What’s in a sandbox?

When i felt i couldn’t yet pin down the sandbox in EQ Next, i came to think about this- what constitutes a sandbox? Then i read Azuriels EQ Next impressions and, while he didn’t mention the term “Sandbox”, it became more clear.

World vs. game

In a world, you have options- and these options include more than choosing which mobs to fight and in what way (Rift does an excellent job in offering multiple gameplay options for mob slaughter). We all know housing as “another thing to do”. Add an involved crafting system, trade, exploration and maybe even world-building to that and you have some options for players with different play styles. The thing about MMORPGs is that they can be many games in one- there could be your economics simulation (this doesn’t seem to be the correct english word, sorry), a strategy game as well as a “city simulator” and of course your RPG in it- at least.

This possible combination of singleplayer-genres alongside the possibility to play these games with many other players (being some kind of social network, as well- which in my opinion is what made WoW so successful) is what makes MMORPGs so compelling.

There needs to be a game attached to the world- most players will want to have some kind of progress with their characters and they want to be adventurous, fight difficult enemies, craft unique items and so on.

When someone says the “G” in the MMORPG part is the least important, i really think nowadays this just means “the ‘G’ is fine as is, please focus on the other parts”- when you take a look at the newer games, i think they nailed the gameplay part- GW2’s combat is fun, then there are the slightly more strategic combat systems of WoW, EQ2, Rift, TSW and so on, which are also fun in their own way. And if you like your combat really very much on the strategic side- EVE has that covered. So the combat (and PvE-) gameplay is just fine.

Systems vs. Scripts

Now, here are two words describing the same sandbox vs. themepark / world vs. game – discussion, at least from my perspective. What we need to move the genre forward, is an implementation of systems that slowly start to replace scripts. Actually, when i think about that, there is a possibility that EQ Next has this covered. When we compare GW2 with EQN in regards to the emergent AI of mobs in EQN and dynamic events in GW2, it’s clear that in EQN, there’s this system of likes & dislikes (i’m assuming it gets implemented well), which can lead to all kinds of situations and the scripted, cyclical dynamic events of GW2 on the other hand.

Both implementations could lead, for instance, to a village being attacked by orcs/centaurs. If these orcs from EQN serve as a faction instead of mobs, you, as a player, can make a decision to help the orcs attack the village- this option is not available to you in GW2, since the centaurs are going to attack you anyway.

Now, i wonder: what will EQN do if a part of the players decide to defend the village and another part is helping the attackers? PvP would be one option- it wouldn’t be FFA-PvP, but could be restricted to this area and to this moment until the attack is either completed successfully or not. But there might be no need for that. When you don’t allow players to attack each other, this might come out as some variation of a MOBA- the only targets being the NPCs. Now, i’m really making this up as i go, since we don’t know if it’s going to work this way in EQN or not- but what was revealed at least allows for that speculation.

You can expand that line of thought, of course. Boss behaviour instead of instanced dungeons- you could let raid bosses lay down a camp somewhere in the open world and let them spread their influence outwards. If the world is big enough, there’ll always be places where these mobs could hide for some time. A trade system instead of an auction house, placing resources in a “realistic” way in the world, making rare resources rare and not just attainable at later levels. Making prizes local, allowing for caravans. Implementing a degradation system for items, so you can’t use what you have for eternity.

Player-to-player vs. Player-to-Environment

The systems in a Sandbox MMORPG should focus on interactions between players. Your equipment degrades with time, so you need a crafter to build new armor or weapons or to repair your stuff. Prizes and resources are local, so you need traders to bring the items to your area. Mobs are free to roam, so you might need experienced adventurers in your area to allow you to farm the resources and enable trade. And so on. These interdependencies need to be build into the core of the game, allowing/encouraging/forcing players to interact with each other. The trend in MMORPGs has been self-sufficiency- and this needs to be stopped.

Do we want a Sandbox MMORPG?

Is “Sandbox” the solution to the problems in the genre? Is there even a problem? The term “sandbox” is a vague one, and everybody’s going to have their own opinion about it. But that’s not really what many of us want- what we’d like to see is an MMORPG that we’ll want to play for years, not months- it’s just that i think at least some of the stuff mentioned above would be helpful in being that game.

As Azuriel put it: “All long-term compelling MMO content is player-based”. Again, i agree. Whether the game providing that is called Sandbox, Themepark, Sandpark or Themebox doesn’t really concern me- but there should be (another) one.

