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The Lunch Break Blog

For those of us who would rather be leveling right now.

Author: cmagoun

Taking Your Ball and Going Home ... Again?

Posted by cmagoun Monday August 24 2009 at 3:22PM
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The Champions Online Open Beta is coming to a close soon and it has been a pretty fun week. Sure there are still some really ugly bugs hanging out there, and I am sure many powers and sets will have to be tweaked, and lots of additional content will have to be added, and my guess is that once you get to max level, there isn't much to do. However, all of that does not dissuade me from wanting to sub this game -- the fun factor overrides all of that badness.

There is one thing -- one huge, ugly, annoying thing that bugged me about the open beta. Us.

See, a couple days ago, Cryptic started tweaking the rate of XP gain for mobs and quests. My guess is that it had been artificially increased to allow people to test more of the game, and to give the devs some data on leveling rates. Now, I never noticed the exact rate at which I gained XP, but I did notice how darn fast my characters were zooming through the low levels. My understanding is they jammed the XP rate down very hard, which from my CoX experience is the way of Cryptic -- nerf big, then tweak back up. In any case, the XP was flowing like water and then it wasn't.

The change didn't bother me. What bothered me is the forum reaction to that change. Several threads popped up where people moaned, griped and threatened. "You have just lost a lifetime subscriber!", "I am cancelling my preorder today.", "I will give Cryptic 30 days to revert back to the way it was or else." Ugh... Look, I am a glutton for some good forum drama any day of the week; it is a deep-rooted character flaw. Lately though, I find that I am becoming tired of our community's penchant for knee-jerk, childish reactions to our games and their development.

I have always felt that MMOs were in a unique position -- somewhere between a product, a service and a community. Most media is produced without our direct input. There might be a select few testers, or a focus group giving input, but you are pretty much out of the loop until you watch the movie, or pop the game into your PC. MMOs are a continuing effort and though input is limited at the beginning of the development cycle, it opens up as the game progresses and ultimately includes us. Unlike any other entertainment medium, MMO users have the opportunity to shape the direction of their game through their play, their discussions, their suggestions and their criticism. But if you were a community manager, or a developer, who would you rather listen to, players who think before they post and post reasoned, constructive arguments, or those who rant, rave, insult and threaten to quit over each change?

Sooner or later, the kid who keeps threatening to "take their ball and go home" finds that the group got another ball. Sure MMO developers can't get their own ball; they need us to keep playing and paying. However, they could just stop listening to us. They know that those of us that read and post are just a small minority of the playerbase. We are important, because we care enough to discuss our favorite games (perhaps to the point of taking them too seriously) and our feedback guides and shapes the game over the course of years. That's powerful. Let's not give that power up by devolving into whining and threats when a change doesn't suit us.

But if you do feel the need to leave... can I have your stuff?
 

Champs Online Mini-Review

Posted by cmagoun Friday August 21 2009 at 12:57PM
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Last post, I promised a mini-review of Champions Online, so here it is. Keep in mind, I am no expert. I have played a whopping two sessions and have 4 characters ranging between levels 6-10, so I have little experience beyond the tutorials and the first zones. Still, I think I have enough time in to have formed a reasoned opinion.

Note: I have no screenshots because my main gaming machine is toast. The machine I am using to play is pretty rough and I have to run on the barest of settings. When I get my new, improved, smokin' box, I will post screenshots if anyone is interested.

Obviously, the first thing you will do upon starting Champions Online is create a hero. Actually, the very first thing you will do is stare at a seemingly interminable loading screen... The first time I started Champs Online (and after each patch), it seemed to load very slowly. There are two main parts to creating a hero, creating your costume and choosing your stats and powers. Let's look at each of these separately.

Costume Creation

Because CO was developed by the team that made the City Of games, I expected good things from the costume creator and overall, it is a great tool. At a basic level, it is the same as the costume creator in CoX. You choose various parts of your costume (head, body, legs) and get a set of dropdowns that let you put various costume pieces on your character. However, the CO team has made a few improvements to the concept.

First is that before even getting to your costume, you are presented with two sets of sliders, one for your hero's face and another for his body. You can adjust the size and position of your nose, eyes, mouth, the height and fullness of your cheeks, your chin... Same with the proportions of your body. There is lots to play with here.

