Options of terror

Regardless of the game, if I don’t have a sense of where I should go next, I get anxious. I need to think about why this is. It’s not that I don’t enjoy an open world or freedom. I think I’m just scared of getting stuck. I get the same anxiety in dungeons. I don’t want to get lost.

Comment by Daniel Silva over at Tobold’s blog about Sandbox MMOs and their lack of direction (as compared to a themepark).

What’s somewhat ironic about this statement, and I believe the above could be echoed by thousands if not millions of MMO players, is the above is exactly what a good sandbox is all about; options. And not just options on how to ultimately reach ‘the end-game’, but options in terms of how you spend your time in-game on that particular day. Whether you decide to work on your skills, go out to gather wealth, explore to learn a new area, or just tag along and help out a guildmate, the decision is based on what you want to do, rather than on a “path to success” that has been documented somewhere online.

One example that comes to mind is new Darkfall players asking what they should do. Too often you will see a ‘vet’ list a bunch of skills and tell the player to grind until X so they can compete. The problem here is that unless the new player is only concerned with reaching ‘viable’ as soon as possible, just listing skills and telling someone to grind is the best way to get them burned out before they even start. Sure, character stats and skills are important, and eventually you will want a powerful character to fully contribute to PvP encounters, but between that point and a new character is a huge range of options, and rushing through them is, for most, not the correct approach.

Games like WoW however do a great job of conditioning players that the “path to success” is the ONLY path, and if you are not on it you are doing it wrong. Hell, most of the time WoW puts bumper rails to keep you on that path, and it takes a massive effort to jump off and play differently. This is where the ‘easy’ part of the design discussion comes in. If Blizzard knows what 99% of their players are doing between levels 1 and 85, then they can easily focus content and balance around that one path. In a linear sRPG, you don’t have to take into consideration what might happen if a new player stumbles into the final dungeon, right?

In a sandbox, stumbling into the final dungeon as a new player, or even better, accompanying your guild, could be an enjoyable experience. It should, at the very least, be an option, even if the end result is you going splat as soon as you enter. Going splat is ok though. The only way you can ‘fail’ is when you stop playing. Even in Darkfall, losing all your gear is a setback, but also motivation to get it back. So long as you log in and keep playing, you keep advancing, and the pace of advancement is only as important as you make it.

The more sandbox titles you play, the easier it becomes to adjust and not always focus on “the path”. It’s tough at first, and as seen above, sometimes even scary, but learning to accept the journey rather than just focusing on the end goal is how you ultimately get the most out of a sandbox title. And as someone with a wealth of experience in both styles, I can very safely say that the highs from a sandbox goal are far more rewarding than those from a themepark. You just have to learn to get there first.

(Business note: Most players refuse or are unable to learn not to focus on the shiny at the end. If you are aiming for the mass-market, themepark is the way to go. That said, if you plan your finances around 100k players, and end up with 200k, that’s pretty damn successful too, and a lot less risky than hoping for 1m plus and ending up with WAR)

20 Responses to Options of terror

  1. saucelah says:

    There was another comment over there that stood out for me, though mostly because it’s currently at the top. The poster makes the assumption that sandbox games all require a commitment of time and effort beyond what is casually entertaining.

    I think that’s only true if you’re the type of gamer that has to do it all, see it all, and be it all. And that’s simply not going to happen in a sandbox MMO unless you’re a gamer who has zero responsibilities outside the game — being the best and doing everything is an idea that needs to be completely out of mind if one is going to enjoy a sandbox. You are not a special snowflake — you are a cog in the world. Unless you are a special snowflake — then you really ARE a special snowflake and not just getting smoke up your bum from NPC quest text.

    To be honest though, I’m ok with gamers not enjoying sandbox play for these reasons. As long as the niche exists someone will be willing to market to the niche, and my sandbox won’t be filled with gamers with over-inflated senses of entitlement and self-importance.

    As for the original quote, I guess the guy never played RPGs before the internet era. I remember mapping out dungeons in the original FF. I kind of miss getting to know zones and maps by vision rather than following the glowy line a la Fable. I don’t want to have to map things out on my own, and I’m willing enough to press “m” to get my bearings, but games that hold my hand make me feel disconnected from the world.

    • bhagpuss says:

      My comment is currently at the top of that thread. If you’re referring to it, you’ve completely missed the point, although that may be due to my failure to express myself clearly enough.

      Azuriel’s first paragraph in the third post down actually expresses my feeling more succinctly. A lot of sandbox gameplay seems to me to be handing the infrastructure and design work to the paying customer and saying “Here’s the tools, do our job”. And they don’t even give you the real tools!

      • saucelah says:

        Azuriel’s post makes more sense to me. I think I was distracted by your use of the word “work.”

        We’ve had very different experiences with sandboxes, basically. I’m not able to relate to the feeling that there is no content whatsoever and that I have to work to create it, at least, not with at every point in every sandbox.

