Ask Massively: The dilemma of the free-to-play sandbox

Shroud of the Avatar
Reader Sharvis recently emailed the Massively Speaking podcast with a question I felt deserved more than just a quick verbal reaction on the 'cast. That, and we just discovered that the ask@massively.com email address went dead approximately three weeks ago, and I've not been receiving your letters there (so send 'em again!). In the meantime: Sharvis.
What makes a sandbox so susceptible to its business model in comparison to a themepark? I'm not experienced with sandbox titles, and I can only guess on some of the implications. For example, selling boosters in a themepark is fairly acceptable, but in a sandbox, as Jef pointed out [in his ArcheAge column earlier this summer], that'd be cutting into one of the main features of a sandbox. I'd guess it has to do with these sort of MMOs being more player-centric, and that's a very delicate system to be messing with.
See? I told you this was a juicy one.

In his article, Jef argues that sandboxes rely on player interaction, that they are solo-unfriendly, group-centric, and PvP-driven and that pay-to-win (or maybe we should call it pay-to-lazy) is "pure poison" for the growth of such games. Convenience items we'd tolerate in a themepark, like XP potions, would destroy, unbalance, and interfere with the competitive nature and territory of a sandbox. "No one cares when or how you get to level 55 in Star Wars: The Old Republic because you can't use your level 55 character to affect the game world or other player characters in any way," he wrote. "In ArcheAge, building a powerful high-level character quickly will give you a definite advantage in many aspects of ongoing sandbox gameplay."

And he's got a lengthy list of sandboxes that seem to support his logic, including EVE Online and Darkfall, never mind half a dozen Kickstarted sandboxes, Ultima Online, and the late, great Star Wars Galaxies.

I think Jef is right about sandbox PvP being the key to this question, especially if we remember that PvP includes economic PvP, my own favorite type of gameplay. If implemented correctly and all-encompassingly, a game economy is, at least in my view, the defining element of a sandbox. Anything less than a robust economy with solid crafting, multi-platform trading, and a deliberately designed cycle of symbiosis and reliance on other players with other gameplay specializations is just a murder-simulating Skinner box with little to no overarching or overlapping player-driven needs and goals (not that there's anything wrong with that, either, just that we're talking sandboxes today!). PvPers expecting a level playing field for competition -- whether it's for combat or trade -- will find key gametypes disrupted by traditional F2P cash shops with cosmetics, gear, and buffs, which compete directly with in-game crafters and traders and shift combat PvP balance to favor those who pay the studio real-money to circumvent and render irrelevant the in-game economy and its many participants and dependents.

Miss you SWGConsider some of the other features you're likely to find in a sandbox, like land and housing. Gamers rage when these elements are made buyable with cash money rather than gameplay because the entire point of playing in a sandbox is to fight over, acquire, trade, decorate, and govern spaces in the game -- to have an impact on the world, not just to barrel through an immutable quest line or collect purps. The point of a themepark, by contrast to a sandbox, is the rides, and since everyone's riding the same rides, it doesn't matter all that much to the game world whether someone pays to skip the line (never mind those folks whose self-esteem apparently relies on their making sure everyone else must suffer the line as they do).

Coincidentally, Massively's Justin Olivetti and I skimmed this discussion on our podcast earlier this week thanks to a listener who pointed out that Shroud of the Avatar is selling city building plots pre-launch for hundreds of real-world dollars, something that could have a profound impact on the completed game and on who will dominate it at launch, as anyone who's ever competed for a key starbase spot, city slot, or vendor stall in an MMO will know. Of course, as Ultima Online has been teaching us for 16 years now, players will buy and sell desirable in-game property out-of-game no matter what a studio says, so wouldn't studios be fools not to corner that market themselves?

Curiously, this problem existed long before free-to-play was a serious contender in the west. For example, my husband and I owned four Star Wars Galaxies accounts. Massively's Jef ran a total of 11. I'm pretty sure our Star Wars columnist Larry Everett owned 500 (that dude is crazy). Why would we do this? SOE knew how important the economy and territory would be in the game, so accounts were limited to one character per server as part of an attempt to control the economy by curbing land ownership and forcing character interdependencies. Undaunted, wealthier players simply shrugged and subbed up more accounts with more characters. The more real money you had, the more building lots, harvesters, crafting professions, and city votes (or even whole cities) you could amass; your power was limited only by the time you had to devote to your stable of accounts.

Traditional free-to-play offerings essentially amplify and legitimize that same overt circumvention (I won't quite call it an exploit) of intended sandbox gameplay.

Jef concluded that a good F2P sandbox is theoretically possible as long as the game's storefront sells primarily fluff and account services (a la Aion) that are salable in-game between players (a la SWTOR), but I worry that most fluff still interferes in the market by competing with crafted goods. I believe anything cash-shopped must have no competition or economic niche in the game at all and its category must be available from a single source (either the players or the studio, not both). Ironically, EVE Online's monoclegate, though still the source of player outrage over the cash-grab it represented, might be the most famous benign example of this, since the monocles created no economic conflict and served no game-breaking purpose beyond decorating avatars in a game that barely has characters. Then again, items that serve no purpose frequently drive sandboxes; there are utterly useless sashes in UO that sell for millions just because of their color. These things do matter in sandboxes.

But my prescriptions still don't go far enough. As I illustrated, SOE's lock on land grants in SWG didn't stop indirect pay-to-win/lazy from prevailing. Perhaps we're asking too much of studios, which often must prioritize real-world finances before in-game economies for survival's sake. SWG annoyed many of its player crafters by effectively selling homes, clothing, and buffs via trading card game loot cards, all of which interfered with the crafting market and should rightly have been made craftable. Even cutesy sandbox Glitch, which had neither combat nor combat-PvP and rather brilliantly sold worthless-but-fun cosmetic housing backdrops as part of its subscription package, couldn't resist mucking with the economy by selling special furniture that almost put player carpenters out of business.

Then again, where's Glitch now?

What should you play? Where is the MMO industry headed? How does Massively operate? Has Lord British lost his marbles? Why is the edit button on a timer? Should "monoclegate" be hyphenated? Editor-in-Chief Bree Royce submits to your interrogations right here in Ask Massively every other Thursday. Drop your questions in the comments below or ping us at ask@massively.com. Just ask!

This article was originally published on Massively.