Second is that once you are onto creating your costume, you will notice there are more dropdowns on each body part. CO "layers" costume pieces, giving more possible mix and match looks. So, you might pick a basic chest piece and then layer a jacket over that, or various arm pieces that go over your bicep, or shoulder.

Third, you have more color choices for each item. A few items have two colors like in CoX, but most items have 3 or 4 colors. This allows for more varied color schemes and cooler designs for emblems.

Overall, the costume designer is an improvement, but there are a few issues. First off, there is the simple fact that with more options and choices, more skill is required to get the ideal look. In CoX, you could always choose a couple of non-clashing colors, pick the same pattern for top and bottom and pretty much go. CO's designer will reward the skilled and the patient, and for those who aren't ... well, get ready for Millenium City's version of What Not To Wear.

Another issue with the costume creator is the fact that they seem to have missed some of the basic patterns. If I choose the default, two-color pattern for my chest (which is two stripes under the arms and down the sides of the hero), there is no matching pattern for a skirt. Instead you have to choose a more complex, four-color pattern and tweak the colors to that it matches the top.

In any case, the costume designer is nice, and will only get better over time as more options are added.

Character Creation

Though you will likely spend the lion's share of your character creation time creating your costume, you also have to choose your hero's power and stats before you begin. CO makes this easy by providing 18 power frameworks from which to pick. Each framework comes with two powers, your "energy builder" and your (for lack of a better term) "starter attack".

In addition, the framework determines your starting stats. CO has eight basic stats: strength, dexterity, constitution, endurance, recovery, intelligence, ego and presence. Each of these stats affects your combat abilities like your crit chance, your energy, hit points, and your ability to resist damage. In addition, each stat modifies the effectiveness of your powers. For example, your force field's power (if you pick that power from the force framework) is modified by your ego. Melee damage powers are increased by your strength.

Picking a framework ensures you get starter powers and stats to match. However, you are free to go it alone and create a "custom framework". In a custom framework, you can pick your energy builder and starter attack from any of the 18 frameworks. In addition, with a custom framework, you are able to pick how your stats are distributed from a long list of possible loadouts.

Having run 4 characters through the turorials and starter missions, I am fairly happy with how character creation plays out. Characters aren't that much different from each other to begin with, since you get the same to types of powers -- the energy builder and the starter attack. Everyone starts as a mini-blaster. However, each framework's beginning powers are slightly different. My gadgeteer would charge her experimental blaster to full to open a combat because that would give a chance to confuse, or knock the opponent up. However, she would then have to use her energy builder. My archer (at low levels, mind you) never has to fire her energy builder because her starter attack is amazingly energy efficient. The electric control set's energy builder can apply a debuff to an opponent which allows subsequent attacks to arc to other enemys. The darkness starter applies a fear effect.

Combat

Ahh... the much discussed combat system. Lots of people like it; lots of people hate it. Before I get into my opinion, let's take an objective look at the system, keeping in mind my relatively low-level experiences.

Much like CoX's combat is based on endurance, CO's combat has a central concept of Energy. Your max energy is based on your Endurance stat and is used to power most of your interesting attacks (i.e. almost anything BUT the builder attack). You also have an "equilibrium point", based on your Recovery that determines your starting energy when you are at rest. So, I might have 100 max energy (based on my Endurance) and start a combat having 55/100 (because of my Recovery).

From levels 1-6, combat pretty much plays out like this: You approach your target, fire off your starter attack (which costs energy) once or twice. Then, you are probably low on energy, so you toggle on your energy builder which fires quickly, does a little damage, and rebuilds your reserve in a few seconds. Once you have enough energy to blast away again, you fire your starter attack once or twice. Most powers don't have cooldowns and it is simply a question of having sufficient energy.

Now, this certainly isn't the height of strategy, but against henchmen, it plays very quickly and you will likely take on two or three at once without trouble. Taking on harder enemies such as villains, super-villains and master villains will require you to use the active block mechanic.

You block by pressing the Shift key and while blocking, you cannot attack and can only move slowly, but you take reduced damage from attacks. Most tough enemies have some kind of uber-attack that they charge up and if it hits, you will take around half your health. You will want to block in these cases. It isn't hard to do, but you will be tempted to time it properly to maximize your damage potential.

