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The Think Tank: Are non-combat sandbox tools a necessity in your MMO?

Shawn Schuster

The RPG ingredient in our MMORPG sandwich has seemed to be dwindling away, but a few upcoming games -- and additions to existing ones -- are letting us know that RPG is back.

One major element of the RPG is open control over how our story plays out. In true tabletop RPG style, sandbox tools let us play these games as we want to play them, but not all of us want that much freedom in our MMOs.

So I asked the Massively team members for their thoughts on sandbox tools in their favorite MMOs. Are they welcome, or should we focus more on leaderboards and combat-based achievements? And how much exactly do they hate this question?

The Think Tank Are sandbox tools a necessity in your MMO
All of this depends on the particular MMO. If a developer releases a game that is almost a world but does not allow non-combat mechanics, it seems restricted. But if a developer releases a game, PlanetSide 2 for example, that is set up to be all about combat (or any other particular thing), then it sits with me just fine. Age of Conan's movie-lot-feeling design made me uneasy, but a game with a more limited scope could be OK because it's not attempting to be anything more than a linear or specific experience.
The Think Tank Are sandbox tools a necessity in your MMO
Does a game need sandbox stuff to be worth playing? No. There are plenty of limited-feature murder simulators, MMO and otherwise, that are great fun for what they are. I'd personally prefer to be in a world-sim rather than a murder-sim, though, with all the sandbox trappings. In an ideal and complete MMORPG, fighting should be just one more thing you can do, not the core content driving every other aspect of design and gameplay.
The Think Tank Are sandbox tools a necessity in your MMO
The fact that this has to be asked makes me sad. MMORPG combat is the most limited, repetitive, and ultimately boring game combat there is. In fact, the genre came about because developers wanted something more than combat (i.e., virtual worlds and all of the possibilities thereof). If you strip out the non-combat stuff, you have a combat lobby with sucky combat and recurring revenue.

But hey, people have been eating that up en masse since 2004, so if I were a developer/publisher, I'd keep cutting features and raising prices, too.
The Think Tank Are sandbox tools a necessity in your MMO
Well yes, they're necessary because an RPG is not solely a combat simulator. My wish is that MMOs would balance creation and destruction content in equal measure. We've seen games become really great at the combat side, but we're also seeing more teams put in some serious effort in giving creation tools to players.
The Think Tank Are sandbox tools a necessity in your MMO
The more I think about questions like this, the more I realize that my primary focus in MMOs has always been PvP. Back when I was a hardcore World of Warcraft raider, all I did in non-raid times was hang out in contested zones and pick fights. Raiding was just the mechanism through which I acquired good gear. Now I'm addicted to Dota 2, which is essentially a 30-minute RPG that focuses entirely on fighting other players. I'm just not as interested in raids, dungeons, crafting, or any other in-game endeavor. Spending the day building a house in a digital universe just doesn't really motivate me -- I need there to be some stakes.
The Think Tank Are sandbox tools a necessity in your MMO
This question isn't the right question. I mean, if we're talking normal MMO combat, then it's as stale as Jef says and it really needs other stuff. There are plenty of massive online game designs that work perfectly fine with combat as a linchpin, but the combat has to be more interesting and engaging than tab-targeting and proper rotations or cycling modules. However, there are not many MMOs that are interesting enough on the virtues of their combat system alone.

A good combat engine can be completely ruined by adding non-combat elements to it -- generally, the more interesting combat becomes, the more annoying it is when something other than player skill gives a player the win. There's so many aspects to a question like this that there isn't really a good response. I think that really the answer is no because the strength of MMOs is the virtual world where players have many ways of interacting. If designers distill interactions into just combat, then making an MMO is probably not the best idea to begin with.
The Think Tank Are sandbox tools a necessity in your MMO
Sandbox elements are the new hotness in MMOs. Whether it's RIFT's dimensions, WildStar's socket-and-plug housing, or the crazy creation tools in EQ Next Landmark, players go crazy for customization. Even World of Warcraft is going to give some control to the players with garrisons in their next expansion. The question, however, is whether or not these sandbox tools are necessary in MMOs, and I believe the answer is no. I've played many MMOs over the past 12 years that have had little or no sandbox elements. As long as the game is fun, polished, and I can play with my friends, I'm happy.

What do you get when you throw the Massively writers' opinions together in one big pot to stew? You get The Think Tank, a column dedicated to ruminating on the MMO genre. We range from hardcore PvPers to sandbox lovers to the carest of the carebears, so expect some disagreement! Join Senior Editor Shawn Schuster and the team for a new edition right here every other Thursday.

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