Thursday, January 28, 2010

Sandbox MMO Design Problems

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.


Kenny said...

"The Player-is-a-Peon Problem." This is simply golden, I think hand-in-hand with players' goals this is the biggest issue sandboxes face. Until this is figured out it is damn near impossible to provide a framework for player motivation, and vice versa, and it's way too easy to just slap on one or more themepark-style grindfests and thus ruin the whole game.

However, seriously, why can't people let the idea of "combat" go when talking abuot MMOs?

scrusi said...

Very accurate. Though I must say, if EVE is the accessible example then Sandboxes are further away from mass market viability than I thought. Not that everything has to be a mass market product, but I'm afraid that's where the real cash is.

@Kenny: Because combat is the easiest way to create challenging, immersive game play - and it's easily mass-produced. It also scales very well, while many known non-combat game system just don't lend themselves very well to a multi-player environment.

Unless you're talking about purely social world, I'd be very interested in your ideas about alternative types of MMO game play.

evizaer said...

Combat is so popular because violence is the easiest way to give meaning to actions. It's the cheapest way to draw attention.

Read a great writer's work or watch a great movie and you will rarely see rampant action that is the focus of every scene. Well-executed storytelling can include violence, but often doesn't need it--only the threat of violence or the tension of the interactions between well-defined characters.

The storytelling in so many videogames is so awful because of the overreliance on violence.

(Maybe I should write a longer-form post on this fact...)

Kenny said...

Evi, the problem with your thought is that players can metagame threats, because you either can't deliver on it and in this case they will just ignore you, or if you can then others will just simply abuse the mechanics "for fun". This is a serious problem even while playing pen&paper rpgs, and one of the few things we _always_ decide with a roll.

Also IMHO if there is violence in a game players will look at that as the primary way of gameplay because of decades of conditioning. The only way to break out of this is to make a game where physical violence is not present or sooooooo underplayed that it hamrs the perp more, much more, than the advantages it give. Hmm, this sounds like RL...

@Scrusi: Hmm. I can't give you such a fleshed out reply like the stuff Evi writes, but consider this: if each and every player-interaction is packaged and can be used in-game by players that opens up tremendous possibilities. Not to mention if players can actually create such packages whether they are true accurate or not...

Ryan said...

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.

I'd like to see players be able to hire NPCs for their guild, settlement, etc to do the mundane tasks like gathering resources or farming. They can be paid at set intervals in gold or in grain/ore/some other important aspect of survival in-game, with payment coming directly out of the guild bank or settlement fund. Players just ensure that their more entertaining activities can support the amount of NPCs they have aboard with them.

Or is that too much like Civ 4/resource management and not enough MMO?

Logan said...

the last 4 points are pretty easily solved... heck, Ryan already solved the most difficult of those 4.

the first point is the real tricky one though, and it's something i've thought about at length and still haven't come up with a suitable solution... honestly i don't think a good solution exists... actually, i'm pretty sure there is no good solution for it... (not in a PvP based sandbox at least)... but i'm interested in hearing what you come up with... hopefully it's something more than the obvious use of iphone apps and such to keep tabs on the game when you can't be playing.

Anonymous said...

The first really applies to any MMO. It sucks when you miss a guild-first raid boss kill, it sucks when the one item you wanted drops when you are away, and it sucks when you miss a major event in a sandbox. But as long as you have enough of those events happening that missing one is not going to ruin your whole month, it becomes a bit more acceptable. Some advanced warning helps (for instance the new siege mechanic in DF), but even then RL might get in the way and you miss something, just the nature of the beast.

I disagree with the second only because character advancement is so key to an MMORPG, and even in a player-skill based game like DF, playing to get better at PvP only goes so far. In a FPS you can match up easily with other ranked players, in an MMO, you likely fight weaker players far more often than someone equal to you, and that's assuming you can get a 1v1, 5v5, 20v20 in the first place. Online chess would get very boring if you got randomly matched up with people, and a GM was playing newbies as often as other GMs.

I agree that SOME balance is needed, so player-skill is a major factor in any battle, but in order to survive long-term, you need character growth, and horizontal growth is just not that motivating to many.

Three is not actually a problem, because just like in the real world, most people don't really want to be anything more than just another peon. Oh, everyone likes to think they aspire to greatness, but most don't. Out of 10 players, how many will step up to lead a raid? Out of 10, how many will start a clan, or bring direction to a group? How many times have a bunch of people been online basically sitting on their hands waiting for that one player to log on and start something up? Themeparks hide the peons by having NPCs tell them they are heroes, a sandbox removes those NPCs, and what you have left is real people not BS'ing those same peons but rather given them (simple) direction; go chop wood, attack here, etc.

The fourth I agree, either someone is going to like what you really offer, or they won't. Hiding your true game behind some newbie experience is just wasting everyone's time. AoC is perhaps the best example of this.

Also agree on the fifth, but I think that has more to do with resources than anything else. I'm sure AV would love to revamp their clan interface and add in a ton of stuff (they have hinted that this is planned), but when you are a smaller dev team, you can only do so many things, and I'd rather have a working combat system and stable servers than an in-game calendar.

Dblade said...

This is a very good analysis.

Logging off is a big problem, especially if the game centers around holding or taking of territory. 0.0 in EVE was full of tales of losing things at the wrong timezone.

