Note: This page is a collection of posts I did about the design of a PvE Sandbox MMO. The individual posts themselves, along with all comments, can still be found on the blog, and will be linked to at the start of each section. Going forward however, please leave comments here rather than on the individual posts. Thank you and enjoy! (Page creation idea credit goes to Rebecca from The Melting Pot)
A few days ago I posted about a PvE Sandbox MMO, and while the post got my overall point across, I think it might be fun to fully expand upon the idea over a series of posts. One of the biggest challenges I have as a writer here is that in my mind I know the game I want to play, but as that game does not 100% exist right now, I can’t refer to it and have people know what I’m talking about. Bringing up one feature without the context of the whole generally leads to confusion over anything else. Perhaps after this series that will be a little clearer for regular readers.
One goal will be to address seemingly unrelated issues (like crafting, housing, progression) by going the sandbox route, all while keeping the main goal, PvE instead of PvP, in place. Today though I want to lay out some high-level goals for the sandbox MMO.
First is that in a sandbox, a player is never ‘done’ with an area. You travel to different places, but you never fully move on from any one place because you have out-leveled it or you have every item you might want from there. New and veteran players should travel to the same areas, but perhaps for different reasons. Getting this aspect right is, IMO, one of the biggest keys to a good MMO.
Second, character progression should be lengthy (ideally infinite) but not outright grindy or heavily required beyond a certain point, and while characters should always be progressing, the difference between veterans and newbies should never reach peasant to god levels.
Third, itemization is key. All gamers love shines, just like we all love character progression. Like the above however, items should remain viable while not turning anyone into a god, and having more wealth should always be a good thing. You should never reach the point of being ‘rich enough’.
Fourth, social structure has to matter to all players, not just those who throw themselves into the deep end of guild politics. Leaders must be able to shape the world, while those who are not yet leaders must have a path to attain such status with the proper amount of work/effort. Those who are not leaders must also have a role and purpose beyond just showing up. Finally the option to play a ‘lone wolf’ must exist, but be a more difficult road for the select few.
Freedom is important, but the game’s structure must be such that it does assist with goals and leads you down the path you have selected. Random and non-interconnected systems all tossed into a world does not qualify as a solid MMO. That said, any character should have the ability to change paths, and at no point should a full re-roll ever be more optimal than going a different direction with your current character. The notion that you are your character, rather than you owning an account with different options, is very important.
Tomorrow I’ll lay out the basics for the game I have in mind, and beyond I’ll dive into different areas and add on to that base.
The first area I’m going to tackle for the PvE Sandbox is combat, as I think it’s the glue that holds everything together and really sets the tone for the type of game you are playing. It also fuels other systems, and so I believe it’s a good starting point.
Basically, think Mount and Blade or Darkfall. So no tab-targeting, each swing hits or misses based on where the target is vs a dice roll, and things like momentum, weapon reach, and area hit all come into play. I’d also add friendly fire (controlled to prevent griefing, so only when facing mobs and other restrictions), as this really helps control zerging (somewhat anyway) and curbs other cheap tactics.
One goal would be to keep the number of key presses needed to a minimum, so combat comes down to who has better tactics and reactions rather than who has configured their UI to account for the 20+ actions needed. To this end I would remove magic as it’s seen in most MMOs, but not to the extent that M&B does. Basically the world still has some magic to it (floating platforms, monsters, teleports, some kind of healing, etc), but the players themselves can’t throw fireballs or toss out dozens of buffs. Special NPCs could, be they friendly or not.
Since the game is a PvE game, monsters would have decent enough AI that they would drop back, dodge, and use cover. Nothing mind-blowing, but above the usually “run into your sword” charge that common MMO mobs do. Lots of other areas have evolved in MMOs since 97, it’s time for AI to do so as well. The point is to make each encounter challenging enough that you have to focus and react, but also simple enough that every fight does not become a raid boss effort. The more special the encounter, the mob would not only have increased stats, but also increased AI, rather than having a more elaborate script of abilities.
Ranged combat would be limited to things like bows, crossbows, and throwing weapons, and ammo would not be unlimited. The cost of basic ammo would be low, but players would be more limited by how much they can carry and when they are able to resupply. Ideally if you and some buddies are out hunting mobs, you would save up your ranged ammo for special occasions (getting an advantage on a tougher encounter, for instance), and use melee for common stuff. The crafting/itemization post will cover this in greater detail, but basically all items would suffer wear and tear in the game, and eventually everything breaks, so what you bring out is always a consideration rather than an assumed “use the best in slot you have” type of deal.
