I’ve been giving some thoughts over the last few days about the direction that MMORPGs have been headed. Looking at the games that have launched in the last year or two, as well as the games in development that are scheduled to release in the next year or so, it is clear that the industry has sifted away from its sandbox roots and is becoming firmly entrenched in the guided experience game design.
I should start out by saying that I personally think that there is room for both design styles in the genre, and I honestly do enjoy the guided experience model. With that being said, I feel very strongly that the genre needs another good, solid sandbox game to remind us that there are approaches out there that differ from what has become the norm.
Some of the reasons that the guided experience has become the dominant design choice for MMOs of today are pretty obvious when you give it some thought:
World of Warcraft: While I hate to admit it, the success of WoW may be the biggest obstacle standing in the way of a big, AAA sandbox launch. It would be hard to argue against the fact that Blizzard’s World of Warcraft is the bar by which the genre is judged. When investors hear the MMORPG acronym, WoW and the WoW design model are what come to mind. It’s a proven system, and when you’re talking about money, proven is better.
Easier to Design: The thing about encouraging players to do whatever they want in the world is that you have to provide support for the unpredictable. In a guided experience MMO, developers can control and localize the content. They know roughly where the bulk of their players will be at any given level and can tailor specific content with that in mind. In a true sandbox game, this becomes much more difficult.
Choice is Bad: After having attended a number of Game Developer’s Conferences, there are a number of tidbits of information that I have picked up. One of those pieces of information is that studies show that, on average, people don’t like too much choice. That’s one of the reasons, for example, that character creators often have a simple method and an “advanced” option.
Sandbox-style games ask players to make all kinds of decisions. In fact, in a good sandbox game, nearly everything is a decision. A guided experience is exactly what it sounds like it is. Players are left to make very few decisions on their own and are told exactly when and where the action is.
Technological Concerns: While this may seem like a bit of a thin argument, Technology does raise an interesting concern when talking about a sandbox game vs. a guided experience MMO. Currently, the best example of a AAA sandbox MMO is EVE Online. Eve Online uses some of the most sophisticated server technology to allow all of their players to exist together on a single server.
In my opinion, any AAA sandbox game would have to have this feature in order to be successful, the public would demand it. That being said, in this scenario, something would have to take a hit and it would most likely be graphics. EVE is able to accomplish their stunning graphics because being set in space gives them the advantage of having to render only a small amount of the vast universe that their world encompasses.
Doubtless these aren’t the only reasons. That’s one of the reasons that I wrote this blog entry. I’m curious to see what you all think about the subject of sandbox MMOs. Instead of simply complaining that none are being made, it might be helpful for us to get to the bottom of the issue.