Some Assembly Required: Kick(start)ing the sandbox genre

MJ Guthrie
M. Guthrie|02.01.13

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Some Assembly Required: Kick(start)ing the sandbox genre
Some Assembly Required Kickstarting the sandbox genre into higher gear
Sandbox aficionados are known to reminisce about the "good old days." You know, that time long lost in the past when the greats of open-world play like Ultima Online and Star Wars Galaxies (pre-NGE of course) enjoyed their heyday. Many a lamentation has also been heard about how things have never been the same, or how nothing has filled that void.

Of course, the sandbox never died. In 2012 we started the year off with a guide to games sporting sandbox features to scratch a variety of virtual world itches and we ended with a look at some promising upcoming titles for 2013. With plenty of choices abounding, why are sandbox fans still decrying the lack of a home? It could be because they want one home for everyone to settle in together, basically one game to rule them all. But how realistic is that?

Even with the plethora of offerings now, many folks want to play their ideal sandbox, and everyone has their own idea of what the perfect one would be (and conversely, what would kill it). Perhaps the answer, then, is to forget about a single universal home that accommodates the masses and actually create a number of niche games where people find exactly what they are looking for. Wait, that's already happening? Enter Kickstarter.
Star Citizen screenshot
Armchair dev uprising
Through the years, everyone has heard a variation on "I could do better than that!" when discussing MMOs. Maybe a certain feature is being done incorrectly, or maybe a favorite one isn't being done at all. But it was always just talk; none of the army of armchair developers had the means or capital to take the ideas beyond just that -- ideas. That is, until the advent of Kickstarter.

Thanks to the crowd-funding phenomenon that has amped up over the last year, plenty of folks who have an idea for a game are emerging from the comfy confines of their La-Z-Boys and actively working toward making it a reality. And many of those hopefuls are focused on providing those very features that sandbox lovers covet.

Alive and kicking
Some games have not only met their crowd-funding goals, but have exceeded them, be they modest or bold. Although there are no guarantees, chances are we will be able to dive into these titles in the (hopefully) not-too-distant future.

Star Citizen: While it initially ran its own personal crowd-funding initiative, Star Citizen quickly moved to Kickstarter when it couldn't accommodate the sheer volume of pledges. The game's popularity was demonstrated in the fact that it secured the largest funding total of any gaming project ever -- over $6 million dollars between the two funding runs. Folks obviously want to see this sandboxy space sim succeed!

Embers of Caerus: On the opposite end of the spectrum from sci-fi space adventures, the fantasy-focused Embers of Caerus also fared well in its funding drive. The game reached its goal with 22 days left and ended up nearly doubling the requested amount. Again, folks showed support for the extensive list of sandbox features.

Embers of Caerus screenshot
Greed Monger: This game transforms crafting from a feature to the focus. And plenty of folks are happy with that if the fact that the campaign tripled its funding goal is any indication.

The Repopulation: Crafting, world building, housing, entertainer skills, and plenty of customization were enticing enough to help The Repopulation earn more than double its goal during its funding campaign. Beta is expected this spring with launch at the end of the year.

Pathfinder Online: Another sandbox of the fantasy variety, Pathfinder Online set itself a pretty lofty goal of $1 million and then achieved it. Seems that folks liked the sandboxy ideas behind this title.

Kicking up the past
Many games in the previous category never hinged on successful Kickstarter campaigns, but did receive enough of a boost to speed up production or add even more features than initially expected. Crowd-funding, however, isn't just for creating new games; even 10-year-old games can use it to beef up their offerings.

Take a look at Vendetta Online -- it is using the crowd-funding model to both expand and develop an iPad client.

Avoiding being kicked
While many new -- and even old -- titles are looking to Kickstarter to help get where they want to go, crowd-funding is not always necessary. Case in point: Origins of Malu actually started a Kickstarter campaign only to cancel it the following day. It turns out that Origins is trying to secure funding through a new investment partnership, which shows that not only do players want new sandboxes with features like free-form housing construction, but that the industry thinks they may be viable as well. Ironically, the game actually exceeded its Kickstarter goal in that single day!

You won't have to wait much longer to check out Origins, either. Lead Developer Michael Dunham recently told us that the game is expected to start beta testing on March 30th, 2013.

Not kicked hard enough
Of course, not all Kickstarter projects succeed, but not meeting a crowd-funding goal doesn't necessarily spell doom-and-gloom for a proposed title. And even of the games that succeeded in obtaining their desired funding, none has reached fruition yet, so we can't say how the whole crowd-funding phenomenon will really impact the industry. Some games are a go whether they meet their funding or not. Others... well, you might wonder if you will ever hear from them again, which can actually be a good thing. And still others cancel their campaigns for whatever reason (see above).

Citadel of Sorcery screenshot
Citadel of Sorcery is one title that failed to meet its goal. CoS promised to be a very dynamic world. Unfortunately, nothing has really been heard about the game since last November, so progress is unknown. The post-apocalyptic Xsyon did not meet its goal, either. It didn't even come close. However, Xsyon is already available to play with all of its world-building elements; the Kickstarter was designed to push out the next release sooner.

Another prospective title's campaign, Topia Online, was canceled by the creator. Folks may or may not get to play as assorted mobs as the future development of Topia Online is unclear; the news section of the official site is "coming soon."

Needs a swift kick?
Obviously, a number of games have jumped on the Kickstarter bandwagon, either to bolster their features or just to see the light of day. Could more games benefit from crowd-funding? Perhaps games like Salem could use one to get out of a very long beta phase. The game certainly offers a number of features that sandbox fans yearn for. Surely we can come up with a number of other titles that could use a boost as well.

Lost in the crowd
When the world of MMOs was first starting out, there was not really much of that choice thing around to muck up the works; people played in what was available or they didn't play. Now, however, game choices overfloweth and folks are diverted in many different directions seeking out those features that constitute their list of personal must-haves.

It is doubtful that any one game will ever emerge as a single powerhouse or the sandbox to end all sandboxes. But with Kickstarter, the number of niche titles is on the rise. Games like Prison World, a new MMORPG just listed on Kickstarter, might actually have a chance.

The Repolpulation screenshot
Personally, I think crowd-funding is definitely a tool that will benefit sandboxes as a genre. Developers can use it to further their visions, implementing those features we want to see. It gives fans the power to influence what games are developed by putting their money where their mouths are. Sometimes you just really want to throw your support to a cause, without necessarily getting stuff in return (although admittedly most campaigns do offer plenty of in-game and real-life loot). And crowd-funding allows players to support games beyond just buying a box or maintaining a subscription, and simultaneously infuses a larger amount of funds into a game all at once.

And isn't that what we all really want -- more support for the beloved sandbox?

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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