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The Irony of Sandbox MMO’s
Since Minecraft arrived on the scene in May of 2009, the sandbox gaming concept has been propelled into the forefront of multiplayer online gaming design. Recent announcements of EverQuest Next utilizing a voxel-based engine to create a player manipulated world shows that even big AAA game studios like Sony Online Entertainment recognize the appeal of user-created content, and how mutable worlds and online gaming are a perfect match for both developers and gamers alike.
At the core of this sandbox concept is the idea of player freedom: freedom to create; freedom to control; freedom to change; freedom to just be. There are varying degrees of sandbox implementations in the market with many more upcoming titles that all seek to elevate the sandbox concept to its fullest essence. A few will succeed while many more will utterly fail.
I have seen something of an irony in the sandbox MMO that I feel compelled to share with the gaming community. I think the sandbox paradigm will be greatly crippled if this irony is not dealt with carefully before the masses come to see what a sandbox MMO really means.
The irony is simply that the concept of the sandbox demands that players be given as much control of the world as can be possible. On the surface this sounds brilliant and tantalizing to say the least. Less pre-defined content for more dynamic player-driven content is so inviting. But giving players ultimate control of the game world ultimately draws out the basic human evils of greed, grief, and selfishness. It is no longer enough to complete a quest, receive a reward, and add a point, a title, or a level. Some gamers are so intoxicated by the prospects of power and control that they transform themselves into monsters bent on the destruction of everyone who stands in their way.
This brings me to one of the greatest appeals of the sandbox – PVP. The freedom to perform player-vs-player combat is often the very gauge to the perceived potential for success or failure in an MMO. It may sound as if I am bashing the whole idea of PVP. In fact, I am not. PVP is the ultimate challenge because it involves battling with a human foe rather than a computer one. But what I am saying is studios that wish to step into the sandbox world need to realize a few critical truths of human nature if they want their games to not only be successful but also profitable.
First, coming from a gamer’s mindset; I want to list some of the important aspects to the sandbox that many gamers feel are most important. Then, I want to present the dangers of allowing PVP to co-exist with the same level of freedom as other game mechanics.
I do presume here to place myself as a representative of the average sandbox gamer. For that, I cannot help but admit it is an assumption. But read on and see if you do not feel similarly as I do, and if not – that’s your right to disagree.
So, what is most important to us sandbox gamers? I think freedom to set ones path and direction is most important. We want to log in and decide what we do, where we go, what skills we grind, and how we progress our character’s development. Next, the quality of the tools with which we accomplish these tasks is most important. That means a deep, complicated, and respectable crafting system is a must. Individuality is also most important. We do not want to spend hours, days, months, or years developing our unique characters only to realize they are not very unique at all. Finally, the concept of ownership is most important. Why do we delve into virtual online worlds in the first place? We do so to be what perhaps we cannot be. Or maybe we do so to exercise our own creativity and power of imagination. Whatever the reason, sandbox MMO’s afford the opportunity to express oneself in ways not possible in other types of games. These are some of the most important concepts to, I dare say, most players in a sandbox game.
So now, enter human nature of a lesser degree. MMO’s are like real-life playgrounds. The reality of every playground is that there are two kinds of dwellers there. There are the peaceful players and there are the bullies. Every playground has them and the sandbox MMO is no different. The bullies are the power-hungry players that have nothing more in mind than to intimidate, hurt, and control. They look for every single opportunity to exploit the game rules. It is as much a challenge to cheat the game mechanics as it is to rob and steal from the players. They have very shallow but also very deep goals. They just want to be an outlaw, an outcast, or an outlandish character. They want to be feared. They want respect. They want power. They want and they take whatever they can. The villainy of these goals is not necessarily my point. But it is the irony I am writing about and here it is. Just as in real life, there are vastly more peaceful players in the playground than there are bullies.
Those developers who seek to provide the ultimate PVP experience inevitably come to realize that the bullies run everyone else out of the sandbox. It never fails! However, the bullies rarely provide enough of a return to hold up the game for very long just because of sheer numbers. This is a problem both for the developers and the gaming community in general.
The truth is, the playground needs the peaceful players in order to be viable. Without them, the bullies have little to do but vex themselves out of existence. You see, they all want to be the best and those who do not make it in one game will run to another. Thus, they tire quickly and leave for better prospects. In other words, you cannot expect the bullies to be loyal to your game.
This is not the case with the peaceful players. They invest time, money, talents, and creativity. They are in it for the long haul. They are the ones who hold up the game financially. They give life and beauty to the sandbox world. They add human touches that cannot be realized otherwise. Without them, all is dead and wasted space, time, and money.
Since it is a reality that both co-exist to some degree or another in every sandbox MMO, I want to offer some insights on how they might happily co-exist to the mutual benefit of both. First, full-loot does not have to mean scorched earth. In order to draw out the peaceful players into the inevitable conflicts of the world, they must have a respite. They must have knowledge that there is always a home to run to. If you take that home away from them, or fail to provide that home, they will not stay long. Games that allow PVP bullies to destroy the hard work of peaceful, crafter-like players indiscriminately and with no recourse do so to their own detriment. There must be some safe havens and untouchable realms in order to make entering the fray of battle interesting, promising, and fulfilling to them. Second, perma-death never works. I said perma-death NEVER works. Bullies love perma-death because it means they can totally wipe out anyone they choose. It puts them in ultimate control. But such mechanics drive away the largest audience. This is especially true in games that offer deeply complicated crafting systems. The more complex the creativity the more there is a need to protect that investment. Let a win on the field of battle be sufficient for the bully and the peaceful crafter will come back to fight again. But give the bully the tools to totally annihilate and you are all but guaranteeing their target will go someplace else – maybe to another game altogether. Next, give the peaceful players the option to play in a peaceful playground if they choose. This is a simple but sometimes stubbornly-ignored or refused option. But it is in fact a win-win for the developers and the players. Often, the income generated from care-bear players more than funds the game. There is no shame in the concept to include this feature – only shame for not recognizing the need for it.
Finally, it is not enough to plop players down in a game world and have them duke it out to the death in a player-controlled environment. Law and order has its proper place. You can have a great PVP game when you properly match risk and reward for everyone, not just for the bullies. Provide protection to keep the larger player-base alive and thriving. Give them a reason to support the Great Cause. Provide reward for those who wish to seek fame and fortune, yes, but with controls in place so their base nature does not drive away your base players. You cannot eliminate the bullies and unfortunately, most want them in the game if not for any other reason that the hero/villain paradigm. This is fine. But in your attempt to be more exciting, more thrilling, more dangerous, and more real to life, don’t forget that there are vastly more peoples out of prison than there are in. And they are the ones who pay the taxes!
Programmer, writer, and MMO enthusiast