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The staff of gets together to bring you some behind the scenes insights on stories, the industry and the site itself.

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Contributors: BillMurphy,MikeB,garrett,SBFord,Grakulen,

Community Spotlight: What Can Sandboxes Do Better At?

Posted by MikeB Sunday March 10 2013 at 8:58PM
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In this week's Community Spotlight, we focus on the thread, "Is there something the Sandbox genre can do better at?" by MMOExposed.

To improve the Sandbox genre, is there something that need to be improved? What can be done to improve the genre?

Axehilt feels the moment-to-moment gameplay could be approved across the board:

Quite a lot, but the most obvious is that moment-to-moment gameplay needs to not suck.  Games like ATITD or Haven & Hearth get close, as their crafting is involved enough and varied enough to be rather enjoyable.  Basically it has to feel like you're actually playing a game and not simply wasting time in a massive decision-less timesink, like harvesting resources in most sandboxes.

Jenuviel offers some commentary on the recent trend of PvP-oriented sandbox games:

I think a big thing they could do to achieve more mainstream success is to stop scaring away the pve crowd with pvp-focused gameplay. I know most of this site's forum-goers are big supporters of open-world-pvp, but the second you decide to make pve players unwilling targets, you've gone from a mainstream title to a niche title. I absolutely believe there should be open-world-pvp sandboxes out there (and there are), but we need a AAA, mainstream, financially successful sandbox if we ever want to see the model catch on.

Conventional wisdom tends toward the belief that social and political conflicts between players are the only way to give long-term life to a sandbox. While such conflicts can certainly add longevity to the game,  they're not the only method of doing so (see: A Tale in the Desert), nor is player-versus-player combat always necessarily when it comes to conflict resolution. The best way to make a breakthrough sandbox, in my opinion, is to build with a focus on systems rather than "content." Provide player authoring tools, social tools, deep crafting systems with dynamic resources, a skill system rather than a class system, a huge open world, and include some goals that give those new to MMOs a sense of direction.

That last part's important. Mainstream adoption means grabbing people from a broader market, and most  people just have no clue what to do when they log into a sandbox; they wander around for awhile, get listless, then leave. That's fine if you're CCP and you're aiming for a fairly specific demographic, but it's never going to result in market penetration. There has to be some sort of linear quest mechanism in place; it shouldn't be the focus of the game, but it should be there, it should be of decent quality, and it should be supplemented by the aforementioned player authoring tools (hopefully peer-reviewed), so people have direction if and when they need it. Also have things like City of Heroes' badge/title collections. It was quite a simple system, but collecting badges and titles provided concrete goals for achievers and explorers.

Also, I'm probably totally wrong, because I know nothing about game design. Maybe I should have put that sentence first...


jimdandy26 feels sandboxes could use a bit more story:

Telling a decent story for a start.

It's been a while since I've dug in deep with a sandbox game, but from my experience, sandbox games tend to lack polish. Sandbox games often feature a system design focus in place of a focus on developer created content. I've noticed that perhaps the developers have too many systems in the game out of the gate and that each system lacks as a result of the spread focus. Perhaps reining things in at first in order to polish up a smaller amount of systems while leaving room to expand later may be a better course of action for developers of these games.

How do you feel sandbox games could be improved on as a genre? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below!

gillrmn writes:

The sandbox games need time to engross oneself into it.  It is not a good medium for story telling. Because of a lot of options presented, the focus of the game shifts completely.

What sandbox game most needs is not to be repititive. If it has a lot of similar things sprinkled around, it becomes boring very soon.

However, for that, the amount of work to differentiate one area of game from the rest completely in terms of gameplay - is a lot more resource consuming and a break even point for all that work may never be possible.

Hence the only solution is to build a sandbox community and let the community design content of each and every part of game. UGC is perhaps the only way to keep sandbox profitable and of high quality.

Mon Mar 11 2013 12:21AM Report
jimdandy26 writes:

The problem with UGC though is that the vast majority of it is crap. You can see it in every place that has it, from Youtube, to modding sites to every game that has utilized it. Valve is bragging about how users generate many times more content than it could ever hope to, but the amount of it that is actually decently rated is less than 10%, and often times is coming from professionals.

While I do believe that UGC is part of an answer the other parts have not really made themselves known yet, as nothing has effectively "fixed" this problem.

