The PvE Sandbox

Whenever a Darkfall update is features on Massively, odds are good someone is going to comment on how they would love to play in such a world, just without the FFA PvP. Now it should be pretty obvious to anyone that if you removed FFA PvP from Darkfall, the game would be pretty boring and more or less not work, but that does not mean the concept of a PvE sandbox is impossible, or relegated to something like A Tale in the Desert (no combat).

One key to any good sandbox is motivators, because unlike a themepark, everyone’s path is not pre-set and often you are tasked with setting your own goals. While freedom is very important, total freedom leads to many not having ‘stuff to do’ and leaving. PvP solves this problem because even if you are not doing something, someone might come along and ‘create’ something for you to do. This act-react cycle can continue indefinitely if pre-set correctly.

The idea for a PvE sandbox would be to replace the actions of aggressive PvPers with mobs, but ‘fixing’ the errors with human behavior. Mobs would not drop server-up sieges, they would not camp your corpse, and would not complain about an uneven fight or seek to grossly zerg you because they can. They would still bring action to your doorstep, and would still have a real impact. If you fail to defend your city, it becomes a mob city until you or someone else takes it back. Mobs would no longer have set spawn points, but rather shifting base camps that send out parties in various directions with no ‘leash’ limit. The mob warband would attack who they spot, die or kill others, and continue on. If players over-hunt mobs in a certain area, they leave, and that part of the world becomes more/less ideal depending on what you want to do (good for farmers, bad for monster hunters). Again, the idea is to mimic common player behavior while taking advantage of the fact that mobs can’t ragequit or use creative gameplay to get ahead.

The biggest hurdle or challenge with such a design, aside from the usual stuff like a good combat system and an interesting world (clone DF…) would be the AI for the mobs; they would need to do a little more than charge at you when you get into agro range and exchange until someone drops. Or at least, some of them would, as it would be both realistic and entertaining to see lots of lesser mobs charge mindlessly, mimicking newbie/bad players perfectly. But beyond having the actual confrontations with the mobs be interesting, the ‘why’ behind the mobs would have to be deeper and more dynamic than just “the script said so”.

You would need to say, day one: “Our mobs have a set number of needs and wants, and will seek to accomplish them. This may or may not lead to your entire city being burned. It’s also possible that after burning one city, the mobs continue and burn ten more. We make no promises that every fight is winnable, or that mobs won’t overrun large sections of the world. Actually, we don’t really know WHAT the mobs will do exactly, as a large part of their actions will be reactions to what the players do. Good luck, we can always restart if we need to”.

And because the world has no direct PvP (stuff like market competition and other indirect forms of PvP always exist), the setup is a case of us vs them for all players, which would hopefully lead to a more unified community. Some players would still attempt to grief as best as they can, but if the world truly relies on player cooperation (decent gear being only craftable in established player cities that, in turn, lead to more and stronger mob attacks/attention), the outcasts would soon be black-listed and find life even more challenging. Villains should exist, but their existence should be more difficult than those who ‘play along’.

The somewhat recent launch of the EQ1 progression server, along with things like SWGemu, UO shards, and interest in PvE-DF, has shown that, at least among a subset of the market, there is a group of players who still enjoy playing as part of a community, of being a member of a world rather than a copy of an ‘epic’ tale, and of working with others rather than always against them. What was impossible tech wise in 97/99 (mainly complex AI and the world to contain it) is now very much a possibility in 2011. We just need the right dev team to go out and do it.

9 Responses to The PvE Sandbox

  1. Nils says:

    I agree. The wheel started to turn into this direction some time ago and I am optimistic that we will get a AAA fantasy sandbox within the next decade.

    That’s more than we could have hoped for two years ago ..

  2. Shadow says:

    I remember reading an article about the original concept behind UO, way-back-when, they didn’t fully realize the full potential of fun players would have in direct conflict/competition. One of the ambitious goals they wanted was to create a simulated ecology that would lead to different interactions in the world similar to that described in your post. The example they used was something along the lines of:

    Players kill sheep > Wolves lose their prey, and start populating > players kill wolves > Dragon loses their prey and shows up

    It wasn’t that simple, but gives a sense of the cause/reaction relationship they were aiming for, but they also underestimated the time-commitment (read: willingness to grind) of their playerbase, and found that dragons were showing up as a matter of course instead of an occasional rare occurrence.

    It’s interesting to think that as much as technology has advanced, there are still design wishes that have yet to be met or realized to the satisfaction of original desires.

    • SynCaine says:

      I still have the guide book that not only details the system, but has a profile for each monster with their top needs/wants. I believe Ralph Koster has a few posts about the system and why it failed as well.

      But yea, something that failed in 97 is not an outright bad idea, it was just not implemented correctly and the tech at the time also limited it.

      Just a guess, but if someone made a AAA MMO off the original UO design docs, they would make a pretty damn good game.

  3. Bhagpuss says:

    I think what you describe is the MMO an awful lot of people are wishing for. I know I’d play it.

    I’d also say that the kind of things we’re seeing done in Rift and we might see in GW2 are pushing up the possibility that we might actually get an MMO like this one day.

    Of course, Horizons was supposed to be something like this and we saw how well that turned out…

  4. Zarkil says:

    I love this idea but I think the main problem will be the hero factor. For a game like this to have a strong community players will have to have a strong need of other players. This is easy to do in crafting but in combat it means you won’t be able to be the great hero that solo’s a whole village of goblins.

    I think that a skill based progression system would allow for this best. If you are just starting out and learning how to fight a weak mob would be a challenge but as you got better you could possibly take on a group of weak mobs solo.

    Will never happen though. While I would play it this game would never have a huge subscriber base. Most casual players want to be able to solo everything and hard core pvp fans wouldn’t play either.

    Developers seem to be more interested in trying to kill wow and less interested in making a good game that could be profitable with 300k subs.

  5. Trippin Ninja says:

    Love this post. I would totally be into the game you describe. Getting older has turned me into a carebear, I admit it. If a game like this hit the shelves I would definitely check it out.

  6. Jonathan says:

    Very assuming for me to see this directly above your post saying that GW2 won’t solve all your problems. Now, I don’t think GW2 _will_ solve all problems for everyone… but GW2 might be the closest we have to this on the development schedule right now.

    I think GW2 might stretch the themepark / sandbox debate a bit. If WoW-Cataclysm is way on the “themepark” side of the discussion, and Darkfall is way over on the “sandbox” side, we might end up needing to think about a spectrum rather than just a pair of categories, with RIFT and GW2 in the middle (RIFT leaning a bit more towards WoW and GW2 a bit more towards Darkfall, but both closer to each other than either end).

    I’m looking forward to trying ArenaNet’s offering and seeing where it is.

  7. [...] few days ago I posted about a PvE Sandbox MMO, and while the post got my overall point across, I think it might be fun to fully expand upon the [...]

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