Other bits of EQ Next

There’s a lot to digest and read about EQ Next at the moment. I haven’t read it all and i don’t know everything (obviously), but i wanted to get some of the more detailed information and links to other blogs in here.


Thanks to Jewel i stumbled across this interview on PC Gamer, where some of the mechanics of EQ Next are explained a little. The most encouraging sentence for me regarding crafting is this one:

[C]opper is the newbie metal, it’s the metal you find right outside the starting city and eventually you don’t need it anymore. Because of the way our game works, copper is always useful, because copper has specific qualities. Iron is always useful, mithril is always useful. All of these things are always useful to you, depending on what you want to make.

This is one of the main reasons crafting isn’t very compelling for me in most MMOs- every ten levels or so you need completely different materials and the old stuff isn’t important anymore. When you take a look at auction houses in some themepark MMOs, the beginner resources are usually quite expensive- which is odd when they should be the most commonly found resources.

SOE seems to wait with a closer look at crafting for a time when they’ll be able to present it better than when everybody’s still talking about all aspects of the game. They reiterate we’ll like it, though.

Combat and Class system

One other topic discussed out there is the apparent lower focus of roles in group play, the revealed classes and races and a summary of impressions after watching the lore panel. There are great opinion pieces by Belghast and Rowan Blaze. My own opinion is a short one, this time: i don’t quite like the style of dedicated healers and tanks. But i also don’t like GW2’s solution- it’s a tad too chaotic. Maybe they had this vision of another kind of trinity (Support, Control, Damage), but i don’t think it worked out very well. It seems SOE is preparing something to show a comparison of the combat to GW2 is not entirely correct.

Other Opinions

In general, EQ Next was well received.

  • Jewel has a great collection of information and opinion.
  • Rowan is excited, as well.
  • Bhagpuss has some mixed feelings, but updated us frequently and with some interesting additions like videos and commentary regarding the lore and class panel.
  • Ardwulf is impressed and has a great summary of a EQN Q&A session (Part 1Part 2) with some interesting bits of information.

Some others have been more critical.


Some bloggers offered roundups of EQ Next related posts. I’d like to thank Syp from Biobreak and Wilhelm from The Ancient Gaming Noob for including me- both inclusions made up a more than significant amount of visitors to my (very new) blog. These numbers are exciting to see and very encouraging. Anyways, here are the roundups i found:

On a personal note

With all that was revealed and all the excitement as well as criticism, i forgot to mention something. I don’t care about the beta personally (others do, but we already know european players will be able to take part in it), but SOE, don’t expect me to go to ProSiebenSat1 Games for your game. If i can only access it with them, i’ll rather not play. To this day i can’t understand this decision- yes, sure, better localization and customer service, that’s right.

And i have to confess, one thing that came with free-to-play and many americans/english speaking players can’t see is that the german translations are horrible- in all the (f2p) games where i switched back to german for some time (namely: LOTRO and Rift- and both of them had good translations prior to f2p). It’s just a mess that clearly comes from Google Translate (not really, it’s not that bad). But, let me be clear on that front: i’d rather play a game in thai, which i can neither read nor understand, or move to north america, than registering an account over at P7S1 Games.

Sticking to one MMORPG

As mentioned on my about-page, i recently decided to stop playing multiple titles at once. The main reason for this is that i don’t play much, really. It is a beloved hobby for me, but it still is just that- according to Raptr my gaming time amounts to about 10 hours a week. That’s an amount some reach in 1 or 2 days, and in my experience even players calling themselves casual can do that in 3 or 4. Now, imagine me trying to split these 10 hours up to play Guild Wars 2, Lord of the Rings Online, The Secret World, Rift sprinkled with Defiance and/or Planetside 2. And, of course, don’t forget about singleplayer games. My backlog on those is so impressive that i wouldn’t need to worry about having something to play until the end of 2014, at least.

So i decided on two things.

First, regarding single-player games: i only buy those on sale- the Steam sales being of priority, but i wouldn’t mind spending my money elsewhere when it seems appropriate. But of course, there are temptations- right now, The Raven (i love whodunits) and Europa Universalis 4 are on that list. I won’t go into more detail here, since i called this blog Party Business and none of these titles allow for parties.

