Tobold's Blog
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.
I haven't read ur blog for a while and was just perusing the comments of the other thread. I was just about to say that Michael's comment seems to have it the nail on the head.
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's all well in theory and I agree with this. But the billion dollar question is how to put this into practice. That's much harder to do, and I don't think it has been done, or even could be done.

A simple example is just to see how successful Facebook games like Farmville and OtherBlaBlaBlaVille. They are basically sandbox MMO which is about building and cooperation, but how many players would actually pay for that? I'm not sure that it'd reach 500k.
I found SWG a pretty darn good sandbox (pun intended as well ;)
imho, the only real lacking part was proper dungeons to raid.

It will always be a niche, because people have to entertain themselves for a large part instead of getting entertained.

you're too productive for my lack of time these 2 days :D

i wrote you an answer in the previous post
"Sandbox" and "Theme Park" are really unhelpful labesl. My understanding is that, in the context of MMOs, "Sandbox" was originally intended to imply a gamespace where the player largely directs the use of content while "Theme Park" represents a gamespace where the designer directs the player towards a more controlled use of content.

In this respect I believe that all MMOs are on a sliding scale. No MMOs have no provided content at all. No MMOs provide content with no direction at all. No MMOs entirely prohibit undirected use of content. No MMO is only "Sandbox" or only "Theme Park".

The main problem that I see with the discussions nowadays is that the terms are hardening to describe a subset of behaviors. "Sandbox" MMOs are becoming "building" MMOs or "trading" MMOs rather than just places where you can do whatever you feel like.

The simple reason why that type of "Sandbox" is never going to be as popular as a "Theme Park" is the same reason that millions of people watch cookery programs on TV but eat ready-meals at home; doing stuff is harder work and takes longer than letting other people do stuff.
I participated in "Age of Conan" for a while before it was drained of most subscribers. Thought one of the more ingenious ideas was allowing guilds to build keeps and buildings in certain designated areas, which then would open the idea for keep sieges, one assumes.

Big fun was seeing how the guild members all participated in building that capability. As you say, the fun was in working together. Imagine if the Rift MMO would allow your guild to build a keep to defend against the NPC invasions.
Aren't we still waiting for a themepark not called WoW to hit 500k subs? Aren't we still waiting for a themepark to continue growth after 8+ (or 1+) years? And isn't EVE the 2nd biggest sub MMO out right now in the west? Oh but wait, Empire is not a sandbox and people have multiple account, so somehow that does not count...

The problem with these "I'm just presenting the facts" posts is that, well, you are getting the facts all wrong. That makes it hard to really go anywhere when your base is so flawed.

Why don't you instead list the number of multi-million dollar budget sandbox MMOs that have failed as spectacularly as themeparks like TR or WAR? Let's talk about how Aventurine is forced to reduce it's staff ala Turbine/Mythic/SOE. Let's talk about how DDO has continued it's huge surge after it's initial F2P pop. Let's check NCSofts finances and see how huge GW is for them.

Why not present those facts and them work on fixing the sub-group of the genre that needs help outside one outlier.
fixing the sub-group of the genre that needs help outside one outlier

That was exactly what I was doing. Outside the one outlier of EVE, I don't know any sandbox MMORPG that even has 100k subscribers. But I can list a dozen theme park MMORPGs that have that many.
If you took a game like WoW and added huge tracks of land where players could build houses, villages, cities, works of art ... etc, you would have a very successful game IMO. You would just have to make sure that the questing and sandbox didn't interfere with one another. This is basically what SWG was only that the PVE/questing portion was sub-standard and lacked any kind of polish.
@Zigabob: Just adding huge amount of landmass isn't going to solve anything imho. The problem is travel time and population density. Adding space enough for 200.000 people (per server) to do whatever they want requires huge amount of space. Imagine your personal part of it is in the region farthest away from the rest of wow. You might end up with half an hour travel time just to get to your house. And your neighborhood would be totally empty for miles, because the chance of exactly the people in the houses around you being online exactly when you are online are rather low. Plus it would be a rather big jump from playing 'on wheels' to sitting in the middle of nowhere building a house that (because of travel time and population density) nobody will ever see.
"That was exactly what I was doing. Outside the one outlier of EVE, I don't know any sandbox MMORPG that even has 100k subscribers. But I can list a dozen theme park MMORPGs that have that many."

