The great contribution of MMOs to video gaming has been the persistent online world. In games like Ultima Online and Star Wars Galaxies it was a place you could inhabit and even make a tangible impact upon. It was a place you could inhabit along with other people, and immerse yourself in. Exploring that shared virtual space and slowly learning what you could do within it was part of the fun. Raph Koster has called this a dream to big to die. MMO talkers tend to call it a “sandbox.” It has nothing to do with quests or programmed content, although instancing tends to erode it. It’s defined by the lack of limits and linearity and not by the inclusion of any particular feature.
Let’s take the standout sandbox example of pre-NGE Star Wars Galaxies on a little thought experiment, possibly only meaningful to those who played it back in the day or who at the very least have studied it. Take that game and add an elaborate quest structure, while changing no other elements. Is it then less of a sandbox? You’re not even adding linearity to a game with no levels and endlessly recombinable professions, although you add structure by chaining the quests. You may be adding a themepark veneer, but you’re not undermining the sandbox in so doing. If you have the ability to hop on and off the railroad at any time, possible taking other trains with different destinations or simply striking out on your own, it’s not even linearity; you’re just adding a framework to inhabit when you don’t have your own goals. But you still retain the ability to set them, instead of letting developers do it for you.
World of Warcraft in the release era was somewhat close to this. You had a somewhat sandboxy open world with a smallish number of instances and an elaborate array of quests laid on top of it. Progression largely meant leveling, but there were other routes as well, and this only broke down as the nexus of gameplay shifted to the level cap. As the game aged, “unintended gameplay” was chiseled out, giving players less and less to do aside from the intended means of progression. Fast leveling ensured that the bloat at the cap would only get worse. Easily-accessible documentation of optimal lines of progression sped this up even more as new players came in and did some research. Eventually any pretense at making the sub-cap game at all interesting went away, cementing the flow of gameplay into a single optimized path that players could rocket down and reach the cap in a short time, where they would then endlessly grind the same static instances over and over – content which becomes unplayed and almost valueless once the cap moves forward.
The problem, then, is developers setting themselves up for failure through the focus on a designated progression path and the erosion of other paths – possibly to the point of never including them in the game at all. Because WoW did it this way and remains the most popular MMO, other developers working on new games follow the same trajectory, to the point of taking great care to clear away any avenue other than a single optimal one that they then must manage for the duration of the game’s life – and never, ever managing to keep pace with the players in clearing content that, once you’re completed it, it’s over. They’re trying to beat WoW at its own game, for which Blizzard has set the rules. None of them has succeeded, and none of them will, although there’s money to be made in playing second fiddle to WoW, as Rift is doing now and as Star Wars: The Old Republic is poised to do by late December.
The stock counterexample is EVE Online, which isn’t a perfect sandbox by any means and has certainly had its share of problems. But CCP has always focused their development efforts on opening up new avenues of gameplay rather than closing them off or simply picking a preferred one and extending it ad nauseam. It started out small but has built a substantial and rock-solid following that even colossal blunders like Monoclegate couldn’t seriously damage. It’s built its own consumer base rather than trying to poach WoW’s. And it didn’t cost $200 million (SWTOR) or even $50 million (Rift) to make. Those huge budgets are a trap, because they come with inflated investor expectations of revenue and an aversion to risk.
To me, a better way is first of all to start with a reasonable budget and very modest expectations, and work from there. Second, to focus on the world, its rules and the ways that they interact with players. Give players a good start and let them find their own fun from there, and then develop those avenues while adding new ones and avoiding “improvements” that limit player choice and impact. The players are the heroes, not Thrall or Antonia Bayle; they should have the greatest impact on the world, not the NPCs. Make the world dynamic and let community involvement shape it. Don’t force developers to try to outpace player consumption of static content.
There are of course a handful of sandbox MMOs around, but very few that I’d call fully baked. I’m hoping that The Repopulation will prove to be one of these, and there’s probably still some hope for ArcheAge. I know I’m not alone in wanting to see someone pick up the banner dropped by SWG in 2005.