I want to believe in EQ Next

In the jaded MMOsphere, dulled with years of falling subscriptions, shorter and shorter player lifespans (remember when we used to think calling a game a “three monther” was disparaging?) and a slow but certain move away from being virtual worlds to monetised gamification platforms, the announcement of a new PvE sandbox-style game backed by one of the main players in the business is always going to be a wake-up.

Many of the blogs I follow are projecting what they expect to see, or would want to see in the upcoming set of announcements at SOE Live tomorrow (2nd August).

One thing is for sure. EQ Next has the potential to shake up the hobby. The second thing that is for sure is that they won’t do that. Am I jaded? Maybe so. I want to briefly give some ideas for what I think they should do, and then some thoughts about what I think they will do.

How to do a successful PvE sandbox

I think there is a room in the market for a more accessible version of games like Wurm Online and Tale in the Desert. Minecraft shows how much people enjoy building and creating, and the incredible success of games like Sim City and Civ shows how much appetite there is for large simulations. And if the boom in social media shows anything, it is how much people enjoy creating and being part of communities. For a lot of people this could include a roleplaying aspect.

To make this work, EQ Next would need to take lessons from games like Glitch and Ultima Online as much as WoW. Instead of focussing on making a world to adventure in, make a world that people would want to (virtually) live in.

Keep direct PvP to a minimum. People don’t want to live in a warzone. And the ones who do already have games that cater to them, those players aren’t the people you need anyway. You need the settlers of the gaming world (consider this a new category alongside explorers, achievers, etc.) to inhabit your world and bring it to life.

There needs to be gameplay to keep things moving, but it can be based on a more simulation-type model. It needs a proper economic model also. Players enjoy ‘taming’ their local environment and building up their smallholdings but there are surely more interesting gameplay models with which to do this than either Farmville or “spreadsheets in space”. The players this game needs are not necessarily the achievers although there can be quests, instances and adventures for them as well. You don’t even need to encourage ‘grouping’ so much as ‘interacting’ and ‘organising’.

A sandbox needs, more than anything else, space. That means virtual space in the sense of large worlds to explore and exploit. But also space for players to carve out their own niches, explore different playing styles, think up different in-game projects to pursue, and space to step away from the levelling track.

Lore is an important part of building an immersive world, but SOE need to ditch the EQ lore. Or at least reboot it into something more coherent. No one is interested in the existing lore except the grognards, EQ2 was always a chaotic mess lorewise, and when the only thing people know about your main character is that she’s a blonde with big boobs, it’s time to start over.

What I think they will actually do

Given that the reveal is at SOE Live, they will hype up the Everquest/ EQ2 connection, which is probably not of huge interest to anyone who either didn’t play those games or didn’t like them.

I think the game will ultimately fail as a virtual world, under the pressure to monetise and to stick to tried and tested F2P mechanics (yes, they said they plan to stick with a P2P subscription model but I can’t see that happening). Expect to see lots of talk of high impact PvP, frequent world events, “a living world” (hint: the best way to have a living world is fill it with players) and some pretty screenshots.

But for all that, they have been saying a lot of interesting things in interviews about ditching the story. Maybe they will surprise me yet.

[Solving the Content Problem] Enter Sandbox

sandbox

andrewmalone @ flickr

This is the second in a series of posts about various attempts to solve ‘the content problem’ in MMOs.

A Sandbox MMO is a game where the devs create the gameworld/ sandbox, and then players jump in and do pretty much whatever they want with the tools they are given. It’s a very different style from the more guided themepark MMO where the game encourages people to play in a more directed way. Sandbox MMOs seem to be coming back into vogue, partly because of the content problem. EQ Next and Pathfinder are among two upcoming games which adhere to this design.

If we imagine a continuum between MMOs as virtual worlds/simulations and MMOs as games, then the sandbox falls squarely in the virtual world side of the equation.

A true sandbox game would have no NPCs at all, those roles would all be filled by players. So if players decided they wanted to give out quests, then you could have a quest based game. There would be no NPC vendors, you’d have to buy items from other players. If players decided that they wanted to PvP, you could have a PvP based game. But also, if players decided they wanted minimal PvP, to patrol the game with hardcore roaming bands of judges, and to implement their own system of crime and punishment to ‘punish’ PvPers (however they could do this within the bounds of the game) , then it could pretty much be a non PvP game. Different groups of players could run their own ‘mini states’ within the game.

Read that last paragraph and think about the possibilities.

