“It seems much easier to make interesting, sandbox PvP content then it is to maintain and create PvE treadmill content”

Every now and then you come across something shocking it’s just too hard to ignore. Today is one of those days. This is a comment from a post Keen made, waiting for WoW to embrace its PvP nature (pro-tip: HKO is going full-loot before WoW embraces MMO PvP).

Bartlebe (15th comment):

The baffling thing about this, for me, is that it seems much easier to make interesting, sandbox PvP content then it is to maintain and create PvE treadmill content.
They could make interesting and wonderful open world PvP content fairly easily.

He goes on, but that part is the real gem.

First let’s consider the context here: we are talking about WoW, where the devs claim it’s technically impossible to get a 100v100 battle going without instancing it, hence the failure of Wintergrasp. Ignore the fact that, in WoW itself, you had bigger world battles in vanilla, but hey, they said it’s impossible, so it must be true. And pre-BG vanilla is also the last time WoW had anything remotely resembling world PvP, and it was Blizzard who worked diligently to crush it, so again, look forward to those HKO changes first.

But let’s move beyond WoW and look at the MMO genre as a whole: how many working sandbox PvP games have we had, compared to how many PvE treadmill games we have seen continue on year after year, despite being average at best? Or to put it another way: which would be easier to re-create and get right, EVE or WoW?

We have seen WoW recreated dozens of times, with various results (from LotRO to Alganon), but the formula itself is about as Mickey Mouse as playing WoW itself, and the make/break really comes down to polish, timing, and your IP.

The list of issues in recreating EVE is about as long as the wait for a pony reskin.

Hell, even EVE itself took years to really get itself into shape and become the massive success it is today, not to mention the ambitious plans CCP has for it’s future to further refine and get the game ‘right’. WoW ambitious future? A few zone revamps, and two more player model reskins. Ground-breaking stuff, really.

The simple fact is that PvE content, especially instanced, super easy PvE content, is easy to create in terms of getting it right. Yes, you need good artists to make it look good, and you need a QA army to polish it, but given how controlled everything is, balance and predicting what the players might do is kids stuff. Plus, if you screw it up (Rag 1.0, Nef 1.0, AQ40 1.0), just say it was tuned to be difficult and scale it down. Oh actually, call that a ‘feature’ going forward!

The obvious advantage a PvE themepark has is that everything is separated into its own little instance (be it an actual instance or level-set zones), and that instance is so tightly controlled that, well, your players get on the rail, get pulled along by the nose, and eventually depart after receiving their complimentary gift. So long as you don’t leave a gaping hold in the rail, the content ‘works’. The biggest enemy to your game, the players, can’t do more than dance on a mailbox to harm you, as you have ensured they keep their hands inside the ride at all times, and you shuffle them on/off at exactly the right time.

Those safety nets don’t exist in a sandbox. The more ‘sandbox’ you make your game, the more freedom you give to the players. Most will use this for good, but it’s not those who make designing the game a challenge. The minority who seek to destroy everything are the ones who makes designing a sandbox so difficult, and the more ‘sandboxy’ your game, the more weapons you give them.

Without instances that change the rules, without spells only doing X in setting Y, without checking to make sure everything is nice and ‘fair’ before you start, the downward spiral can come quick in a sandbox, and once you get rolling it only feeds the griefers to continue abusing things harder. While blah themeparks can chug along for years (DDO), a poorly designed sandbox soon eats itself whole (SB).

It’s also very telling that the ‘easy’ way out of a problem is to add themepark-like controls (WG becoming an instance), while only a few will stick to the original goal and put in the work to make it right (CCP with fleet warfare). It’s telling that games like WAR, which tried to play the middle, ultimately fail on the sandbox elements and ‘cheap out’ by going themepark. Knowing what we know about Mythic, if going sandbox really was the easy path, WAR would have been on it after the 3rd month.

