Tobold's Blog
Sunday, August 28, 2011
Sandbox is hard

Again I fully agree with Syncaine in that it is a lot easier to make a successful PvE theme park game than to make a successful PvP sandbox game. The market for PvE theme park games is obviously much bigger, and even a half-decent WoW clone like Rift can get 1 million customers (if not subscribers). Having said that, I think that Syncaine is wrong in attributing the difference to PvP vs. PvE. I believe that it is easier to make ANY theme park game, PvE OR PvP, than to make any sandbox game.

For example World of Tanks is up to 5 million players in a game with absolutely no PvE at all. But the PvP it has is very clearly structured, there is a clear narrative telling players where to go and what to do next. Meanwhile the excellent PvE sandbox game A Tale in the Desert has only a few thousand players.

It appears to me that the large majority of players likes to be told what to do, have a clear path of advancement with every step laid out in front of them. They gladly follow the instructions of "do A, then do B, then do C", but get confused if given the free choice of doing either A, B, or C, especially if told that these options aren't equally good. Even in a theme park PvE MMORPG, when given a choice, players hurry to find a guide or website telling them which option is the best. Anybody making a choice out of his own free will and ending up with the option that is 0.07% worse than the optimum is a clueless n00b. If you are forced to always make the absolutely best choice, you simply can't afford to think for yourself. And you have to avoid games that give you too many choices, aka sandbox games.

Sandbox is too hard for the players, thus too hard to make successful for the developers.
My main problem with sandbox gameplay isn't that I need direction. It's that I am coming to MMOs in search of entertainment and amusement, not work.

I just don't find it very entertaining, spending many hours terraforming a landscape. I'd really rather the designer, who gets paid to do that, and is better at it than I will ever be, gets on and does it for me before I arrive.

I'm not at all opposed to the idea of creativity as entertainment, but I feel that if I'm required to put in that much time and effort then the task is going to have to compete for my time with other options like writing a novel, gardening or buying and restoring a semi-derelict farmhouse. Things, in other words, that would actually leave me with something to show for the time and energy I've spent, rather than some pixels that I can't even be sure will still be there next time i switch the computer on.

Theme park games, on the other hand, compete with reading, watching a movie or watching T.V. (although it's fair to say that even the blandest theme park game still requires a bit more effort than watching T.V.). It's a much lower bar in terms of commitment and, I'd say, a much more rational one.

Now, if someone could come up with an MMO that has the functionality of a sandbox game with the ease-of-use of a theme park game, then we might really have something.
I always prefered sandbox MMOs because I like the freedom.
I don't think sandbox is hard for players, but rather... well, why bother? Microsoft Word already exists so why read books? Skip the art gallery and go scratch some rocks on the cave wall. Toss the iPod because you can make your own music by humming and snapping your fingers together.

I pay designers to be entertained, to do something I cannot do: keep myself amused (for long). And while you may argue that that indicates I find sandbox "hard to do," I would counter with "which came first?" Do I like directed experiences because sandbox is hard, or because I like directed experiences and doing something I don't like is automatically less appealing?

I'm having fun in Minecraft, but once I completed my (sandbox) goal of pimping out a huge tower structure, I lost motivation in continuing. Minecraft did not show a Game Over screen, but it existed in my head. I could force myself to have another goal, or... hey, Steam game sale!
Very clear-cut and honest post. I knew a lot of people going through the burnout phase in WoW where they'de sigh and complain about how they have to quest or run dungeons, because those were the only two ways to level up. Of course you or I know that isn't true, but trying to explain that even nonoptimal routes can be fun even though the game doesn't encourage them gets me nowhere. Apparently it's either "Do the game's list of chores" or bust.
I am surprised to be the first to mention this but...


Totally sandbox, totally PvE, 11 million registered users.

Harder, maybe. But possible.
Wait, World of Tanks has 5 million players??? I had no idea. That's... huge. It's WoW huge. Are you sure? Are there any official numbers out there?
In a way "RPG" has turned into something that gives the non-thinking players a sence of progression.

Even most shooters have leveling-up features these days.

My favourite game, League of Legends is 100% PvP but there is a leveling system also.

