Working As Intended: The unfortunate conflation of sandboxes and PvP

A certain perplexing belief about sandboxes pervades the blog comments, forums, and general chats of MMOs:

All MMO sandboxes are free-for-all PvP games. If it doesn't have free-for-all PvP, it's by definition not a sandbox because sandboxes let the players make all the rules and decisions. Free-for-all PvP adds the necessary spice to keep you on your toes and keep a game fresh. Without it, you may as well be playing The Sims.

All of these statements are wrong.

This topic is something I've wanted to write at length about for a while, but I credit Massively commenters Balsbigbrother and Hagu for lighting this particular fire under me with their nearly identical emails to the podcast asking why sandboxes and open PvP seem so inextricably linked in the minds of players and developers. Hagu even referenced a cringeworthy declaration CCP devs made at EVE Fanfest: "It won't be a true sandbox until you can stab someone in the back." I'm disinclined to let CCP rewrite and claim an entire genre all unto itself, personally.

Examining the sandbox spectrum

So let's first try to define what we mean when we use the word sandbox. Generally, MMO enthusiasts use the word to differentiate a game from a themepark; it's the difference between a virtual world and a self-contained game. A themepark offers a bunch of carefully tuned rides (quests, classes, dungeons) predesigned by professionals, whereas a sandbox provides a box of sand and some toys (building, economies, skill trees) and expects players to make their own fun to some degree. One is an experience that is overtly crafted and weakly reliant on player input, while the other is an experience that is covertly crafted and more heavily reliant on player input.

Confusion sets in when games refuse to adhere to this simplistic dichotomy. Themeparks might offer robust housing systems; sandboxes might offer questing content. Themeparks might include hardcore crafting mechanics; sandboxes might implement levels.

This suggests that most MMOs fall on a spectrum between an unachievable pure themepark and an unachievable pure sandbox. It's a spectrum of stuff, of systems. The more stuff a game has (the more systems available and the more input players have in those systems), the more sandboxy it feels. The less stuff a game has (the fewer systems available and the less players can affect their world), the more themeparky it feels. Most games are more properly sandparks as they have more systems than, say, a lobby-based, MMO-lite ARPG and fewer than a classic everything-box MMORPG, but we all know developers shy away from ambiguous words like sandparks (as they should since labels skew expectations).

Critically, the spectrum also allows for games that intentionally omit what might seem to be core MMO systems, like PvE (Camelot Unchained), combat (Glitch, A Tale in the Desert), global chat (classic Ultima Online), fully mobile bipedal characters (EVE Online), open-world gameplay (Guild Wars), and yes, free-for-all PvP (Star Wars Galaxies). It turns out those aren't make-or-break "core" MMORPG features at all. They're merely common. Arguing that no true sandbox would neglect to include FFA PvP is unconvincing because it arbitrarily elevates a specific design subsystem above all others while ignoring all the other ways developers insert freedom and choice into their sandbox worlds. And limitless freedom is what sandboxes are all about, right? Down with rules!

Actually, freedom in sandboxes isn't limitless at all

Frequently those who argue that open PvP is a definitive mechanic of MMOs claim that FFA is the natural manifestation of the boundlessness of a real sandbox. Players can do anything they want, and that's what makes it so volatile and fun. The developers let players make the rules!

Setting aside for the moment my deep suspicion that this is lazy game design at work, let's think about what we mean by rules. In MMORPGs, there are three sets of rules. We have the math and mechanics that form the structure of the game: everything from the axes of the terrain space to the level cap to the loot tables. Then there's an honor code enforceable by the staff but not hardcoded into the game's design -- think reporting a player for harassment. Finally, there's a social contract between players, which could include proscriptions against AFKing unannounced, training mobs, or swiping an ore node. (Or "sassing someone important," which is usually how these things go down.)

