Ghost audience

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.

About SynCaine

Former hardcore raider turned casual gamer.
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44 Responses to Ghost audience

  1. Tierless says:

    I’ve never thought about it but you make a great point. The PVE MMOers have changed so much over time that they would probably view a true PVE sandbox as so inconvenient they would hate it.

    • Ravious says:

      And yet Minecraft is selling millions and creating tons of MUD-like servers, which are exactly that. You just can’t take WoW and turn it PvE sandbox. I think another approach angle is required.

      • SynCaine says:

        Minecraft is not an MMO (or really, even close to anything like an MMO), and we get horribly derailed if we start talking non-MMOs here. I mean, based on overall gaming, by far the largest group of players is the hardcore PvP crowd (LoL, CoD), but that really means next to nothing for MMOs.

      • Tierless says:

        Bit were specifically addressing the MMO crowd.

  2. John says:

    I disagree. A pve sandbox will find many players to love it. There are million of people who stopped playing wow and MMOs general since they became mainstream and handholding. The same people also does not play sandboxes because of the ffa pvp that is always there. But a PVE Sandbox?oh yes, there will be many that will follow.

    Even if Industry agree with you doesn’t make them clever, because as far as I know, besides wow everyone else failed to create a successful themepark. So I don’t think they know well the MMO community.

    ffa pvp is what keeping people away from sandboxes and not because they need “handholding”.

  3. sid6.7 says:

    The vast majority of players want to be led in MMOs. This is true in even in sandbox MMOs – the difference is that it’s often real people doing the leading (Corp leaders, Clan leaders, etc) rather than the game itself.

    Is the root cause that many players often act like mindless drones? Yes. But that’s not new or even different in sandbox games. People want direction and if the dev or other players within that game won’t give the players direction – attention span will be short-lived and they’ll move to something else.

    Minecraft, Second Life, Sim City, Civilization, The Sims and so forth fit into another box for me because they lack any real challenge. And perhaps it’s this “lack of challenge” that appeals to the players who otherwise would want to be led. If no challenge, let me wander and explore. But at the first sign of challenge, show please lead me and show me how to avoid it.

    • SynCaine says:

      I agree, but I think there is a large leap between someone playing an MMO in a solo silo vs someone accepting the role of a cog in a larger clan/guild machine.

    • “Minecraft, Second Life, Sim City, Civilization, The Sims and so forth fit into another box for me because they lack any real challenge.”

      One of those things is not like the others, to use the Sesame Street song.

      Please explain the “lack of any real challenge” in Civilization and how a turn-based strategy game is similar in any way to the other four items you listed.

      Or, optionally, reply with, “Whoops, I was thinking of something else” or “I only meant the crap-tastic Facebook version.”

      • sid6.7 says:

        Whoops! I suppose Spore would have been a better example than Civilization. Mainly, I’m thinking about the exploration and building aspect of these games and not the “strategy” part — which, at least in the solo player version, is non-existent.

        Multiplayer is another story and I stand corrected.

    • Halycon says:

      Not true. There may be a power structure in sandboxes setup by other players along with general orders. But organizing players time schedule in a sandbox is very hard. You’ll sometimes wait hours for a group activity to start, and what do you do while waiting? Well, that’s completely self directed. More time is spent following your own madeup goals than the occasional organized marquee moments of the game.

      • sid6.7 says:

        And how is this different than let’s say — trying to figure out what to do or how to prepare for a WoW raid to start? Every MMO has moments of self-direction.

        The reality, however, is that the vast majority of players prefer the moments that are NOT self-directed. This could be something spontaneous but it’s more likely to come from something more organized (either by dev or other players).

        That’s really the distinction. Given the choice between doing something self-directed or being led, most people will choose to be led.

  4. Shiolle says:

    Real PVE fans were ok with finding 3-4 hours few times a week for their raiding schedule plus some farming here and there. That never went away from wow and if this is anything to go by, time required commitment for more dedicated raiders only grew.

    Also, I don’t think the total amount of time gamers spend in their themeparks went down. So whenever developers separate their content into smaller chunks they have to make people need to farm a lot of those chunks to get anything of value.

    I have to ask: have you personally met anyone during your time with thempark MMOs who couldn’t arrange a 2 hour for something they cared about in a game? Because while you talk about it a lot, I can’t remember any person like that I actually met.

    • SynCaine says:

      I think this is the part where someone says something about raiders making up 1% of the WoW population, right?

