Some Assembly Required: Yet another FFA PvP sandbox

Some Assembly Required - Architectural plans
I dabbled in yet another alpha-state indie sandbox game this week. As you'd expect, the title is rough around the edges. Also as you'd expect, it boasts FFA PvP and the correspondingly godawful community for whom the game's "do whatever you want" mechanics immediately translate to "kill everything that moves first and ask questions later, if at all."

Since it's still alpha, there's plenty of time for the devs to correct this unfortunate bit of business and separate this particular game from the legions of crappy FFA-PvP-with-zero-consequences titles clumping together in the vast litterbox of bad MMO ideas.

Will they do that? Probably not, but at least I'll get a good rant out of it.

EVE Online
I know what some of you are thinking. Zomg, carebear! And you're right, if by carebear you mean my first instinct is to ignore other players rather than immediately attempt to frag them and take their stuff.

And now that we've gotten the namecalling out of the way, let's go down the list of successful FFA PvP sandbox titles. It's a lengthy one, I'm sure. Let's see, there's EVE Online, and... hmm. Yeah. So, there's pretty much EVE Online.

Someone will bring up Ultima Online, even though it arguably survived because of Trammel and inarguably profited because of Trammel. Darkfall's been around in some playable form for four years now, which is a good long time for a FFA PvP sandbox. But it's also been blown up and -- the horror! -- re-released with safe areas. Age of Wushu is far too young to elicit an informed opinion. Mortal Online and Xsyon? They're limping along with die-hard populations that number in the hundreds.

And those are the best-case scenarios.

Age of Wushu
The point here is that despite the fact that exactly one successful FFA PvP sandbox has happened in the past decade, some players still claim that said games can be done and should be done. Oh, and that one successful sandbox? The majority of its users stay in high-sec space where the chances of encountering FFA PvP fall somewhere between very rare and non-existent.

And yet, here comes another indie developer making FFA PvP the centerpiece of its sandbox game. Seems as if this happens once a month or so, to the point that most of the projects are running together in my mind, and it's only with some serious effort that I manage to separate them.

Technically, yes, these FFA PvP games provide a sandbox toolset that leaves the gaming centerpiece up to the gamers. But as we all should know by now, a complete lack of structure invariably leads to lowest common denominator gameplay, and killing/griefing/troublemaking is certainly quicker and easier than cooperating/building.

So dev dudes, seriously! Pay attention to history. And I'm not talking about the stuffy, nod-your-head-off history that you slept through in college. I'm talking about recent history, as in the last 10 years. Most players don't want FFA PvP!

I get the counterargument, too, I really do. Indie devs are passionate, and they do what they do because they think they can do it better than the establishment. Or they think that the establishment doesn't care to make the kind of games they want to play, so they'll just make one for themselves.

That's all very cool and even noble on occasion, but reality must intervene. If you're making an MMO or even an MMO-lite multiplayer thing, you have to attract and retain customers. And years of sales data from the genre indicate that the vast majority of MMO customers don't want FFA PvP. So why does just about every indie sandbox outfit keep ramming it down our throats?

You're not going to change people's minds about FFA PvP. Most MMO gamers simply don't enjoy it. Period. It's a lost cause, particularly when today's audience is decidedly less hardcore and has decidedly less time to actually play MMOs than it did even a few short years ago. If you're still hell-bent on making a PvP MMO, it won't be successful without sheep and the fluffy carebear systems that they enjoy. See, wolves don't get along with other wolves, and they depend on sheep for their very existence. No sheep equals bored wolves, bored wolves equals transient player populations, and so on and so forth. You're smart enough to get the idea.

Now, there is something to niche games that target a particular audience. Camelot Unchained got funded, for example, and despite the fact that it's still theoretical as far as everyone outside the dev team is concerned, there's still a noticeable amount of positive energy surrounding what is clearly a PvP-only MMO. But who knows what's going to happen to it. Can a game with -- I'm feeling generous here -- 50,000 wolves even survive? For how long?

Ultimately the problem isn't PvP. PvP in some form is of course necessary for an MMO sandbox, but too often it is overemphasized to the detriment of the whole virtual world. I've explained this before, and even though it's common sense I guess I'm going to have to trot out one of these columns every couple of years until someone making an indie sandbox MMO actually listens.

Sure, go ahead and put FFA PvP in your game. And hey, put corpse-looting in there too if it floats your boat. But you are a silly dev and you are building a silly, made-to-fail game if you don't also put substantial penalties in place for instigating individual or small-group FFA PvP (obviously large-scale war declarations between huge alliances are a different matter). Follow along with me here because it's not as counter-intuitive as it initially sounds. Proper sandboxes are not exercises in complete anarchy as many short-sighted people assume. Proper sandboxes are not free of rules. But they are free of restrictions. And the difference between rules and restrictions is crucial.

Real life is obviously a sandbox, and portions of it are obviously what a lot of sandbox MMOs strive to emulate after a gamified fashion. And real life, regardless of time, place, or societal structure, has rules instead of restrictions. Real life is not a FFA PvP game, even though I can go out and murder someone who is planting crops in his backyard if I really want to. I am not restricted from doing so. But there will be life-changing repercussions for choosing to murder a farmer because it is against the rules.

This is where almost every sandbox MMO falls down and faceplants rather pathetically into a dusty cloud of combat lobby irrelevance. Fighting or murder or anti-social behavior of any kind has consequences in a sandbox. If it doesn't have consequences, and game-changing ones at that, it's not a sandbox. It's Call of Duty.

Yes, conflict drives games, no kidding. But stop taking the lazy way out and using poorly designed FFA PvP as your game's primary (and in many cases, only) source of conflict. You are building a sandbox MMO! You're not building a respawn shooter. Yes, it will take more time and money to design and implement tangible in-game economic and political conflict systems. Yes it will take more time and money to design and implement penal systems for those players who will knowingly and continually try to flaunt the rules. And yes, it will take more time and money to play-test, balance, and perfect all those systems.

But welcome to sandbox MMO development!

If it's too daunting for you, go build a socialmobilethemepark that millions of people will pay to not play. Wait, you don't want to build one of those? OK, good, because I don't want to play one of those. But I also don't want to see you dumping your customers on a fantasy map and saying "have at it guys, beating the crap out of one another over and over again for the next ten years is the content!"

That's not content, it's not an MMO, and it's certainly not a sandbox.

Every two weeks, Jef Reahard and MJ Guthrie take a break from their themepark day jobs to delve into the world of sandboxes and player-generated content. Comments, suggestions, and coverage ideas are welcome, and Some Assembly Required is always looking for players who'd like to show off their MMO creativity. Contact us!
This article was originally published on Massively.