Regarding MMORPGs it’s the same thing- i decided that i’ll stop treating Guild Wars 2 and The Secret World as such. Mind you, of course they are MMORPGs- and very good ones at that. Actually, i found one of them my biggest disappointment of 2012 and the other one the biggest surprise of 2012, but i still know they’re both great games. It’s just that, i think SynCaine used that term first (can’t seem to find the actual post, unfortunately) – they are “play-to-finish MMORPGs”. They have a storyline, they are great at what they do, but they both have a point where i’d say they wouldn’t hold my interest any longer. With GW2, that would be after the 100% achievement, with TSW it would be upon finishing the story content. Both of them could still pull me in with updates and/or living story, but i could see the end of the tunnel. And this is something i don’t like in MMOs. I wouldn’t say i’m done with these two games, but i stopped trying to build a MMO rotation around them. The same goes for Defiance.

Strangely enough, not seeing the end of the tunnel is the main reason why i also decided to let go of Lord of the Rings Online. The levelling content in this game is overwhelming- my last effort here brought me into Moria, but came to a halt there. Now, i love Lotro, somehow- it’s an interesting game to play and the amount of content could be a positive, i’d love to see places like Lorien, Isengard and Rohan, but i would need to wade through Moria to reach those places. A good kinship could help, but good guilds are really hard to find and even harder to get warm with for a guy playing 10 hours a week and taking a dislike to voice chat.

Now this leaves me with Rift- some of you who read the first posting here might ask why i don’t play EVE and i would be hard pressed to answer that. Rift has some things going for it- the levelling content is there, but it’s not overwhelming, and you can level in different manners. I also much prefer the combat over the combat of Lotro. Then there are dimensions which are incredibly interesting and fit the bill of something to return to. The group options and content in general leave me with the impression of Rift being a MMORPG, i think Trion are one of the best devs/publishers out there and the free-to-play option is good. Rift doesn’t fit all of my expectations towards a MMORPG, but right now, i think it’s the best option for me. Why that is, i might explore on another post.

As long as you don’t count the temptations, again. After the reveals of EQ Next, and i have to state again that while i might sound critical of that game i really think it has the potential of being a game changer- EQ2 is singing its siren song and i can clearly hear it. So loud, in fact, that i decided to make saturday an anything-goes-day and found myself in Norrath. People say EQ2 has lots of content, interesting places to visit, good, long-lasting quests and other activities to make a longterm commitment viable, and that’s why i’ve been in Norrath three times already but made it only to level 12 by now.

Still, i’m trying to resist that call, since i’m not only looking for a good mmo home, but also for a good guild and companionship. I think, for me, the key to finding the magic of MMORPGs again lies in focus- a focus on game, guild as well as playstyle.

Everquest Next – after watching the full reveal

Today i watched the full reveal presentation of Everquest, so i am able to share some new opinions. Of course, the professional bloggers i linked to yesterday did a very good job of summarizing what’s been shown to their readers. I’d like to take what Dave Georgeson called the four holy grails of EQ Next.

Changing the core game: In this part, Georgeson talked about the EQ Next Multiclass system where every class has different abilities with each weapon (we know that 4 abilities are determined by the weapon you choose) and choice of class skills (the other 4 abilities in your build). It seems they wanted a change from playing Dungeons and Dragons with levelups, skilltrees and so on to a new, broader way of being able to multiclass and finding classes and skills in the world.

There is really not much new to that- we have that, as Bhagpuss wrote on Inventory Full, we have this weapon/multiclass system in TSW, GW2 and Rift to some extent, the skill collection was a part of Guild Wars 1 many players enjoyed. I mean, sure, why not build up on something not-so-new-but-rare and make it work better? Not saying this is a bad thing, i like it actually.

What i don’t like so much is the low counts of usable abilities right now. Four are used by your weapon, another four are free to build. I assume there’ll be passive abilities, as well, and i sure hope they are designed more alike to TSW than to GW2.

Destructibility: The voxel thing. So battles leave their marks on the environment- and the environment “heals” with time. That’s a nice gimmick which makes its way up to a nice feature when combined with the procedurally generated underworld. I like to sway around while playing- just now i only wanted to kill 10 rats, when i pounded one of them through the floor of the basement they dwell in and happened on a underworldy dungeon. That’s a real nice feature for me. Also, the fights feel very much alive.

A life of consequence: Now, that’s cryptic. Here’s talk about the mob AI- that they’re armed with likes and dislikes and might move around under certain circumstances instead of spawning on the same spot every time.

