One of the things I've come to realize about the sandbox MMORPG is that it is linked to the notion of free-for-all PVP a lot. I'm not sure what popularized the idea of a sandbox MMORPG having a free-for-all PVP component, but I'd hazard a guess in thinking that games like EVE and Darkfall use that hook to bring people into their game worlds as an alternative to the now common themepark MMORPG.
The question is: does it always have to remain this way for the future of the sandbox MMORPG? Let's look at some of the constructive criticisms leveled towards the FFA PVP sandbox and see if something can be done to disconnect the notion of the two requiring each other in future games.
The Free-for-all PVP Sandbox
For those reading that are new to the topic of sandboxes and PVP, let's begin with a discussion of what the terms “PVP,” “Free-for-all,” and “Sandbox” mean.
PVP, which stands for “player versus player,” is a game type common to everything from Chess to Starcraft. It basically means that a player can engage other players in battle and defeat them. The free-for-all component of PVP means that players can basically fight anyone in the game without requiring permission from the other player, who may not want to engage in PVP combat to begin with. These two terms usually go hand-in-hand with a term called “full loot” in the sandbox style of gaming, which means that the winner of a fight can choose to take the items off another character's corpse and keep them for himself.
As for the sandbox moniker, sandbox MMORPGs are called such due in large part to the unscripted nature of how the game progresses and how, much like play in a literal sandbox, the fun is in what you make within the confines of the sandbox you're in. Compared to the theme park MMORPG, which features specific quest chains designed to funnel players from a hub of quests to another hub in order to gain experience and stronger items, the sandbox simply gives a player a world to live in and explore, usually with some form of basic training to get used to the systems involved, including fighting, skill training, the buying and selling of goods, and world building mechanics.
Combine these terms, including the full loot idea, and you basically have a game world that allows for adventures that you create, or that others create for you by their attempts to gain an advantage over you and kill you to take your stuff. It is dynamic, yes, but not without its consequences.
Constructive Criticism for Sandboxes
Back in December 2011, Aleksander Adamkiewicz wrote a blog post on Gamasutra which detailed some of the common criticisms leveled against most existing FFA PVP sandbox MMORPGs. To quote Adamkiewicz,
FFA, full-loot PVP combined with level/stat-mechanics creates a set of problems:
- It discourages new players from exploring and/or enjoying the game un-harassed
- Already powerful players cannot be toppled and just become more powerful
- PVP becomes a means of itself (you do PVP to acquire more power to do more PVP)
- It creates a high-risk but low-reward scenario for new players
- Progress becomes nearly impossible or significantly harder for new players than for powerful veterans.
- It creates grind because the player wants to be where the fun is to compete with the other players
Of course, some of these criticisms may actually be seen as a positive by readers out there who love the tension, but I would doubt that it would be a good draw for people looking to try sandbox MMORPGs instead of theme parks.
Moreover, the news of Earthrise, a sci-fi sandbox MMORPG, shutting down does not inspire confidence in investors looking to put their money into a sandbox MMORPG. The current nature of sandboxes, while doing well enough on some fronts, has to adapt a bit to the sensibilities of the themepark audience in order to spark interest in the sandbox genre of MMORPG gaming.
The Hybrid Sandbox
I'm lucky enough to live in an age where the pen and paper gaming world and the MMORPG gaming world tend to marry into each other and derive inspiration from the other to achieve new successes. To an extent, the Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition was partly inspired by MMO conventions in an attempt to draw more people into pen-and-paper role-playing. Why not do the reverse and place pen-and-paper storytelling mechanisms into an online game world?
This is the notion of the hybrid sandbox that has started to come to light recently. Instead of emphasizing on creating quest content that people will blow through in a day and possibly forget, the hybrid sandbox mixes theme park elements into a world built with the (not necessarily hostile) interaction of players in mind.
This entails having a game world that allows for world-building at all levels of play yet has enough of the conveniences that theme park players are accustomed to, like auction house systems, or mail, or the average theme park quest for familiarity's sake.
There are a couple of ways in which this can be done, and two examples come readily to mind, at least on the conceptual level of a hybrid sandbox. These are Namaste Entertainment's Storybricks and Goblinworks' Pathfinder Online.
Storybricks and Pathfinder
Storybricks isn't a typical MMO; so much as it is a story development kit that allows players to create their own quest content within a game world. The game is gearing up for a private alpha test, with many of the current features we associate with MMOs still in development.
What is nice to know about the development of Storybricks is that they're taking their time (according to the linked post in the previous paragraph) to make a fully-fleshed out world that people can add onto. While they haven't mentioned how deep into the sandbox they'll invest in, it's heartening to know that their system is one of creating persistent content rather than non-consensual PVP.
Equally ambitious are the folks at Goblinworks, who are developing Pathfinder Online, a game which they have mentioned in blog entries as a “sandbox with themepark elements.” From their blog entries, it seems as if they have a good grasp of what made sandboxes like EVE Online popular with long-term players aside from the PVP aspect: its persistence, where skill points accrued are always potential progress and the stories you make are the ones you get from playing the game your way rather than always following a path provided for you.
One of their blog entries, called Adventure in the River Kingdoms, has an excellent system design explanation that focuses on people working together to thrive in a harsh environment. Builders, adventurers, and craftsmen combine their efforts to make headway in the River Kingdoms. Additionally, depending on how well their work goes, they hope to include modules that allow for adventures to be purchased by people who want a bit of them park-like fun, as well as a module creation system. It's ambitious, to be sure, but when the alternative is more of the same, you can see where the excitement comes from.
Of course, there's always going to be a place for the FFA PVP MMORPG with full loot mechanics and the theme park game. Heck, I'm all for playing EVE Online and RIFT at the same time (not literally, mind you). The question becomes a matter of seeing something new in the future, and not of repeating the mistakes of theme park games that constantly copy features and fetch quests to middling success. It's a matter of opening up to new avenues of thought, and hopefully, bringing forth what some folks have mentioned in earlier Devil's Advocate articles: a multitude of choices for good, fun play.