Caveats of Sandbox Design.

4 05 2012

I see it all the time. Assertions that sandbox MMOs are better than theme parks (coupled with requisite hate for the theme park genre) basically hit my radar once a week; probably yours too. You probably wonder (much as the champions of the sandbox do) why is it that so few studios do it? Why is EVE one of a precious few, whereas the parade of fantasy theme parks seems endless?

Our understanding is fortunately bolstered by the metaphor that’s already in-place: a theme park is more fun for more people than a sandbox. Eschew for the moment the financial disparities between Six Flags and that 4′ diameter green plastic turtle…the one filled with cheap aquarium sand in your back yard…and consider instead what style of fun each one offers.

First, the easy stuff. The theme park gives you roller coasters, bumper cars, merry-go-rounds…well-defined activities for you enjoy, roughly on your own schedule. They’re well-defined because you know more or less what you’re getting into at the gate, how long it will probably take, and if you liked it you can do it again. While it’s short and probably the least creative roller coaster I’ve ever been on, the Steamin’ Demon at the Great Escape in Lake George, NY will always hold a special place in my heart. I’ll stand in that line twice in a row, every time. If I bring my friends along for the ride, we all have remarkably similar experiences. I mean, who doesn’t like a good roller coaster?

The sandbox gives you sand, a good-sized but confined space, a set of tools like buckets and spades, and lets you make your own fun. That’s the beauty, right? There are clear resources and tools that have pre-defined uses, but you can do whatever you want. You can use the tools or not, or even use the tools for tasks that the makers didn’t initially intend or even imagine. You can shape the resource, gather it, spend it, squander it. You can share it with friends and – working together – you can create some interesting and at times  unpredictable things.

In a theme park, the fun is laid out and carefully planned for you.

In a sandbox, you’re handed some stuff and told to to make fun for yourself.

While the metaphor is a bit leaky at this level (plastic turtle vs million dollar roller coasters) when the playing field is leveled out as it is in a video game, the appeal is clear. It’s really cool, both fundamentally and in practice, that things you do affect the game play of others. The players are the content.

Now, here is the catch: the reason so few studios try it.

If you’re waiting in line for a roller coaster, and some guy throws sand in your eyes and shoves you to get in front of you, the staff steps in and kicks that jerk out of the line or even out of the park.

If you’re in that sandbox and some bigger kid sits down and shoves you aside, throwing sand in your eyes and laughing as he does so, whelp…you either fight back (and possibly get creamed) or you get really frustrated and stop using the turtle.

Is it any wonder then that the massive volume of Theme Park MMOs all have a cumulatively large player base than sandbox MMOs? It’s not appealing to everybody that they might get shoved out of line and not be able to get on the ride. Now, sure, some people tough it out and have a good time of it…even becoming big kids in the sandbox themselves. And that forms some interesting gaming etiquette…as you get individuals who stand up for the little guys, helping them into the sandbox; one fascinating repercussion here is EVE University, an organization of such big kids that help little kids learn to fend for themselves in the sandbox.

Don’t get me wrong here. I’m not saying that sandbox design is flawed or even inferior; it’s got a lot of cool stuff going for it. It is however a substantial risk to take from the point of view of a big studio: why make a game with a limited demographic appeal when we can make a game with a larger demographic appeal? More people equals more money, and that is ever the motivator.

Every so often some ballsy little studio comes out of the woodwork and throws caution to the wind; it’s these guys we get the more creative titles out of (where creative in this case means mold-breaking as opposed to mold-refining) and that will probably remain true until one of them shows investors it can pull in what the big boys do.

I would like to see more sandbox elements in MMOs that are up-and-coming. I have doubts we’ll see them anytime soon.

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