As for combat goals, the world would be such that player hubs are all friendly to each other (or at least non-combative), and all players fight against a common enemy faction. This factions goal would be, of course, world domination, and player actions would determine just how close that faction is to its goal. As the world would ideally be larger than what the player population could occupy, the enemy faction would be in control of different areas at different times, based mostly on where the current player population has chosen to establish itself (more on this in a different post about housing/cities).
After combat, I believe the economy is the most important aspect to a quality sandbox title, and not just for those hoping to play a merchant. The ideal system would impact everyone playing on a regular basis rather than being a side-show for the few who decided to focus on crafting. Equally important, the system should be self-regulating, rather than requiring a total wipe every year or so when an expansion is released. Expansions should, well, actually expand an MMO, not just shift everyone over, but that’s another rant.
First let’s talk itemization. In this game items would wear and break fast, somewhere in the range of 2-3 PvE hunting trips per item/set. Getting an item repaired would slow this process some, but only temporarily. Consider games like EVE or DF, where when you go out to PvP, you more or less expect to lose what you bring, and if you don’t it’s a bonus. As this is a PvE game, you don’t expect to die every trip (but more often than when PvE’ing in a themepark), yet the item mentality should be somewhat close. Forget ‘best in slot’ thinking, and replace it with ‘best item for the job’. If you are going out to hunt some easier prey, or travel out into dangerous territory, you bring a cheaper set of gear. It will still get the job done, yet the price of it wearing down or being lost is still below what you will earn while PvE’ing. When you are faced with a do-or-die situation (your house/city being raided by a host of mobs), you bring out the top shelf stuff and hope it’s enough, yet even if you end up losing that, it’s not the end of the world (but does sting).
With gear getting destroyed at such a high rate, it has to be replaced at an equally rapid pace. This is where crafting and, more importantly, selling comes in.
First and foremost the crafting itself would be one-click simple. If you want to play a mini-game, find a mini-game online or get a Wii. Crafting should be more about the economics and supply/demand than who can play a poor mans version of Tetris (or worse) better.
But that does not mean crafting should be instant. To attempt something a bit new (to me at least), I think the initial act of crafting should take 30 seconds or so for the first item, and increasingly more time for subsequent items (a stacking debuff that lasts an hour or so) to represent fatigue. The goal is to allow a crafter to socialize or plan while making a few items that he needs right away, but to prevent someone from chain-crafting 100s of items in a row in just a few minutes. With mobs randomly raiding cities/houses (think random PK raids, but with mobs), going afk to craft would be a bad idea.
Plus you don’t need to do that with the production system. If you own a shop or are part of a crafting guild (more on both tomorrow), you can queue up production similar to what happens in EVE. The production speed would be the reverse of self-crafting; the more you craft, the less time each item takes (mass production efficiency). The goal here is to allow major crafters or crafting teams to mass supply the most common goods (arrows, basic weapons/armor/potions), and to create locations of importance in the world. Guilds will want to protect their production base from roaming mobs or invasions, and players will naturally gravitate together in cities to mutually protect each other. The world would react accordingly, and high-value mob targets would migrate away from major cities, requiring expert PvE hunters to either live out in the wilds or travel longer distances. Major player hubs would also draw the attention of mob warlords looking to raid and pillage player cities, and the bigger a city gets, the more frequent and powerful the raids get.
As for item power, think of it like a Ferrari vs a Toyota. Both get you from point A to point B in basically the same way, with the Ferrari doing it a little faster (if possible), and with some extra comfort. The biggest difference between the two, aside from price, is that the Ferrari is a status symbol and an excessive toy. No one NEEDS a Ferrari to get to work, but at the same time no one would turn it down or complain that they would rather go back to the Toyota. Items should work in a similar fashion. The difference between a basic iron sword and say, a diamond one is somewhat marginal. Yes, the diamond sword does last a little longer and hit a little harder, but we are talking percentage points here rather than orders of magnitude like in most MMOs. The price (determined by availability of materials and crafting difficulty) would be orders of magnitude greater, and so for every diamond sword someone owns, they could have had a few dozen iron ones.
As performance is similar, this means a ‘poor’ player in iron can still group up with someone in higher-end gear and not feel useless, while also always encouraging players to gain more wealth and to try maintaining a certain level of average gear. Those who are able to earn more wealth will, on average, use better gear, but almost all players should have one or two sets of great gear to pull out for big events. From the supply side, this means even the basic items will retain some demand, the mid-tier stuff will need replacing often, and even high-end pieces will be lost or destroyed enough to warrant continued demand. This also means that when you add higher-power items to the game, they don’t instantly turn everything before them into junk.