Is it boring? Look, it certainly isn't the height of strategy, but it plays out fast enough and has just enough challenging moments to NOT be boring, even at low levels it feels fast. At levels 1-6, it is certainly no more boring that playing a newbie WoW or CoX character.

Now, as you level up, you get a few more options and you start to see that there might be more to the game than you first thought...

Character Development (and more Combat)

As you level in CO, you gain points to spend on powers, power advantages, stat focuses (super-stats) and talents (which as far as I can tell, also increase stats). Let's start with powers. Powers in each framework are tiered, in that to buy a power from tier 2, you need 3 same-framework powers from tier 1, or 5 tier 1 powers from any framework. However, beyond that limitation, you are free to pick any power you like from any framework.

You also get access to power advantages points as you level. Advantage points can be used to level up a power, increasing its damage, or hold duration, or to buy "Advantages" for a power. Each power has certain advantages that can be applied to it and each advantage changes the way the power works in some significant way. For instance, you could make your starter attack an AoE instead of a single-target attack, or you might add a vampiric component to a hold power.

In addition to powers and advantages, you can also create two different builds and choose gear, and a role for each. A role applies a set of character-wide modifiers to your hit points, energy generation, and the efficiency of the various types of powers you have. So, you can pick an offensive role, which lowers your hit points and defenses, but ups your attacks and energy generation. You can pick a defensive role, which cuts your attacks, but increases the power of all your defensive powers. This allows a character to have a viable solo build, and a second team build where he tanks... or you could have two different loadouts for PvP and PvE.

The freedom to pick the exact powers you want, and then significantly customize those powers is huge. I loved the variety of characters in CoX, but I never felt I was building a character as much as I was just choosing him. Once you picked archetype, primary and secondary powersets, the rest was just leveling up to gain access to the powers you knew you were going to pick. So far, CO feels like I am experimenting and building the character level by level.

As an example, one of my characters has the Gadgeteer framework. This set starts with a couple of blasts. As I leveled, I took an advantage to my energy builder that made it a short-range cone. I also took the Gauntlet Chainsaw, which is a melee cone and chose and offensive role, so now the Gadgeteer is a short range, AoE-based killer, able to cut down hordes of henchmen in seconds. However, there are trade-offs. My hit points are crappy and I have spent lots of picks on increasing my Endurance and Recovery so that I can run the hungry chainsaw longer. This means my Intelligence is lower than it should be and my robot pets are underperforming a little.

Another character is my Archery toon. The archer starts with a pretty good, energy efficient attack (I mentioned earlier that she didn't fire her builder until level 6-7). Well, I tried out a couple of the rest of the archery attacks and was underwhelmed, so I leveled up the attack I had and spent my advantage points to make it an AoE attack. Then, I went instead with a defensive power that allows me to backflip away from an opponent, increasing my dodge chance, and I dipped into the martial arts framework and took a passive dodge bonus that increases with my Dexterity. The archer likes Dexterity and it increases her crit chance... now it increases her defense as well. She is now an awesome, if somewhat straightforward combatant.

There is even more to get into with gear, crafting and perks, but let's leave that for later. For now, with the little I have seen, I am very happy with how many options I have with the character builder. This system lends itself to endless tweaking, experimenting and researching builds. Oh... and you can test new powers before you lock in your puchases and respec the last 10 choices you make at any time.

Problems

CO has its share of issues. One is the traditional WoW questing system. Generally, you come upon a quest hub, collect all the ! bearing NPCs, head out, fight stuff, collect crap and return to the now ? bearing NPCs to get your cookies. Eh... ok, I am not a fan of this system, and it seems a little out of genre for me, but it is the MMO standard, so I can understand why they went this way.

However, one thing that bugs me about this system is that it discourages teaming. To team in CO for questing, you have to make sure everyone has the same quests. You can share quests, but invariably, someone has not completed a prerequisite step, or some number of your quests are not sharable. Add to that the fact that then you have to keep the team sort of together as you search for the various bits you are supposed to collect... or worse, there is no need to stay together because you are usually questing in a zone where a team makes the enemies trivial.

