Massively Overthinking: What kind of PvE content do you expect from MMO sandboxes?


A couple of weeks back, MOP reader Alberto asked an interesting question in the comments of a particularly galling Star Citizen post. He pointed out that some players consider working on PvE content in a sandbox “wasting dev time” because the content in such a game is meant to be emergent gameplay anyway, not quests or guided tasks.

Alberto mused that such an attitude – wanting merely one type of content interaction in a game – was a bit myopic. “How important is PvE content in a sandbox MMO for most of you?” he wondered aloud.

Let’s amplify and answer him here. For this week’s Massively Overthinking, we’re gonna talk about the types of content we want to see out of MMOs we’d typically consider “sandboxes.” Do you expect MMO sandboxes to deliver any sort of guided PvE content, or should everything by left to the player to devise? What kind of PvE content do you expect from MMO sandboxes? What should that content even look like?

Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): I expect all sandbox to have at least some guided content. Even early on for PlanetSide 2, unlocking certain skills required using certain abilities if I remember correctly (sorry to those people who rode in my battle-buses or carriers as I learned to drive without flipping upside down), so the game had minor ways to lead you to content.

A better example of this may not even come from an MMO. Animal Crossing, for me, is the perfect PvE sandbox experience. There’s enough UI, highlighted text, and overall narratives to give you an idea of what you can do, but then you’re unleashed to build a weird home, make a spooky forest with axes everywhere, leave rotten turnips as gifts when visiting strangers, create a maze with a prize at the end, or just be a delivery person for random animal neighbors who ask for help. The game just gives you some tools, has you use them, and then mostly leaves you to your own devices.

Andy McAdams: I’m going to approach this from a different angle in that I think any MMO and particularly sandbox MMOs need to have some kind of history to them. Some history is accounted for in what we call Lore or the overall world-building. But there’s also the somewhat cheekily called “lived-history” where players get to experience the world as it changes. That becomes stories and shared experiences with players to connect over.

For example, in WoW people still talk about the zombie invasion from the pre-Wrath event. Whether you loved it or hated it, it was one the most memorable pieces of WoW history. Whenever you strip that framing away and move the experience (and the world forward), you’re left with what will ultimately become a stagnant experience of emergent gameplay.

Take Anarchy Online – a fantastic sandbox game framed around ongoing hostilities between Omnis and Clans. But nothing really evolved beyond that, despite the emergent gameplay introduced with Notum Wars and the Alien Invasion. There were fluctuations in the XP bonus depending on who was “winning” (usually Omni, back when I played), but the fundamental conflict never evolved. There were no pivotal moments of shared experience to reflect on for me. At best, I can remember a single instance of an alien invasion of Old Athens and getting repeatedly rofl-stomped by a green glowly tiig. But that’s it. And if I log back in today, the world is more or less the same as it was when I played back in 2005-2008.

I think sandbox MMOs still need those moments, and they need guided PvE content to help establish them. Then, you create the space for the emergent gameplay to flourish inside of that structure and push to create an interaction between the emergent gameplay and the guided gameplay. That gives the best chance of keeping the world evolving and fresh, instead of making it feel stagnant while still giving lots of latitude and space for emergent gameplay.

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): I know that some folks will disagree and say that the purest sandboxes will have no quests or anything guided at all, just leave everything to the players, but I say that’s a good recipe for a sandbox that never goes anywhere.

Successful MMO sandboxes – even the ones that lean PvPish – always have a solid range of PvE content beyond just camping a spot, and that’s not just to attract a range of players into the sandbox (including the people who have a hard time figuring out intrinsic motivation for themselves); it’s also to give a range of content to the people who do show up so they don’t get bored doing camps or punching trees all day long. That’s never wasted dev time.

If all you want is a box where you run around and murder humans, the survival-tinged battle royales are more your speed anyway. An MMORPG sandbox should have a broader range of activities – the more activities, the more the dial leans toward sandboxy on the MMO spectrum.

Chris Neal (@wolfyseyes, blog): In my admittedly limited sandbox MMORPG experience, PvE content can very quickly get my foot in the door and make me curious enough to do a bit of exploration and creativity.

In fact, I would argue that PvE content doesn’t really need to be all that guided; it could be a long-tail quest that would take time to complete not unlike a personal goal one would set in a game like this. Failing that, having PvE as tutorial or example of what is possible when striking out on your own is pretty essential in my view. Not everyone is capable of making up their own mind or their own fun, and sometimes folks can be struck by analysis paralysis in the worst case scenario.

Basically what I’m saying is ramping in to sandbox activities doesn’t make a sandbox less of a sandbox, and PvE content is a fabulous way to do it.

Beyond those examples, I also believe having PvE missions for anyone to do has value because sometimes you just can’t be bothered with trying to make up your own activities. Having a sandbox point you at something fun to do would be better than someone logging in, deciding they have no brain power, and logging out to do something else somewhere else.

MJ Guthrie (@MJ_Guthrie, blog): OK, I don’t think it is any secret that I love sandboxes and they are my favorite game genre. But to say that sandboxes shouldn’t have guided tasks or quests is…. well, to put it mildly, less-than-smart.

I still hold Star Wars Galaxies up as the best sandbox ever, and it most certainly had some quests. Those mission terminals were where you get that money you need for the entertainers, after all! But there was so much more than tasks and quests. The point was having variety of activities to choose from instead of being forced on a singular path as well as having many tools at your disposal to make your own content for yourself and others. It’s not about stripping one kind of gameplay out.

So I don’t want to see folks equating sandbox with PvP only when it most definitely is not the case. Would you call gathering resources and crafting gear as PvE? I would. So yeah, I want to see that in games. Is a tutorial to help folks establish the rules of this game guided content? Yup, and games need these. I could drone on (as I often do about sandboxes in general and SWG in particular), but I won’t. I’ll just add that one very necessary part of any sandbox that needs to be included for me is housing! Other than that, tools to make quests (including dispensing rewards) and events are also prime content in a sandbox.

Sam Kash (@thesamkash): There definitely should be some designed PvE content. Introductory tutorial stuff is a must for me. I get that some players enjoy a totally blank slate, but I just can’t stand that.

I know I’ve told the story before about my first time playing Mortal Online; having absolutely no clue where to begin was not a fun experience for me. If devs can’t be bothered to spend time developing and creating good onramps for people like me, then I won’t be bothered to get on at all. I’ll just go find a game that can respect my time more too. I also love having other things to do.

Every week, join the Massively OP staff for Massively Overthinking column, a multi-writer roundtable in which we discuss the MMO industry topics du jour – and then invite you to join the fray in the comments. Overthinking it is literally the whole point. Your turn!
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