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)