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You Got Theme Park in My Sandbox

Ryahl Smith Posted:
Columns The Eorzea Prospect 0

Market Segment or Market Direction?

There isn’t much to say right now about Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn.  We are still waiting for Beta-4 and the the eventual re-launch.  It’s as good a time as any to think about the larger MMO market and how FFXIV:ARR fits into that market.

One thing that fascinates me in MMO development is the rush of “me too” design philosophies.  Make no mistake, these always involve genuine and important design decisions.  They become “me too” when the industry kind of latches on to an idea and every MMO in development starts including them as marketing buzzwords. 

In recent years, the “me too” design of the month has included the ‘no Holy Trinity approach,’ ‘action combat,’ and ‘story based gameplay.’  Each of these are important decisions and I’m not knocking these choices, they represent attempts to define new market segments. 

However, when everyone starts building in their “me too” answer, it stops being a market segment and just becomes the general market again.  It’s not a differentiator if everyone else does it too.  Worse, when an MMO is primarily built around a “me too” (non) differentiator without much more than a shell of an additional game, it hurts the genre.  More than once, players have found all the hype and excitement of “something different” turns out to be less than thrilling in application. 

The design candidate that seem next up on the horizon for “me too” status is ‘sandbox design.’  In the last few weeks we have heard that MMO players are tired of theme parks to much agreement from the community.  We have seen a storied MMO franchise promise that their next iteration will be the most sandboxy sandbox to ever sand, or box for that matter.  That announcement alone helped launch that game to the most anticipated MMO here at MMORPG with nary an additional detail offered! 

While the EQ-Next reveal opens the door for a separate discussion about what aspects of an MMO are core experiences, they definitely are trying to move in a sandbox direction.  Everyone and their dog seems to be rushing to Iceland to join CCP in sandbox MMO’s.

A Rose by any other name

The interesting thing is that I’m not sure we are all talking about the same thing. 

I suspect we generally mean similar things when we say sandbox or theme park for that matter.  However, occasionally I am reminded that this isn’t entirely true.  I have recently seen people opine that the original EverQuest was a sandbox game and frankly that boggles my mind.  In its heyday, EQ was THE theme park to pure sandboxes like Ultima Online or Star Wars Galaxies.

However, if I’m talking to someone whose MMO experience is EQ and a recent MMO, I guess I can see how that disconnect happens.  EQ was a theme park, but the rides weren’t quite as obvious and they weren’t staged with neon lights screaming “hey, a ride is over here, grab your tickets and fasten your seat belts!”  While the dragons did spawn on timers, we didn’t have our own apps to let us know when to mount up.

I suppose the best way to start thinking about this is to use Lego’s.  The Lego corporation has sandboxes and theme parks.  A big 1000-count Lego box of assorted pieces?  That’s a sandbox.  The Lego city set that builds a store-front, superhero, race car, or Lord of the Rings set piece?  That’s a theme park. 

Lego has reinvigorated their bottom line over the years by moving away from being a sandbox company and becoming a blended sandbox and theme park company.  Why?  For every customer who looks at a 1000 Lego’s and sees infinite opportunities there are a dozen who see a disorganized mess.  Why not sell 13 different sets and make each of them happy?  It’s also a bit easier to enforce trademark on theme parks than it is on boxes of blocks, but that’s just stuff that keeps the lawyers paid.

For this article I’m working with the following definition.  A sandbox game is one where the player has significant and meaningful range of control over the development of their character and the world around their character.  A theme park game is one where the character plays more “on rails” and follows a heavily predetermined path for their character in and amidst a generally static, unchanging world.

So, let’s look at EverQuest.  Your character development was pretty static, your class determined nearly everything.  There were a handful of spells which required some effort to obtain and your choices, or lack of choices, in using different weapons could narrow the range of your characters options.  But even then, a Warrior wasn’t ever going to heal and a Paladin wasn’t going to nuke.  From a character perspective, virtually every meaningful choice was made at character creation.

The world offered more of the same.  The same gnoll is probably still running around Qeynos Hills shouting the same lines he did a dozen years ago as is the dark elf in the commonlands.  The rides are all the same as they once were, be they dungeons, planes, or favorite grinding spots. 

However, players had a few ways of customizing their experience in the world, ways that are not present in modern games.

First, you had factions.  Not just treadmills to grind up for new loot or red-team/blue-team PVP factions, but dynamic factions in which advancing one cost you against another.  You could, with enough effort, become loved or hated anywhere in the world.  This effectively changed which creatures were hostile and which were allies.  With enough time and muffins, even an Iksar could be loved in Rivervale!

Second, the lack of instancing meant that PVE itself was a competitive (or co-operitition) based environment.  You could block people from content by killing it (or kill stealing it), you could train people, and there were some even less scrupulous things you could do!  I am not calling for a return of fully competitive PVE.  I am not longing for camp checks and I don't really want to see a return of kill stealing, please don’t go there in the comments! 