      As for the 2hr block thing, its in reference to all those forum and blog posts about people bitching that if something takes more than 30 minutes it’s not ‘casual friendly’. Basically the octo-mom MMO gamer in different terms.

      • I’ve been that person. It’s not that I *can’t* find a way to arrange a two+ hour window–I can, and I do–it’s that sometimes I have less than an hour, or frankly that everything else is a higher priority, and the question is, can I log in quickly and nip off a little content, or do I have to do something else? I don’t expect an entire game to be designed around that expectation, because then there would be nothing to hold my attention for hours, days, months, years, but it’s nice to have a full slate of options.

        FWIW, once I put in the initial investment, I found that EVE does this quite well. Once you’re out of the “wait I don’t understand anything what?” phase, there are lots of little things to be done if you don’t have time for the big stuff.

      • There’s a big gap between being able to play in only 30 minute blocks and committing the 30 hours/week that you previously suggested was necessary…

  5. The central problem facing any PVE MMO is that its real competition is the single-player/co-op multiplayer game. After you’ve played e.g., the Tomb Raider reboot, PVE in any MMO looks absurd. This is not a problem that will go away any time in the foreseeable future, because the machine in the room with you will always have lower latency and more computing power to dedicate to the player. This has two effects on the MMO landscape:

    1) The PVE will attract people who like the simple, repetitive and relaxing nature of MMO PVE, which will in turn keep MMO PVE simple, repetitive and relaxing;

    2) PVP, and particularly massed and open-world PVP, is the one thing that MMOs will always invariably have over single-player games (co-op/LAN games, less so), and so a greater proportion of PVP fans than PVE fans will be attracted to MMOs.

    • Sorry to piggyback on my own post, but I left an important point on the cutting-room floor: Single-player games have much more power to control the player’s experience, and they have none of the futility of MMO story quests, where the big boss you defeat to liberate the village respawns a minute later. The story can be stronger, characterization can be much stronger, there can still be a sandbox element, and the plot advances are convincingly permanent.

    • Azuriel says:

      I was going to post this exact same point. “Social fabric” notwithstanding, why would I choose to play a game where I’m bored for 30 minutes grinding mobs when I have hundreds of fun-right-now games I could be playing instead? A single-player game cannot emulate that MMO feeling, but there are limits to how much gameplay I’m willing to sacrifice to tool around with other people.

  6. bhagpuss says:

    “The PVE will attract people who like the simple, repetitive and relaxing nature of MMO PVE, which will in turn keep MMO PVE simple, repetitive and relaxing;” Dersen Lowery

    I think it’s not beyond the wit of man to create and maintain a PVE-based MMORPG that is COMPLEX, repetitive and relaxing. That’s what I want.

    • Sure, but again: If it’s not multiplayer content, it will *always* be easier to do that more easily and more accessibly, with more compelling content, in a single-player game. You can have lots of them, and with the advent of phones and tablets you can buy 5-15 of them a month, and an unlimited number of free games, for the cost of an average MMO subscription, and more for the up-front cost of GW2 or TSW, so variety is not an issue if you want it.

      People talk about casual gamers a lot, and what do a lot of them play? Flash games. Phone games. It only makes sense. The few attempts to yoke them into multiplayer content have either been flashes in the pan (Zynga) or outright failures.

      Consider, for example, the simple fact that you can save single-player games. You can leave your avatar in dangerous territory knowing that everything will be right where you left it, even if you don’t come back to the game for months. You can play a game with hundreds of hours of content 15 minutes at a time, and those 15 minutes are dependent on your schedule only, not anyone else’s.

      When I started in EVE, I naïvely thought that “solo play” meant one toon. But the explanation of the small armies of alts in the game is precisely that they attempt to cover for the fact that MMOs depend on multiplayer content to be compelling to anyone interested in complex gameplay, and some dogged single-player gamers will resort to creating as many “players” as necessary to enjoy that content on their own time. That’s a hack, though, and not many people are willing to do it. You could go to all that trouble, or you could launch Tomb Raider.

    • What Bhagpuss said plus I like being sociable, not force grouped but sociable. So multiplayer please.

  7. Azuriel says:

    I don’t see a point in limiting a sandbox to just PvE when you could potentially capture more market share by adding PvP. An PvE-only EVE would basically be high-sec, with low and null lopped off… but why leave those players’ money on the table? The (small) threat of ganking clearly isn’t enough to chase away the carebears. Given they would do what they do in either version, better stick with the one with both PvE and PvP.

    • Shiolle says:

      I hope if a game like this is ever made, its developers would be able to create something better than EVE PvE. It’s not hard at all.

