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The case for a AAA sandbox MMO
by Aleksander Adamkiewicz on 12/16/11 12:25:00 am   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

Single-player sandbox games have always been incredibly popular. Starting with games like Fallout or GTA and ending with Skyrim and Minecraft, open-world, free-roam, non-linear sandbox games have always been on top of the charts.

Contrary to that, in the history of MMORPGs sandbox games have always been there, but occupied a rather small niche subscription-wise. Somehow when translated to multiplayer sandbox games tend to not attract even a fraction of the fanbase.

Here is an attempted analysis of the problems:

PVP and Fairness

I honestly think this is the biggest detractor of sandbox MMO popularity.

FFA (Free-For-All) and especially full loot PVP creates a high-risk low-reward environment. New players are discouraged by this mechanic to go out and explore the open world.

If the sandbox also uses a level-mechanic with power being assigned to the player by stats and/or gear the problem is only exeggarated.

The enjoyment of PVP is closely tied to "fairness" or what the player experiences as fair. Being ganked in WoW by a lvl 85 in Goldshire is not fair for many players. They have no options to defend themselves, to fight back. They just have to sit there and watch being slaughtered.

If WoW had full-loot mechanics, where you would essentially need to restart your character when killed by another player, its appeal would be greatly diminished. Frustration and fear builds up in a player that is under constant harrasment of others.

FFA, full-loot PVP combined with level/stat-mechanics creates a set of problems:

  • It discourages new players from exploring and/or enjoying the game unharassed
  • Already powerful players can not be toppled and just become more powerful
  • PVP becomes a means of itself (you do PVP to aquire more power to do more PVP)
  • It creates a high-risk but low-reward scenario for new players
  • Progress becomes nearly impossible or significantly harder for new players than for powerful veterans.
  • It creates grind because the player wants to be where the fun is to compete with the other players

But FFA, full loot PVP is not an integral part of a sandbox. Its presented to us as a false dichotomy from most developers of sandbox MMOs (EVE, Darkfall, Ultima Online, Perpetuum).

Many would argue that if you left out FFA PVP the world would stop being a sandbox, and I can understand that argument (although I disagree), but then there is no excuse to make the PVP also -fair-. New players need to feel that they have a chance of survival in the game, that they at least have a chance of escape.

When I look at League of Legends the greatest games I have had were the ones where both teams were evenly matched. In Dominion the most satisfying games revolve around a 10-0 victory, not a 400-0 one.

The next generation of sandbox MMOs needs to step away from their FFA PVP-focus, it is not necessary for a sandbox experience.

Crafting Content

Many sandbox games feature a way for the player to leave a permanent mark on the game-world, be it building a space-station in EVE, a town in Darkfall or terraforming mechanics in Perpetuum. However these features are inaccessible for most new players. A station in EVE needs a consolidated effort of a corporation to build, so does a town in Darkfall.

If Minecraft and Farmville taught us anything, its that people absolutely -love- to build things in a game (and break them afterwards).

A tripple-A sandbox MMO could rope in significant interest if the world-building features would be accessible from the start. It does not have to be significant or grand, but being able to, for example, craft a small wooden hut already shows the player that he can truly influence the world and leave a mark on it.

Sadly often those features are often implemented as endgame-content, its counter-productive really. A powerless player doesn't want to feel even more powerless by looking at Player Bs magnificent fortress of solitude.

World-influencing content must be available to players from the start or as early as possible, its an essential part of a sandbox.

Narrative

I think there is a myth that a sandbox MMO must be devoid of narrative or story. Most current sandbox MMOs provide a lot of lore and background for their world but are devoid of any narrative.

The goal for a sandbox is to give you choice and a non-linear way to achieve your goal, this does not exclude a story and progression of the game-world. A game like Skyrim can clearly have a story yet stay true to the sandbox by not forcing the player to follow it. Similarily a sandbox MMO could have an enjoyable story yet keep it completely optional. This is not about handholding the player, its about giving the player a sense of direction and purpose of his actions.