Who says you need 100k subs? Last I checked, whatever DF has, it's enough to keep the company expanding, and the population growing.

How's 100k working out for WAR? TR? Aion? I've not heard of those games hiring people, have you?

How'ed having 100k+ work out for LotRO and EQ2? Well enough to make dramatic changes and try to drum up a boost by going F2P. Wonder if that boost will last as long as it did for DDO?

Still waiting for that 1m+ MMO though, and 2011 is looking like it's going to have more WAR stories than WoW ones.

Again, you are worried about the wrong sub-group in the genre.
@syncaine: Could you please link to any information you have that WAR or Aion are losing money? As far as I know they both made their development cost several times over and are still up and running, because they are profitable. Meanwhile Darkfall is such a tiny operation, for all I know it is losing money and Taso is running the company out of his own pocket, with millions he made in the shipping industry.

In any case, the argument was that sandbox games aren't as popular as theme park games. So profits have nothing to do with anything. Doesn't the "complete failure" WAR have at least 5 times more players than "successful" Darkfall?
I'd like to point out my favorite mmo as a great example of an alternate style mmo, Uru: Myst Online. Not really a sandbox, nor a themepark.

It centered around your home age, an instanced island in the clouds that starts out really basic, just a shack in a rocky area. With small exception, there was no content gating, you could go to any zone/age and work your way through the puzzles, in whatever order you preferred.

Completing areas and finding secrets unlocked changes to your home island. You could toggle each change on or off to create your own distinct look/feel.

I know the puzzle gameplay was too complex for mass appeal, and the game only had enough content for a few dozen hours at most, but the I found the reward/progression system just crazy compelling.

I've kingslayered in wow, built big houses in wurm, made gobs of isk in eve, done really fun and amazing things in many games, but nothing has given me as much joy and satisfaction as simply unlocking rain for my island home in Uru. :D
I think something people haven't explored is not having a fixed world. What if zones of the world could be added through player discovery and deleted when they were no longer used, and if travel time between them could vary depending on how frequently they were visited?

All zones could be connected by randomly generated one shot "wilderness zones" that you would travel through or by established transportation like ships.

A static shape for the world is only necessary if you want to tell a static story. A game with a dynamic world could let the players tell a dynamic story and let players permanently affect (or permanently discard) parts of the world by building houses or whatever else they wanted to do.
Outside the one outlier of EVE, I don't know any sandbox MMORPG that even has 100k subscribers. But I can list a dozen theme park MMORPGs that have that many.

We don't have a dozen sandboxes. There have been only three serious AAA sandbox titles: UO, SWG, and Eve. Two of these have successful not only in economic terms, but in terms of long term growth and grabbing the gaming zeitgeist of the time.

Virtually every other western MMO is a Diku clone. Some are theme parks, some are sport PVP (DAOC, War), and others are just plain grinders. (Original EQ--grinder or theme park?)

What would it take to really kill the idea of big budget, subscription MMORPG?

Six months ago I had an epiphany and it was called World of Tanks.

I suspect we've seen the last blockbuster subscription MMO already.

I think the future belongs to the World of Tanks model. A game matching lobby with instanced multiplayer gameplay and advancement by account, not character. It has all the addictive qualities of MMO advancement, the synergistic multiplayer gameplay, but does away with the world elements that intrude.

They still call it an MMO, but it isn't really one. Pure sandboxes may be rare in the genre, but the sandbox elements are what differentiate an MMO from a small multiplayer game. People who want theme parks don't care about the sandbox elements. There may be a 500k sandbox game coming or Eve might get there, but there's never going to be a 13 million player one anymore than we're going to see the Met's new production of La Traviata sell as many tickets as Little Fockers.