When people ask me for advice on how to build thier hero I tell them it all depends.
This is not really an answer in thier eyes they want to be told that ONE thing is the best choice and aslong as they do that they are doing good.

Put players in 2 catagories based on this alone:

Safe-players. They follow others advice, they want to play a game where if they fuck up they can blame something other than themselves.

Alpha-players. They want to lead the way, they want a game where they can get feedback on how they are doing.

I do not think most sandbox games are too hard as people can learn pretty fast if they dare look like a fool. Most of todays players are shelterd from looking like a fool and it just makes them more afraid.

Todays games are designed for Safe-players and it made the industry grow.
Wait, World of Tanks has 5 million players??? I had no idea. That's... huge. It's WoW huge. Are you sure? Are there any official numbers out there?

Yes, I'm sure and it's official. But that's 5 million players, not subscribers.
I think your theory is sound, Tobold: people would rather be told what to do than discover or invent something to do. Your post reminds me of a piece I heard on the radio recently that discussed what Americans thought of on-demand TV. Despite everyone having a TiVo or DVR box, they interviewed a lot of people who simply didn't want to make a choice about what to watch next. They couldn't abandon programmed TV entirely because they just want to turn it on an see a show. People clamor for choice but tend to avoid it when given to them.
I think you're right. At least as it pertains to me.

Regardless of the game, if I don't have a sense of where I should go next, I get anxious. I need to think about why this is. It's not that I don't enjoy an open world or freedom. I think I'm just scared of getting stuck. I get the same anxiety in dungeons. I don't want to get lost.
Honestly, I see where you going with this, but the reasoning is way off. Developers don't eschew the sandbox model because people don't want it; the arguments you make here for that line of thought don't add up (I took the liberty of responding more in depth here:

Instead, I think the reality is that developers don't build sandbox games because they're much more difficult to create, balance, and sustain. Look at the constant tweaking and effort involved in keeping worlds like EVE and Darkfall balanced. It's a much deeper, more involved commitment on the developer's part than, for example, plopping down a new raid dungeon in WOW.

People do want sandboxes. Proof: EVE, Dakrfall, Perpetuum. Pulling out the possibly lowest-sub Sandbox (Tale in the Desert) as proof that people don't want sandboxes is just ... naughty. :p
Is it because playing sandbox games is hard? I'd say, themepark games offer a developer more possibilities to give players a sense of accomplishment.
A Tale In The Desert is a pretty bad example of sandbox.

The main reason sandbox games haven't done well (compared to theme parks) is because they aren't being done right, and they aren't being done right because of a combination of limited technology and poor design.

What a sandbox game needs to work well is robust, emergent gameplay. It needs a world physically big enough to allow playstyle choice and mechanics robust enough to stave off optimization.

You can't rely on eternal designer/developer balancing to fix your issues. Systems must exist within your game that will reach equilibriums on their own by making use of interdependent ecologies.

The problem is that the processing power necessary to run these sorts of systems in addition to an attractive 3D world is still beyond us (though not far). Look at Dwarf Fortress as an example of a game that does away completely with aesthetics and focuses on ecologies because anything beyond rudimentary graphics would render it nearly unplayable. It's a brilliant game, but its ideas are about 15 years ahead of their time.

Sandbox games are the future of gaming. The reason gamers appear to not want to have to make choices is not because they're afraid of making the wrong one, it's because they're afraid of everyone else but them making the right one. You eliminate that fear by removing the concept of a "right" choice.
Are you certain you're not mixing two game types with a generic "playstyle preference" distribution?

Tetris and Super Mario Cart would strike me as very strong "Themepark" games. They also have quite a few customers. A large majority of players probably actually enjoys preset paths.

After trying both (Ultima Online is considered sandbox, right?) I'm undecided. Programmed well, Sandbox can be good. Themeparks have their place in quick evening entertainment, too.
A true sandbox does not exist like a true democracy does not exist.
It's simply impossible because you have to have some "rules"

A true sandbox will end up like sims-online having the bad people ruling the game and effectively destroying the game. it's Das Experiment all over again.
Why not combine best of both worlds? Game can have both. For new players the guided experience of themepark .As you progress further your option increase.
You're both looking at it wrong. It's not about pvp/pve or themepark/sandbox, it's about single player vs multiplayer.

