[If you haven't yet seen the series introduction, go check it out. Also read Chapter One on Linear Narrative to get a better idea of the Themepark concepts I'm building on with today's chapter.]
Last chapter we ended on the concept of asking the right questions and I implied that some MMOs might be better served by streamlining their systems. It's not a popular opinion I am sure, but there are many reasons I feel more and more comfortable imagining a "simplified" play-space without so many additional features. That creates a better environment to allow for a little more player agency, especially if you consider:
Moving away from strictly Linear Narrative for story conveyance is just the tip of the iceberg of our perfect MMO. That move frees developers from the bond of strictly creating routine content the same way most games currently do today. I don't believe I'm alone in the fact that I find new (and old) MMO worlds appealing, just by themselves. Even completely void of story, these complex and detailed worlds would make a great landscape in which to carve out our own little personal role in the world.
Games like Ultima Online and the upcoming Shroud of the Avatar are prime examples of that.
These games are focused on enabling players to find a home (quite literally) in a world and start sharing it and exploring it with others. Without much of a story at all to drive the gameplay, these games still find ways to succeed as they allow players to focus on each other (or their particular role) rather than on an arbitrary story. It can feel somewhat hollow at times, but with a strong, interconnected, and diverse community behind it - these games can feel more alive, active, and interesting than some of the most well-written games on the market.
The Future is in Voxels
While Sandbox games do simplify the story and narrative elements of content creation for developers post-launch, they can require a ton of initial work and investment. I'm slightly inclined to believe that is exactly why we don't see too many of them these days. They are a much riskier endeavor if they don't pan out. Still though, a good sandbox still has an audience out there.
When you consider all the new breakthroughs with "voxel-based" technology, we're getting very close to the point that these actual worlds will be malleable too. I haven't yet seen a game come along and actually find good ways to incorporate an editable/destructible world into the core game systems - but Crowfall and EverQuest Next both have great ideas. How well they pull them off is still yet to be decided.
Addressing the Vertical Climb
All voxels aside, if players have the agency to "choose their own path" and the whole playable game-space is essentially "ungated" by arbitrary mechanics (like levels, rating, and gear/stats), all gloves are off. In those circumstances many of the problematic obstacles developers today are facing with MMOs could be greatly mitigated. The level-playing-field of sandbox worlds has the potential to open so many doors for players that they will never grow bored of the game itself - as they can always pursue a new direction that still has meaning for their character.
Granted, I understand that there are plenty of people out there who really enjoy creating alternate characters and riding through a different track of a themepark experience; but I believe that's just a result of our current conditioning from present mechanics. With no other alternatives to mostly vertical progression mechanics, players who enjoy a game (but have grown bored of their current circumstances) have to resort to spinning up a new character to climb with.
Sandboxes offer tons of benefits, but their critical flaw is in progression.
As mentioned above, I don't believe Vertical Progression is a sustainable way to create and consume content - which is today's game experience cycle. Now, if developers moved away from the create/consume model completely, vertical progression might not be an issue. As it stands right now, it cannot be the only nor even primary form of progression for new MMOs.
Sandboxes usually don't offer much of any progression at all - and when they do, it isn't much. Good horizontal progression can offer players a wide variety of options, while also directing players around a very open and diverse world. Developers from EverQuest Next and also others from Revival have thought of some very clever systems for what I like to call "mixed progression". They have both horizontal and vertical avenues of growth which provides impressive expansion and plenty of room for players to develop (and even permanently change) an existing character.
This allows for more game-time spent on a single character, further establishing a player's role and reputation within a game community and adding to the immersion within the game.
Community cohesion should be critical to every MMOs success, as that is literally what defines this genre in the phrase: Massively Multiplayer Online. However, Sandboxes get very problematic in a multiplayer setting, and the larger scale only makes it more difficult to design systems for. The more agency you give your players - the more easily they will manipulate the world (and affect the experience for others around them). For that reason alone, Sandboxes are dangerous propositions for MMO games.
H1Z1 is a great example of a game that is steadily improving, but has had serious issues early on with players abusing and exploiting mechanics to create an unfriendly game experience. Due to that, I'm not fully certain if a full-on sandbox is the right answer for a perfect MMO either. Like the Themepark model, Sandboxes don't seem optimal for an MMO experience.
Infusing the Concepts
The only solution left seems to be the proper blend of the two experiences. I personally would lean more towards a Sandbox with some Themepark elements; but others might advocate a Themepark with some Sandbox elements and that's okay too. It's really a matter of how well the game meshes with itself.
I envision a cohesive Sandbox with an overarching meta-narrative driving major events, but that requires systems and mechanics in place to allow developers to push, prod, and change the world dramatically when necessary - which most Sandboxes have no mechanism for. On the flipside of that, a strong Linear Narrative with plenty of meaningful horizontal progression and alternative paths wouldn't be a bad choice either. Player Agency will always be a major concern for any game blending these two experiences.
High player agency in a Sandbox isn't so dangerous, but once you start adding some meta-narrative and long-term impact to those choices... they can become much more destructive.
Low player agency is problematic as well, as even with a wealth of options in a Sandbox - players might not feel any motivation to pursue anything if it doesn't appear to be impactful for the game's larger narrative.
Once a player catches on to the fact that they're not really being impactful or that they're just "performing errands" that aren't ultimately going to amount to anything useful, they'll leave and move on - even if they're already holding all the right cards and have invested valuable time. People enjoy participating in MMOs to experience a game, not to get played by one.
The perfect MMO would have to have just the right amount of player agency, and have that paired with the right balance of sandbox and linear elements. That would allow progression to feel much more dynamic and less predictable. I feel like most games these days offer very little player agency in their worlds - and progression is extremely vertical. None of that lends itself to creating an interesting enough game experience where players feel like investing their time would be valuable.
Performing absurd tasks (usually repetitively) with no tangible experience or rewards behind them is the quickest way to get players feeling the "grind" and moving on to something more deserving of their time.
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