Another way to increase demand and variety without inflating power is to allow crafters to make purely cosmetic changes to items during the crafting process. For example, an iron sword with a special hilt or blade tint would still hit like an iron sword, but the demand for it might be higher or lower based on the look. We all know that while we chase shinies for power, we are not beyond putting effort in just to get something that looks cool (or for WoWbies, paying $25 for a mount to sparkle).
By adding cosmetic options to items, this also allows crafters to get creative and custom-design items to establish a reputation (you could get crazy and allow customization on, say, a City of Heroes character creator level, tech willing). If you know Bob puts in a ton of time to create some unique looking stuff, you might be more willing to travel to his shop instead of someone else’s, and pay a little premium for that iron sword as well. If Bob also has a really great looking shop (tomorrows post) that displays his wears well, his profits will reflect that.
As the world is always shifting based on player movement, resources would also react. If one area is being mined frequently, it starts to yield fewer materials, along with losing the ability to provide rarer goods. Expert gatherers would be those who not only have the skills to find the best resources, but also the ability to survive the harsher parts of the world and make it out alive with them. A guild PvE trip could be more about reaching a mining shaft for the rare ore than for the beasts inside, with both fighters and gatherers coming along, and the guild crafters turning the spoils into high-tier gear for everyone.
Crafting should be far more than min/maxing the auction house and under-cutting the current listings by a penny every few minutes, and the economy needs to be deeper than hitting the gold cap because you can. If the whole system is rewarding, it becomes its own game, and those who may not be interested in bashing monsters daily will still sign up, log in, and play a pivotal role. The best sandbox is not one that caters perfectly to one type of player, but rather creates a world to house a wide range of interests; mixing all those interests together to ultimately create something great.
If combat and the economy are the two most important areas for a sandbox MMO, player housing is the most neglected. It says a lot about the genre as a whole when the very first MMO, Ultima Online, had and possibly still has the best player housing around. That really is a crime, especially given how important a hook housing can be to players and guilds alike, and just how much content they can drive.
Housing, both individual homes and cities, have to be set in the actual world, not hidden behind some instanced curtain or in a housing-only zone. Secondly, while you don’t need to make every last square inch of the world open for placement, it has to be far more than a few pre-determined plots. The over-development issue that UO faced should be solved not by hard limits, but by soft caps; an area can only have so many houses before it becomes ‘full’, and the closer to full an area gets, the more attention those buildings draw from mobs. The longer the players hold out, the harder the mobs try to overrun the players, eventually resulting in someone moving out or being pushed out. The more popular the area, the higher the risk.
As the only ‘griefing’ that can really occur is from mobs, housing should be destructible; if you can’t protect it, you shouldn’t own it. This prevents the “I got it first, I own it forever” real-estate rush, and gives newer players a chance to eventual own prime locations. The major difference here is that setting when a house is vulnerable (say a 2-3 hour window per day, or a total of 10 hours per week, whatever) won’t upset the mobs trying to destroy it; they will happily show up whether you set your time for primetime or server up/down, while it does allow home owners to actually defend what they own rather then lose it when they are not online, as is all too common in PvP sandboxes.
Housing should be varied, from small and affordable tents and cabins to sprawling mansions and castles, with house size meaning more than just a bigger physical footprint. Larger houses should have the option to hire NPC guards for protection, or to allow for faster crafting production. As this is a PvE game, house storage should be 100% secure from other players, while still being vulnerable to raids from mobs.
Certain houses would also serve as shops, with wares being displayed on the walls or in the windows (again, it’s sad that you could do something like this in UO, and as far as I’m aware, in no other MMO). The level of customization would allow an owner enough freedom to make their shop stand out, and with crafted gear allowing for fluff customization, this would be very important. Shops would be operated by a vendor NPC, creating the illusion of a seller without the requirement of the actual player having to stand around and wait for shoppers. That said, if the shop was active the owner would often see his customers looking around, again leading to natural socialization, as shoppers could make requests or provide feedback on what items they would like to see for sale.
Player cities would be a formal collection of houses, with additional perks such as city walls, guard patrols, public crafting areas, local banking, and a town message board or newspaper (that could automatically generate basic information about recent mob movement, attacks, or possibly new areas of resource wealth). This would all come at a high cost, one that would be collected and paid by a guild or the locals, and the creation of a city would also dramatically increase mob aggression for that area. Cities could still operate within the vulnerability system, but the requirements would be much higher (5-6 hours daily, 30 hours per week, etc), as the expectation would be that all city residents accept defensive responsibility and actually protect their city. A ghost town of a city won’t hold up to mob raids for long, and will either be destroyed or the owners will adapt and actually populate the area regularly.
