View Full Version : Sandbox MMOs - the future?

18-06-2011, 04:40 PM
Hey good folks of the RPS community!

So I recently posted this comment (http://www.rockpapershotgun.com/2011/06/18/gaming-made-me-everquest/#comment-720187) on sandbox MMOs in the EverQuest atricle. But it turned into a long one, and that wasn't the right place to have a discussion. Here it is (slightly edited).

I am very tired of the themepark-style MMO games as well. But there is hope!In the last years, there have been more and more sandbox-style MMOs in the making, mostly worked on by small independent developers. Some of them have tried and failed, but most of them are slowly evolving and working out the kinks. I think this is the future of MMOs when the technology is sufficient and people have started to tire of the same, rather meaningless grind. These games actually have a greater purpose to your actions:

Take Mortal Online (http://www.mortalonline.com/)for example. It’s very much based on what the devs (StarVault) liked about Anarchy Online. Go where you want, claim what land you want, fight whoever you want – and all on a single-shard server and with a very advanced combat system (momentum, relative speed, hitboxes). And no silly “go to X kill Y pick up Z” -quests (but soon there will be player-created ones, much like the ‘Contacts’ of Eve Online). It just needs a bit more sand in the box, so to speak – and hopefully StarVault will be able to recover from the cost of licensing the UE3 engine etc.

There’s also Wurm Online (http://www.wurmonline.com/). Yes, it’s somewhat broken as a game, with lots of strange and some downright bad gameplay decisions. And due to this, it also suffers from low player numbers. However, it’s slowly rising from what I can hear. But it has full player control of the world and some really interesting social features. You can terraform, cut down trees, build houses from the wood, dig kilometre-long tunnels or canals, forts and almost anything else in the way of world-shaping you can think of. And you can do it anywhere. It has that pure, settler-feeling that just makes you want to get out into the deep forests and build something magnificent (RPS has covered Wurm a few times: http://www.rockpapershotgun.com/tag/wurm-online/ ). Sounds familiar? Notch of Minecraft worked on Wurm Online a few years back, together with his friend Rolf who is the main developer of Wurm. You could see this as the ‘hardcore MMO’ version of Minecraft. The game is very reliant on free community contributions due to the small devteam. But back to gameplay! The three warring kingdoms on the Wild server are all run by player-elected kings, leading to some with actual diplomacy political activity. Deserters, turncoats and other intrigues happen quite often.

There are more sandbox MMOs out there that I haven’t personally played, so I cant say a whole lot about them.

But now we just need a large games company to get over the risk-thinking and actually invest in something like this. Look at the successes and mistakes of these pioneering indies, and learn from it. Hopefully without destroying the feeling of freedom and greater purpose that these games do so well, in the name of ‘accessibility’ and all that.

Yes, this was somewhat inspired by that really old dream-game that so many in the games industry share (and me); "World of EveCraft" (http://www.rockpapershotgun.com/2007/10/19/world-of-evecraft/). It's way overdue. ;)

Maby this is just me being a bit dreamy and over-optimistic, but you can't take my dreams, damn you (now that I've written them down you can though, I guess)!

I would personally love to see a mix of Eve's background game mechanics, the combat and grittiness of Mortal Online and the near-endless world-shaping possibilities of Wurm Online. And why not put it in a fictional western gold-rush era? I think it would fit very nicely.
Consider this: bandit gangs, greedy entrepreneurs, corrupt sheriffs, prospectors, trappers, raiding native-americans, mining corporations, rail-roads, makeshift pioneer towns - all made and run by players, for players (or against them depending on relations :p). With joinable pre-existing factions warring over territory control and resources (US Army, Mexicans, native-american tribes etc), as well as minor player-created ones (these could be gangs, towns, corporations or simmilar). All on a huge, terraformable map with several, smoothly transitioned biospheres (desert, pine forest, mountains, canyons etc) and real focus on survival (eating (good for you), drinking (or you die), sleeping (also a good idea)).

What are your thoughts on this? Ideas? Your favourite Sandbox MMO (or Sandbox Multiplayer for that matter)? Or tell us what your dream MMO would be like. Hopes for the future.


18-06-2011, 07:31 PM
I'm fairly sick of the subject after 10+ years of disappointment, but here. A somewhat realistic dream for a sandbox MMO:

1) See PvP? Take PvP. Now throw it out the fucking door. No PvP! Bad game designer! Very bad!

2) Make a really fun newbie experience. Your should spend a ridiculous amount of time polishing the first few hours of the game, making a great interface, doing everything you can to make the game approachable. No sacrificing of deep, complex features, just a gentle learning curve and an enjoyable experience for everyone.

3) Instead of PKs to add an element of danger, monsters should be scary and unpredictable once you enter the real world. Killing stuff usually requires cooperation. Traveling alone from city to city is probably suicide, unless the route is regularly patrolled.