Ultimately the trap some players fall into is they look at the complexity of a single piece of sandbox content from the outside, compare it to the complexity of a themepark piece, and come to a conclusion. The reason this fails is that in a sandbox, you CAN’T just look at any one item and focus on that without analyzing the impact to the rest of the game. You can’t tweak a malfunctioning PvE ability without looking at its PvP impact. You can’t change up crafting on a whim without considering what it will do to the economy, which ultimately controls both PvE and PvP motivations. The entire world is one giant complex puzzle, rather than a long string of one-off content chunks, all of which can and do often get a massive ‘reset’ to fix whatever balance or design issues that may arise.

When’s the last time EVE had a themepark-like reset button pressed?

39 Responses to “It seems much easier to make interesting, sandbox PvP content then it is to maintain and create PvE treadmill content”

  1. Dblade says:

    As for sandbox PvP games, well Fallen Earth’s players keep trying to make it one, but considering the AP grind it wont be any time soon. Aion is probably the closest to a sandbox ffa style of PvP game, although more focused. You see a lot of F2P games advertise full PvP too: Fantasy Earth online and Regnum Online are two I can think of.

    I think Bartlebe is correct in that a PvP game can have dull or nonexistent PvE and still exist. Balancing is less of an issue as you think as opposed to getting the game up and running. People still play Darkfall, after all.

    But I don’t think we see a lot of sandbox PvP because it just doesn’t work. With EVE, after the initial acclimation, all you really do is the same things over and over. You join a corp, and tend your wormhole/farm in 0.0/go roam in lowsec. There’s no real goals to shoot for that the average player can do apart from what is similar to a PvE game: learn to use bigger ships and make money.

    EVE also has something you skip over: you can play it for free. I can tell you right now, if you eliminated PLEX from the game you’d see them lose probably half their subs.

    I think you overrate balancing though. Any sandbox game will lean towards cherrypicking and zerging, and those never can be balanced. It’s more getting the game to run: DF is the poster child for how not to make a balanced sandbox game, and it survived.

    • SynCaine says:

      Does it bother you that facts get in the way of your opinions?

      Like that EVE retains players longer than most (all?) MMOs. Or that balance is always a top concern for a PvP MMO. Or that Aion is a (bad) themepark. Or that, just in general, you are basically always wrong about everything related to DF?

      Because it would bother me.

      • Dril says:

        I know what you mean man, it must really chafe your strong values when you write about WoW.

        Source for the EVE data?

        Prove that Aion is a bad themepark when its endgame is, and this may be quite shocking, about capturing and holding various forts/castles in an ever-changing environment whilst simultaneously grinding for various items with which to improve that capacity to combat. Now, forgive me for my bloated ignorance, but that sounds an awful lot like the endgame of every sandbox.

        Oh, by the way: if balance is a top priority, then no wonder no PvP MMO has done well, or even as well as EVE: balance is impossible. The sooner people get over that the better.

        • SynCaine says:

          You confuse balance with a fair fight. That seems to be a common problem for outsiders though, so no worries.

          Google the EVE data. Read the related CCP report, then compare it to other MMO reports (financial are a good start).

          Aion: Two pre-set sides, fighting over pre-set goals for pre-set rewards, climbing a pre-set advancement system (which itself is best gamed by PvE rather than PvP, or was the last time I checked) to unlock pre-set bonuses/items. All to ultimately…

          But yea, sandbox, and totally what happens in EVE.

        • bonedead says:

          DAoC had the best sandbox PvP I ever did see!

        • Dblade says:

          EVE? Pointless roaming around in lowsec space, defending 0.0 space that is ultimately meaningless in terms of who holds it or not, because all it can offer is ISK.

          There’s no point to fighting. That’s why hi-sec is full, because 0.0 doesn’t really offer anything except more ISK and some random, cyclical PvP.

          Aion may offer bonuses, but EVE offers little to no incentive to fight. They are trying to, with the cap blueprints and their sansha things, but virtually everyone ignored the sansha events when they strayed into lowsec.