Let's be honest, levels 80 to 85 were just an unpleasant speedbump for most people before we could get back to exactly that World of Tanks model. Sitting in a game matching lobby called Orgrimmar or Stormwind and doing small group multiplayer.
Numtini, that is very pessimistic.

I am certain that multiplayer matching games like WoW have a bright furture. But so do virtual worlds.

Wait until our generation is rich and retired ... ;)
Numtini, that actually sounds exactly what I look for when considering a multiplayer game for long term play since I left WoW: I can either do everything solo (1v1 or FFA style modes) or the needed players for my team/group will be given to me from a (sufficiently random) pool of other applicants.

I'm fine with "social games" where manipulating and maintaining "friendships" are mechanics. They just aren't my preferred style of game. I feel guilty when I succeed, and I feel useless when I fail.
I wonder whether second life could be considered as a 'successful cooperative sandbox MMORPG'.

(never tried it , so I'm possibly totally wrong)
@nils I'm not thinking I'm pessimistic. I actually think we might have a golden age where we have incredible virtual worlds like Eve even if they are "only" a quarter of a million players and pure action for fun games like World of Tanks or WoW instancing.

I like both snails and oysters.

Really, everyone, go get a "tanks" beta code. This game is the real deal and will be The "MMO" of 2011.
I think that a game can get 500k subscribers, as long as it has:

1. Innovation
2. Polish and inherent usability
3. Good Gameplay

The problem: Game developers, Game publishers, and Shareholders don't often share the same goals.
This is maybe the best argued post I've ever seen from Tobold. Love it, especially the comparison to the growing popularity of single-player sandboxy games with their withering in the MMOverse.
Tobold, I know you remember MJ stating WAR has to keep 500k to just sustain, and we both know it has far less. That Mythic is now a shell and they have a few interns working on WAR to keep the server lights on means what exactly? No real dev going on, no real hope for a future. If that's how you want to measure success, go for it. WoW has conditioned you well to a slow content drip.

Ask Lum about Aion :)

Me, I'll take the tiny studio that's still hiring, still putting out more content than the game with 12m subs, and still growing 2yrs in. Oh, and the one who has more players per server than that 12m game too. But hey, at least you have hundreds of servers to choose from, that's... something.
I'm sure you prefer the studio that puts out Darkfall, Syncaine.

They pay you.
I really, really agree with your "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."


I also think an axis of sandbox is permanence. A player returning to EVE after 12 months can start back up; may need to find a new corp and their ships may no longer be FOTM but freighters and battleships still do what they did. But the best geared player in WoW returns after a new release and they have to get on the rails and grind away, just like new characters.


In marketing speak, this is called "crossing the chasm"
Lots of people can figure out how to sell 20,000 of a game. 500,000 for MMO, not so much.


I have a radical idea for a Sunday topic if such things still existed:

"the problem with sandbox games is they need developers who are worse gamers"

Kind of like the Peter Principle q.v.

You take motivated, talented gamers who get promoted and eventually are developing a game. These are much more likely to get sucked into the Darkfall rabbit hole (a "good" game for a niche market) than if you took an executive who wants to produce a profitable, high quality, popular game and then decides it should be a sandbox MMO. My guess is you would be better served if the majority of tactical implementers/developers were good gamers but not the strategic designers/executives. Almost all of the suggestions I read on the EVE forums were for things that would restrict the target market of EVE and reduce CCP's profitability;

My speculation is that:

1) It is possible to develop a sandbox game with 500k subscribers ( I want to play it. )

2) 500k subscriber games will eventually be corporate teams - I.e. you can have clever people do clever games (minecraft, A tale of the desert) but you need some polish and depth to get to 500k.

3) It is *not* possible to develop a sandbox game with 500k subscribers that appeals to the majority of current sandbox player bloggers/commenters. In fact, EVE 300k subscribers with 80% never left empire shows you can't even do 300k

I get frustrated at CCP as I feel they can not decide whether they want to really appeal to 150k subscribers or have 500k. IMHO, you can't be a hard-core niche game with 500k subscribers.
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