Life Evolution in the sandbox

Pacing and gameplay evolution are very important and at times overlooked factors in any MMO. The actions and motivations of a day one player are very different than those of a two year veteran, and good game design takes that into consideration. What can be enjoyable in the first month might very well be considered a ‘grind’ one year in, and something that might cause confusion after a few weeks could be a key feature keeping someone around month after month.

Themeparks get off easy in this regard because the developer is always in control of the rope pulling you forward, and they decide what is available to you day one, day one hundred, and ultimately on your last day. On the other hand a sandbox by design does not have such a rope, but rather multiple points-of-interest that server to motivate and influence, but never force, player behavior.

DarkFall has not always had the smoothest progression path, and while improved today it still has a ways to go before it’s fully there. Beyond the differences in control and UI, I believe the initial pacing of the game is currently solid. Skill gain from 1-50 is IMO relatively fast for most skills, and a skill at 50 is generally ‘good enough’. In relatively short order (10 hours?) you can be well on your way to establishing your preferred method of combat (melee/archery/magic), and in that time the average player should be comfortable with the controls, immediate environment, and basic concepts of the game. You certainly won’t be a master at anything, but your character should begin to establish an identity and purpose (being a part of a clan at this point will of course help in both regards, but motivated solo players should be fine).

In-game this means exploring and finding local mob spawns that are a good source of skill and loot gain, building up your bank, and learning the basics of crafting, PvE, and PvP (likely from getting attacked) combat. If you are part of a clan at this point you are likely still focusing more on PvE than PvP, with the major difference being that you are hunting mobs around your clan’s current location rather than a starter city, perhaps even in small groups. You can still join in on any PvP runs (with the knowledge that you will likely be going up against superior enemies and 1v1 situations will result in death, so just play your part and help out rather then trying to play the spearhead of any attack), and you will be included in major events such as sieges or large raids.

At some point later down the road (30-40 hours?), player motivation and gameplay should shift from discovery and growth to role execution. At this point your core skills should be around 75 or above, your secondary skills should be coming along, and you should have a solid understanding of most in-game mechanics and happenings. Your in-game time should be shifting away from focused skill gain to doing and reacting to what is happening around you (which is why a clan is key for all but the most self-motivated individuals), and through those actions your skills will continue to increase more ‘naturally’.

In-game this means you are now hunting mobs with a more focused goal (enchanting mats, gold for a specific skill/goal, rank 40+ weapons), and really working on your PvP skills, both group and solo. You should be able to hold your own in most combat situations (although power-gamers will still dominate you), and most importantly that initial rush and panic will be controlled.

The final ‘phase’ in a sandbox is true role pursuit and acceptance. Whether this means being a powerful economic force, a name to be fears on the battlefield, a regarded tactician, or simply a local area menace, you should have SOME purpose other than more gold/skills. Your character should be ‘done’ in most areas, with perhaps some secondary goals that serve more as a side project than a true need.

In-game this is where a sandbox shines, because the number of options and possibilities should be great, and the ability to change direction should be possible without a complete re-roll. This is also the stage of the game where upcoming additions and changes affect you most, and you should be heavily involved (directly or otherwise) in the ‘end-game’ of politics, city warfare, and empire building. The amount of content here should be nearly endless, as things such as alliances and military power change almost daily. Your allies today might be your enemy tomorrow and vice versa.

It’s this final phase that is both the major strength and current weakness of DarkFall. On the one hand, it deserves credit for having such a solid and functional end-game this early in its MMO life. That you want to and can siege a city without the server blowing up is more of an accomplishment then you might think, considering MMO history like SB (SB.exe), AoC (instanced city fails), WAR (the whole endgame), WoW (world PvP and Wintergrasp fails), Aion (fortresses). At the same time, clearly some issues exist, such as OP AoE magic, 6 hour sieges, ships and warhulk functionality, etc. And compared to other sandbox titles such as UO (pre-tram) and EVE, DarkFall is lacking the true depth those titles features in areas such as economic balance and possibility, non-combat influence/power, and RP/fluff possibilities (think player-made orc clans in UO).

The good news is that because of it’s solid base, developer time can and is being focused on adding and expending those areas rather than continually trying to get the core working, so while DarkFall might not be the game for you right now Mr. Exclusive Crafter Economy guy, it should/will be at some point ‘soon’, and when you do join up, you’ll have a lot of other options to entertain you as well.

