Massively Overthinking: The sandbox MMORPG disconnect

    
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This week’s Massively Overthinking was inspired by a reader who decided to go by Sandboxless in Seattle when he penned this note of frustration to us.

I have been playing MMOs for more than half a decade now, and in that time, I’ve tried numerous MMOs — old and new, Western and Eastern — and developed what I would like to think is a very broad understanding and appreciation of the genre. However, I will confess to a blindspot. I have next to no experience with sandboxes. Most of them are just fundamentally unappealing to me — usually due to non-consensual PvP — but thanks to MassivelyOP’s trial key giveaway, I’m now giving Black Desert a try. And I just don’t get it.

The general consensus among the MMO community seems to be that sandboxes are the superior breed of MMO. I’ve spent years seeing praise heaped upon the virtual world as the pinnacle of MMO design. I’ve yet to encounter a themepark that did not have a large and vocal group of players wishing it was more of a sandbox, but I have never once heard anyone (other than myself) wish a sandbox was more of a themepark.

Yet when I play Black Desert, I’m not feeling the magic. I see nothing special about the experience. Intellectually I understand the appeal of sandboxes. It’s usually something about player freedom and greater immersion. But I don’t feel any freer in Black Desert than in any other game (in fact I felt much more freedom to go and do as I wish in Guild Wars 2 and The Elder Scrolls Online). Nor do sandboxes seem any more immersive to me. Indeed, focusing on (often very complex) systems ahead of structured content is quite unimmersive to me. In a themepark, I can lose myself in the story and adventure and learn the game systems at my own pace along the way.

Yet clearly I am alone in feeling this way, so I throw myself upon the mercy of the Massively team: What’s wrong with me, and how do I fix it?

This is gonna be a fun one to unpack. Let’s talk sandboxes! Is Sandboxless broken beyond repair, or are sandboxes the problem?

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Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): Let’s read between the lines: Sandboxless feels freer in theme-park games because “focusing on (often very complex) systems ahead of structured content is quite unimmersive to me. In a themepark, I can lose myself in the story and adventure and learn the game systems at my own pace along the way.”

I’m going to ignore the part about complex systems because I’ve seen a fair amount of theme parks do the same (Darkfall, for example, had almost no tutorial and very few systems were difficult to understand). For the rest though, I wonder if, perhaps, Sandboxless is confusing sandboxes for open world gameplay. Open worlds games, like Chrono Trigger and The Legend of Zelda, are fun, but they tend to have highly developed storylines.

I mean no offense, but to me, saying you feel freer in a smaller space is like saying you have more options when someone reads you a list. Sandboxless’ preference is respectable, but the word choice highlights a strong disconnect. Sandboxless wants immersion but needs it through structured gameplay, and that’s OK. There’s nothing wrong with Sandboxless except that he seems to want to like sandboxes when the genre is based on something he dislikes: exploration and choice. Again, that’s OK, as I know I don’t play a ton of sandboxes myself, especially these days.

However, the genre’s not about FFA PvP, and the fact that this is mentioned (which I know comes up with a lot of anti-FFA-PvP sandbox fans) indicates the problem. Sandboxes aren’t about deep mechanics or having lots of options, but choice. It’s the difference between playing Final Fantasy (the non-MMOs) and a table-top Dungeons and Dragons session about negotiating a trade pact between some elves and gnomes. This is why player action in sandboxes get mass media attention, while major themeparks almost only make news when there’s a player-driven event (like abusing a bug to destroy cities) or are just trending hard. How do you recreate this in a combat-driven story game without PvP?

For example, my brother has a long standing feud with Animal Crossing’s Pecan, a chipmunk with a snoody attitude that has unfortunately gotten on my brother’s bad side in multiple entries within the series. If AC were like most MMOs, he’d just kill Pecan and be done with it (admittedly, he did first test using wood axes on villagers against her). If someone liked her, too bad — she’s dead. If she respawned, my brother’s gameplay option would be meaningless (as in a themepark). If she were instanced, the game might as well be single-player.

