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Some Assembly Required: A virtual world roundup

Some Assembly Required: A virtual world roundup
MJ Guthrie
MJ Guthrie|January 6, 2012 2:00 PM
Some Assembly Required header
If you are perusing this column, chances are you are a fan of virtual worlds and the sandbox genre. Join the club! (Dues will be due on the third Tuesday.) The aspect that compels many aficionados to delve into a game is the ability to make an impact on the world in some small respect instead of making them into Hive Member 1593072 running a static, predetermined gauntlet. How that impact is accomplished, however, varies; there are multiple features that can facilitate it, and which ones are considered most important depends on the player.

With the loss of one of the best sandbox games just last month, some players may be feeling a void. Others still are looking/hoping for the "ultimate" sandbox that contains nearly every virtual world feature. Certainly, there are some upcoming games that make some drool-worthy promises, but what about playing something now? There are actually games out on the market that have at least one aspect of the genre, if not more.

To start off the new year, Some Assembly Required looks at some of the top features of virtual worlds and lists games that incorporate these features. While this list isn't exhaustive (considering the sheer number of games when you include all of the smaller free-to-play titles, I'd run out of column space!), it is a comprehensive enough overview to point you toward some games worth playing that perhaps you hadn't considered before.
EQII dungeon maker
The list of requested features for virtual worlds is quite lengthy -- from tools for player generated content to vast open worlds to dynamic weather systems to player run economies. For the sake of brevity, this list focuses on only six topics and touches only on the highlights. Full details for many of these systems and features will be explored in future installments of this column.

Tools for player-generated content
While creative players can manage to generate content out of seemingly thin air, having specific tools built right into a game itself is a definite plus. Even without dedicated tools, I have seen players create scavenger hunts, develop elaborate story arcs involving scores of fellow players, facilitate large-scale wars and smaller skirmishes, and host social events galore, just to name a few. But just think of how much more could be accomplished with in-game tools and support! The following games offer just that -- specific tools that allow players to generate content beyond themselves and share with the community (whether the creator is online or not!).
  • EverQuest II -- Recently introduced, the Dungeon Maker allows players to create, decorate, and populate dungeons for fellow players to run through and earn special tokens for rewards; the creation feature, however, is only available to those who have the latest expansion, Age of Discovery (although all players can use the dungeons).
  • Star Trek Online -- The Foundry offers players a specialized tool set to create custom missions (or an entire series of episodes) to enjoy and share; missions can be either in space or on the ground.
  • City of Heroes -- The Mission Architect gives every player the opportunity to create stories that all other heroes and villains can play through.
  • Ryzom -- Ryzom has a guild mission creator (you must be in a guild to create and do missions).
Nothing personalizes a world like having your own space within it! In its most basic form, housing is a place where players can hang their hats and toss up some decorations to personalize. In more advanced settings, houses can be ornate showcases, hubs for social gatherings, or places of business. Not all housing allows for free-form decorating like in EQII or Vanguard; some is limited in items to place or spots to place them, such as in Lord of the Rings Online. Some games with housing include:

