What is a sandbox MMO, anyway? We often hear laments of old time gamers who miss the days of old-school Ultima Online and complain that no one has dared to properly fill that void. In the decade-plus since UO's launch, the market has been dominated by level based games. As cries for a sandbox MMO continue to grow louder, I wonder if it has not been so long that the memory of what they truly were has begun to fade. So, this week, I examine what, to me, was the essence of a sandbox MMO experience and how I'd like to see one built in this modern era.
Being a true sandbox MMO is about more than just mechanics. It's a virtual world where people can truly settle into a role. It's not about combat mechanics, quests, or storyline. It's about freedom.
The idea of freedom is where so many more recent attempts at sandbox MMOs have gone terribly wrong. A sandbox MMO is not necessarily a hardcore experience. Ultima Online could be quite hardcore, but that was the beauty of it. It was, at its root, whatever the user made of it. For some, that meant hardcore PvP. For others, that meant picking berries or begging for change. What made UO magical is that it brought everyone in. It was open, it was inclusive.
Its inclusiveness was the magic of Ultima Online, and to me, the single thing that any would be sandbox MMO needs to replicate.
In a level-based MMO, players grind through content and levels in search of some sort of end game. Less time, means slower progression and thus delayed access to end-game content.
This is an important part of a theme park game's business model. They cannot let players max out their levels in a week or no one will stay subscribed over the long term.
Sandbox MMOs keep people involved through the sheer variety of what they can do. It doesn't take nearly as long to master a skill. A casual player can, in theory, get some core skills to a point necessary to do just about anything in their chosen field relatively rapidly. Sandbox MMOs keep people involved through options, choice and variety.
A truly great sandbox MMO also flattens the relative power curve between characters. In EverQuest, a level one is infinitely less powerful than a level 10, who is in turn completely unable to even compete with a level 25. That level 25, though, can stand in front of a level 50 character and swing his or her sword all day and never even make contact. "Miss... miss.... miss... miss...." and that level 50 can smite that level 25 all the way back to the Bronze Age with a flick of the wrist.
A great sandbox MMO turns this curve on its ear. A guy with 25 skill in swords should be precisely half as good as the guy with 50 skill. Sure, there's an advantage to being twice as good, and yes, the guy with 50 skill will usually win, but the point is that the 25 skill guy is not some infinitesimal peon, not even worth the notice of his better.
This simple dynamic opens up the game world from day one. Lots of level based MMOs have mentoring systems and other ways to bring people together, but they always feel a bit forced. In a skill based MMO with a flat curve, a veteran warrior who knows how to use many weapons, armors and magics can take a younger warrior under his wing and out into the world. Sure, the younger player may not be as skilled or do as much damage, but he can still contribute, and no one has to worry that he's just diluting their XP gain.
XP has its place, but it's a very anti-social mechanic. At its core, it dictates that the less people you have with you, the better it is for those who are there. It encourages exclusion, because each new person divides the pie that much more. Ironically, by making advancement a more shared experience, game designers have also made it a more anti-social one. Skill based games personalize advancement completely. It doesn't matter if there are 100 people whacking the dragon or 10. A whack is a whack. By personalizing advancement, players are free to view other players as allies and companions, rather than black holes that leach experience away from them.
Sandbox MMOs are also about far more than combat. This is where Darkfall misses the mark for me. Yes, it has a wealth of options in its design, but fair or not, it's developed a reputation as a hardcore PvP world. It's all about killing and looting. This is not options. The beauty of UO was the ability to be a minstrel, an author, or fisherman. Not everyone wanted to be a warrior, and even those that were, could easily slip off that one persona and show off a whole new side to their personality.
In fact, UO took it even a step further. Not only did the skill system promote the mastery of skills that had absolutely no combat benefit or application, but the world itself allowed people to develop themselves even further. There were poets in UO. There was no poetry skill, but people used the books to create their own niche inside that world.
Sometimes modern MMOs have this overwhelming need to make everything a mechanic. Pretend you were hired tomorrow by SOE to work on EverQuest II and your first task was to make an "author" profession for the game. What would you do? Odds are that within the confines of that game, the most logical thing to do would be to give players the ability to practice writing, gaining experience in it. Perhaps you'd add an adventure component, where players can gain experience through visiting locations in the world, talking to key NPCs, etc. All of these would then make the "books" they produced more valuable to sell at market.
There is nothing precisely wrong with a mechanic like the above, many would enjoy it, but this is a core place where sandbox MMOs differentiate themselves from theme park MMOs. An author in a true sandbox game is someone who can actually write, someone who types words into a book and shares it within the world. A great sandbox MMO would encourage and reward good authors and develop mechanisms to help promote good writers and bury bad ones. There would be no leveling up or even gaining skill. The bottom line is that in a traditional theme park MMO, a book is a commodity produced by the character and with some tangible in-game value. Unfortunately, it is a widget. It can never be opened, enjoyed and read. The inverse is true in a great sandbox. A book has no value save those words inside it.
Another big difference in my ideal sandbox game is that the goals are larger, more grandiose. In a regular MMO, people have little quests to accomplish specific tasks. In a sandbox MMO, these have their place, but since they're not necessarily needed for advancement, the emphasis is on fun.
A proper sandbox world would have larger scale goals, world events and challenges that players must work together to combat. I am not saying Live Content, or even big epic "come on at this time" style events. These are more like trends. The world lets you know there are zombies in the North this week, so everyone works to clear the North of zombies. Maybe pirates invade another week.
The key is large, cooperative, story-driven trends within the world that bring the community together against common goals. People want to be able to contribute in their own way and a well run sandbox MMO is one where the developers know just how involved to get.
Developers need to stir the pot, but not necessarily make the soup. They need to throw challenges out there and reward people, but if they try and get too involved, suddenly the whole thing can go to hell. The beauty of a sandbox game is that players often make their own content. The role of the developer is to give them situations in which they can shine, and then tell the world about it when they do. Players are the stars of these worlds.
This, to me, is what a sandbox MMO world should be. There are many definitions, but to me, too often in the nostalgia of Ultima Online, we forget what specifically made it such a wonderful place. It was by no means perfect, but it's been a decade and no one has successfully made a spiritual successor to it. That time has come, and somewhere, one can only hope someone will step up and make a game that is truly representative of all that Ultima inspired, not just one part of it.