  8. Rammstein says:

    “The (small) threat of ganking clearly isn’t enough to chase away the carebears.”

    Yes, it clearly is enough.

    “I don’t see a point in limiting a sandbox to just PvE when you could potentially capture more market share by adding PvP.”

    I don’t see a point in limiting a sandbox to only appeal to PvP players when you could potentially capture more market share by removing PvP.

  9. KennyG says:

    Speaking as a former WOW player once you change your mindset its great i.e no hand holding don’t get attached to your gear, no body telling you what to do.

    sorry to ask here, but can i ask what sites you use for Darkfall, for a good map for example?

  10. Mr. Tastix says:

    You might not like the idea of Minecraft being added to the equation, it not being an MMO and all, but it has the potential to be one. So did persistent worlds created in games like Neverwinter Nights.

    Creating PvE sandboxes isn’t the problem. It might require more work but it’s not overly difficult. The problem is getting people to actually bother trying them as it’s already a niche market who like sandbox games nowadays.

    The largest issue with most sandbox games is their inability to teach people. You might call that hand-holding but giving advice and treating players like children are not the same thing.

    Players need to be brought into a sandbox environment gradually, especially when the average player these days has experienced so much themepark crap. You cannot just drop them in and say “Good luck!” and expect them to know what to do. This is where EVE Online fails. It’s why so many people simply give up.

    A slight sense of progression or restriction should not interfere with the ability to make a sandbox game, and anyone who believes it does is, quite frankly, thinking very narrow-mindedly.

    You and I might have grown up experimenting and mashing every button on our consoles but todays generation is not ours. They have to be taught how to do this because they won’t figure it out for themselves.

    • SynCaine says:

      The main reason I discount Minecraft is not because it’s not an MMO, but because it would not work as an MMO in its current form. The game is fun for a few weeks or a month, but it has zero long-term hooks. Once you build something, or gather some of the basics, the game kinda falls apart.

      It works for Minecraft because its not designed to be played continually for months at a time. An MMO is (or should be, anyway).

      • Mr Bru says:

        I’m not convinced even MMOs are designed like that in an ideal fashion.

        It’s what publishers want but even with a game like WoW I don’t really think it works.

        Theme park games burn players out too quickly through repetition and sandbox games can do so through lack of any meaningful content to metagame with.

        It’s sort of a perpetual loop really: you need players to create events and events to attract players.

  11. DJ Thoris says:

    Interesitng timing for this post…any thoughts on

    • SynCaine says:

      Not sure what to make of that post, especially since I’ve never heard of the Kerbal game. I guess given the baseline he laid out, it works, but I wouldn’t define sandbox like he did, so my conclusions would be different (not sure if that made any sense)

      • Rammstein says:

        I’ve been trying to understand why he(she?) defines sandbox game in that manner. So far my best explanation was that growing up, every time he played in a sandbox, there was a 130 kg weightlifter shouting commands at him, and that he wasn’t allowed to leave the sandbox until he’d satisfied the angry ironhead. Personally, I loved playing with sand when I was small, though more at the beach than in a box–and his description of a sandbox seems diametrically opposed, in the most fundamental aspects, to the experience I remember.

        • Her basic idea is that a sandbox game encourages play as Richard Feynman defined the word: a concerted attempt to understand how something works by manipulating it. Kerbal Space Program, from what I have seen, allows for all kinds of wild emergent behavior, much of which culminates in hilarious, fiery failure–but you learn something about what works and what doesn’t, at only the cost of time spent (sand in a sandbox being plentiful and free). Given a set of parts and internally consistent rules for the way those parts interact, you gain the goal of seeing a sunset on Mun by experimentation and iteration. There are not many parts (sand being… sand) so there’s not much in the way of choice paralysis. You know what you’re going to do. Nearly all the complexity is in determining how you’re going to do it.

          EVE has thousands of parts, expensive sand, relatively strict rules that cannot allow for the kind of emergent behavior [i]in the world[/i] that e.g., Dwarf Fortress or Second Life allow, the claimed professions add confusion because they don’t actually line up with the game, and there is a degree to which EVE penalizes experimentation in favor of research.

          That was my takeaway.

        • Rammstein says:

          So what you’re saying is that when I was playing with sand, using it to build things, instead of trying to figure out how sand works, I was playing in the sand ‘wrong’? I don’t even have a response to that, besides ‘?’.

          I tried to find a quote of Feynman saying that which you ascribed to him, but a google search with those words plus his name comes up empty. Do you have a source for that?

