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The Pub at MMORPG.COM  » Why sandboxes tend to be small budget indie games

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  Quizzical

Guide

Joined: 12/11/08
Posts: 13492

 
OP  11/09/12 10:27:15 PM#1

It's hard to make a good MMORPG.  But it can be different types of hard depending on what you're trying to do.

Let's take an analogy.  It's hard to walk ten thousand miles.  It's also hard to run a 100 meter dash in under 11 seconds.  But they're very different types of hard.

Most humans could walk ten thousand miles if so inclined... eventually.  If they started on the project at a young enough age.  At three miles per day, it would take you about nine years.  That's doable.  Most humans, on the other hand, could never run a 100 meter dash in under 11 seconds.  It takes considerable physical prowess to do that.

On the other hand, for those few people who can run a 100 meter dash in under 11 seconds, it doesn't take very long to do so.  Some of them could do it hundreds of times if so inclined.  Not all, of course; if your personal best is 10.99 seconds, it's hard to replicate that a hundred times.  But world-class sprinters that can push 10 seconds don't have to run full throttle to break 11.

Meanwhile, no one can run ten thousand miles a hundred separate times in a lifetime.  At a full marathon per day, that would take over 100 years.  I don't know if elite endurance athletes would be able to walk 26 miles per day many days in a row, but even if they could, no one stays in the peak physical condition necessary for that for 100 years.  The problem is that walking ten thousand miles just once takes too long.

-----

So what does this have to do with MMORPGs?  Making a good theme park game is largely about making lots of content.  That's not all that there is to it, of course, but it's a big chunk of it.  You make lots of races, lots of classes, lots of quests, lots of world zones, lots of loot drops, lots of NPCs, and so forth, with every single one hand-done.

Making one quest or one NPC or one loot item isn't hard.  Lots of people can do it, so it's not the second type of hard.  But it is the first type of hard:  it takes time to make each one.  You can't make a good theme park game on a smalll budget.  You can't even make a mediocre theme park game on too small of a budget.  But if you throw enough money at a theme park, you can finish it and it will more or less work.  It might not be great, but it probably won't be abysmal, either.

Sandbox games are different.  To make a good sandbox game, you have to have a number of complicated game mechanics that work together in complex ways.  And they need to work together very, very well.  You need for interesting gameplay decisions to arise in very complicated ways--and for players to not have a single way to short-circuit the intended complexity.

That is the second type of hard discussed above.  Most game programmers can't do it.  They could try, but the game would probably be a train wreck.

However, a sandbox game isn't the first type of hard.  You don't need hundreds of custom-done quests, and hundreds of custom-done mobs, and so forth to make a good sandbox game.  The game will succeed or fail on the basis of whether your sandbox mechanics make for interesting gameplay.

-----

Suppose that you're in charge of choosing an MMORPG to be made and need to decide whether you want to make a theme park game or a sandbox.  And let's suppose that you've got a big budget.  Which do you choose?  If you say "sandbox because I like sandboxes", then that's why you're not given that decision to make.

If you try to make a theme park game, you'll end up with a game that more or less works.  You might end up losing money on the game, but you'll at least deliver a working theme park game.  Throwing enough money at the problem nearly guarantees that.

But what about a sandbox game?  A sandbox game doesn't have tons of custom-done content that will take players tens or hundreds of hours to play through.  If the sandbox mechanics work well, then great, you'll have a huge hit on your hands.  But if they don't?  If you don't have the programmers on staff to make sandbox mechanics work well, you'll have a spectacular failure on your hands.  That's embarrassing, and not beneficial to your future employment.  And how do you know if your programmers can deliver a good sandbox?  The only way to find out is to let them try.

Now suppose that you have a small budget.  Now a theme park isn't really an option.  You can try to make a theme park, and make quests and dungeons and loot drops and so forth and hold players' hands as they go through your content.  But someone else with a bigger budget can do everything you can do, and do ten times as much of it.  You can't really make up for your lack of quantity with superior quality, either.  Not only are you constrained from the start on your budget with resources spread thin, but in theme parks, quantity has a quality all its own.