Vertical advancement sucks too. EVE counters it slightly by letting newbies take very basic tackler roles i.e. cannon fodder to keep the enemy from warping out. In Mabinogi there was insane vertical advancement in PvP-I remember taking ten times the damage from some players since they ground so much.

The peon thing-you are right, but it is also worse, because a players skill will also make them peons. I think this is why we see so many zergs and so little small combat, because a lot of people just wouldn't be good enough in a fair fight.

Themepark intros. I can't blame them much because it's impossible to prepare someone for impact PvP. You can die in EVE in seconds. No tutorial can do much about that past the basic controls, and telling you to run away. Ideally players would fill the gap, but its often imperfect.

Community. I don't know, you can't give better tools than the ability to request a limited API and be able to see a person's characters and history, and even then that doesn't always work.

Very spot-on points though.

The Lost said...

I have been looking forward to the focus shifting to Sandbox MMOs, and I can say this post made it worth the wait.

I would like to add one thing to start though. I'm not sure whyt everyone is focused on face to face physical combat as PvP. There are people who never leave the auction house in WoW who will argue they risk as much or more in their PvP battles. In a battleground you spend 10-30 minutes of your time fighting for the gain of some honor points and tokens for gear, regardless of winning or losing, and then spend 10-20 gold to repair any damage your gear sustained. In the AH you have the possibility of winning or losing many times that in gold. So what if you built a sandbox game where the PvP focus was guild or even town-based instead? I'll address Evizaer's points using this focus instead.

The Player-is-a-Peon Problem: Give every player the opportunity to supervise NPCs. Each player could start with 2 contract slots they could fill with NPCs. Say 1 crafter, 1 transporter, or a number of fighters for each slot. Tradeskillers could let their crafting NPCs churn out any recipe the Player's Character already knew(to a quality already performed by the Player on this character), letting the Player focus on the fun aspects of altering recipes, or learning new ones while the NPC would work on standing orders, say grinding support beams for the new guildhall, even when the player wasn't logged in. Transporters could carry tradegoods to other cities or harvest resources from a target area scouted out by the character. As long as the resources shifted every few days, and the transporters "stayed home" after the shift happened, there wouldn't be any worry that Players could become obscenely wealthly by going AFK for a few months. And the fighters could be used to protect the transporters, guard the town, or setup at road intersections as bandits.

The Logging-off Problem: Once the player logs back in they recieve a report on their NPC's activities and they are ready to get back in the action. The NPCs would have continued to work on their assignments, with appropriate breaks worked in for day/night schedules, so that the crafter NPCs don't work 24/7 like magical elves.

The Lost said...

Excessive vertical advancement: Given that face to face combat isn't the focus of the game, there is more flexibility with the vertical advancement. A Player with 2 NPC contract slots can compete with one who has unlocked 5 contract slots, it's just going to take some effort; finding a new trade route to cut costs or searching out the higher quality raw materials as examples.

Themepark-style newbie zones mislead players: The Player's toon is given the option to get put through a decent tutorial of quests or turned loose in world with the same amount of pocket change the tutorial would have given. At that point they have the option of joining one of several NPC "helper" guilds until they get drafted by a player run guild. This gets them in with actual players, and eases them into the world, just need to make the benefits of player run guilds far outweigh the NPC ones. Having an impact on your own town should be enough though.

Infantile community building tools: This needs to get fixed no matter what genre of game is being played. Evizaer has mentioned attaching information to characters for ingame historians to use(which I would love to see!), what about attaching that information to regions where it happened in addition to the character? For example, The Lost is a rotten person in Westcoastville, cheats customers, bumps old ladies with excusing himself, and takes candy from babies. However, in Eastcoastville he is a pillar of the community and has a festival in his name. What if there was a skill in game for information gathering, maybe name it...gather information. A player in Westcoastville could use the skill in reference to The Lost and get some or all, depending on skill or minigame results or whatever, and could pass that information along to others. We've now opened up another player job for information brokering, and made it possible for their to be different quality reports, as long as they reference where they are taken. Also opens up more opportunity for intrigue. Did a big guild pay to have the info broker ask for info everywhere but the one town that could report on the negative aspects of a character?

Some ideas anyway, I do enjoy face to face PvP from time to time, but I always enjoy advancing my guild/town...

Tesh said...

I've bloviated a bit about PvP recently. I'm of a mind that vertical power bands (the backbone of PvE) and PvP are working to cross purposes, and games have trouble when they try to mix those purposes.

A sandbox almost needs to be more about PvP.

Unknown said...

I find it terribly exciting to see more people talking about these issues.

Sandbox MMOs have not even scratched the surface of the innovations they need to make.

I agree that this the "The Player-is-a-Peon Problem." is a very BIG problem. All players need to be wolves. It will also solve the full-loot worries since dying won't sentence you to another 3 hours of grinding. Solving this would work well with multiple characters. All of those characters should be persistent in-game. They should just be faceless while you are offline and locked to an area or building.

The other thing is to that skill gain should happen while you are offline but a character needs to be played optimally for say at 5 hours per week to gather up the experience and that experience is then assimilated while you are offline. Other games have done this. Remove the time-grind completely.

There are just so many things they can do to move the sandbox genre away from that narrow themepark perspective.