(DarkFall-related post disclaimer/reminder. If you click the image link near the top-right of this page and buy a DarkFall account, I get paid 20% of the client cost. If you believe this taints my views and reporting on DarkFall, your opinion is wrong.)

About SynCaine

Former hardcore raider turned casual gamer.
This entry was posted in Age of Conan, Aion, Combat Systems, crafting, Darkfall Online, EVE Online, MMO design, Patch Notes, PvP, Ultima Online, Warhammer Online, World of Warcraft. Bookmark the permalink.

20 Responses to Life Evolution in the sandbox

  1. Tholal says:

    Hoowah player-made orc clans!

    Your posts have definitely started some casual thinking about trying Darkfall, but the stuff you bring up at the end of this post is what’s holding me back. Hopefully they will continue adding more fluff and alternate activities to make it a true sandbox experience.

  2. sid67 says:

    So what your saying is that sandbox games like Darkfall need more rails. After all, a clear progression path is pretty much the very definition of an ‘on rails’ style game.

    And to some degree, every game need those ‘rails’ or your community gets lost.

    It’s much like the ideas of pure communism and pure capitalism. Either extreme has problems so every system ends up having some elements of the other in order to be successful.

    So like everything in life, it’s not as black and white as just sandbox vs. themebox. The reality is shades of gray with one being a very dark gray and the other being a very light gray.

    Or put another way, are all rails bad? Or is better to say that what people really want is the opportunity to ‘go off the rails’ if they so choose.

    • SynCaine says:

      Rails don’t really function if they are two feet short, or if the rail is so wide that it’s basically a wide, flat path.

      Zone progression and player mentality progression (which itself is optional) are not shades of gray, but rather blue and red. A themepark keeps you on its progression rail at all times, and usually this is tied to a leveling or character power scheme. You must be this tall to go on the ride and all that. Sure the rail might have a split or two at some points, but the finish is always the same, and you can’t be a unique snowflake in how you get to that end. ‘Your’ path is just a very limited set of variables, all accounted for by the designers.

      The sandbox has no checkpoints or end, and rather then adding more splits or extensions (resets really) to the rail, the path simply gets wider and wider, or adds a different cardinal direction to travel in. So no, it’s not about adding rails at all.

      • Coppertopper says:

        By this definition the only real on-rails games are FPS like CoD. The difference between quests that guide you to an area of mobs appropriate to your skill level or char level and wanderng around until you find the same is moot since in the end you have the same gameplay – killing mobs for loot and levels. The real difference is in what else you can do.

        • SynCaine says:

          Not exactly. In WoW level 10 goblins are only useful to you at level 10. After that the rails take you to the next zone (with a choice of a few other zones in some cases), and this continues until the arrive at 80 and the ride loops in whatever raid instance is currently tops.

          In DF a goblin spawn can be used by a new player to learn the ropes, an advanced player for some easy skill gains, or a PK to search for targets. And this spawn sits in an area of the world that other players will travel through/near, be they noobs or vets. That new player can also elect to skip goblins entirely if he wants, moving to his clans city and skill/farm on more advanced mobs with some help, or fight whatever ‘easy’ mobs are local to that area.

          Without ever playing it, you could tell me the progression path in WoW for every character. Even if you have played it, you don’t know the progression path of a DF character without asking.

      • sid67 says:

        Syn- Even WoW at one extreme, isn’t truly on ‘rails’ at all points. You could, for example, go off the rails and do whatever the hell you want.

        Players who create level 1 alts to play the economic game certainly aren’t following any rails. Or alternately, in the end-game, a player could choose to do nothing but Arena. Or a twink can do nothing but low level BGs. And while that’s not exactly good pvp, it’s not ‘on rails’ in the sense you are using it (leveling, zone progression, questing).

        And at the other extreme, a game like EvE is mostly off rails but there are certainly some rails (tutorials, high sec systems) that provide guidance.

        Point being that entirely off rails or entirely on rails is not an optimum solution even if you prefer a game that is mostly at one end of the extreme.

        Off rails games need a certain amount of guidance and On rails games need a certain amount of flexibility.

