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Some Assembly Required: Why SOE should be leading the sandbox charge

Jef Reahard

"If you look at the MMOs out there, they're delivering the same content over and over again. So are we. We need to change that," said Sony Online Entertainment CEO John Smedley to a packed house at last week's SOE Live keynote.

And just like that, the genre became exciting again.

Now, there's a long way to go, of course. And while Smedley's announcement set the hearts of emergent content fans aflame, it also requires a leap of faith from those same fans. After all, there was no gameplay footage accompanying the grandiose talking points. There were no concept art shots or game-related assets of any kind. There was only a promise of hands-on time a year from now. Still, hearing the words (and more crucially, hearing them from a major company) was quite like a long drink of water after an eight-year trek through the desert.

Legends of Norrath concept - Elf girl vs. human knight
Course correction
SOE isn't the first MMO studio to hitch its wagon to emergent content, of course. Dozens of indie outfits have been trying (and failing spectacularly) to reimagine stripped-down versions of Ultima Online and Star Wars Galaxies in recent years. With one exception, the sandbox has been the red-headed stepchild of the industry for nearly a decade now.

And with all due respect to CCP, it wasn't a AAA developer with a blockbuster track record when it announced EVE Online, so SOE's recent course correction is more notable.

And it is a course correction for the industry as a whole, make no mistake. Despite the fact that World of Warcraft skewed everyone's expectations for both MMORPG gameplay and profitability, the genre has always been rooted in player-generated content, virtual worlds, and emergent design that isn't found in other types of video games. Actual MMORPGs are at their core emergent, and that's the primary reason to play them instead of other genre titles that are far superior at delivering linear, story-driven, and casual content.

Legends of Norrath - Warrior girl
Why not EVE?
I hear the EVE fans rumbling something like "duh, CCP's been doing this for a decade now." And it has, to be sure. The problem is that EVE is a very self-selecting community, and frankly some of its devs and a good number of its high-profile players are the sort who only have fun at someone else's expense.

Consequently, too few folks in the larger MMO community want to play EVE. It's a game made by wolves, for wolves, and therefore it's quite limited in scope compared to a more well-rounded sandbox. Yes, EVE offers more potential than any other current MMO, but because of the personalities involved, that potential almost always translates into new and amazing ways to be an ass.

There's also the whole avatar-as-a-spaceship thing, which I won't get into here. I've defended EVE before, and I still enjoy it, but it is an inferior sandbox MMO when compared to UO, SWG, and (hopefully) EQNext.

Legends of Norrath - Angry gnoll
But... it's SOE!
And yet, while plenty of people in the MMO community are raising a glass to what EQNext represents, just as many are rolling their eyes and shaking their heads due to the company involved.

These are the folks who never got over the NGE (I know, because I was one of them until I grew up circa 2006), and the guys who brow-beat the company for releasing SOEmote instead of more ways to grind your peanuts off via the endless progression treadmill.

When you get right down to it, though, SOE has the most interesting stable of games in the MMO space. And it's been that way for a number of years now. Its portfolio took a substantial hit with the closure of SWG (and the eclectic Matrix Online), but still. The EverQuest franchise, DC Universe Online, Vanguard, PlanetSide and its sequel, Pirates of the Burning Sea, and even Free Realms and Clone Wars Adventures are an enviable set of titles with both broad appeal and a laundry list of features and functionality that other MMO companies routinely ignore.

"SOE isn't afraid of player housing or crafting that goes beyond a button-click, unlike its AAA contemporaries, and so it's a natural fit to lead any sort of MMO renaissance focused on emergent gameplay."

SOE isn't afraid of player housing or crafting that goes beyond a button-click, unlike its AAA contemporaries, and so it's a natural fit to lead any sort of MMO renaissance focused on emergent gameplay. And that's saying nothing of its in-game player content generation systems and the recently revealed Player Studio initiative.

The company is also virtually unmatched when it comes to responsive MMO customer service. Massively's Community Detective column reported as much during lengthy investigations into several SOE games and their competitors. And I know, I'm going to get some anecdotal diatribes about SOE CSRs killing someone's dog and I'm obviously on the firm's payroll and blah blah blah.

You can't argue with responsiveness, though, regardless of whether or not you like the answer.

Another potential SOE bugaboo is the so-called "restrictive" nature of its free-to-play matrix. While it's true that the firm isn't giving away the entirety of EverQuest II, it does offer a substantial helping of fantasy gameplay for no charge. And really, folks, what did you expect? It's the most content-rich themepark out there, literally, and it cost millions to make and maintain. Not only that, but after eight years, it's nowhere near the maintenance-mode norm that permeates this industry. It's still SOE's flagship product, and it features a large pro dev team befitting that station.

Legends of Norrath - contemplation
Timing is everything
The timing on all of this couldn't be more ironic from a personal standpoint. Last week I caved to a bit of MMO burnout, so much so that I'm even experimenting with a new Massively column as a result. I was feeling burned by this industry's repetitiveness, its lack of imagination, and its recent refusal to grasp what originally set the virtual world genre apart from all other video games.

The very same week, SOE goes and announces that it's righting the ship in terms of overall design philosophy, and frankly I couldn't be more reinvigorated. For the reasons outlined above, I can think of no better company to lead the charge.

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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