A sandbox, on the other hand, is doable.  You don't need to make thousands of custom items.  You make a relative handful of base items, and then let the stats vary depending on a variety of things.  You don't need to make hundreds of custom mobs.  You can get by with dozens, plus some copies and some randomness, so long as you make them adequately interesting.  And so forth.

So on a small budget, what do you make?  Even if you're a theme park fan, budget realities are going to force you to at least include some elements that people would think of as being sandbox.

-----

Let's look at this another way.  Suppose that you're going to make a sandbox game, and are deciding on how big of a budget to give it.  There's always stuff that you can do with a larger budget that you can't do with a smaller budget.  But while theme parks get vastly better as you throw more money at them, sandboxes only get a little better.  If you don't have programmers who can do sandbox mechanics well, your game is going to be a failure, and you'd much prefer a small failure to a large one.

Even if you could make a successful sandbox game on a small budget, it doesn't follow that you could do the same on a large budget.  Whether a game is commercially successful depends not just on revenue, but also expenses.  For example, SWTOR is probably a commercial failure.  It certainly is one if the rumored $300 million budget is anywhere near accurate, though that number includes the cost of EA buying BioWare for the express purpose of making SWTOR.

On the other hand, if SWTOR had exactly the same sales figures on a $10 million budget, that would be a smashing success.  EA earned several times that on initial box sales in the first month after launch alone.  Anything else after that would just be gravy.

Throwing more money at your game won't be the difference between the game being good or not.  But it will make a huge difference in how high of a sales threshold you need to clear for the game to be a commercial success.  Do you really want a larger budget than necessary to make your sandbox game?  Really?

When you first start on the project, no, you don't.  It might be nice to have some extra money available for when things go over budget, but you don't spend it if you don't have to.  Maybe if it's clear that the game is going to be something special, you can increase the budget later.  Blizzard has probably spent a lot more on developing WoW than they expected to when they first started the project.  A sandbox game with WoW's level of commercial success would probably end up getting a huge budget to try to sustain that success.  But even among theme parks, there is only one WoW.

  Deathenger

Advanced Member

Joined: 9/07/08
Posts: 395

Wipe yourself off, U DEAD!

11/09/12 10:34:18 PM#2
If a company could do exactly what EvE has done except in a traditional fantasy setting , everything else would pretty much be blown out of the water.

Im talking.about the entire game. Combat depth, crafting, market, social, the whole shabang.

  Nimeros

Novice Member

Joined: 10/05/11
Posts: 15

11/09/12 10:34:41 PM#3
Very, very well said.

  Quizzical

Guide

Joined: 12/11/08
Posts: 13492

 
OP  11/09/12 10:41:18 PM#4
Originally posted by Deathenger
If a company could do exactly what EvE has done except in a traditional fantasy setting , everything else would pretty much be blown out of the water.

Im talking.about the entire game. Combat depth, crafting, market, social, the whole shabang.

 

CCP has probably spent a lot more on EVE over the years than they expected to when they started the project.  But EVE didn't start out as a big-budget game, did it?  We think of CCP as a major developer now, but that's precisely because of EVE.  They weren't a major developer when they got started.

And the problem is that "do what EVE has done" is something most game programmers can't do, whether in space or a fantasy setting or whatever.  Or rather, maybe they could reverse-engineer the game if given a large enough budget, but that's not what you meant.  What you meant was do something about as interesting as EVE, but with the sort of differences that one expects when moving from one game to another in the same genre.

  User Deleted
11/09/12 10:49:43 PM#5
Originally posted by Quizzical
Originally posted by Deathenger
If a company could do exactly what EvE has done except in a traditional fantasy setting , everything else would pretty much be blown out of the water.

Im talking.about the entire game. Combat depth, crafting, market, social, the whole shabang.

