[Solving the Content Problem] Enter 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.

23 thoughts on “[Solving the Content Problem] Enter Sandbox

  1. “Sandbox MMOs seem to be coming back into vogue”

    i don’t know if they are, I’ve seen more comments about players being bored with the current crop of themepark games, and especially on articles about the upcoming sandbox games as if they are the second coming. If people find it hard to make their own fun and goals in a fairly open-ended themepark game like GW2, then there is no way they’ll put the effort in to make their own fun and goals in a sandbox game. I think with the rise of themepark MMOs, there is a generation of MMOers that don’t realise the effort they’ll need for a true sandbox game, and there is a ‘grass is greener’ effect on their perceptions. “I’ll be able to do whatever I want. Umm what is it I want to do?’, that will probably not hold up with a dull combat system, and no persistent content.

  2. You know, after thinking about all the good things you can get out of a sandbox MMO, after reading your post the only thing I could think about was Lord of the Flies. I’m sure part of that is because my oldest is reading it for school, but the concept of roving bands of people ensuring the peace and/or mini-states of their own kind of threw a bucket of cold water on my enthusiasm for sandbox MMOs.

    A lot of geeks/nerds can relate to having been relegated to the fringes of the social order while growing up, and I’m not so sure I’d want to have that repeated in an online environment. And when you throw in the nasty PvP elements that we’ve all seen in MMOs from time to time, I’m suddenly not so sure a sandbox MMO is a great idea after all.

  3. Out on a limb perhaps but I would say the sandbox’s #1 problem is anti-social behavoir without controls. In the real world there are bad people and laws to control them (to some degree). Sandboxes inherently reward griefing and provide next to no incentive for a lawful alignment. EvE tried to address this a bit with the last patch. UO notoriously split PvP from the game back in the day.

    Perhaps it’s because we accept society controls in the real world and that we generally know that if something bad happens some rule stops it from happening again and that in turn makes devs “blind” to the darker social side of gaming.

    I’d play a sandbox in a second if I didn’t have to worry about the typical “Goon”.

  4. One thing that does intrigue me is that player policing and justice has never worked. I wonder if at some point a game will crack that – a game that allows you to turn red but strongly incentivises red killing so that outlaws are the desperate starvelings they were in real medieval societies.

    Another thing to consider is that WoW, as originally released, was midway on the themepark:sandbox spectrum. Only a tiny minority did the structured raids. Instead people collected minipets (then not a mainstream design element), danced on mailbox, cybered in Goldshire, traveled the world collecting screenshots and a thousand other things the devs hadn’t planned for but had made possible by creating an interesting and complex world.

    Now imagine if from 2004 instead of becoming more theme park WoW has moved the other way. Would it have still been a success? I bet it would.

    That’s the game I want to play – a game based on 2004 WoW but made more sandboxy.

    • “One thing that does intrigue me is that player policing and justice has never worked.”

      I think this is coming through from some of the other comments also, and it’s true, player policing/ justice has (in the past) been really popular theoretically with sandbox designers but in practice, it hasn’t really worked.

      I have played one MUSH where the player policing did work though, and the difference was that staff were especially supportive of the player police and they got a decent policing community going. This is partly because player police need info and powers they can’t normally get inside the game to find out who infringing players are and detain them (like, if someone logs in on an alt, does something antisocial, and logs out again, there’s pretty much no way player characters can track them down.) The other thing staff did in that game was seed the game with NPC perps for the PC police to track down, so they had something to do other than patrol endlessly and make themselves unpopular with other players.

      I don’t think that’s going to work in an MMO, partly because effective player police have a fair bit of power over other players. Redbeard mentioned Lord of the Flies above, now imagine if the player police organisation was power crazed and corrupt. It makes for great sandbox stories, but nightmare for other players.

      The LoL player tribunal seems to be a more successful take on the same thing, but they also have a lot of support from staff.

      I don’t want to jump ahead of myself but I’m probably going to come out in favour of sandbox/themepark hybrids at the end of this series, so I agree with you 🙂 But in order for non progression activities to be around as interesting roles to play in game, you either need to play down progression or foster a really active player community to highlight the cool things players do in an atmosphere where the majority won’t immediately snark at them, call them casual losers, and that they’re playing it wrong. (so you might need a different playerbase 😉 )

      • I think that it’s almost an article of faith that much of WoW’s problem is based on population size – there is no way to manage that many people, Blizzard prioritizes subs over fair play, etc. There is a lot of truth there, see the recent blue posts on not socializing punishment decisions.