When a narrative-direction is missing, most players will substitute their own goal, however often these goals are either unrealistic (because the player didn't yet experience the game properly) or simply causing mischief (ganking, griefing, running naked through the streets, spamming chat).

Story, or narrative direction must be present in any future AAA sandbox MMO.

Exploration

One of the halmark features of single-player sandbox games is exploration. There is an intense satisfaction in uncovering secrets or easter-eggs left behind by the developers, creating their own narratives or leading to greater understanding of the world.

Current sandbox MMOs have little features that encourage exploration.

I remember a situation while playing EvE Online where I jumped to a random system to discover a huge broken down temple with a statue on top that was around 10x the size of my Thorax.

I was intrigued. Why would someone build a temple or even a gigantic statue in space? What kind of faction/race did this? What was its purpose? Who were the people living/worshiping there?

Sadly, turns out those are just differently named mining sites. Its just that instead a mining-laser you will need an analyzer or other tools to open the containers afterwards.

Its just a novel way to aquire wealth through blueprints or whatever else drops.

This is not exploration, its mining.

Exploration is about aquiring a different kind of wealth, a wealth of experience about the world, without resorting to Wikis and other write-ups and summaries. Exploration needs to give context to the world.

Yes it can have its own mechanics like analysis, or hunting for clues, but most imporatntly the reward needs to be primarily lore, not gadgets.

Future sandbox MMOs need to give a fulfilling exploration experience, its a core of the genre.

Simulation VS Game

Why did I stop playing games like EVE or Perpetuum? Thats simple, they are built like a  simulation instead of a game. They use they same mechanics that in their compostition feel like the real world.

I am almost afraid to say it, but EVE, Perpetuum or Darkfall is like a libertarians dream. It feels like playing a game of real life, it feels like work, like something I would do in reality, except in reality I would get paid for it with real money, instead in EVE i pay for it.

Most players play games because they want to escape reality, not to work in it.

A sandbox game does not have to be structured like a simulation, it does not need to apply the same rules as real life. When designing a game I would strongly suggest to not take solutions from life to structure your game, make up own rules that would make sense in the given universe.

Conclusion

The four areas I mentioned seem to be the largest problems for a successful sandbox MMO. Mostly this is an accessibility issue, but current sandbox MMOs also present to us a false vision of these areas as necessary to create a fulfilling sandbox MMO.

But this is not true in my opinion.

The spirit of the sandbox rests on four pillars:

  • Free exploration
  • Non-linear gameplay/progression
  • Player-driven content
  • World influence and consequences

I am hopeful that in the future brave developers will dare to create sandbox MMOs for everyone, not just the hardcore, there is much potential to be tapped into.

I think there are far more players that would enjoy a sandbox MMO than developers and publishers think.


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Comments


Bart Stewart
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Yes -- I agree with almost all of these points.



The one area of minor disagreement (and this may be simply a language/semantic issue) is that I don't think "simulation" necessarily implies "realistic," as in aspects of the real world that feel like work. Simulation is about rules for defining dynamic changes to the state of a system -- but nothing requires those systems to model real-world processes. You could as easily build a simulation of a model of magic as of a chair factory.



The problem, I think, is not so much in the simulation as the mechanics. With only a small palette of available actions, the player necessarily winds up doing the same thing repeatedly. Even if you can do them in many places in a big world, it still gets tedious quickly. (VATS mode in Fallout 3 may be one of the rare exceptions to this rule.) Give players a bit more variety in the actions they can take, and design your content so that there are always plenty of objects available on which numerous player actions can apply, and I think that goes a long way toward making play feel less like work.



To the larger issue: I personally prefer the idea of a "living world" single-player game, as there you don't have to spend a lot of time writing special-case code that (for the most part) prevents players from griefing each other. The "libertarian" dream of a multiplayer world where anything goes but players still choose to treat each other with respect (mostly) can work for small MUDs, but it's not generally popular in a large MMORPG. (It's important not to mistake the dedicated hardcore players of EVE for the larger numbers it would likely have without the constant looming threat of non-consensual PvP.)



