June 6, 2013

The Qualities of a Sandbox MMO

Hello out there, I know it has been a while since I’ve written anything and for all the readers I might have, I do apologize. Had mostly family things come up, namely dealing with the fact my father getting sick and passing away, which I think many could understand would have an impact on anything I could write about. It’s been tough the past few weeks, and I miss him terribly, but I should at least look at things to try and keep my mind busy.

Anyways, not trying to bring anyone down and certainly don’t want to make this some sort of depressing rag about my life, so I decided to work on a topic I touch on a lot but I guess I never really describe at heart; what defines a sandbox game. This is something I feel that has been lost in the past few years, as the lines, for whatever reason, have become murky and ill defined, mostly because of preconceived notions created thanks mostly in part to World of Warcraft pretty much becoming the definitive MMO in the mindset of everyone out there. For an insight into where I am aiming at in this blog, I suggest watching MrBtongue’s YouTube episode (Un-Ruining the MMO) on this very subject. It’s definitely entertaining but hits all the right notes on exactly what I am discussing.

Needless to say, what defines a sandbox game, something MMOs were before, as MrBtongue would say, WoW ruined everything, is actually fairly easy to define. The problem is that people believe, falsely, that these elements exist in the modern MMO, but they don’t. The parlor trick of the modern MMO is cleverly, or not so cleverly, designed to forcefully direct players on a set path. Some developers go that extra mile by providing a secondary path towards to disguise the convergence, but the end result is the same. You are destined to go from point A to point B along this road and deviation from this path is not only frowned upon, it is highly discouraged, and in some instances, illegal to the point attempting to change your course could even result in penalties against your account.

Now, let me try and define what makes a sandbox game;

Number One: Freedom. This doesn’t just relate to freedom to create the character you want, though in reality, people have actually been tricked into believing that the carefully structured character classes in the modern MMO is freedom to build the character they want. This is both a lie and false advertising on many levels. But more on that later. Freedom implies that once I log in, get my bearings and figure out what in the hell is going on in this game world, I can sod off and do whatever I want. The modern MMO frowns upon this heavily doing everything it can from allowing us this freedom, such as, but not limited to, level gating content, restricting access to areas, and dead-ending experience gain from critters and other objectives so much that we are almost forcefully compelled to do the quests that the developers have created for us.

While people will make up excuses that this isn’t true, and pointing out outlying instances of people doing such and such to reach max level in a game (namely WoW) this is again, an outlying instance and proves the point excrutiatingly well. It was possible, but the player in question not only was inefficient about level gaining, but the time it took them to reach max level was many times longer than anyone just doing the set path. In past MMOs, a player was not required to do the quests, they were fun little activities as an aside and even gave a micro goal into the normal set of grinding, but players were free to choose whether they wanted that goal to kill wolves, or if they just wanted to kill wolves on their own without some NPC telling them to do it.

However, now the attempt to kill wolves without a quest is so highly frowned upon that the experience to advance your character required is dramatically lower. Developers do everything in their power to make sure that players follow the set path, even putting artificial barriers that the player doesn’t perceive consciously, but their subconscious can see. This gating even extends to exploring, though people may not realize it as the terrain is carefully constructed to guide players on the set path. In fact, it’s well known that if players find ways off the path, though developers will jokingly claim they love it when players do that, many actually do not and such methods tend to get fixed or altered so it’s not possible to do anymore. In short, if developers loved when players find things like these, they would not be so quick to alter them so players could not do them anymore.

Of course, this freedom also extends to how you want to play to. The current MMO thinking is everyone wants to be some heroic knight, or flame wielding wizard type to get anywhere. The truth of the matter is, no, they don’t. Now, I won’t disagree that the heroic knight is probably the first thing many people think of when they start playing this game, but as time goes on, people start gravitating towards what they really like to do. You can’t achieve this is a structured class system, of course. For instance, in my case, I want to craft. I want to make things and be useful that way to the game as a whole. But I can’t do that because most of the modern MMOs not only make crafting fundamentally useless because a crafters gear can’t keep up with loot off of critters, but because I can’t level my crafting unless I become an adventurer anyways, defeating the whole purpose of a crafting system to begin with.

For other people the freedom to explore is what they are after. But like I stated previously, MMOs are being “cleverly” designed (I am using the term loosely) to funnel people in a specific direction. Exploration itself is actually frowned upon by developers if you go outside of their defined parameters. While people, again, will claim this isn’t true you don’t have to look far to see that this isn’t the case. Areas are specifically level gated, you need prerequisite gear and items to compete, and any attempt to jump over that cliff is often met with an invisible barrier that doesn’t allow such things and glitching the terrain to do so can actually get you in trouble.