Team-questing in WoW has the same issues, but at least there, no one can run as fast as a drag-racer, or zoom off into the sky. Oh yeah... people don't team for quests in WoW anyways... they team instances, but teaming for quests just slows you down.

I would say they should seriously consider adding the CoX (actually Anarchy Online was the first I think) mission door model to CO. The random instanced missions keep everyone together and focused. I am not saying get rid of open-world questing, because I like the open-world feel, but give us that option for teams and pickup groups.

Another problem is that there are still lots of buggy issues to overcome. There are missions that cannot be completed, others where you can complete them, but the instructions aren't clear. There are the occassional client crash-to-desktop errors. The game runs fairly well at this point, but there are still a few too many problems to claim a "clean release" just yet.

Overall

Overall, I am impressed with CO. It is a good game and I think there is a lot of interesting stuff to uncover in the character development system. The combat is probably not for everyone... it is a mix between Marvel Ultimate Alliance, WoW and CoX, but it is engaging enough and I am interested to see how it plays out as I progress through the game. If you like CoX, but also like games with stats and gear, or if you like lots of customization in the look and performance of your character, give CO a look.

Champions Online MIGHT Suck (... as bad as your favorite game)

Posted by cmagoun Wednesday August 19 2009 at 12:44PM
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There has been quite a bit of noise about Champions Online the past few days due to the NDA being lifted, both on mmorpg.com and more interestingly (to me) my own little gaming clique. See, lots of people talk about "true sandboxes" or "hardcore PvP" or "WoW-Killer" games. My group has a similar concept and that is the CoH-Killer. For my gaming crew, CoH set the bar for the MMO experience with its character customization, its fast, flashy action, its "Oh Wow I Can Fly" movement powers, its ease of access and convenience of play. Now, that's not to say that CoX is without its flaws; it has tons of huge, gaping flaws. However, it is the one game that kept us all playing together for more than 2 years, the one game that could drag my dad and my son into MMOs for any length of time, the one game that turned my ultra-casual gaming friend into a drooling, rampaging 4-boxer. So, even with its numerous flaws, for my group at least, CoX sets the gold standard.

But CoH is old and tired and most of us have seen it all before. A lot of what drives the MMO habit is a search for novelty and for many of us, CoH is out of tricks. So, you can imagine my group's excitement as we approach the release of the supposed spiritual successor to CoX. Champions Online is developed by Cryptic, and has behind it the same creative brains that delivered the much-vaunted CoX. So I think for us, this game was the Second Coming of CoX -- the Next-Gen, New and Improved, Now with More Awesome, Prodigal Gaming Messiah... City of Cooler Than City of Heroes.

And then, the Open Beta started and the NDA lifted.

Of course, there was the FilePlanet woes, and the patcher woes, and folks had some trouble getting the game installed, and others had trouble getting into the game. Pretty much everyone in my gaming group had issues as well and that gave them a little bit of anxious waiting time to sit around and ...

... READ THE FIRST WAVE OF REVIEWS!!!

I love the first wave of post-NDA reviews. (I enjoy thunderstorms and blizzards too... and Pina Coladas... and getting caught in the rain.) There is just something about the post-NDA “I am angry because my latest Gaming Savior turned out to be Just Another MMO and I Am Personally Offended” crowd that makes for interesting lunch-time reading. Pretty much every recent MMO release has had this bit of bile and CO is no exception.

Now, I pay attention to a lot of MMOs and I knew what was coming. A few of my friends didn't expect such a negative outpouring and were swayed by the reviews. A flurry of emails followed where people chatted about what they expected out of CO, how it compared to CoX, and the points made in the reviews... at one point I realized that many (if not all) of the negative points centered around stuff like

Repetitive combat where you bang the same sequence of keys over and over
Serious PvP balance issues
Serious PvE balance issues
PvE content that quickly becomes trivial
A weak/non-existent endgame
Nothing to do but fighting
All builds require X power(s)
No variation in builds
Teaming making the game too easy
No point to teaming
Crafting is dull
Crafting is useless compared to drops


Strange... take out the crafting one and you could pretty much apply all of those negative points to CoX. Add in crafting and you have... every other MMO in existence. I find it telling that, if you read forums and reviews, most of the popular and successful MMOs have a very similar laundry list of problems as do failing MMOs. First off, most games copy heavily from each other, and they still all copy from the Everquest generation games which all copy heavily from text MUDs and BBS games. Second, for every feature in a game that you enjoy, someone else just absolutely hates that feature... to the point where they will post about it, argue about it and call you a fanboi for even mentioning it. Just remember:

YOUR FAVORITE GAME SUCKS!