        I think a sandbox, a good sandbox at least, works to show players the content without telling them what to do. The game mechanics provide excellent reasons to do many different things, so the player learns these things as he travels through the game. I’m not saying such a game exists — I believe all the current sandboxes we’ve had do this at times but just as frequently fail.

        So I guess I can agree with what you are saying as a problem of existing sandboxes, but not as a necessary part of the definition.

    • Carson says:

      I suspect that the perception that sandbox games all require a massive commitment might be fed by all the high-profile sandbox games being hardcore PvP games. I suspect people would feel a lot more comfortable about playing a sandbox casually if a hardcore player riding into view prompted a reaction of “wow, look at him” rather than “oh well, I’m gonna lose all my gear – again.”

  2. Sean Boocock says:

    The sort of open ended sandbox that you advocate is, under several definitions of the concept “game,” not a game at all. What many of those definitions of game contain – and that something like Darkfall arguably lacks – is an implicit well defined goal that the players are trying to achieve in opposition or in concert with one another.

    When Daniel Silva or anyone else expresses frustration or anxiety about the lack of such a well defined goal, they’re drawing attention to this categorical distinction between “games” like Darkfall and games like Dragon Age.

    Darkfall and its ilk might be better characterized as simulations, or even as toolboxes for games. A sandbox “game” should have enough of the trappings of a more traditional game to allow players to define their own meaningful goals, and thus their own games. This is wonderful as it removes the incredible barrier to entry of creating such games from scratch and it (at least in most cases) wraps these mini-games in a meaningful context that ties them together.

    If people want to play games, sandbox “games” are usually not what they’re after. They don’t want to make games; they want to play them. That shouldn’t be a surprising fact as it falls out of the loose definition of game most people operate with.

    • SynCaine says:

      I think plenty of goals exist, and plenty of people are around to push them. If someone is not as driven to set one themselves, they can join a guild and play a part in a groups ultimate goal.

      Sure, finding the right guild is harder than just rolling up another WoW character and going 1-85 along the rails, but it can also be more rewarding if you find a great group with strong leadership. Not everyone has to be that leader (most don’t want to be), and playing a part is good enough for most (IRL and in-game).

      The game in question has to have enough tools and options to allow for multiple goals, and one could argue DF fails here (great PvP and Conquest game, not so great for traders/econ people) while EVE gets it right. One of my biggest hopes for DF2.0 is that the PvE/Econ aspect gets corrected, and roles outside of PvP badass have some real meaning.

      • bhagpuss says:

        We’ve done this discussion to death. I still contend that the player sets his own goals in every MMO and every MMO offers more tools than most players will ever want or need. Theme park MMOs tend to offer more tools that allow me to do stuff I find interesting than sandboxes do, although I also still contend that it’s a false dichotomy in the first place.

        If I have any problem with the traditional sandbox design it’s mostly that everything takes far too long. You were there in the glory days of the original sandbox, UO. Didn’t it famously only take two weeks to completely max your skills on one character there? I

        • SynCaine says:

          Not really, no. If you were around and exploited the magic resist bug, along with a few others, you could hit a certain 7xGM combo in short order using UOAssist or UOExtreme, but it was no way ‘legit’.

          If you did not exploit and just played “as intended”, 7xGM in 1997 UO would take months if not years. There was a reason the PvP shard had skill gates.

          Also you are the exception to just about everything, include player behavior. That you see sandbox options in a themepark does not mean the majority of the playerbase will. IE: is it possible to play WoW like a sandbox? Sure. Is anyone not named Bhagpuss doing it? No.

  3. Drew says:

    Fallen Earth immediately comes to mind for me as a perpitrator of this type of behavior. There were no respecs at launch, and the idea you could “gimp yourself” was very real.

    Regardless of the fact I enjoyed the game for the storyline and FPS elements, and knew full-well I wasn’t likely to hit level cap in a hurry, nor PvP meaningfully, I still worried myself sick over my build.

    Choices are great when the consequences aren’t irreparable. Old sRPGs had these types of issues where you could screw yourself completely by saving your game in the wrong place. I think that may ultimately be what drives people back to the “I don’t want to get lost” mentality described in the comment from Tobold’s blog above.

    • Drew says:

      That isn’t to say I failed to enjoy Fallen Earth – quite the contrary – I love(d) it. However, I would have loved it more if the skill system wasn’t so “final” at launch and I was able to mess around and figure out what I liked. A skill system similar (but please God, not identical) to Obvlivion would’ve been more appropriate, where trying stuff trained up the skill (and reduced the other, Guns/Melee, for example) rather than allocating points. Kind of like Darkfall, I guess, but we’ve seen the challenges there, too. The classless genre is still developing, I think.

      Of course respec items are now available … in the micro-tranaction store.

      • SynCaine says:

        I think the FE no-respec thing is valid, because how you build your character is pretty critical (as opposed to assigning some stats at the start of EQ1, for example).

