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The Tattered Notebook: What does a sandbox look like in Norrath?

Karen Bryan

Last night brought a flurry of new announcements for SOE titles, but one of the more curious moments was when SOE President John Smedley got to talking about EverQuest Next. He started off by bringing out two of the handful of screenshots that we've seen time and time again, and with a click of a button, made them evaporate into a shower of pixels, to be followed by a blank screen and the sound of crickets. In short, they went back to the drawing board.

It's a bold move to take a year and a half of production and completely scrap it, especially at a time in the industry when the competition is so tight, but Smedley promised that what we'd see in the end would be unlike anything we've ever seen. Perhaps, though, we've already seen a glimpse of the future in the other two titles in the EQ franchise. What will the sandbox gameplay look like in EQ Next? I'll prognosticate below.

The human element

During Smedley's talk at GDC last week, he indicated that SOE is shifting away from the traditional model of creating quickly consumed content and toward a model that basically makes the players the content. In essence, what Smedley is hinting at is that SOE will set the scene and establish the basic ground rules, and then get out of the way to let the players take it from there.

Ironically, this is a return to the roots of MMOs in a way. Designers of early MMOs like Meridian 59 or EverQuest often recall how they had a basic game put together but were constantly surprised at what the players did once they launched the game. Not everyone agrees that EverQuest was originally a sandbox, but I actually think one of the things that makes a game "sandboxy" is that emergent gameplay that Smedley touts. The human element is far more interesting, much more compelling, and definitely more challenging than anything a game designer can code. EverQuest definitely had that at launch. Zone lines were today's dynamic gameplay: One minute, it was completely quiet, and the next, it was overrun by trains of mobs and players desperately trying to derail it. Popular camp spots were also emergent. On the surface, it might sound dull to fight to a spot, only to sit there and kill round after round of spawns. But there was a lot more to it than that because you had to group up, fight your way to the spot, break the camp (which wasn't a sure thing), and then hold the camp. Meanwhile, you had competition from other players, which sometimes was sorted out by agreements to share but sometimes ended up in an all-out brawl. In short, much of the open-endedness of the EQ world allowed players to be the content and the story. You could be the hero or the villain, and your choices did matter. You need look no further than PlanetSide 2 to see that make a comeback, as well-known Outfits are already emerging during beta.

Sandbox and themeparks

The open world, sandbox style of massive PvP works perfectly for a game like PlanetSide 2, but how well will it work in titles that are more aligned with a PvE setting, particularly EQ Next? Sandbox gameplay can be nasty in reality because no one likes to see her hard-earned home being destroyed overnight. And in a sandbox world, you run into the wolf and sheep scenario. Eventually, all the sheep leave, and the wolves duke it out. Is it a good idea to drive off the sheep, though?

Meanwhile, in the effort to please everyone, MMO titles that went the themepark route ended up souring everyone. They tried to reach a balance among every prong of the multi-pronged spectrum and generally arrive at something in the center that's just not compelling enough to keep players' interest. But part of the blame goes to the design model. MMOs, with their level caps and on-rails gameplay, ironically resemble single-player games. Players pick up a single player game, work through the story and challenges, and when they reach the end, they walk away from it. They might come back to it here and there, but generally, once they're done, they're done. It's no different for the MMO player who's worked his way to the level cap and followed the path from quest hub to quest hub and zone to zone. For many of us, the game ends where the endgame begins, and the only difference is that there are other players in the background along the way to the level cap.

The Tattered Notebook  What does a sandbox look like in Norrath
No, you're in our world now

Player Studio is a great addition to the SOE titles, and it's nice to see players regain the power to make a lasting contribution to their world. The examples of player-made EQII house items that we saw at the keynote are an exciting hint of the future. We've come a long way from EverQuest corpse art! What's important is that SOE has a system in place that should bring a nice balance of player freedom and safeguards to prevent the infamous flying phalli of Second Life.

What I'd hope to see, though, is a system to allow players to make their own private worlds, similar to what Minecraft does. Games have tried hard to create "massive" worlds that hold thousands of players, but the larger the world, the greater the number of antisocial, and even psychopathic, players. Smedley pointed to games like League of Legends and Dota 2 as successes, but he should have also included Minecraft because it's the best model for sandbox gameplay out there right now. Players have created amazing things using Minecraft, but they've also set up incredible worlds as well, and what's even more amazing is what a wide variety of playstyles and age groups it brings in. You can visit the Massively Minecraft server (no relation to for a family friendly, well-organized, and creative community of players, and then on the other end of the spectrum, you can participate in a "Hunger Games" PvP server match, with a total free-for-all to the death. Minecraft is successful not because of 16-bit block worlds but because of what goes on inside the game. Minecraft is the framework, but the players are the real diamonds.

Those who run servers help attract new players to the game, which is good for Minecraft, and some have also profited from their own payment models and even cash shops that they've established on their servers. Minecraft hits all the right notes: Players can create their own worlds and choose whom to let in, the community benefits from the wide variety of player-run worlds and rulesets, and those who put in the work to build and moderate a successful world can make a profit. Minecraft eliminates the wolf and sheep problem, and the lack of levels allows an open-endedness that keeps players sticking around longer (and makes it easier to come back to as well).

Overall, SOE is moving in a new direction when it comes to the philosophy behind its MMO titles. Sandbox gameplay is about more than open housing, territory control, and massive PvP. It's about making the players the center of the game, and it's also about the unknown. SOE is returning to its roots with this new approach of emergent gameplay, and if the studio incorporates the lessons learned through the years, it could do exactly what Smedley said: make something that players have never seen before.

From the snow-capped mountains of New Halas to the mysterious waters of the Vasty Deep, Karen Bryan explores the lands of Norrath to share her tales of adventure. Armed with just a scimitar, a quill, and a dented iron stein, she reports on all the latest news from EverQuest II in her weekly column, The Tattered Notebook. You can send feedback or elven spirits to

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