MMO Rant #16: Here Lies the Sandbox PvP MMO

Remember my MMO Rant series? Neither do I, but it turns out I used to rant now and then. It’s time to resurrect ye olde Grouchy Gnome and rant. In this series, I put on my gamer cap and act like an MMO player who doesn’t know what’s behind the curtain. Actually, since I’m not currently employed as a game developer, I am an MMO player! This’ll be easy!

What better topic for my first rant since last decade than one that is near and dear to my heart: Sandbox PvP MMOs. More specifically, how they don’t really exist. I know what you’re thinking: “Idiot, have you ever heard of EVE Online?” Okay, yes, I have heard of it and I’ve played quite a bit of it. Perhaps I should have qualified this further and specified fantasy sandbox PvP MMOs. I’m not going to. This is my blog.

What happened to them? Well, there weren’t many of them in the first place. Ultima Online was the first major sandbox PvP MMO. It was also the last to meet with much success in North America. Eventually, in order to survive, it split out into two parts of the world and got rid of sandbox PvP as a requirement. There were others that tried: Shadowbane, Darkfall, and EVE Online (okay I said it) to name a few.

To see why they haven’t generally worked out, let’s briefly examine what makes them so fun: Dominating other players, doing almost anything you want to do, exploiting, holding territory, griefing, taking things from other players… in short, the Wild West. Sounds like fun, doesn’t it? Well, it is fun as long as you’re one of the people doing those things to other people instead of having them done to you.

Why did it work early on? Because there were wolves and sheep. There were predators and prey. As other games came out, the sheep (prey) all flocked to other worlds like EverQuest where they were (relatively) safe from being directly impacted by other players. We were left with servers full of wolves fighting over the last scraps of roadkill.

Why did so many attempts at creating a new sandbox PvP MMO fail? There are many reasons. The obvious reason after reading my previous paragraph is that to recreate that original experience, there must be both wolves and sheep on one server. That’s not gonna happen when the sheep don’t have to play the same game as the wolves.

What other reasons are there? Some of it was simple inexperience. The developers responsible for attempting to recreate that experience simply didn’t have the experience or budget to do so. Sometimes it was scope. When you have a limited budget, you can’t expect to get all the features of a modern MMO in such a project and layer sandbox PvP on top of it. It simply can’t work.

Ultimately, the real problem is that the original sandbox PvP MMO is dead and buried. It’s gone. You can’t resurrect it even with the proper scope, the right talent, a publisher that understands what you’re trying to do, and limitless cash. But do not despair…

A great sandbox PvP MMO can still exist. You just have to set out to make a new kind of game. Get your head out of the past and come up with something new.

Can a sandbox PvP MMO still be fun without all the sheep? Why not? There are plenty of people out there who love fighting over territory and controlling parts of a game world. There are many who enjoy the challenge of fighting other players instead of only getting to fight NPCs. Many like being able to explore and use their heads to create fun for themselves.

Why can’t we make a game that this type of player will love? Can we not create the Wild West in an MMO again? What if we stop concerning ourselves so much with PCs as the wolves and sheep and instead focus more on them as Outlaws and Lawmen. What if we help facilitate this with rewards and punishment, by formalizing methods of territorial control, by providing some form of sheep as NPCs whose demise can impact other players?

Is it really possible? Could there be a sandbox PvP MMO in the future? “Yes,” I tell myself so I can sleep at night. There has to be a way. If side-scrollers could be resurrected, so can sandbox PvP MMOs. How did they do it? With novel ideas. They did it by embodying what made side-scrollers great but advancing the genre. They did it with passion and the understanding of how to make a side-scroller fun rather than musing about how great it would be if you could just resurrect side-scrollers exactly how they were and be successful.

It’s about time that we stop complaining that it’s impossible to make a sandbox PvP MMO because nobody will help you fund a AAA project. Stop trying to make WoW+ Sandbox PvP. Understand what made those games attractive and find a way to revitalize the genre with something new rather than just attempting to put a pretty face on something old.

What it’s going to take? A confluence of events? Perhaps. It’s possible that some other MMOs that don’t necessarily focus entirely on PvP will find a way to embody enough of the elements of a sandbox PvP MMO to make that style of play attractive to more players (Dark Age of Camelot and Warhammer: Age of Reckoning come to mind as games that dedicated portions of their worlds to a similar style of play).

The sandbox PvP MMO is dead in its original form, but it doesn’t mean it has to be gone for good. It’s only a matter of time before someone brings it back and does it right. I’d play. Would you?

9 Responses to "MMO Rant #16: Here Lies the Sandbox PvP MMO"

  1. Frawd

    30 seconds of distracted thought.

    The question is what’s in it for the sheep (loaded term)? The griefers (loaded term) get their jollies (loaded phrase) harassing (loaded term) players who cannot fight back effectively. The trick is to develop a game where the rewards for casuals (loaded term) justify the interaction with the lifeless basement dwelling mouthbreathing neckbearded gankers (loaded concept); until you’re able to bring sufficient motivation and enjoyment to the table for both sides you won’t succeed.

