Guess what! Sandbox games are for roleplayers. I don't mean that in an off-putting or elitist way, but rather I mean to say that people who enjoy and seek out sandbox MMORPGs are roleplayers whether their testosterone levels allow them to self-identify that way or not. The corporate thieves, spies, and meta-gamers in EVE Online? They're roleplaying. The gankers and hyper-competitive PvPers in Darkfall? Yep, they're roleplaying too, even when their names are variations on Loves2spooge.
The other day I was talking to one of my closest friends about MMORPGs, roleplaying, and PvP. The discussion rolled around to Darkfall, as most of my discussions these days do, and his ears perked up when I waxed on about the freedom, the skill system, and the huge world that invites you to go your own way and is remarkably unlike traditional themepark games in terms of immersive potential. Eventually I had to break the news that yes, Darkfall does feature FFA PvP, and if that wasn't bad enough, corpse looting. The horror!
As our discussion progressed, I voiced the opinion that indie games are the future for immersion enthusiasts and that it's folly to look to AAA studios for the kind of MMORPGs that we were raised on and still crave. We talked about a number of current and future titles, large and small, and came to the realization that the majority of the indie sandboxes feature FFA PvP of some sort. Darkfall, Mortal Online, Earthrise, ArcheAge, Xsyon, EVE; the list goes on and on. This was something that I've sort of known for a while, but it came as a sobering revelation to my buddy. To be more frank, it pissed him off, and he proceeded to go on a bit of a rant regarding the inability to find a sandbox world devoid of griefers.
"I just really hate FFA PvP and it makes me angry when developers create games, specifically sandbox games, and then urinate all over them by saying they're FFA PvP (which naturally draws the red-equals-dead crowd). Why, why, why? That's not who I am, and it's not why I play these games," he said.
From my point of view, the why is easy. PvP (especially the FFA/full loot variety) is a playstyle that appeals to a very small subset of the increasingly casual MMO audience (just like RP). Like sandbox designs (and RP), MMO PvP has been marginalized, and when sandbox developers are looking for another feature to draw people to a game that is already targeting a small audience to begin with, it kind of makes sense to add PvP into the mix and try to capture a slightly larger piece of the player pie. In some cases, though, developers are simply fans of PvP first, and the sandbox happens almost by accident (see Aventurine and Darkfall).
Whatever the reasons, my point is that finding a true sandbox devoid of PvP is not likely (unless you're willing to accept the primitive production values in games like Wurm and A Tale in the Desert). I used to pine for such a game myself, but after experiencing the so-called worst communities that the playstyle has to offer, I'm here to tell you that the fear of FFA PvP is much ado about nothing.
Don't misunderstand; I'm not advocating on behalf of PvPers, nor am I saying that roleplayers and PvEers should go out and change their playstyles. I am saying that putting up with PvP instead of avoiding it altogether could do wonders both for your personal immersion goals as well as the future of sandbox games. Look, I'm horrible at PvP. Laughably terribad. I'm the Michael Bay of PvP, but with fewer explosions. The point, though, is that proficiency doesn't really matter in games in which PvP is but one of many options. The other point is to get some of the sandbox fans in the audience to realize that the world will not end if they get PK'd.
In fact, it might even expand.
Another thing to consider is the notion that all FFA PvP sandboxes are unfettered grief fests from start to finish. This was an assumption I held prior to spending the past eight weeks playing Darkfall, and I even engaged in some comment sparring regarding PvE vs. PvP in Masthead's upcoming Earthrise sandbox way back when. Then I spent time actually playing a FFA sandbox on a daily basis and my perspective changed quite a bit. I averaged over 25 hours per week during my Darkfall adventures, and the total number of ganks on my two accounts came to a rather pedestrian 27. Were some of these ganks annoying? Sure. Were any of them annoying enough to make me consider returning to a game with cliched classes, no-trade items, and zone timers? Not just no, but hell no.
I'm not saying mine is the only way; clearly people find enjoyment where and how they can. For me though, roleplay in themepark MMOs is venturing into round peg/square hole territory at this point. Every time I try it, particularly in a themepark game in which the limitations are glaringly in my face at every turn, it simply doesn't work. You're doing it wrong, says the little voice in the back of my mind.
In Darkfall, EVE, and their ilk, your character is living in a world with a whole range of choices (and consequences) to be made during each play session, a world that you can actually affect in certain ways. Whether or not you extrapolate that into story-based roleplay or simply enjoy the gameplay possibilities doesn't really matter.
In Age of Conan, Aion, and the like, your character is less of an individual and more of a pre-scripted bot that can only go certain places, wearing certain things, at certain times. Sure, you can pretend that this is not the case and use text emotes, forum roleplay, or any number of other meta tools to pretend that you're doing something the game doesn't allow you to do, but why bother when you can just play another game that actually lets you do it? This is my largest disconnect with folks who say they can't roleplay in a FFA PvP game. You can pretend that a laundry-list of roleplay-unfriendly themepark mechanics don't exist, and you can pretend that elaborate text emotes are actually happening in the face of visual evidence to the contrary. But you can't pretend that the ganks you'll occasionally suffer in a FFA sandbox don't happen?
If avoiding unwanted PvP (and preparing yourself, and your equipment, for the inevitable) is more important than being free of arbitrary mechanical limitations, then I guess there's nothing more I can say to convince you otherwise. For me, the trade-off is a complete no-brainer, and maybe that's just it. Roleplaying in current-gen MMOs is, by necessity, a trade-off and an exercise in going against the grain. Because of how these games are designed (and whom they're designed for) it's like trying to make lemonade out of a cabbage. I'm tired of that, and if FFA PvP is what I have to deal with to get a virtual world as opposed to a themepark, so be it. I don't want to sign into a game and then have to make up my own rules and /emote things my character is "doing" but not really doing, you know? It's simply not fun. I want to play the game, but I want the game to be a world, which is a topic I'll leave for another Soapbox.
Everyone has opinions, and The Soapbox is how we indulge ours. Join the Massively writers every Tuesday as we take turns atop our very own soapbox to deliver unfettered editorials a bit outside our normal purviews. Think we're spot on -- or out of our minds? Let us know in the comments!