Hannah/Jaedia is a great blogger – i enjoy following her blog and posts on mmorpg.com and i find myself agreeing with her for the most part- but this statement is something i don’t agree with, even if i know i’m probably blowing her harmless sentence up more than i should and MMORPGs are different for all of us, it’s that statement that inspired me to draft the following post a couple of weeks back, only to edit and publish it now for Blaugust.
The MMORPG industry is a slow one. When a trend emerges, it takes time for developers and/or publishers to react and release games incorporating said trends. The heavy years of “WoW clones” were 2007-2010 while for the players, at least those vocal enough to put their thoughts into writing, it was clear since 2009, at the latest, that they wanted something different. Back then, we weren’t all too sure about what we wanted- we wanted “different but familiar enough”, a vague statement. Games like Star Wars: the old Republic, The Secret World, Guild Wars 2 and Wildstar tried to find a comfortable spot. Since 2012, maybe 2013, with the announcement of ArcheAge and Everquest Next (haha), it seemed clear that players want MMOs to return to sandbox design. Slowly, this new batch of MMORPGs arrives: with ArcheAge last year, now Black Desert Online and soon Shroud of the Avatar, Camelot Unchained, Star Citizen, Shards Online, Albion, the Repopulation 2.0 and so on. MMORPGs seem to be going back into a niche and are happy for it, while MMOs are going ever more mainstream (The Division).
With Black Desert Online, there’s this odd discussion whether it truly is a sandbox or just a glorified themepark with a lack of content.
What is a “Sandbox”, anyway?
I’ve read that a “true sandbox” has to offer its players more freedom in terms of building structures in the world (although we all know that if they’d do that, we’d live in Dong-land).
The discussion about whether or not an MMORPG is a sandbox is quite old and done, really. Everybody who tackles this topic- and me too, will throw the definition of “sandbox” (Wikipedia even redirects to “open world”) out there: it’s about an open world instead of linear level design. Taking this definition verbatim, there are many MMORPGs that are a sandbox- namely all MMORPGs taking place in worlds without artificial barriers and invisible walls. That would be true for Rift or Wildstar, for example. While we all have different views on that, here’s the part of the definition that gets me:
Their main appeal is they provide a simulated reality and allow players to develop their character and its behavior in the direction of their choosing. In these cases, there is often no concrete goal or end to the game.
No concrete goal or end to the game. Let that sink in and think about the reaction something like this would get from MMO players- we’d be telling each others about missing endgame and a pointlessness of the leveling process and we’d be asking where the content is. On the other hand, having no concrete goal or end to the game is also standard operation for MMORPGs- you can play World of Warcraft for battle pets only, or for good-looking armor, or for achievements the auction house and so on. There are as many motivations to play this game as there are players. You could argue, of course, that you beat the game by beating whatever content is the “most difficult” in the game right now- but this still is not a defined ending.
Now, i do know that when MMO players debate about a game being a sandbox/themepark, they’re not talking about that definition shown above- because that definition doesn’t allow for much discussion in MMO space. I know that when we talk about “Themepark”, we talk about developer-created content taking the front seat. When we’re talking about “Sandboxes”, we think about player-created content and “emergent gameplay”, whatever that means. But even if we’d draw the lines there, things get blurry- is Neverwinter a sandbox, then? Because players can create content there- or are these players simply hobbyist-content-developers?
In the end, if you walk away from that Wikipedia definition of open world, no end, no goal, you will never come to an objective observation whether one game is a sandbox or not, with one exception: when a game gives players almost complete control of their environment (while providing some rules instead of content) like EVE does. But we don’t want EVE- at least the majority doesn’t, not even the majority of the vocal minority, while most of them state they do want a (pve-)sandbox. Giving players freedom also seems to include the ability for players to ruin other players’ enjoyment of a game.
I think the key here is in a small part of the definition cited above: simulated reality.
Simulated reality and options
Sandbox or Themepark doesn’t matter, really. What matters is if an MMORPG is trying to build a simulated reality / virtual world and provides players with options in how to spend time in the game: things like pve, housing, crafting, trade, fishing, pet and mount collection, character looks, character builds and yes, even pvp- they need to be central to the design of an MMORPG, because, MMORPGs are good because they provide all that- they’re basically a gaming genre-mix. When you take this into account, you will find that Everquest 2, an MMORPG of the “Themepark” subgenre, in the end offered more ways to play it than Darkfall or Mortal Online, both “Sandboxes” do.
Is Black Desert Online a Sandbox?
Is BDO a sandbox? For me, it’s too early to tell. Right now, i get the feeling that the best course of action would be to continue questing to finally arrive at a few quests that might teach me BDO’s many systems. A real sandbox would have to offer a significant player economy, as well- at least in MMOs. You’ll have trade as an option in Black Desert Online- trade, that is- as in ArcheAge- about transporting special goods from one place to the other and buying/selling to NPCs.