And Champions Online MIGHT suck, but even with all of the post-NDA folks spewing bile, you won't really know until you try it. Now, through the first day of this drama, my computer has been dead, so all I could do is be jealous that my friends would be able to see this new, incredibly flawed game before I would. I managed to cobble together a machine though, and have the game patched and ready to go, so I am anxious to try CO and see what all the fuss is about. Expect a mini-review soon.

It's All About the Feedback

Posted by cmagoun Wednesday August 5 2009 at 12:16AM
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It's midnight here and I find myself with raging heartburn and unable to sleep. So, to take my mind off of the random anxieties that flitter about when it is dark and quiet... you know, stuff like, "Did I lock the garage door? Are we going to get this project done on time? Is raw sewage going to start shooting out of the basement toilet?" Don't laugh, that last one was a little too close for comfort today...

Aw heck laugh because there is just something about the mental image of a geyser of poo that make the Jr. High kid in me chuckle uncontrollably.

In any case, to take my mind off of all that, I am once again thinking about games and systems -- what makes them good, what makes them fun. Of course, I have pounded the drum of interactivity and decision making before and so I won't beat that dead horse any more (tonight). The best game systems are interactive and involve making decisions.

But there is another side to that equation as well. Without sufficient information, there is no decision making. Let's do a thought experiement: pretend I have a combat system with lots of depth. I have tons of different types of attacks the player can use. I have effects for who has the higher ground as well as terrain effects. I have different weapons with different stats and uses in combat.

You are playing my game and find yourself in a tight stairwell, fighting two goblins armed with wicked daggers from the high ground. Do you pull your shortsword and use your Quick Thrust, or do you pull the polearm and Sweep Attack? Or do you cast a spell? Or run?

Of course, there is no answer because I haven't given you enough information. (Though just so you know, in my MMO, gobins will be horribly overpowered, so if I were you, I'd run.) Do the daggers have a speed advantage? Does the polearm take penalties for being used in closed quarters? Can spells be interrupted by fast melee attacks? Can I even outrun goblins?

Players need information -- the more the better. There are two types of information useful in computer games. The first is encyclopedic information. This is how much damage a sword does; what are the exact effects of a spell. Tooltip kind of stuff.

I think most games do this fairly well... the one offender in recent memory has been rehabilitated: City of Heroes, when it first came out, did not actually list the exact effects of any powers. A blast would do "light radiation damage" or "heavy slashing damage"... whatever that meant. In fact, no one knew exactly what it meant at all, since "heavy" meant heavy for your archetype... but that might mean "crappy" in the scheme of things.

Why no numbers? I don't know... some claptrap about "ruining immersion" and "thwarting minmaxers". Ugh! Of course, players spent untold hours getting those numbers through experimentation and finally, the game developers put the numbers in. No one's immersion was harmed; the minmaxers could put away their sliderules. Everyone was made happy, so it's all water under the bridge.

So yeah, everyone does the tooltip stuff. The other kind of information is direct, in-game, feedback. Show me what is happening as it happens. If my polearm takes penalties when I am in a cramped hallway, show me. Give me an onscreen message, show my penalty numbers above my head, or make an animation where my blade slams awkwardly into the wall, causing me to stumble. At the very least, put it into the combat log so later I can see why the goblins gutted me so quickly.

Feedback is critical. Putting it into your game shows the player the depth of your system and allows him to interact with it. It also adds an additional set of rewards. If a system shows me feedback when I do something correctly or get a bonus, I am certain to chase those bonuses more.

Heck, take game mechanics out of the picture. Every action in your game should have sufficient feedback. No user action in the UI should quietly fail and only the most trivial should quietly succeed. If I try to stuff a sword into a helmet slot, I should get a "Hey Dummy!" message somewhere. If I right click an object and it just disappears from my inventory... I am going to wonder where it went. But if you put the little coin clanking noise in there, I will probably realize I just sold the Sword of Ultimate Ultimateness as vendor trash and hopefully buy it back.