That said, I think all the points about what make a sandbox game fun are true for a MMO as for a single-player game, just with a lot of other concerns. Ironically, I think we have already seen a game that offered exploration, narrative, crafting and some simulation in a high-end MMORPG. It was called Star Wars Galaxies.



The issues this game had have been discussed at great length already, so I'll just note here that SWG as it originally launched (and later including the "Jump to Lightspeed" space expansion) was a remarkably worldy design. The "problem" was that the leads who took over the post-launch development of SWG emphasized the combat aspects of the game much more than the sandbox aspects. I don't know whether this was because they all liked fighting/selling more than crafting/exploring, or if they were simply forced by SOE or LucasArts to work mostly on amping up the combat part of the game. Either way, the sandbox origin of SWG was at odds with the arena emphasis from Day One. SWG started out not knowing what kind of game it was.



Unfortunately, because the original sandbox aspect was so good, a lot of players (myself included) thought that's what the Dev team should have emphasized in the post-launch enhancements and expansions. Turns out the people in control disagreed, with the result that trying to cut out the sandbox (via the "New Gameplay Experience") ultimately killed the game by alienating the still-sizable minority who came and stayed for the sandbox.



If that analysis is more or less correct, then I think the crucial lesson is this: you can't be both a true sandbox game and a competitive/combat game. Those styles of play attract different kinds of players, and trying to do both guarantees that you will alienate one or the other group. If you're going to do sandbox, design it with that emphasis from the ground up (by designers who understand -- and, preferably, enjoy -- exploratory/Simulationist gameplay), market it as sandbox so that there's no confusion in the minds of potential players what kind of game it is (i.e., not another sensation/accumulation game), and then retain that sandbox emphasis with every single change you make to the game after it launches.



You still have a difficult road ahead, but I think this would create the best conditions for some kind of success.

Aleksander Adamkiewicz
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Yes the simulation part is mostly a semantics issue. However i use simulated "realism" as a word to describe gameplay mechanics that are directly taken from real life.



An example would be a games economy. I think that a sandbox game does not need to have a "realistic" economy, i.e. a completely player-based economy where only supply and demand rules (like EVE).

Mostly because I think these aspects in real life are flawed and would be as exploited by the "powerful" in the game just as they are in real life.



What if a powerful player with a high wood-cutting skill chops down the complete forest behind your hut that you would have needed to build more structures for your farm/house/tavern?

You would be forced to go somewhere else to get the wood, or buy it from the powerful player that would control the wood-economy in the region.

Again this leads to powerful getting more powerful to accumulate even more power.

Even sandbox games need to have limitations and barriers to what a person can do if those actions can have overly/frustratingly negative impacts on all players in the game.



This is what I mean when I talk about "simulations", but I see and recognize your distinction.



EDIT: I absolutely detest the idea of "its going to fix itself" attitude with sandbox design which is apparent with EVE or Darkfall.



On a different note, I never played SWG, and seems I will not be able to try it anymore, so I can't really comment on it or your analysis.

However I will at least theoretically disagree that you "can't be both a true sandbox game and a competitive/combat game".

I think that it is absolutely possible to be a good combat/competitive game and a sandbox, as long as you craft mechanics to satisfy both requirements and are relatively separate from each other, yet connect in various areas that are non-interfering.



If you want you can elaborate on why you think its impossible to be both a sandbox and a combat/competitive game and I might have some more specific answers/ideas to share.

Michael Joseph
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"Somehow when translated to multiplayer sandbox games tend to not attract even a fraction of the fanbase."

--



I think there are plenty of examples of MMOs that are exactly the type of game you're looking for. If you're talking about attracting numbers (since you disparage EVE somewhat for not having millions of subscribers), then I think we already know exactly what type of game that looks like.

Aleksander Adamkiewicz
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I'm not really sure I follow...

Michael Joseph
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[quote]

Contrary to that, in the history of MMORPGs sandbox games have always been there, but occupied a rather small niche subscription-wise. Somehow when translated to multiplayer sandbox games tend to not attract even a fraction of the fanbase.