In practice, game design pushes players strongly towards different sandbox playstyles. A game like EVE in which player corps can hold territory and gain economic advantage from doing so is going to encourage corps vs corps PvP, at least until the holding corps/alliances get so large and assertive that no one dares attack.

The way a sandbox game tackles the content problem is by encouraging players to create content for each other. (By content, I mean goals, organisations to join/oppose, and just ‘stuff to do’ in general.)

You may be thinking “but we have player run events and organisations in WoW too” which is true. Most MMOs have some sandbox elements, and it’s a core feature of the genre. But an actual sandbox game is going to have a different kind of feel for players, with more pressure on bored players to make their own amusement rather than waiting for the next patch.

Also, in a sandbox game, things in the game can change radically between one logon and the next depending on what player organisations have done in the meantime. You can’t plan your gameplay around dailies or raid lockouts, or you can try but other player actions might affect everything. It’s not actually necessary for a sandbox game to feature PvP, A Tale in the Desert is an example of a game that doesn’t do this. However, when devs talk about sandbox games, they often have PvP in mind.

Good Sides to the Sandbox

  • Sandbox games can have an incredible sense of meaningfulness and depth. Everything that happens, many of the things that exist in the game world,  are because another player/s caused it. Because of this, they attract a very invested fanbase.
  • In particular, they can offer a meaningful sense for PvP.
  • Sandbox games offer a lot of power to players, in terms of being able to direct and influence the game world.
  • Sandbox games encourage social play, you can simply accomplish more as part of a group than you can alone.
  • There is huge freedom in a true sandbox game for players to pick their own roles, playstyle, and goals. If you want to set up an in game business delivering in-game food to player groups in far off locations, you could do it. If you wanted to specialise in helping other player businesses advertise their goods and services, you could do that. If instead you want to be an adventurer and go fight dragons, you can do that. If you want to be a crafter, you could do that. None of these roles is more important than any other. There is no ‘right way’ to play a sandbox. However, you probably can’t do all of those things and will have to choose.
  • The ideal of the sandbox involves actual in game player run communities. Probably Second Life illustrates this better than EVE, simply by being a more diverse environment.
  • Sandbox games typically place a high value on player crafting as a way to let players a) drive the economy and b) contribute creatively.

Downsides to the Sandbox

  • Sandbox games need a certain amount of active players to really work (the actual number varies depending on the type of game and how it is designed). If the playerbase falls below this number, the sandbox pretty much fails.
  • Sandboxes are not always good simulations. This is for many reasons including 24/7 access (what does it mean if players from another timezone can wander in and destroy what you have built up while you and your guild are asleep?) and players in general finding it easier and more fun to cause havoc than try to keep the peace.
  • But a more focussed sandbox game (or a more varied one like Second Life) could try gatekeep for players who are already in agreement with the themes of the sandbox. For example, if someone wanted to run a sandbox based on RP in 18th century Paris, and monitored new players to check there were on board with that, you could probably minimise the griefers.
  • Sandbox games can be quite socially unstable, because they’re dependent on players. They don’t have the checks and balances that a themepark game does to keep the game fun for everyone. They are particularly subject to griefers.
  • On the other hand, Sandbox games can be socially way too stable. If a PvP game settles into a state where large player organisations own all the land and have minimal motivation to PvP, then a PvP minded player could find themselves with nothing to do.
  • Similarly, you can spend hours sitting around in game waiting for something to happen. Sandbox games can be very dull.
  • This all means that Sandbox games are tricky to set up and run.
  • Sandbox games are really susceptible to accusations of devs getting personally involved and tweaking things to favour their own characters. I don’t entirely know why this is but we used to see it a lot on MU*s too.

EQ Next to be “the largest sandbox MMO ever designed”

In 2010, SOE announced that they were working on a follow up to EQ2, code-named EQ Next. There was some muted excitement from Everquest fans, but after that we didn’t hear much about the project. Yesterday, John Smedley announced at SOE Live that they’d trashed their original design and now plan to bring EQ Next to market as a sandbox style MMO game.

I had been wondering whether Blizzard would end up taking this route with Titan (or going for a FPS MMO), as the trends simply aren’t towards large subscription MMOs and ‘more of the same’ isn’t going to cut it.

As it happens, with Planetside 2, SOE along with CCP’s Dust are both shaping up as good options for FPS MMO fans. And with this EQ Next announcement, suddenly a lot of old school MMO players will again be very very focused on what SOE is doing. I think this was a momentous announcement for them, it’s the day they became relevant again. And now Blizzard is on the back foot. Check out the link, there were quite a lot of announcements and statements about how they see the industry.

