Drawing a line in the sand(box)

The defining factor that differentiates a sandbox from a themepark is an end goal. Wait, Fallout games are considered sandboxes aren’t they? Okay, so the defining factor that differentiates a sandbox from a themepark MMO is and end goal. Different rules for different genres, I am on board with that, and it makes sense to apply them as such. So, if we proceed with that being the line upon which genre-specific titles fall, then we have a clear definition and understanding of what to expect.

Except things are never that simple.

In the typical sandbox, you set out with a decision of “what do I want to DO?”. Pick a vocation of sorts, or just a type of gameplay, and you can go have at it. Want to be a space tailor? Have at it! Want to be a bar-room dancer? You can still do it, but not as well as you used to. Build ships and sail the open seas, braving the ocean depths with each league? I think you can do that, in a limited fashion at least.  You can play a pirate (space or sea), a trader, a craftsman, a bar owner, an entertainer, a warrior, an assassin, a leader, a manager, an economist, or even a farmer in some games. The goal behind the sandbox is to provide you options of how to play in the world. In themeparks your options are more limited, or sometimes it’s the world that’s limited. What happens when a themepark becomes astoundingly huge, and your options of what you want to play are exhaustive?

This is the question I’ve been bouncing around in my skull for the past couple weeks, and I haven’t really come up with a clear answer.

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Where is this all going?

Hand

I can’t help but wonder what route MMOs are going in the future. We have games like Rift, that are revolutionary in their playability, and polish – changing the perception of the industry only releasing rough products, but at the same time, reinforcing the same repetitive themepark PvE gameplay that has been done ad nauseam. As players, is this really what we’re all looking for? Am I so singular in my tastes that the style of Rift is something I can only take in small, irregular doses? Have we, as a gaming community come to the point of development that we want to be guided by a nose ring to each “event” in a game? I can’t help but look at what is constantly released, and think to myself, that the game creators obviously seem to think this is what we want.

I’m over this paradigm.

I don’t want levels anymore. I don’t want zone lines, or explicit groups, or dungeons, or scripted raids. I don’t taunts/detaunts, I don’t want traditional aggro mechanics where one guy takes a beating while everyone else supports him. I don’t want a finite number of repeatable, divided playrooms that hold no permanent impact beyond the couple of minutes or hours I put into the task. I don’t want to be pigeon-holed into one specific style of play, and I don’t want to be coddled from my mistakes.

I want the freedom to cause myself more troubles further down the road.  I want the tree I chop down for lumber to actually be chopped down. I want that steel broadsword I forged after spending months mastering the skill to last the rest of my character’s life. I want to take that sword to an enchanter to imbue it with magical properties. I want to name my sword, and have it be a part of the character of my avatar, as iconic and intrinsic to who my avatar is as his eye color and race. I want my corner of the world/universe to really be just a corner of a greater, far-reaching, MASSIVE whole. Just a portion of a system that functions beyond my understanding, and that I will only find out about if I go and discover it first hand. I want that discovery to take time, travel needs to be actual travel. Going to the south of the continent? The quick way is by boat, the slow way is by horse, and if you expect that horse to run the whole way, you’ll be in for a surprise when it drops dead of exhaustion.

I don’t know if those things are possible anymore. The existence of recording programs, screen-shots, proliferation of internet and refinement of search tools may have just created too much information access to be able to adhere to any of my above desires. Others though, surely must still be able to be retained, and are separate from information propagation. None of those things seem to be what developers are trying to make though. The majority seem to be “telling a story”, or “crafting an experience”, or “guiding the fun”. It seems to me though, that the more explicitly these things are trying to be artificially engineered, the further they get from hitting the mark.

Basket

Because it works.

Players stopped wanting to work for reward, and companies saw profit in facsimileing achievement through faux effort. They were right, and profit has been achieved – at least for those who disguised the effortless achievement well enough. So, MMOs have become more about gaming, and less about player habitation in the environments. I’ve talked about what I see as the difference between games and MMOs. I’ve talked about the difference between virtual worlds and games. Both of those concepts form legs of the entire reasoning of what I believe has caused the divergent path the genre is headed on, and I do mean divergent. The genre started as a graphical realization of the free form games played on pencil and paper, or (more chronologically relevant) in text via telnet clients. The place where MMOs are going now, is not the natural predecessor of those limitless worlds.

I remember reading an article when in I was in highschool, about the fundamental differences between JRPG’s (Japanese RPG’s – i.e. Final Fantasy, Fantasy Star, etc…) and WRPGs (Western RPG’s – i.e. Fallout, NWN, etc…). It highlighted the linear, singular path available in most JRPG’s contrasted with the more free-roam, open-ended WRPG’s. Where one focused on telling a very specific story, the other told the story, but let you influence how the story was told. The themepark MMOs of now are as much different from what was originally idealized, and are as different as JRPG’s are from WRPG’s. Today’s MMO games are limited, walled off, and narrow, artificial boundaries abound, and prevent the player from experiencing anything outside of the predetermined experience envisioned by the creator of the game,and that runs counter to what it is I love about these games, as well as my oft-written statement of “options are good”.

So, is the entire genre headed to a themepark guided “bliss” of queues and sanitized experiences that you and thousands of others can “share” via identical experiences separated by actual cooperation? With games like Rift being as big of an initial hit as it is, and the temporarily abated fervor of SW:TOR, it seems that way. Players want to play alone, but they want to be alone with everyone else. There’s an apparent desire for all the trappings of a single player game, but with the inclusiveness and Scooby Snacks of progressive accomplishments, but none of the collaborative effort that makes those prizes actually rewarding.

Hell

There’s a large part of me that hopes Zynga keeps exploding, and takes up so much of the market that it will be very clear that what the believed segment of MMO players were, was actually just a lot of people who enjoyed some games. I love the MMO genre, but what it’s turning into, is something that I don’t really recognize on the whole. It’s become a beast of monotony and repetition, brimming with illusory prizes and illusionary accomplishments. If it means that the bottom has to fall out for companies to get a realistic read on the customer base for players who actually want virtual worlds, then so be it.

Of course, maybe that’s already happened, and that’s why what’s happening, is happening.

WAR is not a good MMO

But it is an amazing GAME.

Okay, so the title was intentionally sensationalist, but that doesn’t mean my point is wrong. I want you to reread the title of this post, and that first line again.

When I think of what an MMO is, or is supposed to be, I think of a virtual world. An electronic location created with rules and systems in place that continues in motion regardless of my participation. A series of interconnected systems that influences one another to create a place where players LIVE a second life. This is a topic that has been getting bandied about the last few months by some well-known bloggers as well as some industry people, and various other folk.

The gaming genres were historically broken into very distinct and separate categories. RPGs had levels, stats, character progression, classes (black wizard anyone?), and lots of dialog. Shooters were first-person view, with all the gore they could muster, and roaming monsters that begged the player to blow them into juicy meat-morsels. Except now, we’re seeing a bleed across genre lines. Dead space was gory (and scary) as hell, but there were methods of leveling up, and progression, as well as numerical stats to follow. FPSs are going the same way. Every modern FPS game in the last couple years have had progression elements, with different kits, or jobs, and ranks that unlock new gadgets, weapons, or peripherals. The same bleed is happening with MMOs.

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