[/quote]





from wikipedia if we can trust these figures...

"January 2011 EVE reached over 360,000 subscribers. [111] Monthly cost of subscription varies by plan and country from 10,95 to 14,95 US dollars or Euros. This means that CCP gets monthly revenues between 3,9 - 5,4 million euros and 46,8 - 64,8 million euros per year. As average revenue per subscriber is only known within range of payment options and about 40% pay in US dollars, which has significantly lower value than euro, these numbers are only estimates."



I think that makes Eve a huge success. The things you don't like about it aren't really objective "problems." For many, Eve's difficulty and steep learning curve are fundamental qualities of the game they love. So long as they are able to grow their user base at some modest percentage each year and clearly they have, then I think they're doing just fine.



And to be clear, you presented us with a list of "problems."

[quote]

Here is an attempted analysis of the problems:

[/quote]



So I gather it is your contention that Eve Online could have even more users if they "fixed" the problems you outlined. But then for many players it wouldn't be Eve Online anymore.



Some games just aren't for everybody. I don't think you could water down a game like Eve and make it work as well as it already has. There already exists tons of watered down MMOs for people who like that kinda stuff.



[quote]

Free exploration

Non-linear gameplay/progression

Player-driven content

World influence and consequences

[/quote]





Eve does all these things. Is it easy to do free exploration if you're a new player? Absolutely not. But... removing the challenge, diminishes the reward of playing the game in fundamental ways. Player driven content? The rise and fall of empirescoalitionsguildswhatever in Eve Online is essentially a never ending player driven drama... in addition to epitomizing freedom to influence the game world and relish or suffer consequences, it's also a core form of content that gets talked about in their forums and in their universe news.



You call it a "libertarians dream" but in many ways, Eve Online is one of the only MMOs that is actually a TRUE game and not a brainless pass time where everybody wins.

Aleksander Adamkiewicz
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"I think that makes Eve a huge success."



I never asserted that EVE is not successful in its own right, I've been playing EVE on and off since 2007.



---

I've just deleted a huge post discussing EVE, because I decided that I have no interest to discuss EVEs problems in this article, it was never its purpose.



I could probably write up a separate article in the future about EVE.

Michael Joseph
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I know you never asserted that specific point. I'm not trying to be nit picky, but you did mention how the player numbers for sandbox MMOs are only a fraction of their counterparts. But I don't understand the relevance of that. EVE is a great game. I don't think the list you outlined represents objective problems with that particular game.



You mentioned EVE by name se7en times in your article. So large chunks of your argument uses the succesful EVE as examples of sandbox MMOs that have problems. That is why I spoke so specifically about EVE.



Far from being broken or full of problems, I think EVE online is a MODEL for sandbox MMOs... and perhaps more now than ever before in this rising freemium domain. I think the model is under utilized. It doesn't seem to me that you feel the same way because you used it as an example of being problematic. Seems to me you're trying to profer fixes to a model that is not broken. It's just personal dislikes.. it's not "what is the problem with EVE" its "what I don't like about EVE". Can't please everyone and I applaud games like EVE for not trying to forever tweak itself into a coma. We have enough neutered MMOs out there.



I really don't know how to be more clear. Mount & Blade doesn't have 1 million copies sold but fans of the series love it. It's not fundamentally broken because it doesn't have a larger fan base. It's just not everyone's cup 'o tea.



Re-reading your original blog post I think your error is early on when you say: "Somehow when translated to multiplayer sandbox games tend to not attract even a fraction of the fanbase."



This notion of sandbox games being "translated" to the MMO space... i think that perspective is what's problematic. Maybe you should have cited as examples single player sandbox games that were transitioned to the MMO area. EVE obviously doesn't qualify and I know you were trying to be generic, but I think it just doesn't work because EVE is doing better than just fine.



If you were to talk about about why The Sims series which sold however many millions of copies couldn't generate millions of subscribers as a MMO with Sims Online then that would speak more towards "translation" problems and be a more interesting article.