        There are two other things that needs to be controlled for a sandbox or hybrid: gear inflation and travel. If you need to have raid gear for normal content you can’t have a sandbox. We started to see this problem in TBC, with the raid-equivalent greens in Hellfire but it exploded in Wrath with raid epics for running Heroics. Now it’s an established part of the game and expected. The evils of flying mounts, I expect, are well documented. Great convenience for the theme park side of the game but it guts exploration and accidental discovery driving sandbox content.

  5. Sandbox games do not Tend to Griefdom. With all the Ring of Gyges (are people inherently good or evil?) undertones in this post and comments, there seems to be this assumption that the only players left will be griefers and prey on the weak. This is also supported by Richard Bartle’s observations and anecdotal evidence about the Killers demographic.

    But it’s not true. Eve is a very harsh place, and there are many griefers. But there are many benevolent players also. The two oldest alliances in Eve are CVA and Ushra’Kahn, both of which are RP organizations, and one of which has a very strict Not Red Don’t Shoot policy (NRDS; they will only shoot at you if you attack them first).


    There are players like Chribba, who has made a reputation around being a nice guy.


    Yes, there are players who actively seek griefplay and will take actions against players with the intent to annoy or “harvest tears”. But there are many acts which seem like griefplay but are arguably not.

    Ganking (killing someone who wasn’t interested in fighting; or bringing enough friends to completely overwhelm the opposition, aka “Blopping”) is really just extreme risk aversion. Eve has harsh death penalties; sometimes players get into a comfort zone of risk aversion, and they will not take a fight unless the outcome is certain (i.e. they win). Or they are trying to play as a pirate and need to kill gunless industrial ships so they can scavenge for ISK.

    Suicide ganking is often about trading security status for ISK.

    Scamming and corp theft is a game about social engineering and backstabbing. Something like Diplomacy, Battlestar Galactica: the Board Game, or the party game Mafia/Werewolf/Assassin. Read about Bad Bobby’s Titans 4U scam and how he viewed the operation as a game of building a reputation and then trading that reputation for ISK.

    The recent outcry of “Miner bumping” (http://www.minerbumping.com/) is about creating a racketeering scheme. (Ok, that one is probably about griefing, drama, and collecting tears.)

    In many of these cases, the “victims” don’t realize they are players in a game that the “griefer” is trying to play. The victims are trying to play their own game, but do not account for how others are interested in playing, and thus they get upset when the “rules” are broken.

    People WILL attack you if you do PvE in lowsec and null, so understand how to evade those attacks. People WILL suicide gank your freighter with 20 bil in cargo, so take measures to prevent that outcome. People WILL steal your corp wallet and assets, so don’t be so trusting of people who you’ve known for 2 weeks.

    Many playstyles for many players, but as part of the sandbox, you can’t ignore the pebbles–just gotta pick them out.

    • “Yes, there are players who actively seek griefplay and will take actions against players with the intent to annoy or “harvest tears”. ”

      And if you do that in a themepark game, someone will probably report you. Whereas if you do it in a sandbox, it’s down to players to figure out how to handle it themselves and it so happens that it’s very difficult for player orgs to handle widespread organised griefing. I’m not saying that it’s inevitable — I don’t think Second Life was especially griefer prone.

      • What tools would you give policemen that the griefers themselves won’t employ?

        Eve has War Declarations, which are supposed to reconcile player disputes. You want to stop griefers? Wardec them and then hunt them down. Or you are a griefer and you want to ruin someone’s day? Wardec them and then hunt them down.

      • That’s pretty much my point, and this is one of the reasons why it’s so difficult for players to contest organised griefers in a sandbox, You would have to give policemen extra staff-supported abilities that the griefers don’t have or else they would have to out organise and out number the griefers, which is hard if the griefers are really well organised.

        I don’t play EvE, do you think the Wardecs are effective in controlling griefing? (assuming you think it is something that should be controlled.)

      • True griefplay (ruining someone’s day) is very toxic, but sometimes it is difficult to distinguish between griefing and “playing a different game”. I think suicide ganking freighters is a terrible feature of Eve, but I understand that some players do it for monetary reasons.

        Wardecs and the new bounty system are not effective at stopping griefing, and that is because of player attitude on both sides. Players become victims of griefing usually when they are not aware of some mechanic. They don’t know that corp members can freely shoot at other corp members, so they warp their super expensive ship not into a mission with their new corpmates, but into a gank. They don’t know that the Contract window says they will pay 500 mil AND a PLEX for the seller’s PLEX (contract window is so confusing), so they get scammed. They don’t know about Directional Scanner, so pirates warp to their location in low sec and kill them.