Now, there are sandbox PvE games, but the best ones tend to be building games, like Minecraft and Landmark. These are games almost wholly without a story though. EverQuest Next might have made an MMO closer to what Sandboxless would like, with procedurally generated events/NPCs that are making a comeback in single player and small scale. I really think, if done correctly, it could work. Maybe No Man’s Sky’s answer will work best, but simply put, sandboxes put you in charge of your gameplay experience. If you don’t want to make your own entertainment, that’s fine, but understand when your gameplay desires are at odds with the genre.

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Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): Dear Sandboxless, you are not broken. And neither are sandboxes. Not everyone wants complete freedom in a game, and not everyone wants to be hand-held the whole way. This is terrifically convenient since basically no games cleave to either extreme anyway, and neither do people. Most people are playing themeparks with sandboxy stuff and sandboxes with themeparky stuff, all without even knowing it.

The thing about sandboxes is that they are a slow burn. You can’t just walk up to a sandbox and say woohoo freedom. As a newbie in a sandbox, you have no idea what the game is even capable of. You don’t know where the borders are. If you don’t know the bounds of everything you could possibly do, how could you possibly fathom, never mind enjoy, the amount of freedom you have? My four-year-old knows the names of the planets but doesn’t really understand how big the universe really is. This is how every newbie is in a sandbox, and if you aren’t turned on by actually discovering the rules of the world as you go, you’re not going to fall in love with it until you do — and you may never get that far.

A themepark generally has more of a stock template. You have a pretty darn good idea what you’re getting when you go in. There will be classes and levels and dungeons and quests, and where it deviates from that template, it’s quicker to pick up on because the game wants you to get it, to play it and stay in it. It’s not going to shrug at you and pretend it doesn’t care or that your fun is your responsibility. It’s about adventure, not discovery.

When I think back to the first days of the defining genre sandboxes, like Ultima Online, Asheron’s Call, and Star Wars Galaxies, what I remember is that I didn’t approach any of those games with the idea in my head that it was going to be a mind-blowing epic sandbox experience. No one even used the word back then. I pretty much just played them in small, edible chunks. Oh, so here’s what I’m doing now. I’m killing nuna lairs. Oh, my friend is building a harvester. Neat, so that exists! Maybe I will try that. A week later, my world is a little bigger, and then another week, and another week, and it takes years to really get it. Very few games, I suspect even now, are worth years, sandbox or no. We have expectations, now, so new sandboxes have a lot to live up to.

So that’s what I’d recommend: Stop approaching sandboxes as a genre to conquer and think of them as just collections of themeparks for you to sample from. Don’t make them more than they are. And if it still doesn’t work? Well, so what? I can see the sandboxes in themeparks like Guild Wars 2 and ESO too. Play those and have a good time. There’s nothing wrong with you at all.

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Eliot Lefebvre (@Eliot_Lefebvre, blog): This is going to be a long one – strap in. Because I think our reader here is right on the money on many, many points, and a lot of his frustrations are the same that I have. So don’t be sad, Sandboxless – I totally understand you and don’t think there’s anything wrong with you.

Putting “freedom” as a principle always earns some side-eye from me for several reasons, starting with the fact that any game advertising “you can be whatever you want to be in this virtual world” is already lying to me. I can always come up with something that I want to be which the game won’t support, or only supports in a very roundabout fashion. You can tell me that I can be whatever I like in EVE Online, but that statement already includes the caveat of being whatever I like within the context of someone who flies around in a spaceship at all times. Even neglecting that, though, there are plenty of things that the game doesn’t really support. To keep picking on EVE for a moment, the game allows you to just fight other players as your sole form of gameplay… but the game expects you to do a fair amount of market play in the mix so that you aren’t out of a ship in moments, which arguably still puts “whatever you want” down as untrue.

But even putting all of that to one side, the fact of the matter is that I don’t care if I can be anything if you don’t give me a reason to care about being anything. If your main narrative thrust is weak, if the world doesn’t feel organic from the word go, then it’s just not interesting to me. There are a lot of weird disconnects there. I’ve seen people praise the depth of crafting in Ryzom, and it’s definitely deep – if what you care about is having a wide range of fiddly bits to tool with in terms of the end product. But I’m not interested in having a crafting system wherein I can choose between 30 materials or 100 materials for a given item if the actual act of making those materials into something isn’t interesting. Final Fantasy XIV has a more restrictive system, without a doubt, but it makes the actual act of crafting interesting, which matters to me more than choosing between the type of leather I want to use before I watch the craft bar fill up.

