stop pretending reoccurring content is actually the ideal. Let these games end, Game Over. That flies in the face of stable MMO communities… but isn’t unstable communities what happens anyway (churn, etc)?

    I dunno. Maybe themepark all the way to the end, let there be a Game Over screen, then have a sandbox New Game+ mode.

    • Gazimoff says:

      In terms of a Game Over, that’s pretty much what SWTOR does. Once you’ve completed the class quest line you’re greeted with an “Interlude” message whenever you log in.

      I think my only concern with a game mode switch at level cap is that the sandbox basically becomes a lobby area while people wait for raids or instances. But is that such a bad thing?

      • Tesh says:

        I think MMOs with endings are a Good Thing… but a bad fit for the subscription model. I think there’s good reason for games to end, and I prefer those to the perpetual grind.
        Tesh recently posted..Ironman InsanityMy Profile

  2. Ahtchu says:

    This is a good way of putting it: builders. Something to think about for sure.
    If I were a sandbox game dev, how could I make it so you could ‘do anything’ while not forcing you to? How would one make a sandbox that appeals to themepark fans?
    Ahtchu recently posted..And Nothing Else MattersMy Profile

  3. Shintar says:

    Definitely agreed on the builders. It occurred to me the other day that the sandbox vs. theme park discussion is kind of like comparing Legos with dolls or action figures. Lego is a brilliant invention (and I think Minecraft’s success is largely based on basically being virtual Lego), but I have to admit that I was never particularly crazy about it, even as a child, because building my own props was mostly a distraction from what I really wanted to do – play out my own stories. I’d rather accept the limitations of what a theme park gives me than construct all my own toys from scratch.
    Shintar recently posted..Lessons of the dayMy Profile

    • Gazimoff says:

      I get a similar thing. I love lego, but I only tend to build what’s on the box. Coming up with your own goals for a pile of bricks requires a different (and possibly more niche) mindset.

      • Tesh says:

        There’s always a dance between the creators and the consumers… the ants and the grasshoppers, perhaps. I’m not convinced that the consumers outnumber the creators in society at large, but I do suspect that creators are less likely to be playing video games and are thus less represented. (And thanks to the magic of digital distribution and digital media, a few creators can give to a lot of different consumers; it’s not really like the ants and grasshoppers and finite resources.)
        Tesh recently posted..Ironman InsanityMy Profile

  4. Lethality says:

    Again, good post!

    Similar to a thought I’ve had for a while… they build these huge worlds, why can’t there be more than one “game” in there? Completely different paths of progression… different gameplay… a whole different experience. And while you _might_ be able to go down multiple paths with one character, only the unhealthily addicted of us would be able to truly make meaningful progress in more than one.

    For example… the “crafter” or merchant player. One of the flaws with crafting (even in sandbox MMOs) is that the economy relies on the players only. And crafters have only players to sell to. Why not have an entirely “PvE” based crafting game where the crafter sells to NPCs, just like the adventurer fights NPCs in combat?

    Some ideas include the idea of setting up a shop (and the upkeep that goes with it) and putting your goods for sale. There would be mechanics in place that depending on the quality if your output, you would see more “demand” from NPC customers… as a matter of fact, the town or city where your shop is could reflect that by the amount of NPCs walking around. If there are many good merchants in a city, it gets crowded (use a real life example of Los Angeles vs. somewhere like Cleveland – you want better or broader selections of restaurant, medical services, and goods, you can move (or travel to) Los Angeles).

    Of course, these players could also sell to Adventure players… not just NPCs. Might be a trick to figure out what an in-game economy looks like with merchants in theory easily out-earning adventurers, but maybe not.

    Side not… remember Vanguard? They tried this somewhat… you could take the path of Adventurer, Crafter or Diplomat and progress the entire game that way (though not quite as sandboxy as original SWG). Their execution was less than perfect, but the idea that multiple player types and game types could be included in the same world was a sound one!

    Anyway, I could go on for hours about this…