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EverQuest Next Column: Smedley, the Sandbox, and Online Society

By Victor Barreiro Jr. on February 13, 2014

I was planning on writing an article relating to what I’ve been able to do in the game, but a recent blog post by Sony Online Entertainment (SOE) president John Smedley just made me throw out my plans and focus on it.

In a blogpost, Smedley discussed SOE’s vision of the sandbox, and why the sandbox model of MMORPGs is looking like the way forward for the industry. It’s an insightful peek into his thoughts and, more importantly, it’s a great look at why Everquest Next made a shift in its development cycle to become a sandbox MMORPG (or two).

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The Online World is Gone

Smedley’s blog, titled “The Sandbox MMO,” is what I’d call his personal sentiments regarding the MMORPG industry in the age of social media capital and crowdsourced data aggregation.

In his post, he notes that current online games are what he calls “content driven.” Whether it’s quests, dungeons, or raids, Smedley says “we have made things for the players to explicitly do either by themselves or as a group.” While various innovations have come about, such as public questing, PVP batlegrounds, and whatnot, he observed that “this idea of the MMO company making stuff for the players to do has become the defacto.”

In his next paragraph, he then states a premise many long-time MMORPG players and, perhaps, EVE Online fans, would probably agree with: the content-driven MMO model is unsustainable. The problem, he notes, isn’t the quests themselves, since they are perfectly fine bits of content that everyone can enjoy.

He instead points to two big difference between the online games of 1997 and the online games of 2013: the mystery of an online world is, more or less, gone.

He writes, “The real issue is a simple one – our ability to consume that content as players has gotten to the point that most content is done by the players nearly immediately after it’s released. It’s also laid out for all to see on any number of websites that contain complete spoilers up to and including the loot drop percentages.“

While he does praise other games that have done the content model well, such as SWTOR and its well-crafted storylines, he also says that they fall into the same trap of having nothing to do when the content is exhausted.

Be the Content You Want to See in the World

The above subhead extrapolates an oft-disputed quote attributed to Mahatma Gandhi: “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” I think it fits well enough for Smedley’s solution though, which is to focus “on letting players make and be content for each other.” Citing battlegrounds, LOTRO’s music system, and auction houses, his opinion is that it’s important to have additional systems that create new ways for people to play.

Smedley writes, “Building systems into the games that let the players interact with each other in new and unique ways gives us the ability to watch as the players do stuff we never anticipated.” He imagines a city where the rogue’s guild is made up of actual players, and a “political system that is populated by players who were elected by the playerbase.”

While the player election thing has happened in other games, such as Archlord, TERA, and ESO in the future, having that sort of election system in place makes for an excellent metagame of campaigning. If you count player councils, then you certainly have people invested heavily into their game of choice choosing people they feel will champion their beliefs.

That digression aside, he notes that having a ton of interconnected systems with players that create the stories other players will remember. Heck, search for EVE B-R5RB online and you’ll see what I’m talking about.

Sony’s Pushing Forward

Smedley ended with this paragraph, which I’ll quote in full:

Our belief at SOE is that it’s smarter to head in this direction now rather than waiting. We want to innovate and let players be a part of everything we do including make the game in the first place. We’re going to take the idea of sandbox gaming and we’re putting it at the core of everything we’re doing. We’ll obviously still be making awesome stuff for players to do, but we’re going to aim very high in terms of letting players be a part of the game systems. The more emergent sandbox style content we can make the less predictable the experience will be.

This feels to me like a pretty big tactical shift. SOE has appeared to many as the one trailing behind and revising its systems to make inroads on what’s popular in gaming, but this shift seems to point to SOE focusing on the bigger issues an online society. that people in 2014 are looking to safely enjoy something they don’t normally experience, and that online society values transparency in large corporations.

Nearly two years ago, I wrote about how the sandbox MMO could distance itself from being seen as free-for-all PVP games. In it, I praised Pathfinder Online and Storybricks as trying to push for sandbox play while mixing content-driven elements into it.

Well, Storybricks is now a part of Everquest Next and Everquest Next: Landmark. If we can have what I termed as “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,” then I think the industry will be much better off.

More importantly, if Everquest Next and Landmark can pull off sandbox worlds combined with content-driven aspects, we could be looking at the new front-runners of future online games.

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Victor Barreiro Jr. / Victor Barreiro Jr. maintains the Everquest Next column (and formerly the Devil’s Advocate column) for MMORPG.com. He also writes for news website Rappler as a technology reporter. You can find more of his writings on Games and Geekery and on Twitter at @vbarreirojr.


LINKS:

Victor Barreiro Jr. / Victor Barreiro Jr. maintains the the Landmark/Everquest Next and Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn columns for MMORPG.com. He also writes for news website Rappler as a technology reporter. You can also find him on Twitter at @vbarreirojr.

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