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Michael Bitton: Two ‘Failures’ and the Sandbox Revival

Column By Michael Bitton on August 08, 2012

Call me crazy, but I feel we may be approaching a revival of the sandbox MMO in a big way, and the two major Star Wars MMO launches (and subsequent ‘failures’) may have both played a pivotal role in the direction of the next era of MMOs.

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Star Wars Galaxies, bugs, issues and all, was largely regarded as the ultimate sandbox MMO before it underwent some serious changes that ultimately lead to the dreaded New Game Experience. We know the story by now, but let’s recap the basics just in case a couple of people have been living under rocks...

Despite huge amounts of hype, the money-printing Star Wars IP, amazing graphics for its time, and a bevy of different gameplay options, Star Wars Galaxies topped out at around 250,000 subscribers. How could this be true? All the moons were aligned for the biggest smash success in the history of the genre, yet just over a year later Blizzard’s World of Warcraft launched and turned the whole thing on its head. SOE reacted to Blizzard’s success by essentially relaunching the game with a World of Warcraft-esque design in the pursuit of similar success. Rushed and poorly executed, the plan didn’t work, and ended up completely alienating the game’s core subscriber base at the same time. SOE basically killed its own game.

We know this sad story all too well, and so does SOE, but it was likely this failure of such a high profile sandbox game combined with the unprecedented success of Blizzard’s World of Warcraft that has relegated the sandbox MMO sub-genre into a niche over the last few years. If SOE couldn’t get anywhere near Blizzard numbers with a sandbox game and the Star Wars IP, why should anyone else even bother? And thus the next couple of years saw the release of many ‘themepark’ MMOs featuring linear quest-driven content that was quickly consumed by players, often resulting in even faster subscriber turnover due to players’ voracious appetites for content and the increasingly fickle sense of loyalty gamers show any given title.

The aforementioned issues with the themepark model, personal preferences aside, came to a head with the even more hyped launch of Star Wars: The Old Republic. This time we would have a Star Wars MMO that from the ground up was cut from the mold Blizzard made, but it would have the money of EA and the talent of BioWare, who were responsible for the beloved Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic SRPG series (among many other classics!) behind it. How could things go wrong?

I’m not going to get into all the particular criticisms people may have with SW:TOR, but suffice it to say many people didn’t want to pay to play the title. One of the most prevalent criticisms coming from those who actually did play and enjoy the game up to the level cap is that there wasn’t much to do once there. BioWare followed the World of Warcraft model, but put a bit too much stock into their story, hoping players would see reason to re-roll alternate characters enough times at level cap to make up for the title’s somewhat deficient endgame content. No one could possibly hope to compete with roughly seven years of content updates to World of Warcraft with the launch of a new title, and so the same song and dance of the last couple of years essentially played out once more.

Players quickly consumed the game’s admittedly much easier endgame dungeon and raid content and that was the end of that. The difference was that, again, this was a Star Wars game with tons and tons of excitement behind it. The tumultuous months since SW:TOR went live have played out on a much larger stage. After all, the bigger they are, the harder they fall. Imagine if World of Warcraft had gained as many subscribers as it did in the first one or two months and then nosedived hard. It’s no surprise that we’re all paying so much attention to the events of SW:TOR.

The thing is, I feel that Star Wars: The Old Republic’s failures are symptomatic of a larger issue: themepark games just don’t really work and MMO gamers are tired of them. The issues plaguing SW:TOR weren’t new, just about every themepark MMO launched since World of Warcraft has been plagued by the same problems, yet developers continued to use WoW’s themepark design as a foundation.

Like Star Wars Galaxies, SW:TOR’s failures here, despite all the money and talent behind the project, may represent the straw that ultimately breaks the camel’s back when it comes to the themepark sub-genre of MMOs. There is simply no way for a developer to keep up with player demand for content. There have been interesting innovations over the years to spice things up, including the use of user generated content to supplement what the developers themselves are working on, but these are all Band-Aid fixes.

EA’s Warhammer Online kicked off the beginnings of dynamic repeatable content with Public Quests, which then evolved with Trion Worlds’ RIFT, and event-based content is looking to make its biggest jump forward with the imminent launch of ArenaNet’s Guild Wars 2.

Guild Wars 2, at least to me, represents a sort of middle ground between the two subgenres. The game features a fully developer driven content pipeline, but the underlying game design and functionality of the event system inspires the same sort of wanderlust players often feel when playing a sandbox game. Events are repeatable and may even branch off in different ways and the experience earned from these events will be useful to players even at level cap. This is no doubt a very expensive and challenging form of delivering content to players, but it may serve as the beginnings of a renaissance of sandbox games that we may see over the next couple of years.

 

For those cheering the potential of a sandbox revival, SW:TOR’s unfortunate collapse couldn’t have really come at a better time. The last few years have seen a slow but steady trend of sandbox successes in other genres. We’ve seen the excitement of Minecraft and now we’re seeing a similar response to the FPS mod, DayZ, for example. Iff the intention for game developers both in and out of the MMO genre was to hold players’ hands with directed content in order to broaden gaming appeal as a whole, the designs of the last couple of years have succeeded in that regard. I also feel these same gamers combined with veteran gamers long tired of this sort of game design are clamoring for something that’s more of a challenge; something that allows players to express themselves a bit more.

The sandbox genre need not be a niche anymore. More and more, we’re seeing that these sorts of games are capable of bringing in significant success for their developers both large and small and I feel that many developers are already reading the tea leaves. EVE Online, the most successful sandbox of them all, did indeed manage to grow as large as it did while in World of Warcraft’s massive shadow, but it has always been a niche game despite its now significant userbase. CCP Games intends to follow in this success with the launch of World of Darkness, which CCP also describes as a sandbox game. In the next few years we also have ArcheAge, a ‘sandpark’ game developed by South Korean developer XL Games. While we don’t know when ArcheAge will make it to Western shores, the developer is clearly looking into bringing it over. Even games that aren’t necessarily out-and-out sandboxes or even ‘sandparks’ are intending to launch with features one wouldn’t expect to see in a contemporary MMO. For example, Carbine Studios’ WildStar features full-fledged player housing and an entire track of gameplay focused on building up and developing the existing game world in the form of the Settler class. When’s the last time we’ve seen an AAA studio aspire to such bold sandbox-era features? WildStar doesn’t sound like a game developed in the era of World of Warcraft and neither do any of the other aforementioned titles.

There are, I’m sure, countless other titles not yet announced that may go in the same direction or at the very least start following what ArenaNet is doing as a baseline instead of World of Warcraft. MMO subgenres are feeling a bit like fashion to me right now and I can see the sandbox genre making a comeback in the next few years.

Agree? Disagree? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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