[Quote of the Day] The problem with player driven narratives

Who wants to hear the story of me following a trail of mithril ores until I got to a cypress tree, slaughtering drakes and wolves and polar bears along the way, until I found an orichalcum ore, yay, then I saw a rich mithril vein and had to figure out how to get to it, and it was guarded by a veteran something or order, and hey, there’s a cave there I never saw, so I went down it and saw stuff, and oooh, a chest, and oh darn, wasn’t I meant to be completing this zone, except by now the vista I was wandering to is somewhere southeast of here instead of northwest so I guess it’s time to head back in that direc…eep, a DE just exploded on me, ok, fightfightfight, and now this escort DE wants me to go that way (looks longingly at the vista)… oh screw it, the vista is always going to be there, trots off after the mass of people following the NPCs…

Jeromai (Why I Game)

Btw if you think this doesn’t happen in ‘pure’ sandbox games, consider that for a lot of sandbox players, this might be more interesting than their stories.

Life in the sandbox

A couple of posts cropped up on my RSS reader recently which throw some light on the reality of life in sandbox MMOs.

Stargrace posts about her struggles in Wurm Online, and Chris Smith@Levelcapped exudes a sense of achievement in finding somewhere to live in the same game. This is clearly a game for people who like the idea of needing complex multi stage processes to build even the simplest of items, not to mention needing constant help from the wiki/ community to help figure it out. I do keep meaning to try this one, but I’m also not sure I have the mental fortitude to make it through the first day and have to figure out how to feed myself in game.

There are also plenty of blog posts describing exciting times people have had in EVE, but this post from Syncaine describes, dare I say, a more typical evening of searching around  for fights that don’t happen. If you played WAR you may also remember some of the complaints about PvP often involving battlegroups searching for and taking unoccupied keeps rather than going for the full scale siege standoff.

This is because, as Syncaine mentions in comments on that post, part of the art of fighting in a sandbox game is making sure you’re in a winning position (ie. have a larger army et al) before you get into a fight at all. And finding an undefended target is simply smart target selection.

It is also the nature of sandbox games that you can’t predict exactly what will happen when you log in. You may have an activity planned that gets disrupted by something else that is going on in game. You may plan a night of sailing your fleet around Hispaniola in Pirates of the Burning Sea (I do have a soft spot for that game) but find that all the actual fights are going on somewhere else. The best way to actually guarantee you’ll get the action you prefer and on a timezone that suits you is to be in a leadership role.

I’m not entirely convinced that sandbox games can ever be more than a minority interest. And I say this as someone who has played and loved them, back in MUD/MUSH days. And unfortunately, people who like them are shy about mentioning the many downsides. They tend to strongly favour organised groups, there is often huge amounts of politics (I mean, to an extent that would dwarf guild drama in WoW), they strongly favour people with large amounts of time, or flexible playing schedules, there can be long extended periods of boredom and no guarantee that you’ll actually be around when the exciting stuff happens, and I’m not really sure if exciting stuff ever really happens in a game like Wurm. (I do still want to try it sometime, but … yeah.) They are also just as fraught with elitists as any other online game, and although some games make it easier for casual players to carve out a niche, you will have to pick your niche carefully.

Fact is, you probably have to work harder for your fun in a sandbox game and there’s no guarantee how much fun it’ll ever actually be. It takes a leap of faith to throw yourself into these things. I found it worthwhile when I was playing them, and I really treasure some of the memories of people I met and stuff we did in game.

So excuse me if I’m dubious about claims by SWTOR haters (and honestly, if you need to hate, why hate on a game that’s actually fun when there are a lot of easier targets?) that if it fails all that money could go into big budget sandbox games. Truth is, we still don’t know if a big budget (or small budget) sandbox game could have wide mass appeal (ie. a million players), we only know that no one has really succeeded in making one that could. At least, not with a virtual world attached. Unless you count social networks like Facebook, which may be the biggest sandbox of all.

But something tells me that Facebook #2 isn’t the kind of sandbox ‘game’ that the themepark haters are hoping for …

I think also about games like HSX (which I am still hooked on — it’s a sort of stock market simulation for upcoming films) which isn’t really a sandbox per se, but has that appeal of being able to research and use real life information into your gaming. eg. I made a pile of cash on Red Tails this weekend by effectively betting that it would do better at the US box office than players had predicted based on the HSX stock price. You may say “Yes but that’s a simulation, not a sandbox game,” but all successful sandbox games that I know of are also simulations. World simulations.