          You can keep going on about EVE, but for those of us that actually have played it realize the image isn’t all that linked to reality.

          As for balancing, misses the point. You can make the most balanced skill system possible: it wont matter because people will just unbalance it via numbers. There is no fair fight in any FFA PvP game.

          Again, EVE. E-war ships are well balanced: they are made out of paper, use most of their slots for e-war gear meaning they are killable easily, and have their own skill sets. But put 3 or 4 of them in a fleet and all those disadvantages go out the window.

    • DrPest says:

      With EVE, after the initial acclimation, all you really do is the same things over and over. You join a corp, and tend your wormhole/farm in 0.0/go roam in lowsec. There’s no real goals to shoot for that the average player can do apart from what is similar to a PvE game: learn to use bigger ships and make money.

      You’re making a mistake here. You’re applying themepark incentives to a sandbox.

      Yes, EVE is a stupid grind when it comes to make money, especially at the beginning. Later on you can diversify and shorten the time spend on making money. You’re mistake is, that this is not a long term goal for most EVE players. Flying bigger ships or earning lots of money comes with time, you don’t have to do very much for that.

      Long term goals for a lot EVE players are somewhat different: Things like become a good and respected Fleet Commander or Corp Leader or even Alliance Leader. Become a known and feared pirate. Become a superrich trader with everybody wondering how big your personal wallet is.
      Not many people ever reach a goal like this, but it keeps them going on.

      Or even just plain and simple shoot as many other guys as possible. Grief ‘em, kill ‘em, collect their dead, frozen bodies. Why do people play Counter-Strike or StarCraft? Isn’t it the same grind over and over again? Yes it is, but at the same time it’s fun.

      Again, don’t apply themepark incentives to a sandbox, it just won’t work.

      • Dblade says:

        How is that different from being a good healer or tank in other games though? You can make goals in any game, themepark or not. You can be a good guild or raid leader in any game.

        Doesn’t change the fact that for the most part, you are doing the same old stuff once you reach your comfort zone.

        • Saucelah says:

          Except in every themepark game I’ve ever played, there’s little to no chance, even in servers with low population, that anyone other than your friends and clan mates will ever know.

          Do you play Eve? It’s simply ridiculous to play for bigger ships and more money. Those things happen automatically, so the game mechanics encourage players to make individual goals. The game does not dangle goals in front of you, and over time hands It’s much different from setting the goal of being a good healer or a good tank — no one will ever know if you are outside of your guildies and a few random PUG members. Your desire to be good at your class has no effect on the game world and little chance to leave any kind of impression.

          You can’t even aspire to be the richest crafter in WoW — there’s a gold cap as inflexible as the level cap. I have a corpmate in Eve who ragequit WoW for that very reason — his personal goal in WoW was to dominate the market, and he did not know there was a gold cap until he reached it. He’s now using Eve’s economy as a model of the real world economy and basing his MBA thesis entirely on the game. That could never happen in WoW.

        • mandrill says:

          Its different because the role of fleet commander is not something that is determined by a game mechanic hard coded into the game, it is an actual, real life ability. Its situational awareness, tactical thinking, managment, and social skills. Its not simply knowing when to push the ‘heal’ button or when the big bad boss does that crazy thing that you have to be ready for.

          All of the true goals for any player of EVE are external to the game’s coded mechanics and require the development of skills which are not determined by a number on a character sheet. Gear is not important, your ship is not important, your ability, personality, and determination are. This is what a true sandbox is, it is not a ride that you enjoy until its over, it is a system that you test yourself against until you win. A theme park ride doesn’t teach you anything, a sandbox teaches you to beat it.

          Lets list some of the attainable goals in EVE that are in no way built into the mechanics of the game:

          Trusted third party service provider, someone who acts as a middleman to ensure that deals involving large amounts of ISK are above board. Chribba is probably the most prominent example of this. google his name. you don’t even have to include the name of the game.

