If many recent MMOs are 3-month titles, a game like RUST is a one-monther. Now, before you start raging, that’s not an outright ‘bad’ thing; many games aren’t design for prolonged play, and that’s perfectly fine. Unless, you know, your business model is based around keeping people long-term, but more on that in a bit.
What’s great about RUST is it gives you that sandbox feel without the usual buildup to get into a sandbox. The only character progression is finding and learning blueprints for crafting, and even that is somewhat optional since you can get and use everything in the game from other players; blueprints just allow you to craft the stuff yourself should you want to.
The other ‘core’ aspect of RUST is collecting stuff, and building a base/home to store said stuff in, yet again RUST is short-term here; there is only so much stuff you can collect that you need, and once you have built a few bases, that novelty wears off as well. At the same time, you don’t need to spend weeks/months playing before you can get into this aspect; you will likely build something in the first day.
What’s left is hunting zombies, fighting other players, or raiding an enemy base. Hunting zombies is an alternate path to collecting/crafting stuff, and zombies shortly stop being a threat once you have a firearm. Fighting other players is crude fun, but if you are really interested in FPS action, you can certainly find much better in other titles. Raiding a base is generally simple; bring some C4, blow through some walls or doors, and loot some crates. If you don’t really need more stuff (and if you have plenty of C4, you likely don’t), taking the stuff is more about the other guy losing it than you needing it. Again, you get a rush the first few times you do it, but beyond the novelty and the grief aspect, there isn’t a lot of meat here.
Basically, RUST is shallow, but thanks to being shallow you can get right to the good stuff quickly and enjoy yourself for a few weeks or so. If RUST was an MMO, it would be a disaster. As a standalone game, it’s great, especially as it and the mods around it develop more, making revisiting it at a future date appealing.
At the same time, I think it’s a perfect example of what’s really needed to make an MMO work. Just being a ‘sandbox’ isn’t the key, because RUST is most certainly a sandbox. For your MMO to work, you need long-term progression. You need some form of a working economy where players see value in things longer than a few weeks. Basically, you not only need variety in content, but that variety has to be a sustainable cycle. I do A to build up for B. Doing B gets me to C. C is the ‘fun stuff’, but doing it causes me to need to go back to a version of A (different not due to the content itself, but the player change and approach). Rinse repeat, add in D and E to provide additional options for the players as dev time allows.
Far too many MMOs today allow you to finish A and move on to B, never returning to A. Once you finish B, the ‘real game’ starts with C, which often is highly grindy, repeat as needed stuff. Because C is ultimately unsustainable, you ‘soft reset’ (expansion) everyone and put them in at the start of a newly developed version of the A->B->C cycle. That’s very hard to sustain, and each cycle you run the risk of alienating people who really enjoyed the previous version, or hate the new one, or simply don’t want to restart the chain yet again.
If your content is sustainable, you don’t force these resets on your players. Rather, you allow them to keep doing what they are doing if that works for them, but you also expand the appeal and options with D and E.
Sustainability, it saves the planet, and MMOs.