I’ve said before, many times, that I’m not a big fan of people labeling games as sandboxes or themeparks. Both “camps” have their own flaws, and the flaws of “pure sandbox” tend to get highlighted less simply because it’s a design school that’s far less numerous. I don’t think a world wherein I have to choose between having player housing or having combat that’s actually fun is a fun one, and I think it’s a false dichotomy to begin with. Dividing all MMOs into two camps doesn’t say much about what people actually enjoy, and it tends to overlook important elements; sometimes “sandbox” just means “I’m not stuck in annoying reductive raid content for an endless pointless treadmill at the level cap.”

That isn’t to say that the extreme of themepark design – a hallway in which you just do things as they’re presented without any questions asked – is any better. It’s just unpleasant in a different way. Good MMO design isn’t strictly on one side or the other, but organic; it provides players with space to do things that seem interesting while also providing a sense of purpose and meaning. My love of both of the online entries in the Final Fantasy series comes from that balance, a blend of things that you do on a pretty set path as well as things that are much more open-ended and player-driven. I’m fond of Star Wars: The Old Republic’s story, but I also like its much more open systems like housing and the sheer range of outfits available for players; I’d like to have more regions of the game that aren’t on quite such a straightforward track, but I do appreciate how the most recent expansion makes content of all levels relevant at the level cap. Guild Wars 2, at launch, earned quite a bit of interest from me simply because of the open nature of the game world; if anything, there are places where it could use more structure to provide a direction.

A well-designed MMO should have a path, and it should also have plenty of stuff off of the path for players to do as they wish. Having nothing more than the path is just as restrictive as having an open field without any guideposts. So no, there’s nothing wrong with you. Not liking a game that you feel lacks pointers is no different from not liking a game because it’s too restrictive; it’s a delicate balance, and where games fall in that spectrum is largely down to personal choice.

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Justin Olivetti (@Sypster, blog): The labels of themepark and sandbox are a gross oversimplification of a spectrum of available options in MMOs, but generally themeparks offer more guidance while sandboxes offer more freedom. I’m all for sandboxes in theory, because the more options to live out a virtual fantasy life, the better… right? Yet I’m also with the OP here: Sandboxes have tended to push me away more than attract, and part of that has to do with a lack of guidance.

Options are terrific, but when you’re thrown into the deep end of a pool and told to swim without any further instruction, you’re going to want to get out of there as quick as possible. Some persevere or have a mentality to grok such open possibilities, but what I don’t think sandbox fans get is that it can be a serious obstacle and even a repellent at the beginning. What is needed is more guidance, whether that come from the game itself (better tutorials, tool tips, hand-holding beginner quests) or from the community. It’s a heady feeling to explore an untamed game and discover its features along the way, but too much unknown can make one flee back to the familiar.

And for the record, Black Desert didn’t suck me in either. Maybe I needed to stick it out, but the first 20 minutes were downright horrible and I had no interest past that. Then again, I was turned off by my initial foray into Fallen Earth, and a second try opened up the game to me and made it one of my favorites.

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Larry Everett (@Shaddoe, blog): Dear Sandboxless, I feel your pain. I really do. My first two MMOs were sandboxes. I played Ultima Online and lived in Star Wars Galaxies. And I’ve been trying to find that magic again for years. Of course, I like the story of Star Wars: The Old Republic and Elder Scrolls Online, but they aren’t sandboxes. And the sandboxes I have played recently just didn’t have that same spark that my first two MMO loves did. I can only speak for myself when I say that I think that a lot of my current disappointment is age and time. I just don’t have the time to invest in MMOs like I used to so I want something more immediately gratifying and taking a heavy loss — like inventory items in UO and XP as a Jedi in SWG — is just not appealing anymore. But I think you’re right about the freedom that GW2 and ESO. But I think that also means that GW2 and to a greater extent ESO is the modern answer to yesterday’s sandbox. I should write about that in a future Tamriel Infinium. As you mentioned, it has a lot to do with the things you touched on: immersive and structured content, consensual PvP, and deep but not complex systems. I don’t think you’re broken; I just think you’re a product of the times, just like me.

