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?

MMO Rant #15: Public Quests Are Antisocial

I’ve already commented about how I think Public Quests in Warhammer Online will be underutilized to the point that they’ll have to be changed after launch. What I didn’t talk about at the time was how this theoretically social game mechanic — this savior of cooperative play in MMOs — promotes subversive, antisocial behavior. Continue Reading »

MMO Rant #14: Time as Gameplay

Man oh man, has it been a while since my last good, solid rant. Ranting is generally a lot easier when you’re pissed off about something, and I’m not. Well, not really. But it does really irk me when designers try to pass off time as gameplay. “Hey buddy old pal, I need you to take this to some random place 15 minutes away.” *30 minutes later* “Thanks for taking that to the random place! Here’s a crappy reward that is worth less than if you’d decided to grind for 30 minutes instead of wasting your time!” Continue Reading »

MMO Rant #13: Too Many MMOs

It seems like every damn week a new massively multiplayer game is announced. Sometimes they are seriously valid potential entries into the marketplace. Most of the time, the games aren’t even going to make it out the door or, if they do, they will be piles of junk. It seems like half of the new companies making an MMO were founded by “Blizzard superstars,” aka people who once consulted someone in overseas tech support about what to eat for dinner. It’s starting to melt my brain. Continue Reading »

MMO Rant #12: The Grind

Why do I have to spend so much time and effort to progress? What’s with the repetitive, uninteresting gameplay? Why can’t they come up with anything but kill quests? Familiar words to many of you, I’m sure. I’ve read those words. I’ve said those words. Why does every MMO in existence have a grind? Why don’t they just get rid of it so I can get down to having fun? Continue Reading »

MMO Rant #11: Custom User Interfaces

“Holy crap, how on Earth could the Grouchy Gnome rant about Custom User Interfaces? They are God’s gift to gamers!” Yes, I did just quote exactly what was in your head when you read that title. I am a seer. Also, I love customizable interfaces. They are awesome. What isn’t awesome? Requiring a custom UI for base functionality I expect in every MMO ever. Continue Reading »

MMO Rant #10: The Mid Game

I’ve played a lot of massively multiplayer games. I think my MMORPG play count is somewhere in the mid dozens at this point, ever creeping toward triple digits. Back in the day, I was willing and able to max characters out–I had the time and dedication to do so. I was willing to get through all of the mid levels and soldier to the end game. But, you know what? At this point in my life, I’m only playing through those levels if they don’t suck. Continue Reading »

MMO Rant #9: “Better” Character Creation

I love making my character look unique. If you can identify me as “Blackguard” or “Luckbad” or any of the other characters I play immediately because you’re a friend of mine in a game, I am happy. Many games have professed to have better character creation than every else. Interestingly enough, ignorant people have agreed with them even though they are completely wrong. I will go on record today and say that I. Hate. Sliders. Continue Reading »

MMO Rant #8: OMG, This Rat Is So Much Teh Uber

Have you ever played an MMO in which it was apparently determined to be okay to scatter rats, snakes, bears, boars, and wolves throughout every level range of the game? Perhaps the better question is, have you ever played a fantasy MMO in your entire life? If you have, then you know exactly what I’m talking about, and you may very well be as tired of this crap as I am. Continue Reading »

MMO Rant #7: Quests Suck

I love quests. When they don’t suck. Unfortunately for people like me who like quests that don’t suck, most quests in MMOs totally suck. They are uncreative and are only worth doing because they break up a little bit of the monotony of grinding the same mobs over and over, even though the quests specifically task you to grind the same mobs over and over for only a tiny amount more experience than you’d get by grinding them without the quest. Continue Reading »