And that’s the curse of the genre as well as the blessing, because they’re full of players who don’t want to stick to any setting or  theme other than winning at all costs. (Did I mention that metagaming is also often rife?)

Questing is like cooking, more stressy the more people involved

I have been playing a bit of City of Heroes with my beloved this weekend (I’m only about level 5, but the revamped tutorial is pretty cool and I like that you can buy Fly as a power quite early on now.) You’d think this would be a joyful experience since we don’t get to play together very often, and even in WoW it was mostly during raid nights when we both got tapped for the raid. And mostly, it is! He loves the game, I’m curious to remind myself of it, we’re good to go.

And yet somehow, I get tired much more quickly when I’m questing alongside someone else than when I’m playing the levelling game on my own. This is true even when I’m questing with Arb in LOTRO, and she’s probably the most compatible person with me in the sense of playing style that I know.

So why is this? Is it just the constant need to make sure everyone’s on the same quest, everyone remembered to click the quest text, everyone had time to read the quest text, people staying together and not wandering off and getting lost, chatting (I don’t really think that’s stressful?), making sure everyone gets to go train up their stats when they level, etc?

I suspect that there’s something about questing per se that just seems to work better for single players. You can control the pace, can make your decisions intuitively without having to discuss them, can decide for yourself when you want to take a break.

If I look at games where I’ve really enjoyed levelling in duos or small groups, they were either in the past when I was just a more patient player and more interested in chat or RP, or else involved events like instances, PvP scenarios, skirmishes, rifts, or sandbox play (ie. taking our ships in Pirates of the Burning Sea and heading off for adventure). Even when experimenting with fixed groups, I think we found it easier when we had instance nights rather than actually all trying to quest together.

Anyone else find it more relaxing to level via quest when solo? I think in many ways, this is the genius of Diablo in that you can play through the whole thing either solo or in groups, depending on your goals.

Sailing off for ADVENTURE in a sandbox game

pirate_snow

This is my new ship in Pirates of the Burning Sea, under full sail, attempting to sail against the wind. I think after this shot was taken I was either in the process of turning or decided to tack  – ie. sail in zig zags – to get closer to the shallows.

She’s called ‘HMS Justifiable Homicide,’ a name which incidentally was too long to be used as a ship name in Star Trek Online. And as you can see in the picture, she’s flying British colours. Huzzah!

Despite this fact, we’re all setting terrible examples and ripping up the Caribbean attacking/ capturing any random object that gets in the way. So fairly historically accurate in that respect.

Although the game does have a full complement of quests, there are also plenty of other things to do which is where the sandbox aspect comes in. You have more freedom to decide what sort of role you’d like to play than in a game like WoW. If you want to be a crafter/ trader, you may occasionally need to run through a port blockade but you will never need to trade shots with anyone if you don’t want to. (And you’ll have access to fairly sturdy trade ships to help out.) You could also be a trader without crafting, specialising in hauling goods from one port to another so that you can buy low and sell high.  Or there is always piracy, faction combat, or trying to become the governer of a port.

In any case, I had a ton of fun with Sven and the Consoling Gamers crew last week. I love that you can just join up into a fleet, and  sail off looking for adventure (in the shape of thumbing your nose at the french fleets, attacking stupidly high level NPCs, baiting the PC pirates and other random encounters). It’s like Swallows and Amazons meets Pirates of the Caribbean!

And this is one of the really characteristic things of a sandbox game. No major restrictions on what you can do. If you want to be in a group with someone 30 levels lower and attack someone 20 levels higher, the game will let you do it and there may even be a non zero chance of success.

Things that I love about this game:

  • Naval combat. It’s always been the lynchpin of the game, and it’s beautifully put together. I think it plays better than STO combat because of the wind factors so if you enjoy that, try this.
  • It’s also a very pretty game, the graphics aren’t always all that but they put a lot of effort into the sailing and you can see your guys climb the rigging when you order them to put up the sails, and scurry around trying to repair cannons and decking when under attack.
  • Being allowed to attack high level enemies. In themepark games like WoW, there are often mechanics that mean you just can’t hit an enemy who is too far above you in level (mostly put in to stop kiting.) In a game like this, you can hit them. You might not do much damage but you can hit them.
  • I also love that a disparate bunch of players of different levels and experiences can go off and do something fun together in game.
  • I love that I find myself using words like ‘tack’ when I’m describing how I sail my ship in game.
  • Playing the Pirates of the Caribbean theme on youtube while we’re attacking stuff!