I’m going to make some sandbox fans a little miffed right here with my opening premise. Yes, your sandbox MMO needs tutorials and probably a main story or thrust of events in some fashion to get new players on board and interested. Yes, I am talking about directed content that players can engage in for a longer duration if they want, even in a game where the whole point is that you can do what you want within the game’s systems and the overall narrative is player-driven.
Some of you have no doubt already scarpered off to the comments to tell me why I’m wrong. Thank you to the rest of you who have stuck around! There’s more here in this particular column because I totally understand that base-level reluctance to engage with the idea. But that reluctance is wrong for two reasons. The first is that people need guidance about what’s possible before deciding what’s interesting, and the second is that people need a reason to invest in the world beyond mechanics before anything really can be done. So let’s pick that apart.
Let’s start with a non-MMO example that’s near and dear to my heart. The best part of The Sims 4 is that your goal can be almost anything you want. This is also the worst part because when you’re trying to explain the game to someone who doesn’t play, you cannot point to any sort of concrete goal. “You’re trying to make your little people entertain you” is far too abstract.
What you usually do to get someone into the game (and what my wife did to first turn me on to the series) is that you drill down to a more specific something that you know the person in question is going to want to do. You demonstrate that this is actually a game to be played with concrete examples instead of drawing upon abstraction. By putting together an initial model, you can get someone invested and start from fascination rather than confusion.
But it’s still not ideal because what gets most people into video games has a lot more to do with having an actual narrative and story and characters you give a crap about.
Now, I am not going to blow anyone’s mind by acknowledging that most MMO stories are on the weak side to be generous and are often outright dire nonsense. There are exceptions to that, but by and large I don’t blame someone who says, “MMO stories are always terrible.” If you have the right list of MMOs, you’ve probably never come across a good story, and even if you’ve played one of the games I consider as having good stories in whole or in parts, that doesn’t mean it connected with you personally. I really like Star Trek Online’s story on a whole, for example, but I am also a hopeless nerd for the franchise.
But having said that, I know this is part of where my connection with the game comes from to begin with. I already have years of ideas about what this fictional setting means. You don’t need to convince me to care about the Federation or Bajor or Cardassia or Vulcan; I’m already there. And that means I’m going to be more inclined to stick around with less or no story because I am emotionally invested.
Emotional investment with video games is weird. Eventually, it forms more around your character than anything, and the character you play becomes context enough. But when you are first starting an unfamiliar game, giving a player guidance and a reason to get invested in the world can make a huge difference. Even though I think the story of the original Guild Wars is kind of crap through most of Prophecies, it still… you know… gave me a sense of place and a reason to care about the world.
“But a sandbox is about doing whatever you want,” you say with a sigh. And to that I say you’re right. You are entirely right. But the thing about doing what you want is that it doesn’t actually help to say that if you don’t know what you can do in the first place.
I don’t just mean being aware of the systems alone. Ryzom has a tutorial that strictly introduces you to all of the game’s systems and gives you a broad overview of what all of them mean and how they all work. What the tutorial doesn’t do, however, is offer you guidance toward anything. When all is said and done, you know how to craft items, but you don’t have guidance directing you to craft something specific or a story to encourage your crafting until you get a feel for crafting in general. You’re just told, “Here’s how it works; go to town.”
You know what game is actually pretty good about this? The Elder Scrolls Online.
I’m not saying that ESO is a sandbox game, but at this point it has inherited enough DNA from its single-player roots that it does a pretty good job of fulfilling the basic framework it needs to. Right when you start the game with whatever tutorial you choose, you have a story presented and a clear narrative line to follow – a narrative that you can, at any point, choose to completely ignore so you can run off and do something wildly different. The game doesn’t care! Follow another story if you want to. That’s your decision.
The problem that a lot of sandbox MMOs run into is that they hit the point where you can go off and do whatever you want, and that’s good, but they lack a story structure to offer guidance to find what it is you want to do in the first place. If your game has an elaborate ship-building system in place, and your players can decide that being a ship-builder is the most fun thing in the world, that’s awesome. But unless you have a framework guiding people to the ship-building and giving them a reason to get invested, a lot of people are going to bounce off.
None of this stops the player who goes in knowing about ship-building and just wants to build ships from totally ignoring the tutorial and heading right over to Shiptown Shipyards to get started on ship-building. Those players are important. But it is just as much of a failure in game design if Sasha would love ship-building but never has a story or guidance to get out to Shiptown at all. She’s going to be told, “You can do whatever,” and will probably kill a dozen rats, get bored, log out, and never log back in, without ever having stumbled upon the content that would’ve been compelling to her.
And let’s not mince words, games like EVE Online that are hardcore sandboxes also tend to devote a lot of time to exactly these mechanics in order to get people into the game, invested, and able to understand exactly what the game has to offer over the longer term.
You might argue that what I’m talking about here is closer to a middle road, what I tend to refer to as “sandpark” design, or you might point out that I’m famously the person who doesn’t really like dividing games strictly into a themepark/sandbox dichotomy. Both of these are true statements. But the point I’m making here is that a good MMO gives players guidance about what to do in the first place. It provides a direction and a reason to walk in that direction.
If you’re wondering why people aren’t playing your favorite sandbox, a good reason might very well be that they weren’t given a reason. Giving someone a reason and drive to keep playing is what tells players that they are wanted and welcomed in this game. And if you don’t give players anywhere to start or anything to hold on to, well, small wonder they walk away.
Don’t you worry, themepark aficionados. We’ll get to you next week.