 

CCP has probably spent a lot more on EVE over the years than they expected to when they started the project.  But EVE didn't start out as a big-budget game, did it?  We think of CCP as a major developer now, but that's precisely because of EVE.  They weren't a major developer when they got started.

And the problem is that "do what EVE has done" is something most game programmers can't do, whether in space or a fantasy setting or whatever.  Or rather, maybe they could reverse-engineer the game if given a large enough budget, but that's not what you meant.  What you meant was do something about as interesting as EVE, but with the sort of differences that one expects when moving from one game to another in the same genre.

So if anything, the constant expectation for a super high budget TRIPLE A Sandbox MMO right off the bat is generally unrealistic, and that using EVE as an example isn't exactly correct considering its origins? Also the fact that EVE took years to get where it is at right now?

  Toxia

Advanced Member

Joined: 7/25/09
Posts: 1302

11/09/12 10:54:12 PM#6

I seem to see this even outside MMO's. For instance, CoD games, assassins creeed games, etc. Why risk TRYING a change when what they have works. Especially with games like ME3 staring them in the face and the backlash that came from it. Better to have a small group mad because of rehashes, than the whole group pissed their whole series just went to shit, and not come back for more.

Good read.

The Deep Web is sca-ry.

  StonesDK

Apprentice Member

Joined: 8/06/11
Posts: 1836

11/09/12 11:06:27 PM#7

It's all about financial backing. Themeparks sell, while sandbox MMOs are still in the experimental stage with no real quantifiable numbers you can show at an investors meeting. That's the bottom line. At the end of the day you still have to try and convince financial backers to pour some money into your idea.

 

I mean sure you could bring up EvE and say hey! Here is a couple of hundred thousands of players playing a sandbox MMO but are they playing EvE because it's a pure sandbox or because it's a well made space MMO with no real competition in that corner market?. Could be a bit of both but it makes for a bad example because of that.

  MMOExposed

Spotlight Poster

Joined: 6/17/10
Posts: 6069

11/10/12 12:49:16 AM#8

The reality of the issue goes over many people's head.

 

Its not about how Themepark or Sandbox a MMO is. It's all about how interesting the feature list is to the MASSES.

The term Sandbox isn't what turns people off about a Sandbox MMO.

what turns people off is the way Developers tend to always have the same unpopular features in Sandbox.

*FFA PvP just is not popular no matter how much you try. So stop trying this.

*Full Loot just is not popular. So stop doing it already.

*Aim based controls, just isn't popular. Stop doing it!

*Playing as a vehicle, just isn't popular. Don't do this.

*lack of PvE developer made content, just isn't fun in the long run. Stop doing that than.

 

 

Man this list goes on. But usually most of these can be found in any so called Sandbox MMO. But people wonder why that genre isn't popular right now. Change many of these listed here in your sandbox and you can expect much growth.

but of course, most sandbox MMO developers will never do that and stay in their little box of mind.

  muffins89

Novice Member

Joined: 10/15/12
Posts: 1254

11/10/12 12:59:35 AM#9
Originally posted by MMOExposed

The reality of the issue goes over many people's head.

 

Its not about how Themepark or Sandbox a MMO is. It's all about how interesting the feature list is to the MASSES.

The term Sandbox isn't what turns people off about a Sandbox MMO.

what turns people off is the way Developers tend to always have the same unpopular features in Sandbox.

*FFA PvP just is not popular no matter how much you try. So stop trying this.

*Full Loot just is not popular. So stop doing it already.

*Aim based controls, just isn't popular. Stop doing it!

*Playing as a vehicle, just isn't popular. Don't do this.

*lack of PvE developer made content, just isn't fun in the long run. Stop doing that than.

you need to add *Crafting Simulator* to that list.  

I think the prostitute mod corrupted your game files man. -elhefen

  BeefMach1ne

Apprentice Member

Joined: 8/10/09
Posts: 32

11/10/12 1:07:28 AM#10

Not so sure about the "most game programmers just can't do it" mentality.  EVE isn't exactly the most complex game in the world....  Most of the complexity comes from the well thought out mechanics and systems they put in place but after that it's mostly just graphical spaceship spreedsheets.

