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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