Cities could also expand or contract based on player interest, rather then being hard-locked into a few set sizes. If a guild discovers a rich resource area, they may build up a city to help aid in gathering, with other non-guilded players joining in as well. Once the resources are tapped, they might move on and leave behind only those who wish to stay and continue operating out of the now less-than-ideal location, reducing the footprint and the mob threat level. As the worlds resources and mobs dynamically shift around based on player activity, no single spot would remain as the ‘best’ location for long, although one would expect certain areas to always be somewhat popular (central locations, near caves/dungeons, etc), leading to some stability.
All players should have the goal of owning property, and smaller houses in more remote areas should be easily obtainable for all but the newest players. As a players personal wealth progresses, he can either afford larger single houses, or become part of a city. At no point is a city ‘too big’ in terms of total houses, although the larger the city, the harder it becomes to defend. Great cities will be popular destinations due to all the shops and utilities (bigger cities could, for instance, have better scouts and hence more informative/accurate local reports, making finding a hunting spot or resources easier), yet also somewhat dangerous with tougher and more numerous mobs roaming the area or making a direct attack.
World events could focus on bringing down cities that have been around for ‘too long’, and the world’s natural story arc could at times focus around heroic groups of players holding on to their property for extraordinary lengths of time (think of it like an endless mode in a tower defense game, but MMO style). As with items themselves, players would understand that houses are not permanent items, and hence their loss would not be game over situation. That said, destruction should not be too frequent, to both provide some stability and also increase player attachment to a location. The final defeat in a city that has stood for months would hurt, but it would also make for a grand event in the world’s history. This would also be the case, although on a much smaller scale, for individual houses, though if even somewhat remote, those houses could be held indefinitely by vigilant players.
The major goal however is to make housing the major driver of content in the world. House density influences mob activity, the acquisition and defense of a house is always a major player goal, and the natural shifting of player house locations creates a more dynamic world.
I believe I’ve covered the main areas I wanted to hit on in my PvE Sandbox series. There are a ton of other, smaller systems to consider and discuss, but to keep things somewhat high-level I’ll leave it as is. What I do want to write about today is more of a ‘day in the life’ type of post, both from a newer players perspective and what would be considered end-game, to hopefully give everyone a final view into what I believe something like this would look like.
The first and most important task any new player would set out to accomplish is getting established and learning the ropes. The first few days would be spent around a pre-set starter-area, located at a crossroads of the world (so advanced player traffic is visible, and so further options are available in all directions). This area would be hard-locked in terms of an established but limited town, and the local spawns would also be more static and weaker. The idea is to provide enough stability so fresh players can get started, but an area weak enough that the first major goal would be to leave to seek richer spots.
Once a character is not totally new, they would leave the starter area and decide whether to join up with an existing guild in their location, join an existing player-run town, or set out alone and attempt to get a smaller dwelling of their own. Day-to-day gameplay would consist of monster hunting (non-static and all that) and resource gathering, with perhaps some trade if an opportunity arises. Long-term the goal would be to both expand your character’s possibilities (I tend to favor a hard-cap skill-based system) and your current wealth. As both rise, different opportunities open up, be it a bigger house, higher trade skills, or a stronger contribution to group-based PvE.
‘End-game’ would still consist of monster hunting and other wealth-gaining activities, but would also include defending a town/house from PvE attacks, and fighting back against PvE strongholds or known lairs. The main content driver would be the continued struggle between the players and the mobs, with both sides always seeking to control more territory and establish bigger and better cities.
The world would have three factions; the players, the enemy NPC faction, and neutral mobs. Neutral mobs would not only be wildlife creatures like wolves and bears (with dens and reactive behavior to player actions), but things like goblin/orc tribes and such. Small factions that also attempt to establish settlements, but not part of one overarching force. They are the more daily consistent content or the small-scale conflict drivers. Potentially neutral mobs could fight the enemy faction. I’m a fan of AI on AI battles, just to watch how it plays out.
The enemy NPC faction would be a more unified force of (pick your lore) and their minions. This is where the AI would need to act most like a player, and this faction would always be looking to control larger sections of the world. The only ‘spawn points’ this faction would have is out of its established locations, all locations that the players could seek out and destroy. The further the faction gets pushed back, the stronger it gets (the reverse of what usually happens in a PvP sandbox, where the zerg gets bigger as it attracts more players).
Ultimately, if the faction gets pushed back far enough, a big-bad spawns, creating something of a world event. In reverse, if the world gets a little too overrun, a good guy hero spawns and starts an event. Both situations would normally be rare, but both could be triggered with some dev action (make the faction stronger/weaker, offer more rewards for attacking, etc).
So there it is, a PvE sandbox MMO. It’s been fun, and either I hit the lottery and make it, or someone with cash has a great unannounced project. Until then, I’ll be switching between my sociopath playground and my rainbow candyland.