Most of the time game programmers make what they are told to make by management etc. So I wouldn't say that the programmers are the hang up it really is the funding and the overall vision of the people in charge.

 

CCP has great vision for what they to make available to players.  Talented  Programmers to achieve the logic. Talented  Designers and animators etc.  But that  idea has to come first. 

The key to doing it "the EVE way"  is first make a good but SMALL sandbox.  Go for depth over breadth.  Once you have a fun small sandbox and majority of your playerbase is starting to reach it's edges.. you expand the "sandbox" out again. Old players are happy customers, new players will be excited to dive in and make their mark on the world, the weaklings will leave etc.

 

  maplestone

Novice Member

Joined: 12/10/08
Posts: 3109

11/10/12 1:16:37 AM#11

I just wanted to say I liked this analysis Quizzical.  

I'm not convinced there can't be a framework that allows for a reliable way of turning budget into sandbox content, growing a game and its verbs in a sort of predictable snowflake of complexity, but I don't have a proof-of-concept handy.

  Onomas

Novice Member

Joined: 7/05/11
Posts: 1160

Sandbox is your only hope for a decent mmo ;)

11/10/12 1:18:16 AM#12

Every game and company start out as indie ;)

You think the big companies became massive over night? lol

 

 

And by reading many posts on these forums, the majority of the people here have no idea what a true sandbox is anyways. Always throwing misconceptions around about full loot pvp and other horse dung. Its obvious they have a mental picture of their version of sandboxes, but not a true one.

And to be honest themeparks are worse at pvp concepts than sandboxes. Usualy forcing you to pvp as a end game content- raids, warzones, other bs.

And player content > everything else. Well atleast if you are creative. Never stood around waiting for updates or expansion packs while playing a sandbox, we the gamers made content and it came fast and was more fun than any themepark i have played.

  Torgrim

Spotlight Poster

Joined: 12/15/05
Posts: 2158

11/10/12 2:31:03 AM#13
Originally posted by BeefMach1ne

Not so sure about the "most game programmers just can't do it" mentality.  EVE isn't exactly the most complex game in the world....  Most of the complexity comes from the well thought out mechanics and systems they put in place but after that it's mostly just graphical spaceship spreedsheets.

Most of the time game programmers make what they are told to make by management etc. So I wouldn't say that the programmers are the hang up it really is the funding and the overall vision of the people in charge.

 

CCP has great vision for what they to make available to players.  Talented  Programmers to achieve the logic. Talented  Designers and animators etc.  But that  idea has to come first. 

The key to doing it "the EVE way"  is first make a good but SMALL sandbox.  Go for depth over breadth.  Once you have a fun small sandbox and majority of your playerbase is starting to reach it's edges.. you expand the "sandbox" out again. Old players are happy customers, new players will be excited to dive in and make their mark on the world, the weaklings will leave etc.

 

 

You can't really take EVE as an example in this case.

EVE launched back in May 2003 and the game was hollow and broken in so many ways, If EVE launched this year CCP would have gone under within matter of months, but the thing is, in 2003 there werent that many MMOs out there, MMO gaming was still in It's early stage we had like what 10 MMOs to pick from.

If it's not broken, you are not innovating.

  Loktofeit

Elite Member

Joined: 1/13/10
Posts: 12386

Currently playing EVE, SMITE, Project Gorgon, and Combat Arms

11/10/12 4:36:39 AM#14
Originally posted by Enigmatus
Originally posted by Quizzical
Originally posted by Deathenger
If a company could do exactly what EvE has done except in a traditional fantasy setting , everything else would pretty much be blown out of the water.

Im talking.about the entire game. Combat depth, crafting, market, social, the whole shabang.

 

CCP has probably spent a lot more on EVE over the years than they expected to when they started the project.  But EVE didn't start out as a big-budget game, did it?  We think of CCP as a major developer now, but that's precisely because of EVE.  They weren't a major developer when they got started.