        The wardec system is just another feature that victims are not aware of, or they find it confusing. They possibly don’t realize that they can add a bounty or offer Kill Rights publicly. Third parties can enter into wardecs for free if the defender opens the option, allowing for ad hoc mercenaries. But until the war is over, the PvE player is going to stay docked or logged out.

        They can add all the members of the grief corp to their Watch List and take heed when a war target logs in. Are they aware of this tactic? Probably not.

        The victim is also not a PvP player. PvPers in Eve tend to be aware of the whole picture, understand different aggression mechanics, security levels of solar systems, and the risks involved in fighting players. A PvE player in Eve is arguably in the wrong game, but they are definitely not going to wardec a high sec pirate corp that spends all their time fighting. The carebears would get destroyed.

        The other side of the coin is that a PvP-oriented corp would welcome any wardec because it provides more targets. Unless in very extreme scenarios where a larger PvP entity camps a smaller PvP corp in a station, PvP players would love more PvP.

        That larger PvP entity could be a mercenary corp. Noir is a fairly well-known group of Mercenaries, and they will take just about any pay contract. Is a small time mission runner in a corp just by himself going to pay the billions to contract Noir to fight for him? Probably not. And he likely doesn’t even know Noir exists.

      • I don’t think Second Life was especially griefer prone.

        There was a famous conflict in Second Life between a player called Prokofy Neva who saw herself as a professional real estate agent selling virtual property to real world corporations and the Goons who liked to troll her and her clients with flying penises.. Scott Jennings reported on it all the time on Broken Toys back in the day.

      • In Eve expert war dec corps offer no targets to their victims. Freight Club for instance stay logged off at a gate until there’s a target then log in and kill it, scouting with neutral alts. The Jita war dec corps dock up as soon as credible opposition appears in system.

        Sometimes people get in wrong. I’m in RvB a newbie pvp corp and we just got wardecced. They took on a Maller, a very sturdy ship that most veterans would consider obvious bait (and it was).

        I think it’s besides the point. Eve is set up as a game that channels you to group based pvp. It offers all sorts of apparent playstyles such as Elite style trading and WoW-style quests but after playing it for some time most players realise pvp is simply a better way to play it. Which makes it less of a sandbox than it appears, more of a quicksandbox 🙂

      • Second Life has a big griefer problem. And it shares a great many players with EO. It doesn’t help that the devs at LL are bit griefish themselves.

        Despite all the news reports, sex rp is a very small part of SL. Most of it is geared toward fashion play, land ownership and gossip. But like EO it has a horrific learning curve and the newbie areas are griefer paradises. It takes a lot to get started in SL and it takes a lot of ability to create your own entertainment to stay.

      • Stabs: Goons are an example of a particularly problematic type of organisation, which is a highly organised and successful player culture with a lot of hardcore organisers that whomps into other games deliberately to grief others. (I get the impression that they work much better in EVE where they have a solid niche and fit the predominant playerbase.) There’s also something very misogynist about the setup — adopting hypermasculine ‘fight or die’ approaches and trying to wipe out non-PvPers etc.

        They’re drawn to sandbox games because they’re all about power, I assume. I don’t know how players can really deal with orgs like that, other than play games where the predominant culture doesn’t allow it.

    • Eve Online is a beautiful game to look at. But it is absolutely toxic. What it is teaching its players to do is have a Ayn Rand criminal mindset. It teaches them that other players don’t matter and anything worth doing is better in a mafia clique. If you think that what this game teaches doesn’t have an effect in reality, then shame on you.

      What we do in games affects us deep down inside the Id. Our brains can not distinguish between reality and the fantasy of the games. Anytime any of us have reacted to something inside a game that causes us to react in real emotional terms is just an example of how these games cause us to be temporarily psychotic.

      • You sound like you’ve had a bad experience in Eve.

        Several months ago I was watching an investigative TV program about financial scams (American Greed), and the focal point of this particular segment was a Ponzi scheme. I remember thinking, “Why is this illegal? Shouldn’t these investors have done more research?” Fraud is so commonplace in Eve that it changed (you’d probably say “corrupted”) my understanding of American laws.

        Does playing Eve make me a morally defunct citizen? My anecdote above could be analyzed to mean that my moral compass is now a little grayer. But it could also mean that I am paying closer attention to my finances and thoroughly inspecting investments.