I’m only level 11 and i’m already able to trade, go fishing, collecting, milk cows (a daily quest), go mob grinding or questing or simply explore the world. However, i do feel that i need to reach Heidel City for the game to truly open up. And i think Black Desert is a game where having Alts makes life a lot easier. So these are my plans in that game for now: reaching Heidel City through questing with Nuria, the Witch and then go and create the Valkyrie. Although i feel “on rails” in this part of the game, i’m convinced that by the time i reach level 50 at the latest- and it seems to only take a double-digit number of hours /played- i’ll be free to play the game in the way i want to.
There have been a few very interesting opinion pieces out there for a couple of days. I’d like to- somewhat- chime in and express my own opinion on that matter. First, let’s take a look at what we’ve got.
I think it began with Ravious’ “Modicum of Interaction”, where he described his experience with starting on a pvp server in World of Warcraft and came to the conclusion that what he really wants in an MMO is persistence and interaction.
A day later, Bhagpuss described the “pinball machine in an arcade” analogy as being fitting to his own feelings- that you’d want to play in a world where other people play, as well, because it feels alive. He also states that MMORPGs have changed- they’re not new anymore- not in the way they used to be. It wasn’t about features, graphics or somesuch- it was all about the wow-effect of other players from all over the world connecting to the same shared online world. That was the feature that sold MMORPGs. It doesn’t, anymore, and Bhagpuss is ok with that.
The same goes for Syl and her entry of “MMO heartbreak”. She agrees that the MMO experience has changed but that there are still “rainbows to find”, that there’s still interaction- it changed somewhat, but it’s still there.
All these posts are worth a read and i encourage you to go and read them if you haven’t- in my opinion, all of these put the finger on the wound many of us feel while being positive in their base tone.
I think we need to further break up the MMORPG genre. You know the opinion that’s always going to pop up as soon as content becomes soloable? If you don’t like to group up in MMORPGs, play singleplayer games, they’re better for story. This “argument”, if we call it that, leaves the pinball-in-the-arcade and the reading-in-a-cafe out of the equation. I’d like to turn it around and state that if you like small-group-instanced-content, there should be a genre for you.
The lobby dungeon experience
Interestingly, there isn’t. I think Forced did something to that end, but i’m still left wondering why we don’t have a game yet that’s based solely on dungeon experiences. The “world” and the “quest” part of MMORPG development are the money sinks in developing an MMO, so i wonder why nobody has thought of getting rid of that part and instead offer something akin to, say, Left for Dead or Payday in the MMORPG realm. This should be possible, right?
You would have to be honest about it, though- if you’d call this kind of game an MMORPG, it would get a similar treatment to Skyforge, which is being criticized for lack of an Open World while on the other hand- and that’s a very early impression- being quite ok for what it does. Even i went into an adventure by way of the group finder. It was a nice enough experience, although i’d have to say that my SWTOR companions are more talkative than the other players i grouped up with.
There could be a few ways to do a game like this- maybe go for the isometric view and create a co-op Diablo/co-op MOBA or go the 3D route and create and distill the dungeon experience from MMORPGs into a new game. You can even keep many of the MMO tropes- maybe a bit of grind, levels, content gating, gear, the trinity- and get rid of the more costly and fluffy parts- loads of text quests, maybe crafting and, of course, the world. Just cut it off. I would also leave out the single-player option entirely, although that could become a problem when the game matures.
The strange part? Even when i prefer open world MMORPGs, i think i’d like to see some kind of game like that emerge. They could do dungeons in different sizes for different session lengths and even go “hardcore” with raids or dungeons that last multiple hours.
I don’t know if this comes close to how Belghast expressed a PvE MOBA would be, but i think it would be a great addition to the genre. Right now, i wonder if there aren’t games like that out already- couldn’t you play Diablo 3 or Marvel Heroes this way?
The persistent and interactive singleplayer experience
Another way to evolve would be to go the route of Elite: Dangerous and further down the line Shroud of the Avatar– give players the option to experience an online world by themselves and have persistency and interaction become indirect, possibly through an ingame-economy. In Elite, i can fly around solo, but actions of all players influence the universe i’m living in- by trade prizes, faction balance and so on. I can play alone and it’s not exactly the “pinball machine in the arcade” experience, but there’s more interaction and interdependency in Elite than in many themepark MMORPG’s questing game.
The MMORPG: cut off rides and provide systems
I think- and in a way we already see this with games like Crowfall, Camelot Unchained and the Repopulation in development- that distilling MMO experiences in new subgenres would free the “real MMORPGs” to get back to a design that focuses more on giving players systems instead of themepark rides. MMORPGs could become more world-like- and cheaper in development, in the end, if they stopped trying to give players a linear experience and went on to being “everything-boxes”.
The funny thing is that i think a good MMORPG would cater to many different play-styles while on the other hand, the current themepark MMORPGs are making the mistake of trying to cater to too many play-styles. In the end, i think it’s the way content works in these games right now that is a hindrance- it’s designed content- designed for soloer’s, casuals, hardcore players, for crafters, traders, dungeon-delvers, raiders and so on. Everything is “handcrafted”, which makes content development slow and expensive. If you’d have systems that could provide the same; a good ingame-economy, open world bosses, dynamic events done right, maybe mob settlements that grow from being a single-player experience to being a raid experience, you wouldn’t have the need to handcraft all these experiences.