My point is that these systems, as screwed up as they were, resulted in players having some small degree of ability to influence the world around them.  Granted, the way players chose to use those tools is the reason theme parks have become even more theme park-like.  Spoiler alert: people on the Internet do not always play nice with each other.

Of Labels and Bandwagons

EverQuest, to me, was a pretty straightforward theme park, albeit a bit more open-ended than the modern park.  For the most part, the modern era of MMO’s have moved entirely away from choice and towards pre-defined paths.  Indeed, the more populous MMO’s seem to be built largely around the idea of giving players carefully crafted, themed experiences rather than providing a set of tools and saying ‘knock yourself out.’

Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn is clearly in the theme park camp.  You have an open door to be whichever class you wish to be and can hop between them often.  However, once chosen, your class plays a very predefined way which conforms to the way encounters are designed. 

They appear to be creating more rides and more types of rides than other competitors and they are certainly executing the rides very, very well.  FFXIV is building up as a traditional group-oriented, role-driven, classic MMO that is also, unapologetically, a theme park.

Player created content creates a bit of a wrinkle to my sandbox definition.  If we look at the creation tools in Neverwinter we get a hard to quantify answer.  It’s player created content: that’s sandboxy.  But it’s a bunch of player created theme parks, that makes it what exactly?  I’m leaning towards it still being a theme park, but I also think of the two questions as a quadrants along a pair of continuum and not dichotomies.  A more sandboxy theme park, I suppose.

I happen to think the market for theme parks isn’t over, theme parks are a staple of the gaming industry and that doesn’t appear to be changing.   Minecraft is an undisputed phenomenon, but there’s still room for “Call of Duty 937: This Time With Dogs!”  LEGO also sells a mess of theme park boxes each year, so execution matters. 

I also think there’s room for a few good sandbox MMO’s to return and I’m glad to see some movement back in that direction.  I will point out, though, that at no point in the industry’s life have sandboxes ever had more active subscribers than theme parks.  Even at the point where we had three pretty darned good ones running concurrently (SWG, UO and EVE), they were the niche of the market. 

Popularity isn’t everything and niches can be great business segments, but they aren’t mass market.  Anyone chasing the sandbox segment is probably wise to erase a few zeroes off of the inevitable ‘WoW subscriber comparisons.’

The Promise of Sandboxes

Recently, 4000 people gathered together in a galaxy far away (but not far, far away of course).  They battled for hours over mining rights and in the end, many people lost a good chunk of resources they had built up over weeks, months, and possibly years of gaming.  It was a battle that literally was heard around the world, covered in both the gaming and general press.  For the people who played in it, that was a distinctive, intense moment that they will remember for years.

I have never personally gotten into EVE, although I have mined an asteroid or two (dozen).  It’s a gorgeous game with a beautifully designed economic system and a marvelous environment for machiavellian scheming.  If stuff like this appeals to you, EVE is probably as good as you can possibly get.

Here’s the thing, though.  In that battle, a number of players lost assets they spent hours developing.  I’m not talking “hey, my guy got killed, I think I’ll respawn now,” I’m talking this stuff is gone and you aren’t getting it back.  The system that the TEST alliance controlled isn’t theirs anymore, they probably aren’t getting it back and they may lose more.  Again, if that appeals to you, you are salivating at the thought. 

You are also already probably playing EVE. 

In an MMO marketplace filled with customers who don’t want forced grouping, don’t want player interdependency, and want to be able to experience everything in the box, I suspect sandbox is the last thing they want, even if they think they want it.  Playing in a multiplayer sandbox means others may kick over your castle and take your shovel.  Even in a non-PVP setting, they may build their castle where you had intended to build yours, or they may open a gnome nudist colony next to your tranquil bay of harmony. 

Letting players control the shape of the world means you won’t get sterilized experiences, for good or for ill.  I am happy to see sandbox creep back into the vernacular of developer speak, I’m a bit worried though if it turns into the next “me too” design idea.  I am even more fearful of sandbox morphing into a meaningless marketing term applied to everything and meaning nothing.

What do you think about sandboxes and theme parks?  Do you have a different way to think about the two ideas?  Have you ever found yourself wanting to kick over someone elses castle so you could open your own gnome nudist colony?  Jump into the discussion below, but bring your own shovel and pail.

Ryahl / Ryahl is a columnist for MMORPG.Com.  He is also the host and primary author for Eorzea Reborn and TSWGuides.  He has been playing MMO’s since 1999 and can build a mean tree out of Lego’s (enough to make a small child happy at least).  You can follow him on Twitter @EorzeaReborn or just argue with him in comments anywhere he posts.

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Ryahl Smith

Ryahl / Ryahl is a columnist for MMORPG.Com. He is also the host and primary author for Eorzea Reborn and TSWGuides. He has been playing MMO’s since 1999 and remembers when the holy trinity didn’t involve DPS. You can follow him on Twitter @EorzeaReborn or just argue with him in comments anywhere he posts.