And the problem is that "do what EVE has done" is something most game programmers can't do, whether in space or a fantasy setting or whatever.  Or rather, maybe they could reverse-engineer the game if given a large enough budget, but that's not what you meant.  What you meant was do something about as interesting as EVE, but with the sort of differences that one expects when moving from one game to another in the same genre.

So if anything, the constant expectation for a super high budget TRIPLE A Sandbox MMO right off the bat is generally unrealistic, and that using EVE as an example isn't exactly correct considering its origins? Also the fact that EVE took years to get where it is at right now?

Here's a 2010 Gamasutra article on this very subject:

http://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/4489/the_icelandic_model_of_mmo_.php?page=1

"And wikipedia is as accurate as Britannica. Wikipedia is very reliable. You would be hard pressed to find a more reliable source for these kinds of things." -fivoroth

  Gdemami

Elite Member

Joined: 9/23/08
Posts: 7034

11/10/12 4:59:09 AM#15

While it is true that sandbox approach is more suitable for low budgets, chances to make it growing and successful game are as small.


To make successful game, you need enough money, regardless whether you go sandbox or themepark.


On the other note, I would say sandboxes will always be perceived as risky design because they are heavily reliant on complex game mechanics - something that can be difficult to get right.

  GreenishBlue

Novice Member

Joined: 5/27/12
Posts: 266

11/10/12 5:04:50 AM#16

Most investors won't throw money, that's all. If I invest, I want a return. It's all about money, unless you are donating.

All these devs, including the ones from Mortal Online, Darkfall, Embers of Caerus, etc, think they will hit the jackpot like EVE did. But EVE is not a fantasy/medieval MMO. So what we have is fail after fail. I don't understand why these indie companies can't design a sandbox MMO without the full loot PvP or provide a server for it. Or how about a specific area in the game world where the full loot PvP takes place? If they don't learn from Dark Fail, and Mortal Fail, and soon to be Embers Fail, don't know what else.

  Apraxis

Elite Member

Joined: 9/28/05
Posts: 1481

11/10/12 5:30:22 AM#17
Originally posted by Quizzical

Sandbox games are different.  To make a good sandbox game, you have to have a number of complicated game mechanics that work together in complex ways.  And they need to work together very, very well.  You need for interesting gameplay decisions to arise in very complicated ways--and for players to not have a single way to short-circuit the intended complexity.

That is the second type of hard discussed above.  Most game programmers can't do it.  They could try, but the game would probably be a train wreck.

However, a sandbox game isn't the first type of hard.  You don't need hundreds of custom-done quests, and hundreds of custom-done mobs, and so forth to make a good sandbox game.  The game will succeed or fail on the basis of whether your sandbox mechanics make for interesting gameplay.

Well.. that is just to some degree correct. Because a sandbox mmorpg is basicly both types of hard, at least a full fledged out sandbox mmorpg, or maybe better called virtual world.

But you have to differ here. If you mean just a empty world with sandbox mechanics you would be right. But a real virtual world and as i would call a full fledged out sandbox mmorpg you need the world, too.

With the world i mean a world simulation run by npc factions all alone without the player, but fully changeable by the player. And with it you get your first type of hard again. Maybe not in that amount of a themepark, because you dont need a lot of scripted content. You dont have to do every single Quest/Encounter script by your own. But you need a background simulation/AI(think of dwarfen fortress) that let everything run. And you need to create the world, with cities, landscapes, and some kind of npc faction and npc history/story. (Look at UO or SWG)

EvE was rather empty, but not completely. And it is by far easier to do something in a space sim than in a fantasy based games. Comparsion is here between Elite and Dwarfen Fortress as examples. And EvE was the only successful indy sandbox mmorpg out of 15? or more indy attempts for a sandbox mmorpg.