Mon Mar 11 2013 3:57AM Report
thefinn writes:

EvE Online only focuses on PVP. On many occasions you will find the developers telling people "It's a PVP Game, our development focus is PVP"  - So by and large as stated above the PVE Suffers.

There are ample tools for PVP Corps and mercs, but find a mining tool in the game - there are none. There's no tools to pay miners of a mining corp, there's no tools to store ore and POS's just suck to run or do anything with.

A Sandbox game needs a sandbox development process - the lead game designer needs to understand that the game is larger than the fights that take place.

Mon Mar 11 2013 6:52AM Report
thefinn writes: I'd also like to say what a great point Jenuviel makes above - sandboxes will NEVER make it into the mainstream while they focus on PVP and prey on the PVE side of the game. Mon Mar 11 2013 6:55AM Report
jtcgs writes: The easiest way to improve a sandbox is to create your a typical sandbox world with all the things sandboxers expect...and then place "portals" in different places that lead to themepark areas. Its the best of both worlds. You have your open world that allows players to play as they choose and when bored, there are themepark areas with set things to do. Just dont bog it down with gear or rep grind. Let the themeparks be for story. Mon Mar 11 2013 8:57AM Report
logan400k writes:

Immersion - I do not think this has to be story per se, although an interesting story line helps. The world / system / galaxy has to feel lived in and interesting. It needs to have a history and it needs geography that changes. Space is a little harder to do that with but certainly not impossible.  The world also needs to change over time. Maybe have an evolving storyline and open new servers where the storyline starts from the beginning again and see if things come out differently? You could emphasize a few large servers in this way.

Prestige for All Choices - Players who pursue a combat strategy tend to get the most rewards and the most bang for their buck. Those who pursue Logistics or Diplomacy-Politics (both PVP and PVE) should also have commensurate rewards.

Flexible Factions - NPC factions based more on prestige than race, class, or area of birth. More than three viable factions unless PC factions are designed to be very powerful.

Player Housing - both kinds - Nothing wrong with instanced apartments in an orbiting colony, but if I want to go down the surface and build a house and tavern I should have that ability.

Mon Mar 11 2013 9:06AM Report
grimfall writes:

Just a couple of comments.

One of the commentors mentioned that there should not be classes.  This is a basically inside the box thinking "Because UO didn't have classes and it was very Sandboxy, Sandbox games should not have classes".  There are a lot of reasons to implement classes, and when you consider the potential complexity of emergent sandbox gameplay, class design can go a long way towards helping a developer herd the cats.

I feel like the best way to motivate the players is to provide some overarching player goals.  Sure, you want to  let crafters be crafters, but you want their effort to have some meaningful direction.  Make PVE wordl bosses that take the community as a whole 2 years to defeat, by coming together.  Have the best (ok  most willing to grind) PVE players depend on crafters and builders and negotiators to give them the tools required to take down that boss.  And then when that boss is dead, provide the community with a new goal - maybe repelling invaders whose desire to take over the world was only kept in check by the presence of the aforementioned boss.  To fight their spread, new communities need to be developed in different locations and new weapons/armors/vehicles discovered and used.

Horizons tried some of this aspect way back when.  Unfortunately it was poorly implemented, but that does not mean it was a bad concept or could not be well implemented.

Mon Mar 11 2013 9:08AM Report
WereLlama writes:

I have wondered about the value of contextual player made levels.

Ex. Dungeon zone, players can build traps,doors,monster summonin structures, etc.. like Dungeon Keeper

Ex. Hill zone, players can build towers, castles, barracks,etc..

Mon Mar 11 2013 9:46AM Report
GGrimm writes:

In a sandox, the players make the story. This sense that what YOU and your guild or your friends do has an effect within the MMO space is ultimately what will keep you playing a sandbox game. This impact should be content related but could vary between creating player-made dungeons (a la Neverwinter's Foundry) or player made buildings, or towns, or castles, or even player made story lines (a la EvE alliance battles).

Any story without conflict and resolution of conflict is ultimately pretty booring. Since the players are the story then there must be a way for players to be in conflict. There needs to be a reason for people to "fight" one another. That may be over  resources, the cost of goods, or occupancy of certain territories.

Tue Mar 12 2013 10:11AM Report writes:
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