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?)

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17 thoughts on “Life in the sandbox

  1. Ah, Pirates of the Burning Sea… I got all nostalgic after a bit of fleet action in Star Trek Online, patched PotBS back up and hopped in for a quick look… found the port I’d left my character in was under siege by the Spanish, logged back out and fired up The Old Republic. Rather proves your point, I guess. Still, I’d like to try and get back to it sometime, maybe after hitting 50 in SWTOR.

  2. Yeah, sandbox games are really an acquired taste for all the reasons you listed. While a “game” like Wurm has a whole lot of downtime, that’s part of the appeal: it can be a calming experience if you want to look to an online “game” for that kind of fulfillment.

    But I think the big draw of sandbox titles is that people want to make their own way and affect the world through their actions. It may not be entirely direct, like in EVE where a lot of the influence is through action and not alteration, but in Wurm you could cut down or create an entire forest, flatten a mountain, and re-shape the landscape. It’s just a flip-side of a guided tour that theme park MMOs offer…not better, just different.

  3. Sandboxes run into problems with latecomers. I was going to try Wurm, but after wandering all over trying to find land that wasn’t claimed, I eventually bled to death from a rat. I’d have appreciated some sort of in-game tool that could show low-population areas. Or I could have started playing a lot sooner and there might still be land.

    Joining a Minecraft server can have the same problem. On the one hand, you want to settle near the other players, since otherwise, what’s the point of multiplayer, but then you run the risk of the local minerals being mined out. Thankfully, it makes very big worlds, so the worst case scenario is a bit more running farther or digging deeper.

    • The same applies to Eve as well. Missionrunning scales infinitely, but asteroids and NPC enemies are a (time)limited resource. You can move to more remote areas of the galaxy to get some, but the further you go the more you need to pay attention to logistics. Unfortunately, solving said logistical issues is less fun than it is in Minecraft.

  4. The funny thing is, to me a game like Wurm doesn’t even have to be an MMO. I’d love to run a ‘private shard’ of Wurm for myself and a few friends.

    Back in olden times there was a ‘persistent world’ mod for Never Winter Nights called Nordock (iirc). It had all kinds of sandboxy things going on, primarily a crafting system with respawning/regrowing nodes/trees and stuff.

    We had maybe 20-25 players total but it was a ton of fun since we were all friends and working together.

    I guess not so interesting for fans of PvP though.

    • I’d be on board for that sort of small scale local server. Seems like a logical extension of the design, really. Minecraft certainly benefits from it.

  5. Dammit all, Spinks. Here I was, on the very verge of jumping into EVE to finally try it out…then you have to go and deliver a well-worded warning about how much endurance and patience it may take to find the fun in a sandbox-style game.

    What Mika says really resonates with me; solving logistical issues in Minecraft can be a great deal of fun…and I was hoping the same was true for EVE.

    Don’t get me wrong; I may still try. I admit I am a bit leery.

    • As someone who’s a relatively new EVE player (5 months or so), here is some advice:

      You have to really, really want to play and learn EVE. This is not something a player can casually bump into and wonder, “what’s all these spaceships about?” It won’t stick. I’ve gone through 3 trials before I finally managed to subscribe. If you are not willing to put in some serious study to understand the complexity of EVE, it’s not gonna work.

      But that isn’t saying that you must spend 20 hours a day logged in. The way I framed my newbie journey was that the EVE client is only a window into this vast system and a way to experience that system. I have never thought about a game as much as I’ve thought about EVE, yet I only log in a couple hours a night, sometimes only briefly to update my skill queue.

      PvP is where this game really shines. The PvE, industry, and economy are all really rich and should not be discounted, but I have never experienced anything as thrilling as EVE PvP in a video game. PvP becomes the reason to do those other things (make money). You will acquire the deepest appreciation for EVE’s combat mechanics and theorycraft in the PvP realm. And please do not judge EVE’s combat on Missions against NPC mobs.

      While there are seemingly uneventful play sessions, that does not mean they are unexciting. Life in low sec puts me constantly on edge. And even though I may spend a night roaming around but not finding any fights, doesn’t mean time was wasted or boring. Hunting pilots is good fun even if you never catch them. Seeing a new person in local gets me excited: you never know what another human is going to do or what their motivations are.

      Some time during your trial, go to low sec and die. Warp to an asteroid belt, wait for someone to show up, and fight. Your heart will be racing the entire time, and you will fall in love. Then EVE becomes the chase for that feeling.

    • I’d say go and try it and see for yourself :) And if you find yourself feeling bored/ frustrated at all, check out the corps recruitment threads (or however people find guilds in EVE) since chances are you’ll do better at whatever your goals are if you join a likeminded group on the same timezone.

      My experience is that there’s always been a strong dose of luck involved in whether I took to a sandbox game or not, and that’s mostly around whether you bump into people you want to play with.

      • Corp recruitment threads, in game Recruitment channel,in game chat and Menu > Social > Corp > Recruitment > Search tool in game.

