Are you living in a (sand)box?

One of the thrills for me of logging into my first MMO was the feeling that I had a huge world to wander around in, full of places to go,  people to meet, mobs to kill, and adventures to be had. I’d played tabletop RPGs but actually walking around a real (if virtual) world was a different ballgame from peering at a lovingly hand drawn map on the living room table. I didn’t have to ask the GMs permission to look inside an old tower or over the top of a mountain, I could just go and look for myself.

And along the way, anything could happen.

There are a lot of single player games which successfully give that ‘wide open world’ feeling. GTA and Fallout do it particularly well. I love those too. But an MMO is a world on a larger scale, and full of other (real) people to interact with, as if they were also denizens of that world. I come from a RP background, I was awed at the prospect that other players would bring the world to life … which they kind of do, although maybe not quite how I imagined.

I had played and staffed MU* (MUDSs/MUSHes/etc), which could be very sandbox affairs. We had player run organisations, player run criminals and baddies to fight, player organised mass destruction, and so on. MMOs have tended to be not so much, with the honorable exceptions of EVE and Tale in the Desert, in their own different ways.

In practice, the problem with player run organisations is that they are run by players. There’s no guarantee that a player run entity will be looking out for YOUR entertainment. The world can be changed around you and it might not be in ways you would like. Maybe your character even ends up on the wrong side of a fight you knew nothing about and gets killed. I’ve been killed for crazy, trivial reasons in MUSHes and it was not particularly fun. (Admittedly I have also killed other characters and that was more fun.) And in a roleplaying game you don’t just respawn, because your character is dead. You reroll.

And yet, players long for the wide open world full of choices and the feel of the sandbox. I think one of the reasons that Wrath has been so staggeringly popular is that Blizzard have learned a few tricks for making the game world feel sandboxy than it really is.

Choices? Or were you just drawn this way?

I wrote a piece a couple of months back on BoG about the Death Knight starting quests. I had just completed them for the first time but one quest in the chain really stood out for me. It was the section of the story where your character is supposed to start questioning its loyalties and death knight-ness.

This is important because the Death Knight starting quest chains tell a story arc. And it’s a strong one. It is the story of a character in service to an evil overlord who rebels and strikes out on their own, seeking revenge. At no point in this storyline does the player actually get to make any choices. You either do the quest or you don’t (and you do, because you want to eventually get out of the starting zone, even aside from the xp and shiny quest reward gear).

In modern MMOs, the levelling game has become a series of quest arcs. Some games do it better than others. Warhammer actually has very well written and engaging quests, on the whole. LOTRO can be patchy (hello boring lone lands quests that everyone hates) but when it is on form, it is absolutely stunning. Both of those games make good use of their game worlds and lore to draw players in.

Blizzard has always done the levelling side of WoW well, it’s the big hook that drew players in right from the start. But the big gotcha of Wrath is that they have surpassed pretty much every other game in the market with their questing game right now. The writing is sharp and witty, the storytelling is solid and the quests themselves have a good mixture of fun things to do (this is an area where other MMOs tend to fall down in comparison).

But the downside of quests, however great the storylines, is that the player ultimately has only one choice. Do the quest or don’t do it. In a game where the characters are well drawn and well defined, it isn’t much of an issue. In LOTRO it is very clear that your motives are to fight the shadow and help the fellowship, so there’s no reason for you to drop a quest (apart from it being boring or not being able to find a group for it).

But Blizzard has been more ambitious with their storytelling. They want to tell stories in which the character makes a poor decision and later has to deal with the consequences. But due to the limitations of quests, they have to do this in a way that makes the player feel as though the character made a choice without actually doing it. Sometimes this works well. There’s a stunningly epic storyline in Storm Peaks which starts with you meeting a poor old woman who is imprisoned in a mine and only finding out much much later that she had you fooled from the start.  It feels entirely reasonable that your character would have fallen for it.

In other places, it works less well. Any situation where the player thinks, ‘Wait, my character needs more choices, I don’t want to do that’ is a place where the illusion of choice wears thin.

I think that as players, we’re prepared to enjoy the illusion for what it is IF the storyline is compelling and convincing. I’ll give up my free choice to go off and farm more boars instead of doing your quests, but in return, I want a game to deliver me a brilliant, entertaining story.

Freedom to explore

Another way which MMOs in general and WoW in particular gives the illusion of a sandbox is in the way quests are laid out. We are already bored with the convention of “travel to the next quest hub, pick up quests, do quests, rinse and repeat.” Hence the breadcrumb quest which lures the player seamlessly to the next quest hub.

A variation on this is where the breadcrumb quest just takes the player on a route through which they cannot avoid finding the new quests. But still lets them feel as though they had to explore a bit. So you are off on your fun quest when you spot a few quest icons on the minimap — you let yourself get distracted enough to go and investigate and BAM it’s as if you found the quest hub all by yourself.

A great example of this is the opening quest for Dalaran that is given to players after they hit level 74. There are several potential quest givers for this, located in towns where you might reasonably be when you hit this level. So you level up, you carry on about your business, and … ooo… new quest, whats that? I thought it was particularly cunning of them to stick questgivers for this one between the flight masters and the zeppelins of the towns from which you travel back to Azeroth. Because naturally, when you hit a new level, you’d want to go back to train. You really cannot miss the Dalaran quest. It’s just not possible. But it will always feel as though you discovered it yourself.

Or another one is where a questline starts from an item dropped by a mob … with no actual quest to kill the mob. Just quests that put you in an area where it is very very likely that you will do this. Again, you kill some random and totally unexceptional mob because it’s there (that’s probably enough reason for most players) and hey, it starts you off on a whole new quest chain. The game gives you an illusion of exploring, but that quest object was never intended to be missed or obscure.

I think a big part of the popularity of Wrath is that Blizzard have used a lot of these techniques to give players the illusion of character choice, and of exploration, but without the dull options to which some choices and some exploration can lead. I can’t fault them for it. I love sandbox games and I hope very much that someone someday will make more of them, but I am also a sucker for a well put together illusion.