There's still hope, though, and so far it's not coming from any of the usual sandbox suspects in the MMO space.
Rocket" Hall has been in the news a lot this summer, and for good reason. His Arma II zombie mod called DayZ is riding a wave of popularity, and I can't get enough of it, both because it's a fun game and because of what it represents in terms of sandbox experiences and the power of the consumer.
DayZ surfaced at a time when both industry pundits and gamers were predicting the death of both PC gaming and modding. Free-to-play had taken over as the dominant business model, and single-player game developers were doing their damnedest to add recurring revenue streams to their titles regardless of whether or not they featured the MMO-like persistence and replayability that justified ongoing costs.
Enter Hall's permadeath survival sandbox mod, which famously topped one million users (and that number is still growing). It did so despite a cumbersome installation process and the upfront cost of the Arma II client (and its expansion) that are required to play it.
Crucially, DayZ exploded into the gamer consciousness lacking any of the marketing dollars that traditional publishers provide. "This is a small part of a wider change in the games industry that I think social media is largely to thank for," Hall told MCV. "Gamers have never been more silently organized than they are now."
Indeed, word-of-mouth and savvy use of social media are responsible for the mod spreading through the gaming press like wildfire, and its continued success suggests that quality independent projects are where it's at for players (and developers) who grow tired of the current industry trends.
"Gamers are the reason for DayZ's success, pure and simple. They like the concepts behind DayZ, and I hope that this means more innovation is pushed, especially in the more stale FPS and MMO areas," Hall says. "The technology is there to do this, and I think DayZ has proved there is a market there for it."
This is fantastic news for core gamers and something of a grim omen for the traditional publishers who have abandoned them. As Hall told MCV:
It proves that publishers are becoming irrelevant. Nobody really wants to admit that. But given my horrific past experiences in the console market as a producer dealing with publishers, my sympathy is pretty limited.Hall also fired a few volleys across the establishment's bow in a recent interview with PC Gamer. "If [publishers] saw that DayZ could be run as some kind of dumbed-down, maybe single-player or some other kind of experience, they would have latched on to that and said, let's attach a license to it," he said.
Many, many publishers have contacted me about DayZ but I always ended up repeating the same question: what benefit are you providing development? What value is actually being added to the process by publishers when you can distribute and market a product for free?
I think publishers need to begin re-evaluating their position in the market and what they can offer developers and consumers. The same thing has been happening in the music industry now that artists can directly reach customers."
Ultimately DayZ and its upcoming standalone are labors of love, by gamers and for gamers. It's not a stretch to say that the title is validation for core types who have been pushed aside as the quest for casual dollars has trumped both features and functionality.
To that end, Hall is keen on adding more complexity to DayZ, not less, though he does tell PC Gamer that it "should be intuitive." Everything from crafting to in-game diaries to the personal housing/bunker space mentioned previously is on the table, and Hall is actively looking to connect with artists to help him expand DayZ's feature set going forward.
Despite the hectic schedule inherent in supporting a million-user mod and developing an entirely new standalone client simultaneously, Hall seems more excited than ever by the future of DayZ.
I guess what I really want to see DayZ become is a non-standard franchise. The thing that excites me most about it is that [...] what's happening with DayZ is that the lore, the stories, and these player legions, they're being generated by the players.The Firing Line's Jef Reahard has a twitchy trigger finger, a love of online shooters, and an uncanny resemblance to Malcolm Reynolds. OK, maybe not, but at least if he ever kills you, you'll be awake, you'll be facing him, and you'll be armed.
I think growing that element, that initial little genesis of this entirely player-driven story world, is something I really want to see [...] the more DayZ can break out of a traditional model the better. We can try things and see what works.