        Another story: I consider myself a solo PvPer, which is an expensive career in Eve. Every now and then I need to divert my attention to making ISK. For awhile I was using a market alt to do station arbitrage (place Buy Order, relist items as Sell Order, make profit on the margin) and retail. For one of my retail ventures, I purchased an item in bulk*, and was looking to turn it around in bulk. I found a buyer, and we agreed to so a simple trade in station. The price was for 600 mil ISK, but the buyer added an extra 0 into the trade field, resulting in 6 billion ISK. I hesitated for about 60 seconds hoping that they would catch their mistake–they did not. Six billion flowed into my wallet, which could pay for my subscription for a year.

        Ten minutes later, I receive a mail from the buyer saying that they made a mistake and if I would return the extra ISK. I had a real moral dilemma on my hands; I asked many people I knew in game what I should do, and all of them said to keep it, of course. After an hour, I opened a conversation to the buyer, and even though he was a brony, I gave him back the extra money. He gifted me 100 mil for being nice.

        Everyone makes mistakes in Eve, and usually everyone has to deal with the consequences. That’s how you learn. But in this situation, I considered if the roles were reversed. The hope that I would get my hypothetical money back was the reason I returned his–the Golden Rule. Has Eve corrupted my personality? Am I psychotic? This was also on an alt character that had no direct ties to my main.

        *(I should point out that I was actually manipulating the price of the item I sold to this guy, so he probably lost several hundred million trying to sell off the stock.)

        Eve is composed of many, many games, and you are playing all of them.

      • I think my ultimate point is: Eve is a game, and it should be viewed as a game. There are winners and losers, and if you discover you are taking things too seriously or get too frustrated with it, then maybe it’s not the game for you.

      • @Motsandet

        I never had a bad experience in Eve. I quite enjoyed the time I spent in it off and on. And I quit long before it was decided fun to persecute miners.

        The Ayn Rand mindset encourages people to throw civic ideals out the window. There are reasons there are laws. There are good reason there are taxes. It makes life an easier and safer experience than living in a wild west town or war torn country.

        I have nothing against PvP. I played WAR for 3 years. However I did not make it my life pursuit to seek out other players in WAR or EO to make their life a living hell. Some do it because they think they are gaming. But they are not. Numerous times EO had this mindset leaking out into reality because the division between the two was getting hazy for the players. That is upsetting. It won’t be anything noticeable but it will be an inch by inch creep.

        Developers are on TED all the time claiming that they want to gameify reality. I find that terrifying when I see the standard behavior in EO and even in Second Life.

  6. I think you’re forgetting a #1 characteristic of a sandbox game: there is no progression.

    In a sandbox game, EVERYTHING is “one cheat code away”, like in The Sims. Any challenge you decide to face is a completely optional action and it’s a deliberate choice of your part. Travelling is clicking on the map and selecting “go there”, if there are levels then leveling is clicking on your character level and selecting “set level to….”. Any kind of “locked” content which must be unlocked is a guaranteed sign of NOT a sandbox game.
    If you want a simple rule: compare to Lego. You have your bricks, the only limit is being able to build something with them. But you don’t have to “level” to access more bricks, you just have them.

    • I wouldn’t say no progression, but it is more about picking your own mid-term/long-term goals rather than have the game pretty much dictate them.

      I also don’t think it’s a given that travelling in a sandbox is just about clicking on the destination. Some sandboxes might do this, others might really prioritise distance and random travel events.

    • That’s a very limited view of Progression and sandboxes. Eve is undoubtedly a sandbox, yet it has very heavy character progression in the form of skill points and ISK. You can’t fly a cruiser until you’ve trained the prerequisite skills and until you buy one.

      I think Spinks is more correct in saying that the goals are dictated by the player rather than the developer. In WoW, your goals are to gain levels and all progression is dependent on your character’s combat level. In Eve, players can choose to not train a single combat skill and still progress and be successful.

  7. Ahhh sandbox – which would be awesome if not for Penny Arcade’s ‘GIFT’. (http://penny-arcade.com/comic/2004/03/19)

    EQ when it came out was pretty sandboxy – yes there was content but no real direction saying ‘go here – do this’ – it wasn’t enough for many though and most seem to not think of it as a sandbox – it certainly wasn’t by the end of it’s ‘heyday’.

    While I think sandbox games can do well in a niche… personally I can’t see that they’ll *ever* get close to WoW numbers.

    Have you ever seen the outcry when WoW has a ‘world event’ that disrupts people’s planned activities even for a few days?

    The overwhelming majority of people *like* dailies and structured content because they plan their leisure time and what they hope to accomplish during that time. These same people get seriously upset when that time is interrupted by random stuff they can’t plan for.

    That’s the way it works – and for every person that enjoys the ‘open and unpredictable’ there are like 50 or more that want a walled garden with rules that protected them from the GIFT’s out there.

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