Originally posted by BeefMach1ne

Not so sure about the "most game programmers just can't do it" mentality.  EVE isn't exactly the most complex game in the world....  Most of the complexity comes from the well thought out mechanics and systems they put in place but after that it's mostly just graphical spaceship spreedsheets.

Most of the time game programmers make what they are told to make by management etc. So I wouldn't say that the programmers are the hang up it really is the funding and the overall vision of the people in charge.

 

CCP has great vision for what they to make available to players.  Talented  Programmers to achieve the logic. Talented  Designers and animators etc.  But that  idea has to come first. 

The key to doing it "the EVE way"  is first make a good but SMALL sandbox.  Go for depth over breadth.  Once you have a fun small sandbox and majority of your playerbase is starting to reach it's edges.. you expand the "sandbox" out again. Old players are happy customers, new players will be excited to dive in and make their mark on the world, the weaklings will leave etc.

 

And that is the solution i thought of as development cycle for a sandbox mmorpg. First of all develop core systems, maybe make some single player games out of it(Mount&Blade, Minecraft etc.). Then create a small world with you full set of sandbox tools, maybe a MORPG with just 200-500 player per shard/server/world. Just a few tiny islands, where you can toy are around, but fully done with different NPC factions, and a complete simulation of a world.

And after that you can either expand over time to make a mmorpg out of it, or just release at next a mmorpg.

And that where the fault begins in most indy sandbox productions.. they try to do a huge world, but completely barren and the lack of a lot of sandbox features. Or with a good amount of sandbox features, in a empty 2D/3D world, or mix of both.

  MMOExposed

Spotlight Poster

Joined: 6/17/10
Posts: 6069

11/10/12 8:31:18 AM#18
Originally posted by Gdemami

 

While it is true that sandbox approach is more suitable for low budgets, chances to make it growing and successful game are as small.


To make successful game, you need enough money, regardless whether you go sandbox or themepark.


On the other note, I would say sandboxes will always be perceived as risky design because they are heavily reliant on complex game mechanics - something that can be difficult to get right.

SWTOR

Money only get you so far. you need great game designers. Designers that understand the niche network.

How to make mechanics that will interest people in the long run rather then short time.

developers that arent living in the past but also not delusional about the future.

  Larsa

Novice Member

Joined: 2/14/04
Posts: 992

11/10/12 8:41:49 AM#19

Nicely written post, OP.

There's also another risk with sandbox games: the dynamic of it past launch. In the typical themepark players cannot lose, they always gain xp, gears, fame, gold, whatever it is. In sandboxes players can lose.

I only play sandboxes these days and have experienced multiple situations where a game lost large number of players (i.e.  money) because those players lost something they valued. A guild in Ryzom that lost their outpost in GvG warfare, In Darkfall where a former powerful alliance was finally defeated, in Wurm likewise. Because of this paying customers left the game.

In a sandbox, what players do, can affect other players to an extent that some of those players prefer to leave the game instead. It's a real risk because what players do to others can have a real effect on the bottom line.

I maintain this List of Sandbox MMORPGs. Please post or send PM for corrections and suggestions.

  RefMinor

Novice Member

Joined: 7/16/11
Posts: 3542

Hipster

11/10/12 8:43:21 AM#20
Originally posted by Onomas

Every game and company start out as indie ;)

You think the big companies became massive over night? lol

 

 

And by reading many posts on these forums, the majority of the people here have no idea what a true sandbox is anyways. Always throwing misconceptions around about full loot pvp and other horse dung. Its obvious they have a mental picture of their version of sandboxes, but not a true one.

And to be honest themeparks are worse at pvp concepts than sandboxes. Usualy forcing you to pvp as a end game content- raids, warzones, other bs.

And player content > everything else. Well atleast if you are creative. Never stood around waiting for updates or expansion packs while playing a sandbox, we the gamers made content and it came fast and was more fun than any themepark i have played.

My favourites are the ones who dislike sandboxes because they think player content are quests written by players. It's obvious they don't have a clue how a sandbox game works.

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