          Lottery administrator: just what it says on the tin. you sell tickets people win stuff.

          Third party application developer: Write a bit of software that uses the games API to provide some sort of service to players. EVEMon, EVEHQ, iClone, Dotlan’s Maps, and many many more.

          Tourist: No need to fight, no need to do any of the things that the game lays out for you. just fly around visiting interesting places in game and write about them.

          The only limit on what you can do in EVE is your own imagination (and a couple of rules regarding the IP and ISK selling etc)and a lot of the skills required are your skills and they’re not determined by the stats on a character or piece of gear.

  2. Bronte says:

    1. I agree with most of your start, except the part where WoW isn’t being original. I have had my stints with WoW. I have played hardcore, leading the top-ranked guild on the server, decimating opponents in PvP and then casual, running an endless stream of 5-mans and manipulating the AH. But no matter how many times I quit the game because it gets too repetitive, they come up with some new (set of) feature(s) that forces me to give in and re-subscribe. I am not a huge WoW-aholic, but given my re-subscription history, I know Blizzard can create compelling content and features that are, more often than not, ahead of the curve. There is a reason a lot of games are labeled “WoW-clones”, and not vice versa.

    2. I agree that griefers will use sandbox tools and freedom to create havoc, but then again that is what a sandbox is supposed to be. It is supposed to give you the necessary tools to give you what you want, whether that is building the world, or wrecking it completely. In either case, the player is justified, because in true sandbox style, the player is “doing what she wants”.

    3. I don’t get the context of your ending question.

    Solid read though, thanks for this!

    • SynCaine says:

      The ending question: themeparks have the luxury of instantly fixing anything broken or imbalanced by raising the level cap (ie: resetting the game). It’s a huge crutch, and allows the devs to get lazy and do things that are in no way sustainable long-term (which is what an MMO should be all about; an endless world).

      Sandbox games don’t have that luxury, and so not only do the devs have to get the initial content right at the time, but they have to consider how it’s going to function 5+ years down the line.

      That’s a bit more challenging than just pumping out yet another instance, loading it up with silly powerful gear (to get people interested in it), and then going back to square one by +5’ing the level cap.

  3. boatorious says:

    You portray the EVE and WoW approaches to mass combat as a “two roads diverged in a wood” thing, but I don’t really agree.

    There is a lot that’s compelling about mass combat in EVE. And even if you don’t think it’s compelling you have to admit it is necessary, given the design of the game. So if you’re a designer trying to make compelling gameplay in EVE, and mass combat isn’t working, you go to your programmers and say “mass combat is laggy but it is fun, so we have to make it work from a technical standpoint.”

    On the other hand, there is very, very little that’s compelling about mass combat in WoW. Nor is it really necessary, considering the design of the game. So if you’re a designer trying to make compelling gameplay in WoW, and mass combat isn’t working, you say “mass combat is laggy and also unfun, so we need to ditch it or discourage it.”

    I don’t see a lot of daylight between those decisions. Both created a more compelling experience within their respective games. Good game design is about making compelling experiences, not flaunting technical machismo.

    • SynCaine says:

      I would fully agree with you had Blizzard themselves not attempted (multiple times in fact) to get mass world combat working. First with smaller stuff like the BC capture points, then ‘all out’ with the hype of Wintergrasp. The BC stuff failed, and WG became a battleground with tanks.

      The only time mass world combat worked in WoW was accidental, in TM/Hills. And like I mentioned above, Blizzard themselves came in and crushed that.

      • Dril says:

        It didn’t work at all though. It simply happened because people had nothing better to do. Tarren Mill/Southshore did not occur for any reason other than people wanted to have a nice big battle on occasion, but other than that there was no actual reason to do so.

        Paradoxically, any time Blizzard have given players a reason to do world PvP they’ve starkly avoided it.

