Big-Budget Busts and the Sandbox Continuum

Bhagpuss has a nice piece expounding on what I said yesterday about content being more than just quests. He points out, quite rightfully, that EverQuest II has just the sort of content I talked about in its standout housing system. One might make the case that Star Wars Galaxies had (or has, if you like, for another few weeks,) the better implementation of housing because it was persistent out in the open world, but either way it’s a sterling example not only of non-quest (or quest-like) content, but of a sterling sandbox element in a nominally strictly PvE-oriented themepark game.

The truth is that any MMORPG is a sandbox to some extent, and the presence of this element largely determines the strength of the virtual world therein. That there are games commonly lumped into the MMORPG category with virtually no sandbox elements whatsoever (Guild Wars and D&D Online being good examples,) is a testament to the flabbiness of that term. A game like World of Warcraft, with its decent virtual world but weak (and weakening) sandbox elements is the exception that demonstrates the rule.

There’s nothing that says this has any bearing on popularity, of course. We have no reason to assume that sandbox titles in whatever genre appeal to the mass audience. Except, of course, for Minecraft. And for The Sims, the best-selling PC game of all time… by a lot. And in the MMORPG universe there’s EVE Online, sometimes #2 behind only WoW, which is a breakout success despite opaque systems, lack of avatars, a famously ruthless population and a history of developer blunders. No, no evidence anyone wants sandbox games at all.

Now, I think that an immersive virtual world shooting for Sims-level sales is is setting its sights really, really high. Targets that far into the stratosphere imply similarly stratospheric budgets, which is something I don’t especially favor. But you have EVE and SWG which were put together for peanuts, too, and more recent niche titles like Wurm Online and Darkfall that seem to be holding on and developing, too. Even the unambitious but polished-to-a-mirror-sheen Rift reportedly cost $50 million to develop. That’s a lot of money, but in my view Rift, while a fine game in many ways, fails to deliver the experience of a real virtual world. Utterly.

Where’s the money going? When you can make an EVE Online or a Star Wars Galaxies for what would be pocket change today, why aren’t we seeing the critical mass in small development efforts needed to toss out a few more titles that stretch the boundaries of the MMORPG? Well, a lot of it gets blown in the perceived need for “polish,” whatever that means. Is the Sims 3 polished? Mrs. Mengle will tell you that that unstable fucker has as many problems as any other piece of software she can name – including Vanguard. And it’s not even ambitious, it’s just an evolution of another game that was.

I suspect that the problem is that the investment capital that could have funded a dozen modestly budgeted games is going toward games like Star Wars: The Old Republic, which is almost certainly going to be a financial failure if it cost what we think it did to develop. You can produce a virtual world for far, far less. It might not be as “polished;” it may have bugs and it may not be fully realized at launch. But it could also give its players something that current titles don’t – and that, from where I’m sitting, potentially includes a great deal.


2 responses to “Big-Budget Busts and the Sandbox Continuum

  1. In some ways it makes more sense to add sandbox elements to themepark MMOs than to try and layer a themepark over a sandbox. I also think there is a useful distinction to be made between “content” (which includes systems such as housing and crafting) and “directed content” (quests, advancing storylines).