Some Assembly Required: How to screw up your sandbox

Jef Reahard
J. Reahard|09.30.11

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Some Assembly Required: How to screw up your sandbox
Some Assembly Required - architectural blueprints
Between bouts of Global Agenda, Age of Conan, and a stack of single-player games, I've been taking my own advice lately and looking for a new sandbox. The end of Star Wars Galaxies is forcing my hand, and I figured I'd better start now if I don't want to be stuck with nothing to play on December 16th.

While there is a veritable ton of different sandboxes to choose from, I must admit to being a bit frustrated with nearly all of them. If it's not one thing, it's another, and most are such glaring deficiencies that I can't help but wonder what was going through the minds of the development teams during the construction process. Join me after the cut for a few things you should consider if you're making an MMORPG sandbox.

Arche Age - horse and rider
Cross-faction chat
This might not seem like a big deal at first blush, but disabling cross-faction chat is an unfortunate example of taking choice away from players and limiting emergent gameplay. The logic behind it seems to stem from the fact that allowing cross-faction communication leads to the kind of Xbox Live trash-talking that adult gamers generally abhor.

Disallowing it, on the other hand, curtails trade, alliance-building, spying, and roleplaying, just to name a few (to say nothing of the fact that a more rational and less nanny-state solution to dealing with immaturity is /addignore).

Ah, the bane of traders everywhere. Nothing says "we couldn't care less about non-combat gameplay" like a set of restrictions designed to limit the ability to interact with your fellow players. I get it, it's easier for devs to balance when they can clamp down on twinking, and theoretically at least, economic inflation, but once again it's taking away choice, which is precisely the opposite of what sandboxes should be doing.

Oh, and roleplayers? Bwahaha. Yeah, have fun roleplaying around the fact that you're somehow unable to hand your friend a sword.

Item decay
This one is related to BoE/BoP concerns, and really crafting in general. Economies, both real and virtual, function on supply and demand, and if players have an unlimited supply of weapons, armor, or consumables, then there is no economy. Said unlimited supply can take the form of too-easily-attainable gold or the fact that equipment, once purchased, never needs to be maintained or replaced.

Item decay, while unpopular with the MMO-lite crowd, is the most immersive and elegant money sink that can be implemented in an MMORPG, and it's a real shame that most current-gen titles have abandoned it.

Crafting is not combat
You'd think this would be fairly obvious, but I can count on one hand the number of MMOs (sandbox or otherwise) that don't tie tradeskilling and adventuring levels together. There are occasionally games like Star Wars Galaxies, EverQuest II, and others that allow for pure tradeskill characters, but they're a dying design breed, and more's the pity.

I'm not saying that crafters should be self-sufficient and able to harvest top-tier resources all by their lonesome. Far from it. What I am saying, though, is that inserting content gates that prevent a crafter from leveling up unless he's reached a certain adventuring plateau is indicative of the fact that crafting is an afterthought to your combat-focused game.

And that's not very sandboxy, is it?

Local banking
This is another hello McFly no-brainer that, surprisingly, isn't all that common in the current sandbox market. Assuming that a vibrant economy featuring predominantly player-crafted goods is one of the goals of a sandbox, allowing players to instantaneously transport mass quantities of items between far-flung locations is quite ridiculous.

It eliminates the possiblity of transport guilds, smugglers, and local markets and specialities, all in the name of cozying up to the instant-gratification crowd whose members either want a themepark with mere sandbox window dressing or want to get right to the PvP and can't be bothered with logistics.

Consequence-free PvP
Speaking of PvP, this is the big one, and frankly I can't remember the last time I wrote a sandbox article that didn't have several comments to the effect of "well, I'd play it if it weren't for the FFA PvP."

Darkfall - SwiftsnoutAnd yet, indie developers and others ballsy enough to actually make a sandbox in today's marketplace are still putting FFA PvP systems into just about every one of their titles!

On the one hand, while I'm not the world's biggest PvP fan, I do wish that sandbox folks would simply man up and accept it as the cost of doing business rather than avoiding games like Darkfall, ArcheAge, and others sight-unseen. If we all had skin that was a little thicker, perhaps the sandbox genre wouldn't be painted into the niche corner that it currently finds itself in, and the number of carebear sandboxers (I use that term affectionately, since I am one) would simply overwhelm the small number of bullies monopolizing the genre.

On the other hand, I also realize that people don't normally sign up for something that frustrates them, particularly when it comes to their leisure time, and so I'm continually mystified at developer insistence when it comes to marrying FFA PvP and the sandbox. Sure, FFA PvP can theoretically result in some epic multiplayer battles. It rarely does, though, and instead the system degenerates, almost without exception, into a neanderthal gankfest.

The solution to this is of course to introduce some actual consequence into a FFA PvP sandbox. Yes, this would irritate the people who just want to pew pew with impunity 24/7, but frankly these folks are in the wrong genre and wouldn't be missed. PvP should certainly be in just about every sandbox, but it should not be the sole focus of the game. Making it the sole focus cheapens its impact, whereas if there were sufficiently dire consequences for a) engaging in PvP and b) losing said engagement, there would be a whole new layer of gameplay available.

Star Wars Galaxies - SmugglersLook, assuming that the goal of a sandbox is to be something of a virtual world, then the rules of a sandbox should approximate those of the real world (i.e., basic law and order). Nowhere is the need for this more evident than in FFA PvP. If you want FFA PvP to work, you must have rules that actively make people think twice about engaging in it. That may initially sound counterintuitive, but think about it.

What do all PvPers crave? Aside from the adrenaline rush, they want a challenge (some just want to grief, but I'm not getting into that psychology today). There is nothing more challenging, nor more likely to provide a rush, than knowing that if you fail at combat you'll lose something very valuable (your character, your gear, or most importantly, your time). Many games have tried gear loss, but it almost inevitably leads to people PvPing naked.

What needs to happen is some sort of digital time-out. If you attack someone unprovoked, and you get caught, you should go to MMO jail for a certain amount of time. You don't get to come out until the timer is up, and you don't get to do any fun jailhouse activities; you're simply in time-out, and you can log off while your timer ticks down or whatever. If you don't get caught, well, good for you and you'll probably keep misbehaving until you do.

No, it doesn't sound particularly fun, and that's precisely the frickin' point. It's not supposed to be fun. It's supposed to either get you to straighten up and be a productive member of virtual society, or make you leave the game to those who care about something other than schadenfreude. Oh, and the battles that do happen will be a thousand times more epic and meaningful as a result.

The argument against any kind of penalty system goes something like "oh, I just want to log in and PvP; I don't want to be punished for my playstyle." And again, if you're logging into a sandbox solely for the PvP, you're doing it wrong and please gtfo. A penalty system is the only way a FFA PvP sandbox will ever succeed because it will still allow for the richardhead playstyle (hence, it's a sandbox with true player choice), but it also forces both individuals and groups to deal with the consequences and be choosy when it comes to picking fights.

So, yeah. At the end of the day, if your sandbox MMORPG is shot through with examples of the mechanics I've described above, I'm afraid you don't really have a sandbox at all (or you've got one that's watered down to the point that your players are simply dabbling in it while looking for something better).

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!
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