        It’s a balance, you want decisions to be important, but you also don’t want to perma-gimp a large section of your playerbase.

      • saucelah says:

        I had this issue with Fallen Earth just playing around on a trial account. I like their character system, but I like open systems I can experiment with. I’m not willing to experiment if I have to pay for a respec.

        That’s a legitimate flaw in that game that leads to a legitimate fear.

  4. Nils says:

    As if WoW told you what to do next. Since level 10 and especially level 15 you got several options.

    You can skip quests to level as fast as possible or continue questing for the story (nowadays).
    You can LFD
    You can BGs
    You can gather resources
    You can skill a profession

    Later you can chose whether to LFD, raid, ‘open’-PvP, BG-PvP or gather resources. Or play the AH. Or skill a profession ..

    I’m not say WoW is a sandbox. It is not. But that’s not because it doesn’t offer options. I feel this whole “I don’t know what to do” misses half the point.

    • saucelah says:

      Except for the last two, those are options about how to level. And in order to get the best resources and skill up professions, players have to level. For most of a player’s time in WoW, the only motivation is to level up.

      A theoretical perfect sandbox would provide many motivations leading to similar tasks while being structured around larger goals. You would still go in to the dungeon, but you would do so not to level but to obtain some resource — just as one possibility.

      Such a sandbox could potentially have two players doing the exact same thing for very different reasons.

      • Nils says:

        I absolutely agree, saucelah. It’s just the the notion that players become confused in sandboxes because they can’t deal with all the options seems wrong to me.

        They have a lot of options in WoW, too. Sure, they’d like to become more powerful (level). Guess what players want in sandboxes … correct: They want to become more powerful.

        To do that in WoW you kill stuff. In most sandboxes, that’s exactly what you do, too.

        • saucelah says:

          In a sandbox, becoming more powerful should mean many different things from gaining territory to controlling resources to earning money to personal power. But making your own character able to kill others better should just be one slice of what it means to be more powerful.

  5. HI Syncaine,

    I’ve written previously about how I love the idea of a sandbox game, but am overwhelmed by the game not telling what I should do. It’s as you say…. I feel like I’ve been conditioned to expect directions to be given to me when there are, in fact, limitless paths to take in Darkfall.

    You put it about as well as I could, so thank you for sharing. At this point in time, I’m playing a themepark with excellent crafting elements (Eq2), though my mind still keeps thinking of Darkfall every now and then. :)

  6. D506 says:

    I’m not entirely convinced Darkfall is a sandbox, in all honesty. It’s an open world PVP game, for sure, but sandbox? Maybe I never played long enough and I didn’t ‘get it’, but I just didn’t really see anything else to do in Darkfall. Of course, there was PVE content, and quests and crafting; but those all felt very much meant to justify/support PVP rather than real game play in themselves.

    My problem with Darkfall was that viewed strictly as PVP focused game I had to endure absurdly long grinds in order to achieve mere viability, and still face disadvantage to players who simply had more grind under their belt. Viewed instead as a sandbox, well, there was simply very little sand and what there was depended on or was controlled by the PVP game.

  7. Azuriel says:

    The anxiety is pretty easy to explain, and I bet it has been experienced by any one of us who write at least casually:

    The blank page. And the damnable blinking cursor.

    That’s it. There is such a thing as too many options, as seen in this NY Times article or this Wiki entry or this other website (pick only one!). Like I mentioned in Tobold’s comments, the absolute wrong way to do sandbox is by pointing to the sandbox and saying “There you go. Have fun.” Even in sandbox games, there should be direction, if for no other reason to jump-start the process.

    Ironically, I think Minecraft does this well, even though it doesn’t tell you anything. Granted, if you actually buy Minecraft you undoubtedly were told the importance of the First Day in escaping from the zombies, etc. But Survival mode gives you pretty good direction: get inside before nightfall. And since you don’t likely have a bed, you probably spend a lot of that first night digging around inside your crude hut. From there, you get some stone, and probably say “I could do better than this…” …and the rest is history.

    As an aside though, honestly, the only real difference I see between sandbox and themepark MMO is that the latter has an actual plot or narrative. I might not be able to build a house or whatever in WoW, but technically the game doesn’t tell me to stop taking screenshots of beaches at various times of day (at least beyond it being a pain in the ass to get around the game world at low levels).

    • SynCaine says:

      If you take a step back, themeparks are horribly restrictive.

      You can’t enter zone X until level Y.
      You can’t enter dungeon X until level Y.
      You can’t join your guild for end-game stuff until you are capped.
      You can only instanced PvP against your level range.
      If your iLvl is below X, you get insta-gibbed.
      You can only equip what drops for you (most of the time), and what drops for you is directly tied to your level or iLvl.
      Population shift is tied to level, not preference (you can’t stay in Stranglethorn after level X, no matter how much you like the zone).
      On and on…

      Now, the above is a necessary evil to make a themepark ‘work’, but they are huge limitations regardless when compared to sandbox MMOs.

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