I think that’s a double-edged sword here. First of all, this could be some kind of hyperbole. Like i wrote yesterday, Guild Wars 2 described a quite similar scenario, although they didn’t hide that these movements and changes are part of a scripted experience aka dynamic event. If every mob has these likes & dislikes and moves around, this could lead to some very dynamic events- and this time for real. If SOE is bold enough to make strong mobs move around, we could see the end of level zones (EQ Next doesn’t seem to have levels, but TSW doesn’t have them, either. Try going to Egypt after the tutorial.) and the return of something nice: danger. It would be nice to be surprised by a mob too strong for me and having to run away. The last time that happened to me and caught me by surprise was with Vanguards free-roaming elite mobs.

Permanent Change: What we have here is the public quest/living story thing. So there are these rallying calls where the players have to do something- for example build up a village. There are crafting tasks as well as fighting tasks to be performed. These rallying calls take up to several months of real time to finish by the playerbase and once a rallying call is finished, its results stay in the world.

I like that idea. Yes, it might be only a crossover of public quests and living story, but at least SOE seems to be willing to make the happening event (living story) have something to do with what’s done (public quest) instead of making people grind minigames.

However, i like the look of EQ Next- the stylized graphics look just fine and work better for me than, say, Vanguard’s and EQ2’s style- especially considering their character models.

Now, there’s just one question- where did they hide the sandbox? I’m sure what they presented could be one, but they didn’t make it clear where to find it. The combat looks nice, the world with its day/night cycle as well, and if they incorporate many choices in their permanent change and consequence- parts and really enable players to go where they want and stick to their preferred play-style it could work out well. But they didn’t make it clear, in my opinion. There’s just this one thing…

Everquest Next Landmark. I’ll just go ahead and summarize it as “Minecraft as a MMO” here, as i’m sure you read about it- if you didn’t, there’s a good article over at Massively.

Now, that’s a sandbox. Players are able to build what they want, there’s an added social layer, even guilds and there seems to be some kind of adventuring. But in essence, it seems to be the game for crafters.

All in all, i’m still looking forward to their intentions in regards to crafting and player-driven economy, and i still hold to the assumption that SOE got their hands on something great- but i still feel what we know is a little hollow. If we define “sandbox”- and we could define this term in one thousand ways- with the words “driven by player-to-player interactions”, then we still don’t know much about EQN being the big new shiny sandbox MMO.

EQ Next reveal

So, voxels. We now know something about Everquest Next. I’ll keep myself short on the reveals itself, there are features for your reading pleasure over at Massively, Rock Paper Shotgun, mmorpg.com and ZAM.

To summarize what i got from the reveals:

  • Norrath, the world of Everquest Next, is voxel based. Quite like Minecraft, i hear. The thing is that this leads to destructible environment, caves you can explore/find and a changing world. It seems characters can start to dig anywhere they want and might find something underneath the surface of the world. Also, fights leave their mark in the world.
  • Mobs will have some form of AI, they’ll function with a list of likes and dislikes and might for instance reposition themselves when their current spot strikes them as too risky.
  • Questing will happen without exclamation marks, you happen to witness stuff in the world and choose to participate. There’ll also be public quests that last for months.
  • Skill sets function quite like in Guild Wars 2: you get 4 abilities depending on your weapon and 4 abilities you can choose from a pool of abilities available to your classes.
  • You can multiclass, but classes seem to have to be found in the world, as well.
  • There are no levels, so you can play with your friends at any time
  • Characters will be able to vault over obstacles, slide down inclines, or jump up and grab a ledge to pull up

So, that’s what i got from the reveal. First, let me mention that all these articles i linked above seem to have their roots in a presentation the authors saw at E3 earlier this year and yesterday an embargo was lifted so they could write up their impressions.

As far as the reveals go, i know they sound crazy and like a true innovation in MMORPGs, but i’m still cautious. If you recall my wants and needs for finding a new mmo home, here we have a feature list that concentrates on the world part, and it is done well. Norrath next seems to be a truly changing world and SOE seems to have found the RPG again. With EQ Next Landmark, which seems to be some kind of toolset for players to build stuff that might find its way in EQ Next, SOE seems to have the point of having something to return to, as well.

What’s missing for me, is something about crafting and trade. They didn’t say anything about that yet, and there are some clues one could follow allowing the assumption that crafting will be a solid experience in EQ Next (EQ2’s crafting is viewed as one of the better systems and there is a designer on board in EQN that changed EQ2’s system for the better), so i guess information on crafting and trade is still to come.

