EVE Evolved: How would you build a sandbox?

EVE Evolved title image
Themepark MMOs and single-player games have long dominated the gaming landscape, a trend that currently seems to be giving way to a resurgence of sandbox titles. Though games like Fallout and the Elder Scrolls series have always championed sandbox gameplay, very few publishers seem willing to throw their weight behind open-world sci-fi games. Space simulator Elite was arguably the first open-world game in 1984, and EVE Online is currently closing in on a decade of runaway success, yet the gaming public's obsession with space exploration has remained relatively unsatisfied for years.

Crowdsourced funding now allows gamers to cut the publishers out of the picture and fund game development directly. Space sandbox game Star Citizen is due to close up its crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter tomorrow night, adding over $1.6 million US to its privately crowdfunded $2.7 million. The creator of Elite has also launched his own campaign to fund a sequel, and even the practically vapourware sandbox MMO Infinity has announced plans to launch a campaign. While not all of these games will be MMOs, it may not be long before EVE Online has some serious competition. EVE can't really change much of its fundamental gameplay, but these new games are being built from scratch and can change all the rules. If you were making a new sandbox MMO from the ground up and could change anything at all, what would you do?

In this week's EVE Evolved, I consider how I'd build a sandbox MMO from the ground up, what I'd take from EVE Online, and what I would change.

EVE Evolved side imageA single-shard MMO

As much as I loved Frontier: Elite II when I was a kid, it was EVE Online that really captured my imagination. Adding online multiplayer to a sandbox leads to spectacular emergent gameplay like piracy, politics, and theft. All of those things become more meaningful if they happen on a single server shard, and events are more real because they can potentially affect every single player. If I were to make a new sandbox or rebuild EVE from scratch, it would definitely need to be an MMO with a single-shard server structure.

The problem with the shardless approach is that it just doesn't scale up very well. Even EVE can only have a few thousand people interacting on one server before everything goes kaput. The trick that keeps EVE running is that each solar system runs as a separate process and players jump between systems. While I'd love to have seamless travel in a space MMO, it looks like CCP really did hit the nail on the head with this one. The only changes I would make are to give every ship a jump drive that uses stargates as destination points and to let them jump directly into and out of popular trading stations.

EVE Evolved side imageA full galaxy

Exploration is a huge part of any sandbox game, and I don't think EVE Online does it justice. EVE has had periods of amazing exploration, like when 2499 hidden wormhole systems were released with the Apocrypha expansion, but for the most part there's not much of an unknown to explore. The only two sandbox games that have ever truly scratched my exploration itch were Frontier: Elite II and Minecraft. One major thing both games have in common is a practically infinite procedurally generated universe to explore. That makes EVE Online's roughly 7,500 systems look like a grain of sand.

If I were to build a new sandbox, I'd use procedural generation to produce an entire galaxy of 100 billion stars to explore. The problem with that is there wouldn't be much content out there and eventually players may get so far that they'll never run into each other. To solve that, I'd include stargates in only a handful of systems to begin with and then expand the game's borders organically as time goes on. I'd then be able to add interesting features, pirates, and other content to border systems before they're open to the public. As new systems would be added regularly, there'd always be something new to explore.

EVE Evolved side imageExploring an open universe

To keep the exploration organic, I'd ensure that players would be the ones expanding the game's borders by letting them build the stargates themselves. Players might have to spend days flying to the systems beyond the border with slower-than-light propulsion or set up an observatory to do complex astrometrics scans to allow a jump. On reaching a system, an explorer would have to build a stargate to let other players instantly jump in, but the stargate could possibly be configured with a password or locked for use by a particular organisation.

Any player could be the first to set off and chart a new solar system, and if she finds something valuable, she might decide to keep it to herself and not set up a public stargate. But another player may have already have reached the system, and other explorers could be on the way. Each system would be filled with content as soon as someone starts traveling to it or doing astrometric scans, and after a while NPCs may reach the system to open it to the public. This way explorers have an opportunity to get a foothold in a system before the floodgates open for other players.

EVE Evolved side imagePlayer-owned structures

Perhaps the most influential update to EVE Online over the years was the introduction of player-owned structures. Starbases and Outposts have transformed EVE from a world run by NPCs to a dynamic player-run universe, but they could be seriously improved on. Given a fresh start, I'd make everything from mining to ship production take place exclusively in destructible player-owned structures. I'd also make the base materials for production impossible or expensive to transport so that it'd be best to build factories right next to your mining rigs.

Mining then becomes a game of finding an asteroid, planet, or moon with valuable minerals in it, then figuring out what you can build with the minerals and setting up the industrial structures. You could be exploring an unknown asteroid belt and happen across another player's industrial complex built into an asteroid. You might destroy it and salvage some material, extort the owner for a ransom fee, hack into it to switch ownership, or even hijack the ship once it's built. To protect your assets, you could deploy automated defenses, hire NPC pirates to protect the area, lay mines, build a powered shield bubble, or cloak small structures.

EVE Evolved title image
The real beauty of sandbox games is in exploration and the incredible emergent gameplay that results from letting players build the game universe. EVE Online's model for producing emergent gameplay has always been to put players in a box with limited resources and wait until war breaks out, but the box hasn't grown much in a decade, and there's not a lot left to explore. It's probably too late for EVE to fundamentally change, but I'd certainly do some things differently if I were developing a sci-fi sandbox MMO today.

We all have dreams of the games we'd build or the changes we'd make to existing games if given the chance. I actually develop games in addition to my writing for Massively, so some day I might return to these ideas and build that EVE-style sandbox I've always dreamed of. I'd move all industry to destructible player-owned structures, create a vast galaxy to explore, and let players decide how the game world will expand.

If you were put in charge of building a sci-fi sandbox from the ground up, what would you do differently from EVE Online? Would you use manual flight controls instead of EVE's point-and-click interface, get rid of non-consensual PvP, or remove the police altogether?

Brendan "Nyphur" Drain is an early veteran of EVE Online and writer of the weekly EVE Evolved column here at Massively. The column covers anything and everything relating to EVE Online, from in-depth guides to speculative opinion pieces. If you have an idea for a column or guide, or you just want to message him, send an email to brendan@massively.com.
This article was originally published on Massively.