Notes from the Fringe: Sandbox Gaming

There’s a smaller subset of MMORPG players who refuse to play the more popular online games most people know about (Warcraft, Star Wars: The Old Republic) and choose to play what are called “Sandbox Games.”  Some examples include Eve Online, Mortal Online, and Darkfall—more obscure titles, but all with dedicated followings.   Folks have different definitions for sandbox gaming, but based on some of the discussions on the MMO Smacktalk podcast there appear to be some common threads, though not all the mentioned games are true to these “pure” ideas:

  • The world geography—whether the theme is fantasy, science fiction or post holocaust—is well defined with cultures, climate, peoples and beasts, but the core storyline is left purposefully vague and even completely blank.  The philosophy here is that the players will create their own story as they begin adventuring.
  • Carrying the “create your own history” theme forward, the world provides little in the way of quests for individual players – it’s expected that players will interact with each other and create coalitions and enemies, and carve out their own place within the world.  One of the most discussed features and rewards in Ultima Online, a well-known early MMORPG, is character housing; earn enough by adventuring, and you can build your own home within designated zones of the game.  In a sandbox game, you might gain character housing, if you formed up enough of a coalition to build your own village and then defend it against marauders.
  • Combat systems and player vs. player is a core element of sandbox games, and there are no rules preventing another character from looting your corpse once they have killed you.  Much discussion is made of combat systems that require dexterity at the keyboard rather than simple keyboard combinations and more powerful gear.  The better player (the one sitting at the computer) should generally win over the one who’s gone out and purchased a bunch of high level items in game.  Different equipment variations (leather vs. chainmail, sword  vs. gun) require the player at the keyboard to learn how best to fight using the restrictions and benefits of those types.  Resurrection is difficult, and your character suffers penalties once they have been raised.
  • Crafting and building are essential elements of the sandbox game, and to build your stronghold in the world, you’ll need characters that can do leatherwork, blacksmithing, mining, lumbering, planting, herding.  Indeed, without these skills, your coalition will die quickly and characters will be forced to fend for themselves, always more difficult in a PvP world, where lives are “nasty, brutish and short.”

So sandbox gaming, by these definitions is hard!  Why the heck would anyone want to play this way?  Well, truth be told, not many do.  The number of players for these kinds of games is much smaller, and those who do play are seeking challenges they can’t find in more mainstream games.

But sometimes it really pays to listen to the minority.  What are they seeing and saying in these discussions that the majority may be missing out on?

  • “Too little challenge is just as bad as too much.”  For every player who gives up a game because it is too difficult, there also is a player that is bored by a quest that leads you by the nose, or by a set of monsters that are too easy to defeat.  Sandbox players want to sweat a little, or even a lot!
  • “I want to feel like I have earned what I have.”  When a game is difficult and you succeed, the victory is that much sweeter and the rewards more memorable.
  • “I want to think.”  Figuring out the best way to overcome an obstacle in the game is half the reason for playing.
  • “I want to make my own story, not play out yours.”  While playing out a prepackaged storyline may be fine the first time, sandbox players aren’t interested in living it every day.  They want to make their own stories and build their version of the world.
  • “I want to compete against the best.”  The real test of skill is defeating other players, not programmed beasts.

So should these kinds of wishes be granted by game designers?  The mainstream games have millions of players subscribing, but are always worried about keeping players engaged.  No doubt these questions come up all the time and are worked into plans for expansions and patches.  But is there something fundamental that sandbox players understand, or are they just part of the lunatic fringe, and best ignored?

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