The enforceability of that third and final category is dependent on the first category. MMOs have developed dozens of systems to allow players to punish each other according to player interpretation (or disregard for) such social contracts; these methods include simple mechanisms like group-kicking and chat-blocks, justice systems and jail, and thievery and murder. And while it would be tempting to view these mechanics as freedom, the reality is that every one of these mechanics is another set of rules handed down from the devs and implemented as game code. If a game allows free-for-all PvP, it is only because the devs have designed it that way. By the same token, if a game lacks a pickpocketing mechanic -- as many sandboxes otherwise governed by PvP do -- you're not free to pickpocket.

We're more free in sandboxes than in themeparks because there is by definition more stuff to do, but in both types of game, we're only exactly as free as the developers allow us to be. The pure freedom of a PvP-oriented sandbox is an illusion. All other things being equal, a game with housing but no FFA PvP is just as free as a game with FFA PvP but no housing. Insisting that a player-driven justice system is more important to a sandbox than a player-driven municipal system is ultimately arbitrary and self-serving. PvP is just one more possible system in a game, and sandboxes are bigger than any one system.

The spice must flow

Speaking of self-serving, let's talk for a moment about spice. Proponents of free-for-all, consequence-free PvP wax poetic about how such gameplay adds the necessary "spice" and spontaneity to a sandbox because you never know what will happen next. Will that PC you spotted ahead be a friend or a foe? Who knows? How exciting! Right?

No. FFA PvP actually cloaks players in an aura of permanent suspicion and inevitability, not spontaneity. You go into every single mundane encounter with another person tense and trigger-happy because you can be damn sure that if you hesitate to act, you might soon be eating dirt and watching your new friend pick your corpse dry. While that style of gameplay is fun in spurts, it's depressing and stressful over sustained periods and makes for a poor foundation for anything resembling a gameworld most gamers want to "live" in (let alone pay for) long-term (consider EVE's ongoing retention problems). Sandbox PvP has only gone downhill since the dark days of 1997's Ultima Online; if you hated the way packs of rednames roamed the countryside then, just consider the plight of the modern survival sandbox, where kill-or-be-killed is so common that death amounts to the loss of a loaf of bread.

I won't argue that FFA PvP isn't fun because sometimes it is, especially when you're winning and feeling as if you're part of an epic story so much bigger than you. But it's not the "spice" that makes a sandbox a sandbox, either. It's little more than an FPS plus gear minus defined objectives. Pretending it's the cornerstone of "real" MMORPGs is fantasy at best.

This debate is more than semantics

Ultimately, this quibble over what makes a sandbox a sandbox would be a pointless semantic argument but for one key problem that both Balsbigbrother and Hagu alluded to: Far too many people have been lulled into thinking that, as CCP declared, sandboxes are all about stabbing people in the back. Aside from superior sandboxes like Star Wars Galaxies, now sunsetted and unable to raise its hand to be counted, most of the self-proclaimed sandboxes of the last decade have gone the EVE Online/classic Ultima Online route, selling themselves as PvP-centric worlds and squabbling over that tiny corner of the pro-PvP MMO population that hasn't already wised up and emigrated to MOBAs. It's only been in the last year or two that we've seen a resurgence of sandbox gameplay that isn't overtly murder-centric, and even that progress has been hampered by a simultaneous rise in still more floundering FFA PvP survival sandboxes.

As long as developers and players are convinced (or willing to convince themselves) that "sandbox" is synonymous with "FFA PvP," triple-A MMO studios are going keep pumping out the same tired dichotomy of tame World of Warcraft clones and poorly received EVE Online wannabes, too afraid to make games that don't cleave to the safety of themeparks or generate the hardcore vibe of gankboxes. Even though we have a template for how sandboxes can implement meaningful, consensual PvP, studios will shy away from the subgenre because they need to make money, and they know most players just aren't willing to pay to be someone else's victim. The gankbox stigma is that brutal.

If we want to see new sandboxes that are more than just murder simulators, we must stop allowing FFA PvP games to despoil the term. There is plenty of room in the genre for FFA PvP sandboxes, but they're not the only legitimate contenders.

The MMORPG genre might be "working as intended," but that doesn't mean it can't be so much more. Join Massively Editor-in-Chief Bree Royce every other Friday in her Working As Intended column for editorials about and meanderings through MMO design, ancient history, and wishful thinking. Armchair not included.