        Oh shit. I forgot the changes to the honour system. Let me rephrase that:
        SS/TM only occurred because it was more interesting than the same three BGs over and over and you lost nothing (but didn’t gain anything either) by doing that. The mechanics (or rather, the lack of them) never had any bearing whatsoever; it was the simple fact that people PvPed, and did so in a world setting because it provided equivalent rewards.

        So, yeah, it worked in a sense.

        I’m lost.

        The Honour system was a total crappy grindfest pre-overhaul, but it did provide world PvP and the odd escape from BGs if your server was into it. There.

  4. Torcano says:

    Great post Sync, pretty much made anyone like Keen, Bartlebe, and Dblade look like asinine morons.

    After you laid out the facts like that, if anyone tries to argue it they simply prove their lack of intelligence.

    @Bronte

    You realize that 99% of the “original mechanics” that WoW has were ripped straight from EQ and UO?

    • Drew says:

      Since you’re so big on “facts” and arguing against them making you look like an idiot; how about you run down every feature in WoW and identify the 99% that aren’t original.

      I’ll be waiting.

      SynCaine makes some good points, sure, and I agree with much of what’s written here. But that hardly makes anyone who argues against him an “asinine moron”; particularly when he doesn’t link said facts, rather, just points them to the internet to go find it for themselves. I don’t know about you, but I don’t like to just assume that others have everything 100% right. And I don’t see any true rebuttal to the concept that EVE retains subs because much of the player base can do it for free (via PLEX).

      • SynCaine says:

        The reason I didn’t link to the EVE sub source is because it’s not one source. CCP published a piece a while back showing retention numbers (based on total SP). That baselines EVE. Then from various other sources (some public, some from private conversations with MMO devs), I can piece together a rough average for the industry.

        I over-exaggerate (intentionally, for effect) opinions when I write at times, but I don’t just pull facts out of thin air. You don’t write a ‘kind of a big deal’ blog for 3+ years without talking to a few people in the industry, and the only difference between bloggers and devs is bloggers talk about other games publicly.

      • DrPest says:

        I don’t think you really understood the PLEX thing at all. Nobody plays for free in EVE. Every PLEX in game has been payed for with real world money. You are just allowed to trade them for ingame currency, which gives you the feeling “Oh i can play this for free if i just invest the hours and hours to grind enough ISK for a PLEX herp derp.”

        • Dblade says:

          The amount of ISK needed to earn a plex is tiny. They were 250ish mil when I played, and most small corps or even single players could earn that over a month once they hit l4 missions or got halfway decent making money.

          What it means is some players pay for others to play for free, and the amount of plexes and isk out there is large enough to ensure a healthy chunk of people are doing it.

        • Torcano says:

          So what, you are arguing that CCP doesn’t make money? Mighty generous of them to keep servers going anyways?

      • Drew says:

        I get that, Syn, and my rebuttal was really intendded for Torcano, here, who’s waving around the “facts” argument at the same time he’s pulling numbers out of thin air to make a baseless counter filled with ad homs. I’m not personally debating your facts, I am however debating the idea that it makes people morons for having their own opinions, especially when teh facts aren’t presented in the post in question. I think that’s fair.

        @DrPest: I don’t play EVE, but I understand how PLEX works. The point that Dblade was making is that PLEX is a big impact on why they retain subs. The 50% loss is obviously pulled from thin air, as well, but then again he’s not berating people as idiots or morons for not believing him.

        • SynCaine says:

          At the PLEX thing: I’d argue that having players PAY but not PLAY (the whole PLEX, EVE Offline argument) is an even greater statement to your game than anything else. Look how many games can’t even get people to bother without a charge (F2P games), and here you have EVE that, regardless of what the % is, has people paying month in, month out, without ‘really’ playing. That’s amazing.

        • Dblade says:

          That’s stupid rather. The only reason why they do so is because it’s impossible to advance the game without paying that fee.

