Friday, January 07, 2011
How to make a sandbox MMORPG with half a million subscribers
The state of mind of the fans of sandbox MMORPGs is such that me just listing numbers of games and subscribers gets reported as "Tobold predicts the death of sandbox MMORPGs", while in fact I wasn't predicting anything, and just asked for confirmation of the state of the sandbox MMORPG genre in facts and figures. I do believe that the state of the sandbox MMORPG genre isn't as good as it could be, and frankly, the sandbox MMORPG bloggers and fans are to some extent to blame for that: They never moved out of the denial and anger states of grief into anything more productive. Denial ("The sandbox MMORPG genre is doing fine if you only look at a single, 8-year old game, don't look at the number of games produced, and only compare the success of the most successful sandbox MMORPG with the 10th most successful themepark MMORPG"), and anger ("Yet another MMORPG got produced that wasn't sandbox, and while I didn't really play it, I already know the game is utter shit") don't really help the sandbox MMORPG genre in any way, and actually hurt it, by making it look as if only crazy people were interested in that sort of games. Which isn't true at all, lots of data suggest that a good sandbox MMORPG could easily get half a million subscribers. We just need to ask ourselves what it would take to make that successful sandbox MMORPG game, and why nobody is trying.
I love good sandbox games, and actually spent quite some time last year promoting one of them, A Tale in the Desert. I would really like to see a sandbox MMORPG to succeed, and thus would like to discuss what it would take to make that happen. And I think the key is in a quote from Michael in yesterday's thread:
I'm always looking for a sandbox game where I can build my sand castles without constantly worrying that someone will come by and stomp on it.If you look at the spectacular success of Minecraft, or other highly successful sandbox single-player games like The Sims, you'll quickly notice that they are based on people having fun building stuff, and not on PvP. Or like Hobonicus said in the same thread:
Unfortunately, games like Darkfall have gone too far in the wrong direction and given a bad name to sandbox. If a developer could give it a real shot, without trying to be a niche hardcore shallow PvP gankfest game (don’t get me wrong, I love PvP but only when it has purpose), they could do wonders with today’s technology and knowhow.It is a simple observation, which is universal to all sorts of MMORPGs, that players appear to be extremely attached to their virtual possessions. Just imagine any MMORPG having an accident with their data center and deleting all characters: Even if the game itself was still there unchanged, large numbers of players would quit on having lost their character, instead of starting over. And if such strong attachment can be observed to the "sword of uberness" that a player found by random chance in some dungeon, how much stronger do you think a player's attachment will be to something he created on his own, using his own imagination?
Some players remarked that it takes considerably more effort to create something in a virtual world of a sandbox game than to just collect something following the rails in a themepark game, and speculated that sandbox games are less successful because so few people are willing to spend that extra effort. But if that were true, it would be hard to explain why sandbox games are doing much better among single-player games. In fact the general trend among single-player games is moving *away* from rails and towards more open worlds, and more possible creativity. It is only in MMORPGs that the trend is the other way around.
Thus I do believe that a sandbox MMORPG which was all about building and cooperation could do extremely well, and easily reach half a million subscribers if made with a decent budget and effort. It is the unholy marriage between "sandbox" and "free-for-all PvP" that is holding the sandbox MMORPG genre back, not the unwillingness of players to be creative.