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.