  2. The thing is, griefers can get their jollies in a lot of games. You can train people, steal their kills, intentionally cause wipes for dungeon groups, run a group of naked people all over a major city, whatever.

    There’s no point in trying to make a game for griefers. Every game is for griefers. The trick is to make a game for people who enjoy territorial control, fighting other players, exploring the world, making fun for themselves (the “sandbox”), taking real ownership of the world, etc.

    Yes, griefers will find a way there. EVE Online does the best job of any current MMO serving the Sandbox PvP MMO playstyle (as much as I tried not to mention it too often in my rant), and there are plenty of griefers who take advantage of it, but the game is by no means designed for griefers.

  3. Ramin Shokrizade

    I think it would be good to define what you mean by a sandbox PvP MMO first, since you could ask five people and get three different answers, and two people that would say “I don’t know”. To address the OP, I would note that PvP, the way I define it, is consensual combat. Non consensual PvP I call PvV (Player vs. Victim). Saying “you consented to PvP by joining this game” is a bit of a cop out. We have PvP in the real world, and PvV also. The only thing that keeps both in check is rules.

    If you can put appropriate rules in your game, you can make the games you describe. Making rules and implementing them takes game design expertise, time, money, and testing. It is a lot easier to just drop characters in a world and say “you are on your own”, and this is generally what is done. There is nothing stopping anyone from doing this better, other than that they don’t know how to. It is certainly not a technological issue.

  4. Velinestra

    Saw your tweet. I’m not a fan of sandbox PvP but, have you looked at Pathfinder Online?

  5. Sandbox PvP MMO
    A Sandbox PvP MMO is a largely player-driven massively multiplayer online game with player-versus-player combat as a major feature. “Sandbox” refers to sandboxes that we played in as children. In the context of a game, it means giving players a place to play and tools to play with, then relying on players to create a lot of the fun from a limited ruleset without as much linearity as we’re used in in “theme park” style MMOs. Most frequently, it just means that you allow players for more freedom and emergent gameplay while still providing some guided gameplay.

  6. bearpunch

    I don’t like how you’re pitting wolves against sheep. I think that in Shadowbane the players knew the game was about conquest and thus there weren’t really any sheep. There were quite a few RP’ers, but they controlled territory and fought back against aggressors. I think in Shadowbane everyone was a wolf with alliances, and politics that played a huge role in being able to survive.

    This is why I love a game like Shadowbane more than WoW. SB has purpose and gives you a reason to log in. WoW is mostly a chore, either doing dailies, dungeons or raiding. The greatest thing in SB was getting a message in IRC from my guild leader asking me to log in because our town was being attacked; or we were going to hunt down a group roaming around in our territory.

    Also Shadowbane didn’t do itself any favors by being laggy as hell. Combat was completely unplayable at times even in small skirmishes.

  7. João Carlos

    IMHO, there are only 10% from total players that are wolves (maybe less), the rest are sheep and never will try a PvP sandbox game because they have better games (for them) for try. Take the example of EVE: 80% of players never get out systems 1.0-0.8. All they are sheep. And we guess there are too around 10% of sheep working for big companies at 0.0 systems, the old feudal organization (they work for the “lords” for free, then the “lords” protect their serfs…)

    Any PvP sandbox MMO will EVER be a niche game. That excludes a lot of investors, because the money return will be slow. And with that small player base, more PvP sandbox game will cause less players for each game. So, who creates a new PvP sandbox MMo will need eat the playerbase from Darkfall and EVE. At the end, every company loses….

    IMHO, forget it. I don’t beleive there is any future for PVP sandbox MMO. It is a niche, and try crete a new one will only make more harm than good, because investors will not be happy and older PvP sandbox MMO will lose playerbase. That is a recipe for implode that niche market: investor will think PvP sandbox MMO is lose money and old PvP sandbox MMO will go bankrupt.

    Maybe be possible to create a good PvE sandbox MMO, but who insist to create a PvP sandbox MMO will only lose money, destroy the career and, eventually, implode the market niche.

  8. Nick Smith

    I think you’re missing out on a huge swathe of PVP MMO, and perhaps limiting yourself. Try Tribal Wars or it’s kazillion imitators, including bucketloads of Facebook ones now. Tens of thousand of players, aggressive, strategic, and noisy. Not MMORPGs, but definitely MMOs. Great fun, but consume your life.

  9. RE: Nick Smith – Tribal Wars and its imitators… Random aside: It is an imitator itself. There were many games (the longest-running successful one I know about is Utopia).

    Anyway, I’ve tried a lot of them. I love to play them. The one thing they always lack is the feeling of being in a world because you don’t have a representative avatar. However, I’ve been absorbed in that type of game many times (Utopia, MafiaMatrix, OGame to name a few).

    Your idea might be a good place to start, to be honest. Perhaps building out ambulation with an in-game avatar in shared social spaces. Think of Tribal Wars with a major capital city you can stroll around in and socialize, buy/sell/trade, negotiate war terms in a neutral ground, etc. Perhaps allow for players to walk around in their home city with invited friends/guildmates and you’ve just boosted the sense of immersion and attachment.

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