        Never pay anyone to join their corp, it’s a scam, you won’t get in if you pay them (no one wants to recruit idiots).

  6. I think sandbox games have more risk and reward when it comes to finding the fun. The best fun I’ve had in an MMO, by far, was some of the epic battles in DAoC… but in two and a half years playing that game, the number of incidents of purest awesome could be counted on the fingers of one hand. There were a lot more moments of ‘damn good fun’ – but I’ve had as much fun in a good instance run or battleground fight in WoW, Rift or TOR. And the downside is that I had evenings in DAoC and SWG where I would log on, spend a couple of hours trying to find something interesting going on or a decent group, and end up logging off to go watch a DVD.

    With a theme park game, you get a safe option, because there’s stuff provided for you to do that is (or should be) fun. Maybe there’s no chance of getting anything that’s as epic a high as the siege of Bledmeer Faste, but it guarantees that you don’t get the lows either. And after a day at work and the girls are in bed, I want to spend my couple of hours or leisure time doiung something that’s fun – not rolling the dice on whether I get boring, fun or (rare chance) epic.

  7. Good blog and a lot of good commentary, but I can’t shake the feeling that the best talent in the business doesn’t really try its arm at sandbox games because it’s not where the money is to be made.

    It’s a risky tactic, one that has very little guarantee of paying off, and will probably never have the same potential as a themepark title.

    That said, I’d love to see it tried.

    I really would.

  8. I agree with Zellviren. That’s one thing the sandbox lovers/SWTOR haters won’t acknowledge. No one’s going to sink 200 mil into a format that isn’t proven sufficiently. As much as I love it, EVE is not proven (enough). It took 5+ years to reach its current subscriber level (based on the numbers given with the ‘Unholy Rage’ devblog), which is about a third of what a studio would shoot for with a big budget title. Anyone who played EVE when it was in beta or shortly after release (which I did, playing hooky from Earth & Beyond), would have a very different perspective. EVE is a great example of a game that grew itself organically. It’s a testament to the fact that you don’t need a million players on day one in order to be successful. Build it (right) and they will come. But that is the exact opposite of what studios with the wherewithal to spend $100 million plus on a single title are looking for.

    I would love to see a sandbox MMO developed with significant depth (which will take time) and a wealth of the better systems that exist currently. But assuming that title went into development today, it wouldn’t release until 2015 or so (and that’s being optimistic) and this genre could have changed drastically by then. You can’t slap together a good sandbox game like you can a themepark (and by ‘good’, I mean the objective ‘a lot of people will pay you money to play it’ definition). Ryzom exists, but it’s lacking the depth associated with high quality sandboxes.

    I am clamoring for a good to great sandbox too, but there are more cons to doing it “big” than pros.

  9. I really enjoy your blog, thanks for all the work you put into it.

    This is a really interesting topic and is obviously being debated alot these days in MMO communities. I think at the heart of the matter is the risk vs. reward aspect as mentioned earlier, and its affect on meaningful game play and in game community. As someone who started in the unforgiving world of EQ1, i found the novelty of WoW and EQ2 risk free game play, and solo-able content refreshing for quite some time. But over the years the experience has grown to be hollow, and unrewarding.

    I found EVE about 4 years ago. It took along time for it to stick. I’ve unsubbed about 4 times, but i keep coming back. There is something about EVE that is so unique. Being a part of a truly massive cohesive virtual world got under my skin, and left me wanting. It left me wanting to reach the true potential of the game, which at first is illusory and evasive. The game is so complex, with so many different means to the same end. And its a truly harsh and unforgiving place. Its a world were the clever and daring are rewarded. Where the strong do as they will, and the week suffer as they must. The highs are unbelievable, and the lows can be downright sickening. Achievement in EVE is so rewarding, because if your not careful, can can lose it all. Its not simply about grinding raids until you have ever best in slot, and then waiting for next xpac and doing it all again. And after experiencing the freedom of game play, i dont think ill ever be able to enjoy the on rails and restrictive aspects of theme parks. EVE definitely isnt for everyone. But for those seeking challenge and a cohesive virtual world its the top of the mountain. Beware though, the game does not hold your hand and climbing the mountain is very daunting and can be quite painful. But once you reach the summit, the view breathtaking.

    I really hope another daring studio will be able to capture the magic of EVE in a fantasy setting. Fingers crossed for pathfinder online.

  10. “The game is so complex, with so many different means to the same end.”

    That’s the definition of depth, something that’s been shoehorned out of MMO’s in the larger sense. If your WoW character is weak, the only solution to that problem is raiding – there’s no other way to solve it, so the game is telling you what to do.

    Even the raiding has lost depth. By introducing gimmicks like climbing a web, the game arbitrarily decides whether you fail or not. The players can’t find their own solution, so the game loses depth.

    Out of the whole list, that’s Greg Street’s biggest problem – he doesn’t know what depth is, much less how best to include it.

    A decent bout of EVE would solve it for him.

  11. Pingback: Too Long; Didn’t Listen episode 12 — SWTOR and sandboxes

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