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 Development Lesson #44

Don’t be afraid to ask for help. One of the most common problems I see with new designers is that they’re afraid to ask for help. They think they might look stupid or incapable of doing their jobs if they ask someone for assistance. Instead, they bang their heads against a problem until they either solve it, give up, or finally seek help. It’s a waste of time, and asking questions doesn’t make you look stupid. Even as a senior designer who is extremely good with tools, I’ll happily ask even an associate designer how to do something if I forgot how to do it. It’s not a big deal!

My Business Card

I made myself a new business card. I printed them out and brought them along with me to parts undisclosed and completely forgot to hand them out to anyone. I thought I’d share my card with someone. That someone is you. Yes, I know the phone number is smudged out.

Spoiler Alert: For those of you who can’t decode QR Codes by hand, it leads you here.

MMO Development Lesson #43

Know when to stop. There is always a point of diminishing returns with everything. This goes for overtime, content creation, and virtually anything you do when working on a game. With regard to self-imposed overtime, you need to learn where your point of diminishing returns is. Do you know that you can work 10 hours a day indefinitely? Great! Don’t make yourself work 12 hours a day, slowly degrading your overall work quality and output over time (and remember that family is important!).

This is one of the hardest lessons to learn as a developer. Do you have a really interesting idea that you think might be possible if you just work on it for a few more hours? Is it worth it? Often, a piece of content is very nearly as good in far less time than you might be personally willing to put into it. It can be tempting to keep working on it because you might eventually get there, but you need to know when to stop and move on to the next thing.

MMO Development Lesson #42

Do not violate the narrative of your world. Don’t get me wrong, the lore of a world can be bent to your will and almost anything is possible in most game worlds, but you need to be careful to avoid outright contradicting the story. It’s often relatively easy to  bend a rule or modify the context of how you tell the story without infringing on the rules of your narrative.

  • Idea: You have a great idea that involves visually explaining an important piece of history using ghosts. You even stayed late at work to script it up and make everything play out perfectly!
  • Problem: Your world does not have ghosts. Period. No, it also doesn’t have tangible echoes of the past even in highly magical areas. Get over it.
  • Solution: Luckily, your world allows for visions of the past to take place. Send players on a vision to see what really happened rather than showing it with ghostly figures–the player experience might even be better for it.

MMO Development Lesson #41

Don’t sacrifice fun for the sake of story. This statement is a bit too absolute, but the gist of it is true. If you have a great idea and the gameplay is fun but it doesn’t fit with the world contextually, either make an exception or revise the story so the gameplay is the same but the context is more palatable.

  • Idea: The player uses an illusion to look like a Giant and infiltrate a Giant camp to steal their secret beer recipe.
  • Problem: There are no illusions in this world! While it’s technically possible and the gameplay is fun, it simply doesn’t fit.
  • Solution: Let the player use a device that temporarily controls a Giant’s mind, allowing the player to acquire the recipe.

MMO Development Lesson #40

All the passion and talent in the world on your development team can take you far, but business and management are just as vital. Making a game takes a village. You need designers, engineers, artists, testers, and many other creative and skilled developers in the trenches. But, you also need solid production, management, and a viable business plan or your game isn’t going to get very far. Focus on making a great game first, but remember that this is a business and don’t let a game fail for the wrong reasons.

Want to read more lessons? Check out all of my MMO Development Lessons!

MMO Development Lesson #39

Be mindful of where you set your quality bar. If you set your quality bar too high, it’s going to make production difficult and inefficient. This goes for all aspects of game development, not just design.

To give an example, let’s use art. Let’s say you can create a very good looking crate in one work day. To the untrained eye, it’s an amazing crate. To the eye of an artist, it’s fine, but it could use some tweaks to get it just right. Those tweaks take two or three more days to complete before everyone is happy and the crate is itself a work of art.

Guess what you just did: You wasted two days. The vast majority of players are not going to see that crate and examine its intricacies, they’re just going to see it as part of a scene. The time would have been better spent on an important landmark prop rather than the crate.

This is true of design as well. Don’t spend 8 hours writing flowery dialogue and quest text when you’re just sending a player on a mission to kill a named boss. That time could be better spent improving the boss encounter, adding an optional objective, or creating another quest entirely. The player is going to remember the experience, not the perfectly-crafted dialogue.

Find your baseline quality bar and make that realistic, then create moments of extreme quality (Lesson #37) that the players will remember.

Remember the MMO Lesson series? It’s back now that I have some time on my hands. Check out the other MMO Lessons!

MMO Development Lesson #38

There’s still room for kill quests in your game. Kill quests get a bad rap, but there’s nothing inherently wrong with them. They reward players for doing something they’re probably already doing, and rewarding players for doing things is good.

You can also improve a kill quest by doing something unique (e.g. herd some cows over the edge of a cliff to send them to their deaths) or by pairing them with another quest objective as an Optional/Bonus step or as a Choice between killing mobs or doing something else (e.g. destroying a hive).

You should also make sure to give a kill quest good context. “Kill 10 Bears because they looked at me funny” is not good context. “Kill 10 Invaders who are actively attacking my village” is much better context. Don’t shy away from using kill quests as a whole, just make sure you don’t use them too frequently (or as a crutch for poor imagination) and try to give them a little something extra if you can.

Remember the MMO Lesson series? It’s back now that I have some time on my hands. Check out the other MMO Lessons!

MMO Development Lesson #37

Create memorable moments. It is impossible to make every adventure in your game memorable, exciting, and unique. And, frankly, it generally isn’t a good idea to try to in an MMO. However, you can create incredible moments for your players and purposefully distribute them throughout the experience so players experience highs as they play the game. Distribute these moments so players will encounter them regularly and they will remember them and be carried through your world happily.

Remember the MMO Lesson series? It’s back now that I have some time on my hands. Check out the other MMO Lessons!