Anyone got 100 gold? I really need to buy this sword.

In any case, it is 1:00 AM here now and my heartburn is gone and my eyes are getting dry and heavy. My body is giving me feedback that it is probably time to get to bed.

This is NOT a Post About Darkfall

Posted by cmagoun Saturday August 1 2009 at 8:35AM
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Another evening of trolling Facebook, checking email and logging into WoW to check my auctions and  an exciting message comes in -- I have been accepted into the beta for Dawntide!!! Woohoo Dawntide!!! Goodbye WoW!!! Hello Dawntide!!!

Yeah, you're right, I'd never heard of it either.

I learned about Dawntide while reading through another MMO news site. The article was brief, nothing more than "Hey look, another indy developer trying its hand at the MMO market. Good luck with that... closed beta starts soon."  But there were links to the Dawntide Webpage (which is a little sparse at the moment) and the forums and the information there intrigued me so I signed up for a beta account.

At which point, the tiny Jack Emmert on my shoulder cried out, "Nooooooooooo!!!"

"What is it now, Jack?"

"You don't want to sign up for an MMO beta now. Not with Champions Online just around the corner. How you will enjoy OUR open beta? The preorder head-start? Those crisp new Cryptic Bucks? Dr. Destroyer and Foxbat aren't going to defeat themselves, you know... well maybe Foxbat, but in any case you know with great power comes... "

Jack had been on my case for a couple of months now. He screamed when I contemplated buying Darkfall (just to see what all the fuss was about, honest). He yelled just as I was about to hit the "Preorder Now" button for Aion. He wept silently when I restarted WoW (because WoW is inevitable). As the release of CO got closer, he just got worse and worse. This past week he had taken to screaming and tearing at his eyes everytime I got undressed to take a shower... though come to think of it, that might be totally unrelated to MMOs. Nonetheless, I was getting sick of mini-Jack's living arrangements and so I stuffed him into a drawer.

Unfortunately, he is tougher than he looks and I was reduced to wrestling him one-handed, because just then, Blizzard Customer Support called.

"Mr. Magoun, we here at Blizzard hope you enjoyed your latest 2 week stint in World of Warcraft and would like to ask you to kindly forget to cancel your subscription again in December, so we can bill you well into next year..."

It was a short call. Between the unmistakable sounds of hand-to-hand combat with a figment of my imagination, and me periodically shouting, "Shut up and get in the drawer, Jack!!"  The Blizzard rep hung up reassured of my mental incompetence.

With Jack in the drawer and Blizzard ringing my credit card company, we are finally alone and able to talk about

Dawntide is the latest in a line of attempts from a small development house to create the next great freeform, sandbox MMO in the vein of Ultima Online, old SWG and Shadowbane. Their website contains a one-page blurb about their goals and lists some intriguing key features:

Open ended character development
Completely player driven economy
Complex crafting and resource system
Territorial ownership and warfare
Epic end goals for every type of player
Innovative research/technology mechanics

Exciting stuff, but I think we have heard all that before. How does Dawntide play and can it reach its lofty goals? I have no idea. I do know two things however. First, beta is scheduled to start sometime today and I have a patched and ready-to-go client. Second, the developer of Dawntide, Working As Intended, is not enforcing an NDA on its testers. In fact, they are doing exactly the opposite, they want people to talk about their upcoming game. No really... just ask them

"You may be wondering where the NDA that comes with most beta tests is. There isn't one, because fundamentally we want people to talk about Dawntide and show things off, and we need to know when something is broken. If people find something wrong with the game, they're going to tell other people it's a bad game regardless of any NDA. Feel free to take and post screenshots and discuss the game with your friends."

I think that is a great move on their part. It gets people talking about their game which would otherwise go unnoticed in the sea of high-grade releases coming soon and it gives the impression that these are devs who aren't interested in spin. Good or bad, we are going to know what their game is about.

So... what does that mean? Well, it means that as often as I am able, I am going to chronicle my new adventures through the world of Dawntide. Once the beta servers have started, you guys can follow me around as I see if Working As Intended can deliver the sandbox they have hinted at.

Just as soon as I figure out how to post a screenshot on this blog :P