Wizard 101 castle
Personal houses:
  • Aion -- Currently only in Korea but will reach North America with patch 3.0.
  • Champions Online -- Hideouts!
  • Craft of the Gods -- Friends need to be added to a list in order to enter housing.
  • Dark Age of Camelot -- Structures can be personal or guild houses and are placed in housing zones.
  • Darkfall -- Very difficult and expensive to get; built out in the world.
  • Eden Eternal -- Guilds can create personal towns.
  • EverQuest -- Houses are placed on plots in instanced neighborhoods accessed through a gateway in the guild lobby.
  • CoH screenshotEQII -- Instanced houses of various sizes in each city; items can be sold directly to other players from the house (players can own 10 houses per character).
  • Final Fantasy XI
  • FlyFF -- Furniture pieces are purchased and last for only 30 days.
  • King of Kings 3 -- Furniture can provide characters with special bonus effects.
  • LotRO -- Four different racially styled homesteads (Hobbit holes, yes!) in instanced neighborhoods with detailed landscaping.
  • Luna Online -- Can personalize walls, etc; item placement is free-form.
  • Mabinogi
  • Mortal Online -- Houses built out in the world by adding resources, can be done passively or actively
  • RuneScape -- Instanced housing; exterior can be redecorated for a fee.
  • Ryzom -- Can own one apartment in one of the four capital cities.
  • Second Life -- Tremendous variety of types of housing, decorations, themes.
  • Ultima Online -- Houses placed out in the world.
  • Vanguard -- Along with guild halls, personal houses can be placed on specific plots on designated housing islands on each of the three different continents.
  • War of the Immortals
  • Wizard 101 -- Three levels of housing; players can own three houses at any particular time.
  • Wurm -- Find location, prepare plot, and build the house.
AoC guild city
City building/guild housing only:
  • Age of Conan -- Guild and resource requirements are so high this option isn't viable for small guilds; city and buildings must be placed in specific places.
  • City of Heroes
  • Runes of Magic -- Castles allow entry into Siege War, which is the PvP environment.
  • Xsyon -- Players can create a personal homestead, but space is very limited; the more people in the tribe (guild), the more land that is available to build on.
Appearance customization
A common desire of those who want to be immersed in a virtual world is the ability to distinguish themselves from everyone else; individuality is an important part of making their mark on the world. Accordingly, both character creation at the beginning of the game and the ability to customize appearance through clothes after creation rank highly for some players. Although unfortunately most games have limited customization options at creation and beyond, a few do stand out.

EVE Online screenshotCharacter creation: Clothing:
  • Age of Conan
  • Aion -- Appearance items must be skinned onto armor and weapons, destroying the original item.
  • DC Universe Online -- New gear can be hidden so only your original outfit shows.
  • EQII -- Appearance slots included for weapons and mounts.
  • LotRO
  • RIFT
  • Vanguard
I say "sandbox," you say... "skill-based"! The one feature that is synonymous with sandbox is skill-based progression instead of levels. Although a larger number of games implement this in some small way (usually related to harvesting and gathering), not as many make it a main system for truly unique character builds. Want to get better at something? Well go and do it!
Player-run economy
When we say "player-run economy," we don't mean just the ability to sell things to other players via a broker. Here, we are talking about a full, vibrant system in which players meet the needs of fellow players. Although this is a big part of having an immersive world where communities are interdependent, it is a very rare feature. Too often, loot drops are superior to player-crafted items, destroying that part of the economy. The short list includes:
Alternatives to combat
Although many games allow for some form of alternative pastimes -- such as resource harvesting, crafting, even fishing and taming animals -- few games have completely distinct systems dedicated to game-play in areas outside of combat. Some games even tie crafting and harvesting to combat levels *growls*. However, there are some stand-alone systems that are viable and can be enjoyed exclusively without the need to go on a killing spree (unless you count the poor plants!). Disclaimer: To include all the games with crafting here would be prohibitive, so the following is just a representation:
  • EQII -- In-depth crafting including furniture making.
  • LotRO -- The music system is fantastic; growing crops, fishing.
  • Mortal Online -- Taming, fishing, thieving.
  • RuneScape -- Cooking, fire-making, fishing.
  • Ultima Online -- Thievery, treasure hunting, fishing, basket-weaving.
  • Vanguard -- The diplomacy system; very in-depth crafting including furniture making.
  • Xsyon -- Lumberjack, basket-weaving, architect.
Fishing in LoTRO
Looking back over the list, even though space precludes the addition of every possible entry, I can see there really are quite a few games that could scratch a virtual-world itch. Depending on what features are most desired, multiple games might fit the bill. Who knows? Maybe sandbox-lovers will find a fun pastime while waiting on their "dream" game to come out or even find a suitable home to settle in.

What other games have sandboxy-good features that you would add to this list? Share your choices in the comments below.

Every two weeks, Jef Reahard and MJ Guthrie take a break from their themepark day jobs to delve into the world of 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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Some Assembly Required: A virtual world roundup