Before I forget, I need to archive some comments, some from Raph’s page and some from Darniaq’s. The context is the same and we are all contributing to the same argument at the moment.
These definitions don’t pretent to be absolute and objective. They just define my personal perspective and my beliefs.
After the two wonderful articles that Raph wrote and that we are still discussing (broken link till I don’t copy/paste it), I believe that what is important to do is see what there is past those considerations. Focus on the conclusions and the possible answers to those problems. Or the discussion would become just redundant and not usable.
After having pointed the flaws of “level based mechanics” my motto is: “doing better, not doing without.”
To begin with, an assumption: sandbox = systemic
There are “content” games and there are “sandbox” games.
The first category is about natural single-player games that follow a linear direction. From a point to another. The game doesn’t end till you reach the other point, but the premise is that there is an end. You can stretch this model and make the gap between the two points bigger or smaller. You can even further extend it at will (think to games rising the level cap, or expansions to the classic RPGs) but the “end” is still there.
You are supposed to play this type of game till the developers have stuff to show you. Basically the playtime is proportionate to the development. In a game dependent on a monthly fee the dependence/addiction mechanic is preferred because it’s easier for the developers to find hooks and carrots, and make them desirable. It is also comfortable because there’s a definite direction and you have a precise idea of what you have to offer. It takes time but it is also predictable.
Then there’s the sandbox game. Here we move away from a single-player game because the focus is more on the actors as active subjects more than a linear, fixed story that is narrated or re-enacted. In the sandbox you can fit pretty much everything, even the whole game of the first type. But, in general, the sandbox has “toys” into it that you can use freely and “creatively”. The player here can have different roles and the model is particularly appropriate for the myth of “satisfying repetable content”.
This second model works like a complex system. The development time is still important but it’s not directly proportionate. The linearity is lost and the system is even supposed to move on its own once it is “closed”. Here the “end” is only represented by the boundaries of the sandbox (possibility space) but the longevity depends more on the ties between the elements within more than the actual number of elements.
The “sandbox” types of games are harder to make, in particular because the industry has less experience with them, while it has plenty to make the first type.
But it’s this second model that is simply more appropriate for an online game based on subscriptions and that is supposed to last in the longer term. It’s this second model to use the innate strengths of the genre and the uniqueness it has to offer.
From a simplified point of view:
– If you add one point to a linear path (the classic idea of content), you are increasing the ‘weight’ by one. It’s predictable and the system is so simple that you cannot really expect to optimize it.
– If you add one point within a system, instead, you increase considerably its complexity. This because all these elements are connected together and affect each other in a complex relationship (and often retaining a specific function, so never aging).
(These types of) Mmorpgs have life cycles. So noone actually cares if the newbies are turned off. It would require a long term planning that is just uncommon in this industry.
The point is that, after the initial sales, no other (linear) mmorpg has shown an increasing number of subscribers. Which is the other graph that Raph shown here. The strategy is to rise as much and possible, “milk” all you can and then, eventually, the profit will be used for some sort of “sequel”.
I ranted about this in my posts about the mudflation and “ecology”. The worlds get littered till they aren’t livable anymore, but noone really cares. We burn what we find. Use, throw away and replace.
It’s how the consumer society works and what gets replied in these games. We produce because we use and we use because we produce. There’s always “somewhere” else where you can go.
The other way is what I have as an ideal: the living world. A living world is a sandbox, or a complex system. In a complex system all the elements have a precise function that isn’t “replaced” or “mudflated”. All these elements are tied together, forming a complexity and shaping up a “world” that is self-consistent and self-contained. Where you just don’t need “more space” to justify more content and where you don’t need to mudflate and replace anything because every element has a purpose and is justified.
This model ideally allows the system to never age. Both new and old players exist on the same level and play together, not far away. There’s no need to build barriers since the game itself takes advantage from the ties between the elements. The development can go on at the same time on all the levels without leaving out either side.
And if you happen to enter it five years after the launch, you would be able to see it improved on every part and not just fragmented and left half-broken. It would inherit the innate qualities of life: grow and adapt.
One is built to last. The other is built to be consumed.
Linear games are easier to sell to a larger crowd it seems.
The point is that the “sandbox” games are still rudimental and the industry doesn’t have a lot of experience making them. The outcome just cannot compare to a linear game that is the direct heritage of a single-player game with a long history behind.
Making a good sandbox game is just way harder than sticking with a simpler, consolidated model. It’s more risky, less predictable (so the industry rejects it).
But then we have to go back at the roots. Why WoW is successful? Because it is accessible. Because it’s the very BEST game for a new player approaching this genre (without a doubt).
And what’s the first flaw of a sandbox? It’s lack of direction. The fact that you don’t know what you are supposed to do next and you feel overwhelmed and lost.
This CANNOT BE OVERLOOKED.
In my personal experience I had the exact same problems in UO, SWG and Eve-Online. It’s definitely not a coincidence. All these three games are very hard to figure out and enjoy. I’m not a total newbie but I had LOTS of problems in these games and I can see clearly why something like WoW is more popular. I know because it affects me as well.
In all those three games, for example, I found really, really hard to find people to group with, while it’s almost impossible to not get invited in a group in WoW at some point. I wrote about this in various occasions but the first, supposed quality of these games was instead my very first issue: the socialization.
I always found *extremely hard* to talk to strangers in UO, SWG or Eve if not within strictly formal relationship (like to repair my things in UO).
So the point is that the sandbox games aren’t simply “not successful”. The fact is that they aren’t ready. Just that. They are still too partial, incomplete, rough and inconsistent.
Still today the sandbox games are those where I had the LESS fun. So why I love them anyway? Because what I see is their potential beyond those flaws that have been impassable barriers for me. And if have that silly dream of becoming a developer it’s because I dream about what these games will be when those barriers will be removed.
That’s the myth I’m chasing.
(give a look to these ideas for some context)
Kinda pie in the sky but it would be nice if the zones could evolve or regress based on usage.
Dynamism works better in PvP. So those ideas are more interesting if applied in a PvP environment.
Instead PvE needs good stories and good stories need staticity or it would be just impossible to narrate good ones when you don’t have the controls on what is going on.
Dynamism means contingency and the contingency is the opposite of identity. Identity is essential to narrate stories. So the needs of PvP and PvE are antithetic.
Simply put: in a “systemic” game world all elements are tied together, the dots are connected. Each element has a “weight” in the system that affects everyone else.
In a systemic model:
– The players are brought together. The model is represented as a circumference, where the players/dots create groups or “cells” and move within while bouncing one against the other (creating alliances, conflicts, politics etc..). The space belongs to them (known) and is “managed”.
In a linear model:
– The players are spread apart. The model is represented as a vector, where the players are pointed toward an obligatory direction and have a set position that “qualifies” them toward the other players. The space is external, alien (unknown) and only conquered and progressively consumed.
By delving some more it is possible to transform those two into cultural models but I won’t do that here. Which one is more appropriate for an online game? You choose.
And yes, mmorpgs work as living bodies.