After analyzing themepark MMO issues for most of the month. I will switch gears and post more about issues with sandbox MMO design. The sandbox genre is significantly smaller and makes much less money than the themepark paradigm, so people often dismiss it as a niche and an inferior product. Current-gen sandbox MMOs are an inferior product, in my opinion, because they are often poorly designed and poorly implemented; there are so few of them that only one, EVE, is an example of a successful, well-produced, accessible sandbox game.
Sandbox MMOs stick too closely to themepark norms of character development—they focus on PvP, but do not take the core of competitive gaming to heart. They encourage society building but don’t facilitate it through non-game-mechanical social tools.
The five major design issues I have with current-gen sandbox MMOs:
- The Logging-off Problem. Players can’t be logged into the game at all times. Important stuff is bound to happen when they are not logged in—especially when the good players are sleeping. The more “impact” the PvP is, the more the logging-off problem nags at the game design. No one likes to be absent when the important stuff is happening—but it’s in your opponent’s best interest that you be absent when the important stuff is happening to you.
- Excessive vertical advancement. Nothing stifles a competitive game more than an uneven playing field. Gating advancement in a sandbox game in a WoW PvE kind of way (i.e. no skill needed to advance, just time investment) is counter to the point of having competitive PvP. Vertical advancement should be short, quick, and rewarding. It shouldn’t be more than a brief introduction to the meat of the game. Player skill should account for character growth, not pure time investment. PvP games make their money through being exclusionary, so this isn’t a problem.
- The Player-is-a-Peon Problem. When your impact PvP world consists almost entirely of players, players must play the role of worthless peons. Players have to grind for money for their guild, they have to grind tradeskills and watch progress bars for hours, they have to engage in all other kinds of extremely mundane, boring, and poorly-designed tasks in order to have the slim chance of impacting the world in any significant way.
- Themepark-style newbie zones mislead players. Shadowbane motivates this point. Using crappy themepark PvE introductory material to lead into a brutal impact PvP world not only doesn’t make sense, it is outright misleading and counter-productive. Darkfall went too far in the other direction by doing no handholding whatsoever, which is probably a better approach than lulling your players to sleep in themepark gameplay and then breaking open their skull with impact PvP once some arbitrary level is achieved.
- Infantile community building tools. Sandboxes should be all about community facilitation and development. Darkfall has a worse guild interface than WoW does—how do they justify this? If a sandbox game can’t even get simple guild features right, how do they expect to survive? Sandbox games need better community-building tools—like mature accountability systems.
Sandbox MMOs do not benefit from integrating themepark elements—they’re a different kind of game entirely. Applying themepark norms to sandboxes is degenerative. Almost as degenerative as trying to apply single-player game norms directly to MMOs.
I’ll spend more time in the future on sandbox MMO design issues: their causes, their effects, and possible solutions. Compared to themepark MMOs, sandbox MMOs have a longer way to go before they are designed well.