        • The Feynman reference is from his book, “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!” which I recommend highly. The subject is how he got the idea to start the research that led to his receiving the Nobel Prize for quantum electrodynamics: someone was playing with a plate by tossing it in the air in a cafeteria, and he wondered how to describe the way it wobbled. He concludes with a passionate defense of the need for people of all ages to play. It’s most of a chapter, not a little soundbite quote, which is probably why Google failed you.

          I don’t know where you got the idea that by saying that play is “how you understand the way things work,” I’m criticizing your figuring out how sand works. I think we’re in violent agreement there.

        • Rammstein says:

          Ah, it’s not a quote, but a paraphrase–and not one I would accept. I’m quite familiar with that chapter, and believe that it is antithetical to her definition of a sandbox game. You posit this as a paraphrase: ‘play as Richard Feynman defined the word: a concerted attempt to understand how something works by manipulating it.’

          In actuality, the chapter you reference is precisely about how playfulness includes more than the above. Initially, he was attempting to understand how things worked by manipulating them in a goal-oriented manner, and feeling stifled and uncreative. He then started investigating by manipulation without being so rigidly goal-oriented, and ended up achieving great things. The definition Ms. Titor gives for a sandbox game includes “Clear unambiguous game goals”. This is exactly what the chapter is saying DIDN’T work for Feynman. I incorporate Feynman’s real idea of play into my definition of a sandbox game, which is thus opposite to that of Ms. Titor and includes the criterion “does NOT incorporate clear unambiguous game goals”.

  12. Ephemeron says:

    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.

    It makes sense. After all, existing PvE themepark MMOs seek to appeal to one’s inner child. Hence the stream of shiny toys, instant gratification, ever-dwindling challenge and constant praise.

    Existing PvP sandbox MMOs, on other hand, are aimed at one’s inner teenager. Hence the competitiveness, aggression and emphasis on group identity vs. individual accomplishments. Joining the right Darkfall clan or the right EVE corp is just as important as joining the right clique in high school (or the right street gang in the school of hard knocks).

    It is also no coincidence that all of these sandboxes feature open world PvP, as the resulting atmosphere of unpredictability and tension with alternating plateaus of boredom, chasms of horrors and peaks of excitement is intended to replicate the hormonal rollercoaster of puberty.

    As for the proper PvE sandbox MMO, logic dictates that it would be aimed at one’s inner mature adult/parent. I do not know what shape it would take, but I have a hunch that it would be closer to the aforementioned Civilization than EVE or WoW.

  13. Bristal says:

    Did you really just say that you want an MMO that appeals to your parents? Where do I preorder?

  14. The problem with sandbox games are other players. You can only make long term plans if you know that other people can’t mess up your stuff. In PvE there is no way to keep other people out of your corner of the sandbox. Sandboxes are PvP because it is the only way for a gamer to protect their content while allowing it to have value and impact on the game world.

    I am love sandboxy stuff but I am also time limited and inflexible. I can organised multiple long play sessions each week but I have to plan it in advance. I can’t PvP because it removes my control over when content happens. As a result, I can either play a PvE themepark mmo, or sandbox a solo/multi-player game.

  15. Thaine says:

    Recently found this site and the series of posts over MMO PVE Sandbox does a better job than I’ve found anywhere else of describing what I’m looking for in a game. I don’t believe the audience isn’t there but I do think it is hiding in several different places among genres.

    Granted I’m no game critic but here are my 2 cents worth after decades of gaming and the last several years seeking this holy grail of a game. Since it’s not out there currently alot of people have simply settled with available compromises:

    Deal with PVP. Ephemeron may have put it best prescribing these to our inner teens. That is certainly the age catagory I enjoyed it most but it is more of an annoyance than fun these days. If you can settle for that compromise you got lots of options because somehow the two became intertwined.

    Go Solo. Thankfully developers of solo games have given sandbox alot of love recently. Especialy in the more indie scene thanks to kickstarter, grenlight, and a host of other ways for them to get attention/funding now. My latest foray into one of these was Don’t Starve. Probably not for everyone but I enjoyed the fact the game started by waking up on the gound. No tutorial, no little help bar, and definately no guide showing you what to do while holding you hand.

    As for games that satisfy that crave we are looking for? Well I found one that fits the bill I suppose although I don’t play it anymore. A Tale in the Desert 6 (or whatever number they are up to now) would definately be the closest. It just has to many cons for me personaly but I routinely look about hoping a better one will arrive.

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