Here’s my main gripe, though: when you leave out the voxels, what’s revealed so far could just be Guild Wars 2 again. I’m not saying they are the same, but ArenaNet used almost the same descriptions for their game: changing world (“living story”), random encounters and “obvious” quests (dynamic events), mobs changing their behaviour as well as a living world.

There is something in all the information we got, something underlying everything, that makes me believe SOE. Maybe it’s that i think the message players have been sending for some years by now has reached SOE- MMORPG fans want better worlds instead of better games. Get the MMO-players instead of the “three month crowd” and you have a winner.

It seems to me SOE is aiming high, they seem to know that the time might be right for a new massive hit in the mmorpg space if you try to innovate and succeed in giving MMORPG players what they want- and judging by all we know, they might pull it off. Color me intrigued.

MMORPG criteria

Today we’ll get some Everquest Next info. In preparation i’d like to share what i wish for in MMORPGs. This wishlist won’t be complete and some things will be subjective in their evaluation. But this might still be a good starting point for a new blog.

1. Give me a world

I dislike zoning in MMOs- it spoils the sense of size for me. In Age of Conan, i couldn’t figure out where i was at any given time. It is somewhat better in GW2, where one can imagine there are only a couple of meters (feet?) between those gates. I’d like to have a big, seamless world, the best example i know of existing in Vanguard, where the climate doesn’t change suddenly when you enter a new zone/square.

To name a few things that further contribute to the worldly feeling: fewer instanced zones, and when there are, put them in the world, no cross-shard-lfg-tool, or better yet: no lfg-tool with instant ports, cities that look and feel like cities, maybe even do away with the quest “navigator” and so on.

2. Player driven economy

A “real” economy would also be quite nice. Think EVE online: different prizes for stuff at different locations, resources that are useful throughout the crafting tiers, a degradation/loss-system for non-consumables. Of course, this economy has to be complimented by a good crafting system, where a crafter can earn money, reputation and items that are of real value. Trading and Crafting should be fully supported playstyles in a MMORPG.

3. Something to return to

There should be something players would want to return to- some piece of the virtual world that belongs to them and that they can become attached to. This could be a lot of things- player housing, companions, pets, mounts, a community- there needs to be another hook needs to be added to the level and gear grind.

4. Don’t forget the RPG

In a MMORPG not everything should be easy and streamlined- the UI should be, but skill- and other systems don’t. I’d like to encounter some NPC selling rare housing items or look for skills in the world- i’d like to use a sword to get better with it without seeing naked guys running against walls all the time (see Mortal Online). The three-way-skillsystem of World of Warcraft and Diablo 3 was easy enough, there should be something built up on that, not cut down. Rift and The secret World have gone a good first step. I want to build a character, and while the game i play should try hard to help me not to gimp my character, this should be optional and still hold as many varied character building systems as possible.

5. Be fun

With all that in mind, the game needs still to be fun, and i’m not talking about “action combat” here since strategic combat can also be very engaging. I guess this one is about polish, user interface and general look & feel.

6. Player interaction

A good, long lasting MMORPG needs to steer away from soloability. Don’t let crafters gather all needed resources by themselves or operate on their own products only. Crafters, adventurers, explorers, traders should all have some reason to need the other groups or players with the same preferred playstyle. Do away with solo instances, minimize instanced or phased areas and don’t punish group play. There should be some features or systems where you can get to know other players or even some easy way to make this interdependancy less of a hassle (buy orders, for example), but please no cross-shard-instant-teleport-dungeons.

7. A varied experience

In my version of an ideal MMORPG, there should be a variety of activities- and by that i don’t mean 10 different styles of PvE encounters, although that is at least a good step. Crafting should be an activity and not a look-at-bars-filling-up-game. Trading should involve travel, exploring shouldn’t be about achievements and fighting should include encounters that are difficult without just cranking up the level and stats of the mob. There should be group quests, group areas as well as solo quests that take a long time.

8. You need to make money somehow

The business model: i don’t care if it is subscription or free-to-play. But i don’t want to be exploited and the business model needs to fit the game. I’m actually a little sceptical when it comes to the combination of sandbox and free-to-play, but i’m open to seeing it executed well.

So, i’m excited to see how Everquest Next measures up later today. I’m pretty confident EQN will at least look good in a lot of these categories, but i expect it will be vague or less good looking regarding points 2, 6 and 8.