An Unpopular Sandbox

It’s been a long while since something Tobold write inspired me to write a post of my own, but we have one today. Tobold’s point is that sandbox MMOs tend to be less popular than themepark MMOs. This is correct as far as it goes, but drawing that conclusion from the facts available ignores an elephant in the room.

The point that gets missed a lot in these kinds of discussions is that “PvE” is not incompatible with “sandbox”. Tobold points to the oft-repeated data point that 80% of EVE players stay mostly or exclusively in Empire. But that doesn’t mean that they aren’t doing sandbox-type stuff, it just means they’re not dabbling in EVE’s version of FFA PvP. The themepark in EVE is more or less limited to mission-running, which, while an important part of the game, is scarcely the whole of what’s available, even in Empire. I would venture to say that very few Empire-based players stick exclusively to missions, while just as many never much fool with missions at all, and most such players mix mission-running with other stuff such as mining, research, industry, trading, or even PvP – remember that corp wars allow for PvP in Empire, and there’s also factional warfare to consider, although I don’t have a good grasp of just how popular that may be now.

Sandbox games are less popular than themepark games, but observing the fact does not imply a general rule that this must therefore be the case. Indeed, such a conclusion ignores the biggest and most visible single element in the hobby – World of Warcraft.

There’s general agreement that the MMOs of the generation before WoW were better sandboxes than those that came later. The reason is obvious, and that’s WoW itself. It accrued huge success, but is that success because it’s less of a sandbox? Even bearing in mind that WoW, as themepark-oriented as it is, still has some sandbox elements left? I would argue that WoW, as bitter as many of us might feel toward it, has a whole lot more going for it than just its themepark nature – good controls, a sense of humor, a big mostly seamless world, good writing, vivid art design… I could go on. I think it’s both a tremendous stretch and very superficial to say that WoW is popular because it’s a themepark.

Certainly, the perception is there, fueled by WoW’s very success. Other developers, chasing the WoW money with big-budget titles, stick to the proven formula. Sandbox games may be innately less appealing to a broad audience, but we wouldn’t know, because nobody is even trying. The only developers pushing the sandbox envelope are rinky-dink little indie houses whose games have little chance of even middling popularity anyway. It’s a false causality.

Scripted Content and the Pace of Development

Some of the talk surrounding the new LotRO expanions Rise of Isengard is uncharacteristic (for that community) grousing about the interminable wait between now and then – the expansion is not scheduled until fall of next year, about 10-12 months from now. Current endgame players are asking the question of what they’ll do between now and then.

It’s legitimate to want new content, of course. But I wonder why some people have seen the projected date and instantly jumped to the conclusion that there will be no new content between now and then, when Turbine has talked all over the place about stuff that will be showing up in the meantime, including new stuff for free players and new endgame raids and instances, especially when a 12-month period utterly without new released content would be unprecedented in the development history of the game to date.

One sees the same thing elsewhere, but it’s particularly striking in LotRO, one of the hobby’s most regularly updated and expanded games. Never mind that the last expansion was pretty small (it was,) or that the conversion to a new money model ate development resources over the last year that would have otherwise gone into more new content than we actually got.

So, has there been enough new content to keep everyone happy? Of course not. But that’s never going to happen anyway, because some players (often the more vocal) will rush through new stuff intended to be worked through over the course of months in weeks or days. I understand that these folks want new content too, but I submit that the notion that content must be forced out to accommodate the fastest-moving players results from two things: an overdeveloped sense of entitlement on the part of a vocal minority of players, and a reliance on scripted content that by its very nature consumes developer effort and never gets done at a pace that speedy players are happy with.

I like scripted content as much as the next guy, and think that LotRO in particular has some of the best scripted content in the hobby. Overall, though, the trend in development of AAA titles has been on more and more heavily scripted content and less on mechanisms to provide opportunity for emergent gameplay. Indeed, the big-budget titles on the horizon, namely Star Wars; The Old Republic and Guild Wars 2, look to be built entirely around this kind of content and I have little faith that the potential for unscripted play will feature much in either game. Indeed, the preplanned quests and storylines in SWTOR seem so elaborate that I foresee either mass exoduses (exodi?) of players bored by going through the same old stuff, even if there’s a lot of it to start with, or an unbearable drain on resources during post-launch development, as the team struggles to keep up with the pace of players.

This is a bit less clear in the case of Rift: Planes of Telara, which is a game that appears to have a budget an order of magnitude smaller than SWTOR or GW2. Both Rift and GW2 are incorporating some variety of “dynamic events,” which in the latter case look to be entirely scripted in the manner of the Public Quests in Warhammer Online. Rift’s events seem less scripted right now, but that could be marketing spin for all I know.

Like I said, I’m in favor of scripted content but I think that MMO’s need the potential for emergent content too, and this is something that seems in many high-profile titles to be missing. Players unhappy with the pace of scripted content releases should be aware of this issue. If they’re unhappy with that, I’d suggest playing games that rely less upon the pace of development, but unfortunately there are few of them, and only one high-profile title, EVE Online.