Probably one of the most anticipated games at the moment is skyrim, a single player, pve sandbox. And that style of games does extremely well, looking at how well received games like Oblivion, Fallout, Gothic, The Witcher, etc, were. Even games that are even less directed like the X3 series still do moderately well.

The issue comes when you bring in multiplayer. The problem is that in a wide open sandbox game, the other players usually detract from your own enjoyment of the game more than they add to it. That works for a pvp game, cause you can attack those people who are annoying you. But in a pve-focused game, you find yourself wishing the other peeps would just not bother you.

Your example, A Tale in the Desert. An awesome idea for a game, with a truly complex and fun looking crafting/building system. Unfortunately I couldn't ever get to play with that system because I wasn't willing to run around looking for 30 people to exercise with, or to beg for 20 peeps to say a piece of bland generic 'art' is ok, so I can level up and get to the crafting game. I'm amazed there were even a couple thousand willing to put up with such aggravation and blatant popularity contests.

A successful pve sandbox game will happen as soon as they figure out a way to make other players _add_ to the experience instead of taking away from it. Until then, we'll all just go play Skyrim. :P
I think it are the players that are not ready. I think it is because most players want a chance to win and in a sandbox game it is hard to know what you are trying to win at. It is much more like real life, which I think much people would agree is hard to "win at."

You have to find your niche, instead of picking it from a small list of choices (crafter, healer, tank, etc) like in a structured game.

To suggest that somehow Blizzard doesn't spend as much man-hours on balancing their game as the team balancing darkfall is ignorant at best, intellectually dishonest at worst. They constantly adjust their game too.
Difficulty is not the reason people avoid EVE, though I'm sure that's a popular rationale among EVE players.

Imagine EVE as a marathon. Only a select few people can run a marathon, right? Yeah, only a few people can run marathons -- but not because they are generally impossible for the human body. Few people run marathons because they require a lot of work and preparation and sacrifice.

People aren't allergic to work or preparation or sacrifice. But they don't do it for nothing. Everyone does the work vs. reward math in their head, and this math is different for everybody. For a small number of people, the math comes back "you run a marathon". For most people it comes back that they don't.

EVE is the same way. Everybody has their own fun v. work math. If it comes back fun, you learn to play EVE. If it comes back work, you don't.
After all these years, I still have a hard time grasping the point of a non-sandbox MMORPG. Themepark single player games can be a lot of fun as are lobby and instance games like World of Tanks. But why deal with all of the infrastructure and annoyances of a massively multi-player game (crowded servers, monthly payments, spawn camping, idiots, etc. etc.) that come with a massively multi-player game if you don't want to interact with other players in a way that has a big impact on your play experience? What's the point of putting thousands of players in the same world if none of them can have any impact on how others experience the world? I know that a lot of players like playing MMORPGs without interacting with others or only interacting with a small circle of other players, but I just can't wrap my head around why they bother.

We're already seeing a trend towards slowly leeching away the Massively Multiplayer elements of MMORPGs towards lobby and instance games and I think we'll see more and more of this with AAA games, with what we've traditionally seen as MMORPG game elements increasingly being left to sandbox games.
I'm beginning to think I don't like sandbox or themepark. One is too boring, the other too easy. I don't know what I want, but I'll recognize it when I finally find it.
@ David

Because there is no universal agreement as to what other players "meaningfully" impacting your play experience is. Social interaction in general is considered meaningful for most people, and I as well as many other players (I would assume, without any evidence except the large amount of people subscribed to themepark MMOs) find that interactions with people are the most meaningful and fun parts of the game without that other player fundamentally changing the world, just sharing a good time with you.
I'd agree with your analysis, having been a player paralysed by sandbox games. I do play Minecraft, though, which is also a sandbox game, and the key with Minecraft is that is starts with a clear goal: get light and shelter before the sun goes down.

To make sandbox games appealing, you really have to build a themepark to draw players in.
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