When I wrote my PvE sandbox series of posts, I wrote them thinking that the audience would be similar to those that play PvP sandbox MMOs, but instead of competing directly against each other, those players would be more focused on cooperation. I think I misjudged that audience.
Themepark MMOs on average are for dumb and/or lazy MMO gamers (compared to sandbox players). That’s insulting, yes, but it’s also true. There is a reason WoW got ‘dumbed down’. There is a reason core themepark design revolves around holding the players hand and guiding them, and much of the ‘innovation’ since 2004 has been in that area (quests on your map, auto-grouping, instant travel, instant mail, from anywhere auction house, dungeon finder, etc). “You can’t fail” and “everyone is a winner” design is there for a reason. Themepark players need to be treated like infants, and the minute you take away a toy, they throw a tantrum, and tantrums are bad for business.
“Bite sizes” content exists because that’s the attention span of your customer. It’s also the maximum amount of life planning they can do. Figuring out how to free up a two hour chunk of time is too hard for that audience, and even if they could do it, you would lose them over those two hours unless you rewarded them every 15 minutes or so. Long-term investing is not a concept that audience is familiar with, which is why guild structures are so loose, goals are so short, and the ‘ability’ to jump in and out of any one game is viewed as a positive.
It’s also why F2P themepark MMOs are semi-successful. F2P is a math tax business model, and much like slots or the lottery, the target audience is anyone not smart enough to do the math. By tricking the average themeparker into believing they are paying less, while they pay more, the company gets more money from them without the dummies noticing. Plus designing store ‘content’ is trivially easy compared to, you know, real MMO content. Who needs complex, long-term sustainable systems when you can just release another sparkle pony or neon baseball cap? (Let alone selling someone the ability to not play).
So a PvE sandbox wouldn’t really work. The players who would ‘get it’ already play in their sandbox of choice, and while they might not love PvP or actively seek it out, they accept it and continue to play the way they want (because, you know, sandbox). Meanwhile, the real PvE fans who THINK they want a PvE sandbox simply wouldn’t be able to play it. They would hit the first 15 minute stretch without a reward and get distracted by a shiny. They would see that in order to reach a goal they need longer than 30 minutes and declare the goal impossible. They would expect to jump in/out of the game and destroy the needed social structure of a sandbox, assuming of course they even took the first step of actually getting INTO the social structure to begin with.
So the angst over something like CU getting funded is a bit funny to me. PvP sandboxes continue to see funding and success because it’s proven they work when done right. McMMO themeparks work when done right as well. But a deep, solid PvE MMO? I’m not sure that audience actually exists outside of the tiny niche that is currently playing AtiTD, and so far, the industry agrees with me.