Aleksander Adamkiewicz
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"You mentioned EVE by name se7en times in your article. So large chunks of your argument uses the succesful EVE as examples of sandbox MMOs that have problems. That is why I spoke so specifically about EVE. "



I think you are blowing this out of proportion. My post has zero to do with EVE, and has no intention on analyzing EVE.



I mentioned EVE because I'm familiar with it, its mechanics, its community.

Pure and simple, I played EVE.



I didn't play Perpetuum or Darkfall nearly as much as I played EVE, some of them like SWG or UO I only have a passing second/third-hand knowledge of, so I specifically did -NOT- use them for examples I was unsure about to avoid making shit up that fits my analysis.



EVE has its own complete set of problems not related to what I wrote, but I needed SOME kind of example for mechanics I'm describing, preferably examples that are not made up and that I know are accurate.

If I needed to go into a full blown analysis of EVE to make my point, this article would be an e-book available on Amazon.



Can we please put this argument to rest? I am not criticizing EVE. EVE is a great game (for some).



EVE in a sense is the monopoly on sandbox games since 2003 (sic) there has been no movement in this sub-genre for a long, LONG time. Other sandbox MMOs tried to be similar to EVE, with Darkfall or Perpetuum, but they did not succeed even though they tried different things like settings for example (fantasy and ground-based sci-fi).



EVE does not cover or attract the complete spectrum of sandbox players possible, and its not its fault.



What I'm highlighting is the potential OTHER players that like sandboxes but are not enticed by EVEs mechanics/gameplay/design.

Contrary to popular belief there is a middle-ground between WoW and EVE, a middle-ground between total pure hand-holding spoonfed theme-park and the wild wild west sandbox where the only measure of a man is how big a gun he is holding.

Walker Hardin
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From my own experience and preferences I tend to agree with Bart. The core desire of someone who enjoys an exploration/simulation model is to gain understanding and mastery of complex systems, in the process to find or break their boundaries, and to discover places that other players have not been--the nooks and crannies of the game's reality. That doesn't mean you can't have action and combat. I love assaulting bandit camps and running from the ambush of a wild bear in Elder Scrolls and the like. But it's still man vs. environment.



Those motivations seem to directly contradict the core desires of a person who enjoys competitive PvP combat. These folks require rules to be simple and unchanging for fair play. Then they need lots of other players in the same space over which they can exert mastery by virtue of their greater skill at functioning within the rule-set, or to reward their larger time investment (for loot or XP based systems.) If you can't even pwn a noob, what's the point, right?



As you say, you can understand and cater to both, but must separate the play-spaces or ensure the irritation of both camps. At that point, you've made two different games in the same engine. Why not just do that; make two games and release them as such? What advantage do you see in the overlap?



I've not played it, but I'm intrigued by the multiplayer components of Dark Souls, which, through restriction of interaction, casts other people as part of the game's internal system. I think this has potential. I guess the flip side would just be bots in a competitive multiplayer game, but since that's been going on for ages... it seems less cool.

Aleksander Adamkiewicz
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The problem people often have when they talk about MMORPGs is that they get bogged down in the "problem" that PVP needs to be fair, but then how do we do that in a game that has loot, and stats, and money and power?!

We would need to create separate zones for PVP (battlegrounds, arenas, etc) or safe-harbor zones densely patrolled to enforce justice (EVE 1.0 sec, Darkfall guards, etc.).



Simple, by not focusing on stat-based combat at all.



Technology is now sufficiently advanced to have massive environments where the combat is not purely dice-based and does not rely on point-and-click auto-target mechanics. This is the old "classical" model that needs to be phased out and forgotten.



I think that the upcoming game FireFall has these mechanics nailed. You can get better Battleframes (armor) and weapons that give you higher stats, like HP, armor, or energy, but since the game relies on skill-based FPS mechanics for combat, epic loot will only help you so far.