Even the quests now are being designed that way. While people believe The Old Republic gives you RP freedom, it robs you of that. No matter your choice or desire, the outcome is always the same at the end. There is no real deviation from that course other than a few differences in dialog. This is the furthest from freedom, and this cinematic experience actually kills the whole world within a world aspect of the game. RP itself has been hopelessly destroyed because the very identity of the characters we wanted to create was completely removed and taken out of our hands. You have to follow the set path, by design, and any deviation from that not only penalizes your character, it may even restrict you from unlocking your characters full potential. And nowhere else can you see swift changes to a game because players attempted to deviate from that norm.

Take in stark contrast Skyrim. Now I know for some people that loved their Morrowind, this game is an abomination, for some reason, but let’s be factual; Skyrim is a sandbox game, only one step short of being an MMO. While at the beginning of the game we are given an objective that says go do this, we can basically say sod off and do anything else we feel like from that point onward. In stark contrast, TESO will not allow for this, as it is very purposely being linearly designed. A leveling treadmill is in place and players are expected to follow a set path. Yea, I’ve seen the leaked beta footage, and while graphics and such may get cleaned up, the core gameplay won’t change much from this, and since the emphasis, much like TOR, was on that personal story, you can bet your last dollar TESO is going to be yet another Theme Park in a long list of Theme Parks.

Number Two: Bigger is not Better: Another thing that makes the sandbox different from the theme park MMO is the inherent balance that is already within the system and the fact that people can equalize themselves to match the others within the system. Skill is actually the name of the game, not the gear worn. While gear is useful, and helpful in cases, it is not the end all be all of the gaming experience. This is not true in a theme park game, especially one following the WoW formula, whereas levels get higher, the gear has to progressively get better. The idea is that bigger numbers and bigger stats are always better. The skill of the player, while it can be a factor, is often only a small portion of that result. A very skilled player will more often than not, be beaten by a below average player who is better geared and equipped than they are.

This is also the case based on the class system these games often force down specific paths to. Like it or not, while some people will claim otherwise, there is always going to be a class that is easy mode in these systems for a specific thing. They tend to pump out tons of damage, and strangely enough have tons of defensive measures to boot to make sure they continue to deliver that damage. Nothing about this requires any actual skill to deliver, contrary to what many WoW rogues or TOR snipers might claim, because it is the easiest thing to do and a subpar player can do it without worry or consequence. If it actually required a lot of skill to do, players would not gravitate towards it so much, especially in the PvP environment. This is not to say that a person skilled in the class wouldn’t be deadly, they would be, but the application of skill required is less than that of another class.

In a sandbox game, gear is not a major factor and in fact player skill is the deciding factor in a long run. A player who just mashes buttons will find them increasingly outclassed by people who actually know when the best time to use their moves is and planning accordingly, instead of just blowing their entire wad in the first few seconds of combat. Timing is key, and gear is only a distant second fiddle to this. The same stun locking, button smashing rogue trying that in a game based on skill and tactics would find they are severely outclassed by players that actually understand timing and the fundamental rules of the game, and would turn the tide quickly on the rogue.

But in the end, in this type of system, dungeon loot is de-emphasized and crafted loot becomes the big prize. Though there will be things that dungeons would be required for, they would not be the end all be all of the game, left in the hands of those daring enough to traverse them for the materials for crafters, or explorers who think the risk is worth the reward. In basic, a player economy, and thus a community, is born because of this, and player loyalty is actually rewarded instead of punished.

Number Three: An Open World: This is similar to number one, but basically in a sandbox game, the world is open. It’s explorable, there is no corner you can’t go to to see what is In that nook or cranny, no invisible barrier blocking your progress, no level gating, the only thing determining your fate is your skill and your own wits to survive. Your death is determined either by your own hubris or stupidity. But this open world is not limited to just exploration, nope it also includes PvP.

The modern MMO has done a lot to try and push PvP out of the public eye of players, forcing the PvPers into carefully controlled arenas for their matches or shoving them into specific lake areas. Of course, the reason for this is because player killers (aka PKs) never really had a punishment that fit their crime before in games. But then again, many of the early attempts made the mistake of giving them too much freedom without any reprisals to be had. The worst that would happen is a PK couldn’t get into a town, but that was easily countered by alts or friends.

While it’s been instilled into the head of modern gamers that PvP is somehow evil, the truth of the matter is that it’s not. The same PvP jerks that talk smack are still talking smack in PvE. The difference now is that you’ve given them the power to do so and no one can reprise against them. What’s even funnier, most of the people that claim they hate smack talking in PvP are the people that do the smack talking, and generally acting like an ass most of the time. In short, hypocrites.

All in all, the world of an MMO needs to be open. It needs to be open to exploration, it needs to be open to conflict, because that is what drives RP and story (sorry bar people, it’s true) and it needs to be open to the fact players don’t want to follow your set path.

These are my basic points of a sandbox MMO. Now I know this is only a small list, there is a lot more I know, but this article is already getting long and I feel it’s time to stop padding and start letting people read. I don’t know when I will put up a new blog, as I said I am currently still dealing with my father passing away, but hopefully it won’t be two months again before I do. Until then, take care and I hope people start inspiring developers to make sandbox games.

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