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MJ Guthrie (@MJ_Guthrie, blog): There is nothing wrong with you! And you don’t need fixing. My game experience may be different because I started my gaming in the ultimate of awesome sandboxes — SWG. And because SWG and my personality were made for each other. That’s probably why I was hooked on MMOs so thoroughly!

I loved that nothing told me what I had to do or where I had to go. I’m a rebel, I rebel. True story: I love being dropped in an unknown/foreign city with only a map and just going from there. That’s what a true sandbox game is to me, a place where I pick what I want to do and when. You want to learn something? Figure it out. You can ask people (be social = bonus!), but in the end you are sussing it out on your own. For my personality, that’s perfect, because I love the thrill of exploring and learning on my own. And let me tell you, I seriously resist being told what to do. (I could tell you the times my mother would walk by and say “clean your room” while I already was cleaning it, at which point I would immediately stop! LOL).

I have always thought outside of the box; when giving a set of materials to make a specific project, I will ignore the pattern and come up with something totally different. That’s where I think true sandboxes shine: Give people patterns, give materials, then let them have at it. You get to be creative, which is pretty much everything to me. I don’t fit at all in any mold, and I don’t want to be forced into one (rigid class structures, yuk!). I love reading stories, but I love making them more.

On the other hand, I have friends who are very much not like this. They want guided stories, not be the author of one. They want to follow the directions and get the known outcome, enjoying the process of the journey. I know people who want everything to be scheduled and planned. That’s totally cool, too. Diff’rent strokes for diff’rent folks.

Ironically, this is the sort of controversy you'd probably rather face from inside a hot tub.

Patreon Donor Archebius: I hate to be the one to tell you this, but you suffer from a debilitating illness known as The Lame, caused by the lameria nofunnicus bacteria. It attacks your joy receptors until you’ve become inured to all complex pleasures, and can only perceive joy in the form of dinging levels, completing basic kill quests, and receiving marginally better gear from a lifeless mannequin. There is no known cure.

Seriously, though, there’s nothing wrong with you. The best moments that I have in games aren’t with scripted encounters or sprawling economic strategies, but moments with other players. I remember fighting around dragon eggs in Guild Wars, trying to hold off the hordes. I remember running with squads of superheroes and stopping yet another bank robbery. I’ve been held hostage in EVE. I’ve hunted Krayt Dragons on Tatooine, BAMs in TERA, and I have fond memories of all of them. The delivery system doesn’t matter much to me – it’s the people that count.

Players are on about sandboxes so much because, well, there aren’t many around right now, and more to the point, it gives them deeper opportunities for that level of human interaction. There’s a reason why EVE is filled with some of the most interesting stories – they’re natural, organic events that evolve with the people who play it. SWG was so important to so many people precisely because it brought together communities and let them alter the world in meaningful ways, setting up shops, giving buffs in cantinas, coming together to craft rare armors, and hunting rare creatures together.

But have you seen the stats on how many people stop playing EVE within the first couple hours? That massive conglomeration of systems and numbers and opportunities turns people off. It’s like writing your own novel instead of just sitting down and reading one. I like writing, sure – but sometimes I just stare at my screen, not sure where to take a character, or how to finish a scene. Then I close my laptop and go read something instead.

You’re not as alone as you think. Those people complaining about the lack of sandbox elements in their themepark are still running around a themepark. Even though I love sandbox elements in my games, lately I’ve been firing up ESO, running a few quests, listening to some random elf butt telling me about another random powerful artifact, chatting in zone, and it’s fun. People drive this genre; they always have, and they always will. Trying to figure out why some of them like chocolate ice cream, and others prefer creating the ice cream company from the ground up only to have it taken over by armed thugs, isn’t easy. The types of things you like are your own – find what makes you happy, find people who like it too, and go play.

But it would totally be cooler if it were more of a sandbox.

Your turn!

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