A highly skilled player will be able to compete with a veteran from LVL1, while the veteran still gets to feel powerful by having a lot more error-margin while engaging in PVP (more HP, more DR) but never so much that the new player will feel completely powerless.



When I played Stellar Impact (http://tinyurl.com/csuc8dy) for the first time I was matched against Manta, the highest level and ranked player on the ladder, his ship was pimped out in "red" gear (equivalent to legendary gear). I still managed to kill him at least once, because the game gave me complete control over my avatar (my ship) including manual aiming.

I never felt like I lost because Manta was topped out in the best gear, I lost because I was new and inexperienced. Yet I got still some kills in, that encouraged me. Manta still finished the game with 20/1/10 pretty much pubstomping it, but it didn't matter, fact is i took down Manta in a 1v1, so its possible to defeat high-lvl players.



Thats the kind of fairness I'm talking about.

Darren Tomlyn
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@ Aleksander



Quote: "The problem people often have when they talk about MMORPGs is that they get bogged down in the "problem" that PVP needs to be fair, but then how do we do that in a game that has loot, and stats, and money and power?!"



The foundation of this *should* be simple: (Gameplay) Width, instead of depth.



It is this that then *enables* the non-stat based combat you're talking about, while still having enough gameplay development to make the game worthwhile playing for the long-term.



This seems to be what what Eve Online was aiming for, though it still has too much depth, that then makes it 'unbalanced' for it to function as best as possible in such a manner - even above and beyond the basic player skill - (though that's always a subjective matter) - though, of course, it's basic gameplay isn't for everybody in the first place.



Of course, since the application is everything, that isn't really saying much.



The biggest problem, of course, is just humanity itself - we generally don't do very well in an open, (directly) competitive sandbox, even if we're able to keep on (continuously) improving/re-writing the rules - (which is almost a requirement of making it work *at all*).

Aleksander Adamkiewicz
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Darren,



thats why I'm waiting on TSW and its vertical and horizontal level progression. Where width is more the emphasis than depth.



Its not a sandbox mind you, but it will prototype one of the elements necessary for a successful AAA sandbox.

Luis Guimaraes
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"Technology is now sufficiently advanced to have massive environments where the combat is not purely dice-based and does not rely on point-and-click auto-target mechanics. This is the old "classical" model that needs to be phased out and forgotten."



Tecnology has been for a long time capable of it. Internet connections, no so much.

Aleksander Adamkiewicz
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@Luis Guimaraes

"Tecnology has been for a long time capable of it. Internet connections, no so much."



I understand i'm late to the party here but i missed your comment, so i'll just respond now:



Planetside 1/2 begs to differ.

The infrastructure is and has been sufficiently advanced for a long time now. Given the fact that at most times there will be combat with an average of around 60 people at a time (even in our massive click-based RPGs we seldom see truly large battles with more than a hundred players -cough- Wintergrasp -cough-), this is a non issue.

Combat with around 60-100 players was already possible with games like Battlefield.

Walker Hardin
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PlanetSide did this well, it's my favorite MMO to date, and I'm super excited for the sequel. Rather than reward success with power, they rewarded it with flexibility of combat roles--variety of gameplay experience. As a noob you were forced to specialize (something we associate with high levels in the "traditional" RPG model.) Essentially, at level 1, you could be the most effective [insert anything] if you were good enough. You could be the best pilot, or the best sniper, or the best heavy infantry and own all kinds of fools. But if you wanted to be a sniper that could ALSO go jump in a jet at a moments notice, you had to be level 2 or 3. Each role had the same tactics and power available, weather you were level 1 or 15, and you could still get lost on a giant continent (though that usually meant you or your squad mates did something wrong. :) )



Of course, both PlanetSide and Firefall are MMOFPSs, not MMORPGs. I'm not sure you could apply the same strategy to an RPG and still have it be considered an RPG by the gaming public. The linear power grind is too fundamental to most people's enjoyment of the genre. Though PlanetSide's system certainly allowed you to "play more roles" in its progression than most RPGs I've found.



