Saturday, January 9, 2010

MMO sandboxes

This post over at Bullet Points reminded me of one of my major peeves with MMOs as a genre.

Sandbox MMOs tend to suck.

I certainly don't mean that they suck in some objective sense. EVE is doing pretty well after all, some 300K players find enjoyment there. Pre-NGE SWG obviously had a very passionate following. And UO is nearly the longest running sub based MMO, only Meridion is older as far as I know.

I simply mean that to my particular tastes, sandbox MMOs tend to fall far short of what they could be. Offline, sandboxes like GTA and Fallout are among my favorite games. You'd think something like that, but online and multiplayer, would be "the ultimate game." The problem is that designers of online sandbox MMOs seem to care more about systems than immersion.

To give you an idea of where I'm coming from, here are two experiences I have had with sandboxes (out of at least a dozen I've played, online and off).

Star Wars Galaxies, pre NGE: I logged in and went through short tutorials that showed me how to walk around and equip a weapon. After that, I was given no guidance at all. I found myself in some random town in a big ass desert. I wandered around, and found a bar. There were a lot of PCs playing music and dancing, which was at least interesting. After that, lacking any clear motivation save to "get more butch" I headed out into the desert and killed stuff. I did indeed get more butch, but there seemed little point to it. With no idea at all of what I was working towards or why, I didn't have a lot of motivation to continue. Certainly, in my time there I didn't encounter any content that was fun enough to become an end in of itself.

The Elder Scrolls, Morrowind: I awake from strange and disturbing dreams, a prisoner on a ship. The guards direct me off the ship. Several insult me as I pass, but the guard on the isle of Morrowind seems kind enough. He leads me to a building where I design my character through a series of conversations. I am also told a small part of why I was captured, and why my life has been spared. To learn more there is an NPC in a nearby town I must talk to.

I head off into the jungle in the direction of the town with little idea of what I will find. On the way, I encounter a door leading to a cave...inside, bandits. An hour later, the treasure once held by bandit corpses in my sack, I continue on my journey.

I arrive in the town and find my contact. He talks of the Emperor and of three great houses. The Emperor himself spared my life it seems. To repay him I must serve as his agent. I am told to curry favor with one of the local factions. Earn the trust of mages, thieves, or sellswords; it make no difference.

So the mages. I wish to learn the secrets of true power. What is the power of steel or shadows compared to the power to bend the laws of the world? The elders of the mages guild send me on many errands, but I am more than equal to any task I am set.

One task sends me to the house of an old woman. I have been collecting books, and she has many shelves. When my duty is completed, I set her to screaming by blade and fire. Her corpse cooling, I shelve my books. Her home becomes mine.

After many tasks (and more slaughter), I become master of the mage's guild. Those who once sneered are now obsequious. I have free access to the mage's teleportals (which span the isle), and have learned all the spells known to men or spirits. More importantly, spells unknown I can create. I can even imbue these witcheries into inanimate objects. A two-handed sword named "Soulstealer" I imbue with the power to drain the life of my foes and add it to my essence. Even demons from beyond the mortal circle fall before it quickly enough. No foe can face me and live.

Flushed with pride at my success, I go back to my contact. He sets me another task and . . . . I butcher him where he stands. Be he the agent of the Emperor or god, it matters not. I control my own fate. In time I come to lead one of the three great houses.


The above comparison might seem unfair. But it pretty accurately reflects what was going through my mind as I played each game. One game dumped me into a world a with crap ton of deep systems and no guidance save "Go forth and prosper!" Another dumped me into a game with equally deep systems, but gave me a lot of scripted content to interact with (or not) if I felt like it. That scripted content was absolutely essential to helping me connect to the world that the game designers envisioned.

In a comment to one of my other posts Anjin put it really well. To paraphrase, to be fun a game has to be a game first and a simulator second. The designers off offline sandboxes (the GTA series, the Elder Scrolls series, the Fallout series, Crackdown, ect.) seem to get that. MMO sandbox designers so far apparently don't.


  1. Word of warning: I'm about to name check EVE here. I apologize in advance.

    The reason I think EVE has been so successful as a sandbox has more to do with the players than the game itself. The players offer so much guidance, both in and out of game, that you at least have some expectation about the accepted way to play the game. Reading Tipa's posts about EVE, she is constantly referring to out of the game resources to guide her decision-making.

  2. I agree with Anjin on EVE.

    I would have to agree with you Yeebo. Even though I played a ton of SWG back in the good old days, my gaming tastes have changed since.

    I think this line in your post sums it up well; 'With no idea at all of what I was working towards or why, I didn't have a lot of motivation to continue'.

    I think that Fallen Earth is a great example of a sandbox MMO done really well, but I still had that lack of motivation feeling when I played.

  3. What I would like to see is a game that is a bit of both. Guild Wars has a little bit of that - a strong story to guide you and keep you going in the game; learning and experiencing a lot of things. After that (or during, as long as you reached the max level - which is quick) many different areas to explore in any order or pace you want.

    Guild Wars is less of a sandbox "world" through with its heavy instancing, but could perhaps be seen as something in between a regular MMO world and a single-player game.

    I loved playing SWG when it first released and tried a number of different skill paths; eventually I stuck with master ranger/master creature handler. Travelling to various places and searching for rare animals to catch and raise, as well as hunting for hides etc to sell was quite fun.

    SWG was too much grind though IMHO. Even a number of the patches/updates before NGE destroyed the game IMHO, starting with player-created cities. Instead of thriving city areas around some of the already existing cities and villages it created a bunch of suburbia cities/areas - most of them empty of life.

    NGE certainly destroyed what was left of the sandbox game/world, but it was already going downhill IMHO.

  4. @Anjin: I've never tried EVE, it's long been on my list of things to do. However, I suspect that you are correct.

    @Jaydub: it's good to hear you say that. I'm glad my point came across without making me sound like an asshat. I wish that I had more patience with SWG when I tried it. From what I've read there were some really interesting systems in the pre-NGE days that I never explored.

    @Adingworld: I completely agree. The first developer to give me a sandbox MMO with interesting stories embedded in it is going to get a lot of my cash.