    • Draglem says:

      There is the difference between guard rails on a flight of stairs and Roller-coaster guide rails the whole ride is built on. The rider can hold the guide rails in line if they get tired or whatever, but they have to abide by the architect’s guide rails on the ride; unless the line is the ride: See “South Park Line Ride”.

      All words are bad because some people do not like “Fuck” and “Shit”.

      • sid67 says:

        Exactly. But they are both still rails intended to keep you from falling off the path. I’m not questioning that one is certainly more restrictive than the other.

        In your analogy, I would argue that ‘off the rails’ would be the equivalent of giving someone a ladder (instead of stairs) and letting the person figure out there own way to get to the second or third floor. Not very practical.

        And on another note, I find it interesting that you are comparing “guard rails on a flight of stairs” to a “Roller-coaster.” After all, which is more fun?

  3. RoBErTiTo says:


    Syncaine could you please give me your opinion about Mortal Online?

    It seems to be a very nice sandbox MMORPG but I have not read anything about on your blog which kind of surprises me…

    I completely agree with your post on sandbox vs. theme parks. There is however one point that I would like to emphasize. Both EVE and DF rely too much (in my opinion) on player organizations (guilds, corps, alliances). I believe that the high importance of organized players separates them from UO were being a lone wolf was actually possible.

    Thank you in advance :)

    • SynCaine says:

      ‘Rumors’ from beta say MO is in rough shape overall, and while it has some nice ideas (crafting for instance), it needs a lot more time before it’s ready. Given that DF does right now what MO will try to do when ready, I’ve stayed away from it until I hear something more encouraging.

      • Malakili says:

        The NDA was lifted, and everything I’ve seen so far indicates that the game is in terrible shape by just about every metric possible. Buggy, tons of features missing, laggy, exploitable, etc.

        To be honest, I think this game looking so terrible is one of the things that drove me to getting Darkfall recently. I was holding out a bit of hope that Mortal might be the game I wanted to try instead, but it looks just..not remotely ready.

        • Andrea Bargs says:

          “Buggy, tons of features missing, laggy, exploitable, etc.” Sounds very much like the game syncaine adores when it was under ‘beta’ testing. Lol.

          At least the NDA was lifted, unlike um, you know what game I’m talking about haha.

          Also, is there a journalist friend of some sort who participated in MO’s beta who did nothing but sing praises about the game?

        • Malakili says:

          (there is a series of 4, watch them and tell me this game in its current state is worth switching to if you are playing DF).

        • Andrea Bargs says:

          Also wanted to clarify that DF in its current state and with its 1st yr anniversary coming up, is still buggy, has tons of features missing (go look up what the original “features list was) and is very much exploitable (go go radar hax, cling to your back hax, speed hax, etc).

          So I’d say DF and MO are pretty much on par with each other.

      • Minsc says:

        “Given that DF does right now what MO will try to do when ready.”

        It’s great that you are having fun in DF and don’t have any interest in moving any time soon, but at least get your facts straigh about MO :/

        I won’t comment on DF but what MO will try do when ready has more to do with a renewed version of Ultima Online than anything else. And I think we all agree that DF and UO have few in common, maybe the word sandbox, something that the first one barely deserves.

        Just needed to clarify that ;)

      • Andrea Bargs says:

        Syncaine, would you care to write an article detailing the 8 or so yrs of DF development, broken beta promises, missing features, etc? Or is that taboo under Tasos’ regime?

        • SynCaine says:

          Given that I only started following DF shortly before launch, that would be tough? Also a bit pointless considering the game has been out for almost a year now; time to move on from those ‘broken beta promises’ that still scar you.

        • Andrea Bargs says:

          Nah I’m not scarred about broken beta promises because I was never a fanboi. I just thought you might want to inject some balance into your DF blog by adding some of the tainted and damaging DF development history.

          I mean you comment on MO needing “more time”. How much time did DF need?

          Then again, with those rainbow-colored glasses of yours…

        • Stabs says:

          Andrea, games are made by getting a bunch of enthusiastic developers to brainstorm hundreds, even thousands of ideas, wishes and pipe-dreams then playing with code to see what you can get to work.

          This is normal and happens with every game.

          I have followed Darkfall since 2003 and the game that has been released is the game anyone reading the forums back then would have expected plus/minus some features.

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