The contradictions are interesting to think about. Maybe we do need to leave behind, not just the classic MMORPG, but stat-based RPGs in their entirety to achieve more immersion and honest to goodness role-play. I think ANYTHING that achieves those two goals would have to be considered a good.

Aleksander Adamkiewicz
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"Of course, both PlanetSide and Firefall are MMOFPSs, not MMORPGs. I'm not sure you could apply the same strategy to an RPG and still have it be considered an RPG by the gaming public."



In the age that MassEffect 2 was considered one of the best RPGs i do not see the problem of making people accept a game based on skill rather than stats as an RPG.



Hybrid systems like these have been applied in single player games for a long time now, its just the MMO genre didn't catch on yet.

A few examples of true hybrid RPG/FPS skill/stat singleplayer games:



Fallout 3

Borderlands

Alpha Protocol

Deus Ex

Mass Effect

EYE Divine Cybermancy (best true RPG/FPS hybrid, mechanics wise: http://tinyurl.com/c3cateo)

Elder Scrolls (series)

System Shock 1+2



Some of them lean a bit more towards one or the other, but in essence they are what we are looking for.

The gameplay-perspective is also not something really important, I can imagine a game being third person that has these elements as well as a first person perspective.



I can even imagine a game like that with an isometric view in the sense of a dual-stick shooter style mechanic...like Bastion.

Duong Nguyen
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Free form sandbox AAA MMO haven't been done before due to the networking, design and processing limitations. Just now are we really getting to grips with the technology and design required to pull something like this off. Skyrim points to how to do a non-linear concurrent narrative scheme which could work, RDR2 points to a viable networking architecture for open world games, but just combining those 2 games won't do it. A MMO isn't 16 or 32 players its millions of players and 1000s of concurrent players within a zone, each running possibly hundred concurrent quests in partial completion and the world has to be rich enough to let "emergent" gameplay for it to be truly a sand-box game..



There has been discussion before on other game dev sites on what it would take. Various models have been proposed, p2p network, cloud based schemes, etc.. It's not like this idea is new, people have been thinking on it for along time, it's just now that network is fast and wide enough and processor resources are flexible and powerful enough..

Bart Stewart
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Aleksander, I wouldn't say it's "impossible" -- just that it's sufficiently difficult to make the development and operational costs very high.



As Walker pointed out, the difficulty is not in designing game mechanics; it's in choosing and expanding core gameplay systems for groups of gamers with radically different playstyle preferences.



The "groups" part of that assertion is important. MMORPGs, as massively multiplayer games, attract groups of players, and those groups form constituencies around the kinds of gameplay they enjoy. And in particular, the group who are really into combat and intense action and accumulating stuff and messing with other people are distinct from the group whose primary interest is in exploring the world, understanding how things work, and discovering knowledge for its own sake. The latter group are the natural fans of sandbox games; the former group... not so much.



The reason this difference is hard to satisfy is not the mechanistic/design requirement. That's actually sort of interesting! The real problem is that both of these groups know that your time is limited, and will tell you, in no uncertain terms, that they expect you to spend 100% of your limited time creating content specifically for their preferred gameplay interests. Even if there is some overlap between these styles, most players in either group will realize -- correctly -- that getting you to make the kind of game content they like is a zero-sum game, and they will only be satisfied by content that caters to their interests alone.



It's tempting to think that this schism can be finessed by perceptive/creative design, or really effective diplomatic skills, or both. But it's always going to be a fight; there will be constant flaming of one group by the other (neither of whom will appreciate the other's playstyle); and you'll still wind up with a game that doesn't fully deliver what either group really enjoys.



Again: not impossible. But difficult enough, I think, to make focusing on either competition/accumulation or exploration/simulation a smarter bet.



Now -- someone go prove me wrong. :)

Aleksander Adamkiewicz
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"And in particular, the group who are really into combat and intense action and accumulating stuff and messing with other people are distinct from the group whose primary interest is in exploring the world, understanding how things work, and discovering knowledge for its own sake."



