An Imperfect Sandbox

More or less on a lark, but probably more because I find myself very interested in space games at the moment, I fired up a new trial of EVE Online, really the only space game (note that I didn’t say “sci-fi game”) in the massive multiplayer space, with the exception of Black Prophecy, which closes its doors tomorrow.

I have sung EVE’s praises many times before, and I have also levied some mild criticism at it, ironically for falling down to some degree and in certain respects as a sandbox — at which it far outshines every other major MMO, and almost all of the smaller ones.

When we look back at the relatively brief history of MMOs we find early years littered with innovation and experiment, with titles like Ultima Online and Star Wars Galaxies and later EVE Online striving to realize multi-dimensional virtual worlds that one could inhabit. Then came 2005 and World of Warcraft and the influx of money and attention that redefined what an MMORPG is and ought to be. The modern diffuse definition includes many titles that MMORPG players in 2004 would have looked at in puzzlement. The idea of the shared virtual environment was washed away as developers — even Blizzard’s — thinking they’d isolated WoW’s streamlined environment as the reason for its success tried to copy it and failed.

If anyone asks “what ruined MMOs,” I’d call that a slanted question; MMORPGs weren’t ruined in any real way, they were redefined into something less narrow but also less immersive than what the genre was before. That doesn’t make any of the games that did it bad in any objective sense, it just puts them in a different category than the MMOs of the pre-WoW era.

But slanted or not, the question does have an answer: money. Money ruined MMOs, because money created the expectation than an MMO needs a million subscribers or more to be successful. That’s part of the reason why long-running games like EverQuest II or Age of Conan are thought of as busts, but also why there have been so many transparent attempts to copy whatever elements of the WoW model made it so popular and lucrative. Only relatively recently have we seen even slight movement away from that, with big titles like Guild Wars 2 and small ones like The Repopulation.

I submit that all those failures (whether that term is warranted or not,) lost sight of something important: back in the day before bungled gear inflation, a crippled economy and the overwhelming dominance of play at the level cap and in instances, Azeroth really was a pretty immersive virtual space. Not a perfect or perhaps even notable sandbox, but it still had emergent aspects of play, something slowly pruned away by Blizzard as it sought to micromanage every aspect of the player experience.

Even if it can be said that EVE is not a perfect sandbox (and I don’t think it is,) at least CCP understands that the emergent aspects of their game are something to be prized and encouraged rather than suboptimal parts of the framework. This may also be why EVE is a big as it is, and no larger — its the best game whose developers think this way, and there’s probably some practical cap on the audience of potential players who like this kind of thing. It’s got or is close to what is probably the largest audience attainable by a game dominated by emergent elements.

I think that this has a couple of ramifications. First, it means that we need to adjust our expectations, which is something that myself and lots of other people have mentioned before. But it also means that we need to create a new definition for this kind of game, since “MMORPG” has been rendered practically meaningless by the rise of multiplayer games that have little in common with the immersive virtual worlds of early titles. I have no idea what that new term might be, but it’s got to be defined in such a way as to include the generations of such games that are yet to come. Maybe the change will come by taking money almost entirely out of the equation by operating a game as a nonprofit, letting folks freely run private servers or open-sourcing its code outright. Maybe it will come with new blood in a wave of developers with vision and reasonable budgets and expectations.

Too, we need to ditch the sandbox vs. themepark dualism, which is grossly misleading and has never represented anything concrete, and start talking in terms of discrete options enabled through or by player action, or at least of the erasure of specific arbitrary limits thereon.

The era of the WoW clone is not yet dead — mark my words. But the end of the era in which anyone takes such a project seriously is probably close to over. It’s time for a New Era. We need to start narrating the beginning of that new era.

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3 responses to “An Imperfect Sandbox

  1. Nothing is perfect mate, that’s always going to be the case.

    But CCp seems hell-bent on continuing to explore the sandbox boundaries (and in true sandbox fashion, in the process, expanding them). The upcoming Dust 514, a cross-platform, cross-genre tie-in spin-off (they should trademark that mouthful of a term), is proof of that!

  2. Maybe it’s because I played DayZ before being immersed in EVE, that I am quite positive, that the EVE’s sandbox potential is far greater than how it’s being used now. And it seems to me, that the developers fright of “let it loose” makes the EVE much less entertaining, and less popular eventually, than it could possibly be.
    I can imagine much more reciprocal interactions between players, if the concord, as the omnipotent force, was just non-existent.
    I can imagine more scripting, thus able to make NPC’s less significant, or remove them entirely. Maybe you could make fleets of well scripted, AFK’s players – as police force, or pirates.
    And I may be as bold to say, that if EVE won’t do it, some other similar MMORPG will do it sooner or later, and that might be the end of the whole EVE universe as most of the mmorpgs’s, with their narrow-minded rules and restrictions.