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Sins of a Solar Spymaster #40 - Make More Sandboxes

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In the midst of the drunken binge which was the GDC, I learned a few things about the direction of the MMO industry. None of these things made me particularly happy, even though they were supposed to excite the gaming public. Essentially, the direction of MMOs in the next few years appears to be heading towards a content-based model - a player experience that closely resembles a rail-shooter. I'm not the sort of person who gets particularly excited by marketing pap of any kind, and I've pointedly rolled my eyes whenever a CCP mouthpiece goes on about 'excellence' or 'emergence'. But that was before I saw what the future would be like without EVE's 'emergence': an endless parade of uninspired WoW-clones and a multiplayer experience that becomes increasingly indistinguishable from single player.

As extreme examples, let's contrast EVE and Star Trek Online. EVE is the archetypal pvp sandbox; content is provided in the form of the odd mission, but there is no 'endgame' save what the playerbase creates in a galactic sandbox. In STO, content comes from the devs, and when you run out of it, there's not much else to do. The problem of the content-based MMOs is obvious; there is never enough content, the playerbase rebels or quits whenever the content has been exhausted, and continually coming up with new content is extraordinarily expensive in development time and raw capital. Further, there's a tension between content production and what I would call 'gameplay improvement'; EVE expansions focus on creating new types of gameplay, where a content-based MMO is under tremendous pressure to stay afloat with the latest high-end raid.

Creating new times of gameplay (putting more sand in the sandbox, as it were) expands the breadth of the game; crapping out new raid-equivalents amounts to little more than a desperate race against the content clock. If you are drowning in capital (a la Blizzard) this tension doesn't matter, as you can hire enough devs to cover new content and gameplay improvements. However, 99% of MMO companies are not Blizzard, and when they try to emulate that behemoth, they fail - and so do their games.

The ill wind from GDC is that 'content' as a method of MMO gameplay has become the new mantra, the latest in marketing gruel. The major theme of Star Wars: The Old Republic is that it simply has thousands of hours of content, with individually scripted and voice acted quests the whole way through. If this was going to be released as a single player game I'd be drooling, being a huge fan of all things Star Wars. But this is a 'massively multiplayer' game. Heavily scripted content doesn't work well with group play. When you have your own personal epic arc, an engaging, absorbing tale revolving around your PC - why bother dipping into someone else's tale that revolves around some other guy? This is something that both recent Cryptic MMOs, STO and Champions Online, have had difficulty surmounting.

Another difference between sandbox games and 'content-based' games relates to player choice. Content-heavy games spoon-feed the player an illusion of agency; their paths have been laid out in exacting detail via the work of their developers, no matter how many 'good or evil' branching paths you include. Sandbox games truly allow players to forge their own unique destiny, something the content-heavy games inevitably fail to simulate.

EVE seems to be written off as being unique or anomalous, as if it were some sort of strange Icelandic model the rest of the gaming industry should ignore in favor of trying to create yet another doomed-to-fail WoW clone. Instead of ignoring the example of EVE, they should be assiduously attempting to emulate it - especially in today's business climate.

The current business model of the MMO industry is in chaos. The record of 'traditional' MMO launches tells the same story, over and over: big launch spike, huge fall in subscriptions inside of a month, a weak plateau and then the plug is pulled. These companies try to come out with content-focused games intended to emulate the Blizzard story, there is never enough content at launch (and/or the game just sucks), and then eventually someone upstairs realizes that their game will never be WoW and yoink, no more game. Complicating things is the fact that the subscription model is being impacted by the success of free-to-play games, especially Farmville and Dungeons and Dragons Online. DDO went from being a miserable failure as a subscription game to having more than a million active players as a F2P.

Yet, plain as day, there is a successful model of creating a new MMO, a model which doesn't begin with a huge subscription spike and end with ignominious death. EVE began as something of a wasteland, with a bare 5000 subscribers. In its early days, the game was essentially an engine and little more. Yet the content of the game was created by the players themselves, and this small core continued to grow. As the profits increased, so too did the size of CCP; rather than coming out with whatever the equivalent of 'new raids' would be, CCP focused on expanding the boundaries of their sandbox. The graph of subscriptions does not lie. EVE is one of the very few titles enjoying consistent increases in subs and concurrent users, yet it seems the current focus of the industry is to try ever harder at creating a WoW-killer - ignoring the examples of the subscription graphs of those who have tried that before.

The sad thing about this is that sandbox gameplay as a method of providing player-created end-game content is not difficult to make. You need a game that allows competition between players at a level of high stakes; you need to allow players to create their own factions, and you need to have a supportive and clean dev environment. Yet high stakes competition scares developers - or perhaps their venture capitalist bosses. Players hate losing, so a high stakes game will always have fewer players than a cuddly WoW title. Yet sandbox titles also require much less initial investment to create, because by relying on the players to create their own adventures, a sandbox game isn't obliged to create thousands of hours of scripted quests by launch day.

There are a number of sandbox games that people would murder to be able to play - in a cyberpunk setting, in a post-apocalyptic setting. Even the traditional swords and sorcery fantasy setting hasn't been successfully done in a sandbox style since Ultima Online. Someone make these games, damn it; you won't be able to hit WoW-level profits, but if you try to beat WoW you'll just fail anyway. You won't make quick riches and see huge initial numbers, but you'll get grow slowly and steadily - and you won't have a tenth of the initial capital outlay of a TOR, STO or WoW. And if there's anything that the financial hilarity in the United States has taught us recently, it's that secure, stable growth trumps attempts at making quick profits any day.

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