Can't we offset this problem by focusing the attention of these people that like intense action, pwning and hoarding in different areas than the crafting/explorers/builders?



Sort of the "jiggle a keychain in front of a baby" approach to keep them occupied amongst themselves.



I don't know, someone would need to prototype those ideas with an actual game ;)

Bart Stewart
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Focusing content for multiple styles (which is something of a contradiction in terms, but let's go with it) still leaves players arguing with each other (and the developers) that not enough attention is being paid to "their" game.



There's also the design problem that it's just plain harder to create content satisfying to Explorers and Socializers than it is to implement rewards that Achiever and Killer (or, as I prefer to think of them, Manipulator) players particularly enjoy. Achiever/Manipulator interests tend to be concrete -- tangible objects like vehicles and weapons -- while the things that motivate Explorers and Socializers are usually abstract and conceptual -- things like knowledge and human relationships. This just naturally makes it easier for developers to create Manipulator/Achiever content.



The only effective way around this I can think of is to have your development team consist of people who really understand these differences and are good at dreaming up content that Socializers and Explorers particularly enjoy... and there just don't seem to be many such people.



I wish I could be more positive; I usually prefer to focus on finding constructive solutions. In this case I think the best bet, given the inherent difficulties (which you outlined very effectively) of making a satisfying sandbox game, is to concentrate on making specifically sandboxy content.



If I had to combine sandbox and Manipulator/Achiever content (and SWG did try), my main effort would be to design exploration content that very carefully avoids giving concrete, accumulatable rewards for sheer persistence, but instead consistently rewards perceptive/creative actions with broader and deeper knowledge of the gameworld. Also, while I agreed with the part of SWG's design that tried to create linkages between exploration/crafting content and combat content, unlike SWG I would not make the exploration (and Socializer) content subordinate to combat -- instead, the combat would exist as a mechanism for allocating scarce resources discovered or created in the sandbox part of the game, which would then be fed back into the exploration content.



The combat/accumulation-oriented gamers (who I think are a majority of today's MMORPG players) would probably object to this in highly negative terms. But that's the price of committing to making a true sandbox MMORPG.

Aleksander Adamkiewicz
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"Focusing content for multiple styles (which is something of a contradiction in terms, but let's go with it) still leaves players arguing with each other (and the developers) that not enough attention is being paid to "their" game."



Isn't that whats already happening in all MMOs ever created?

WoW is fighting the loosing battle to both balance their classes for competitive PVE and PVP (of course I'm on the side of the PVE, and how every change to the class-balance that is aimed at PVP really fucks over PVE gameplay - see frost-mage, useless in raids since TBC)



I acknowledge the problems with the design, but im not completely convinced that it is as complex.

Mathieu MarquisBolduc
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Terminology in gaming is always chaotic. but I dont think you should mix open-world, non-linear and sandbox, because they mean different things. Here's how I see it:



Open world - free to roam wherever you want

Non-linear - Different objectives can be achieved in different order

Sandbox - No objective, Make-your-own-fun.



GTA and Skyrim have a few sandbox elements, but they're mostly emergent (from GTA's driving and Skyrim's whacky physics), while Minecraft is completely sandbox.

Aleksander Adamkiewicz
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Its always a problem in talking about game design, a lot of the terminology just shifts too much or has different meaning from person to person.



Take something like RPG for example, coming from the PnP world I do not see most of the so called "RPGs" on PC as an RPG. I never would consider Mass Effect to be an RPG for example, yet a lot of people swear its a true RPG.



Especially in MMOs the meanings are often times completely blurred. Some people consider sandboxes to be only games with FFA PVP, some are thinking open-ended economy sims like SimCity are sandboxes (they also do not really feature a goal).



I think that in the broad spectrum of opinion the elder scrolls series has established itself as the example of the singleplayer sandbox RPG.

While it features non-linear gameplay in the sense of different objectives to be achieved in different order, it also -can- be played with no objective and creating your own fun.



I think limiting the term "sandbox" to only games like Minecraft (and consorts) does not do them justice.


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