          That means EVE isn’t worth playing, but the person is hedging their bets that someday it might start not to suck and by then they don’t want to still be piloting frigates or still in a t1 fit ship.

          They don’t even have to do that: they can stop subbing and just buy a high SP character wholesale.

        • Saucelah says:

          What’s much more stupid is making a broad assumption about why people choose to maintain subs they don’t use.

        • Dril says:

          Out of all the broad assumptions on this blog you choose to go after people attacking EVE?

          Christ, I got a massive laugh out of people going back to EVE because WoW too boring in Syncaine’s other post.

        • SynCaine says:

          You must be laughing for 7+ years now, since that’s how long EVE has continued to increase it’s playerbase.

          Wonder when all those players will finally figure out what you know, and discover that EVE is so boring…

        • Dril says:

          You sure like mentioning how it keeps increasing its playerbase. Is it some sort of relic to hold up to try and shy away from the fact that it has easily less than the themepark genre?

        • Torcano says:

          “Facts” should be Facts, without quotations.

          There is no debate about whether its harder to make open world content like EvE and themepark content like WoW.

          It is clearly much easier to make themepark content, if you know anything at all about games development or even just basic programming or game design.

          My point stands: If you THINK there is argument here, you are a moron.

        • Drew says:

          That’s great; except that isn’t at all the point I was arguing. I was pointing out your hypocrisy with the 99% argument (I notice you didn’t bother commenting), and talking about the EVE comment DBlade made. I don’t think DBlade ever mentioned anything about the ease of making one over the other, so I’m curious why you included him in the list of “asinine morons”. Basically, I’m saying you’re just ad homming people with no good reason, since they weren’t arguing the fact making one over the other is more/less difficult.

          Arguing that EVE isn’t fun is an opinion, not a fact. Arguing PLEX is a driver for EVE retention is also an opinion, not a fact.

        • Dril says:

          There’s always an argument about everything, dear. You’re a moron if you think there’s a factual debate you can have here.

  5. Loire says:

    When it comes down to it theme park MMO’s and sandbox MMO’s are two different genres entirely. Sandbox games are played by the purists, those who understand the “persistent world” goal and wish to pursue it.

    Those who play theme park MMO’s prefer their fun sanitized and easy. They prefer to follow the rails until they get their shiny.

    If thats what you find fine that’s cool just don’t come around saying Darkfall and EVE are shallow and pointless because you aren’t the 12 millionth player to become the hero of Azeroth.

  6. bonedead says:

    Am I the only one who is annoyed by the “then” instead of “than”?

    I went to the store and THEN I went home.
    I swung the bat much faster THAN he did.

    There is a difference people, come on! Srs bsns!

    • SynCaine says:

      Yes, yes you are.

    • Saucelah says:

      Heh, I have an MA in lit, and I frequently swap homonyms on the internet. Typing fast enough to hear the words in my head, but not slow enough to really consider the homonym.

      The only one that bothers me is lose/loose — these are not homonyms, and no one should mistake one for the other.

  7. Naithin says:

    I think there was a bit of a disconnect between the actual difficulties of producing the comment and the difficulties in getting people interested in it.

    —-
    The baffling thing about this, for me, is that it seems much easier to make interesting, sandbox PvP content then it is to maintain and create PvE treadmill content.
    They could make interesting and wonderful open world PvP content fairly easily.
    —-

    To me that reads more as the former. That it takes less effort to create the code that allows for players to then generate their own content than it does to design whole quests, whatever assets they require, make sure they work ‘as intended’ and all else that goes into a more theme-park type design.

    Of course, I don’t agree that in the instance of WoW it’d be automatically ‘wonderful’ just for allowing it.

    There would be as you mentioned a lot of need for balance work to get it ‘right’.

    I’d still go out on a limb though and say that adjusting base figures and the like is easier than all that themepark content entails; it’s just that it’s far more important to get it right in the instance of a sandbox. Get it wrong and that’s really all there is to it; there’s not much else to keep people going with it.

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