4) Now implement all the cool sandboxy features you don't need me to mention (dynamic economy, player-built everything, diverse scarce resources scattered around a huge world, fill in the blanks with whatever you want). There should be lots and lots of stuff to learn and do without traveling far outside your city. In particular, make the game a cooperative struggle against the monsters, emphasizing the defense and supply of each city.

18-06-2011, 07:56 PM
I could see that working, TillEulenspiegel. A co-operative Sandbox MMO. Would circumvent most (if not all) problems with griefing. :)

Perhaps add interesting server-wide events like mobs invading (but never the starting area, mind you), and entrenching in procedurally generated forts and whatnot - making it even more important for players to work together to meet the threat and push it back.

But this would probably be one of the biggest hurdles to overcome; making the AI. It would have to be top-notch and be able to do advanced actions and work/stay in groups and behave in a believable manner. All this in the most streamlined way possible not to put too much load on the server(s?). But it could definitely be done with some clever game-designing.

Also, PvP on demand. Duels and sparring practice. Arenas with tournaments! You understand what I mean. Would have to be a bit gimped not to make it too unbalanced (no PvE abilities and that), however...

Or! A compromise. Make it possible to play both exclusively PvE or PvP or mixed. In a way similar to EVE (security zones, the PvE zone in the middle or border of the world), but with a bit extra focus on the PvE aspects as you describe. Of course, this could make it feel like you're only playing half the game when PvE:ing (due to only seeing part of the world), as well as create balancing issues between PvP and PvE. So maby not, after all.

18-06-2011, 07:57 PM
I KNOW. God. Basically, if you slotted Stalker and Wurm Online together like two stacks of cards, you'd find upon compiling the code that it prints fucking money. Everybody wants this, and no-one has made it yet.

18-06-2011, 08:05 PM
Exactly my point, tomeofton! There are so many game universes that would fit really well in a sandbox MMO environment. :D

18-06-2011, 08:07 PM
I'm fairly sick of the subject after 10+ years of disappointment, but here. A somewhat realistic dream for a sandbox MMO:

1) See PvP? Take PvP. Now throw it out the fucking door. No PvP! Bad game designer! Very bad!

Now I'd say that taking away PvP would be a hugely detrimental move. Since the main idea of an MMO is that you're playing with a huge amount of other people not being able to interact with those people in a way you interact with most of the rest of the world (Combat) would just be stupid.
I know PvP is far from perfect in many, many MMOs but I really don't think the solution is to get rid of it completely. The reason I don't like PvP in MMOs is because it's so stat dependant; the person with the highest numbers is always going to win (This is the bad game design decisions in my opinion). Now I know people will want me burned at the stake for wanting RPG elements taken out of PvP in MMOs but that's just the way I see it. For example, when playing Warband I have a hell of a time fighting other players, but on the cRPG mod it's pure torture, 70% of the time you die to other people because they are a higher level than you and have a better character but on the native multiplayer you die to people because of your own personal skill or tactic choice (Running at archers with no shield).

19-06-2011, 12:49 AM
For example, when playing Warband I have a hell of a time fighting other players, but on the cRPG mod it's pure torture, 70% of the time you die to other people because they are a higher level than you and have a better character but on the native multiplayer you die to people because of your own personal skill or tactic choice (Running at archers with no shield).

Personally, I always enjoyed fighting knights with nothing more than a butchering knife, a bag of stones and my trusty two-handed axe (called it my tin-can opener) in cRPG. But that's just me trying to be different form all the top-level players I guess. :)

It did get tedious pretty fast however. cRPG is largely about the grind for better equipment and the next level - that's what's making many people play it like it is a drug, and the same goes for most "theme park" MMOs. There's always a new incentive for gaining just one more level. With a pay-to-play approach with subscriptions, this is partly what makes these types of MMOs so lucrative.

Removing the importance of stats would indeed level the playing field - but it would also remove a part of what hooks people on playing your game instead of switching to another. I think this is why many large companies are unwilling to drop this model. It's just so lucrative. I personally wouldn't mind reducing (removing completely feels like to big of a step and would be counter-intuitive for specialized combat if everyone could do everything equally, not to mention the RP aspect) the importance of stats on PvP - I think it could very much help new players enjoy the game more easily without removing all skill/gear progression rewards for the veterans - if done right. Instead of just getting better at something with time, why not specialize? You get better at something, but worse at something else. It would be a very fine balance though, and it's risky.

Eve Online circumvents this problem by using different-sized ship hulls. A newbie in a Frigate can't kill a veteran in a Battleship (Battleships has too good of a tank for the puny frigate guns); but nor can the veteran kill the newbie (the Frigate is too fast for the Battleship's guns to track). But they both have something to contribute to their respective fleets. You can't go from Battleship to Frigate in the middle of space, you have to dock and change ship with different stats and specializations (effectively changing your class).

This is harder to do for a more "down to earth MMO" so to speak. Because you are only one person. One skill set. One specialization. One inventory. You don't grow larger with time like you do in EVE (if you go for the big ships with time that is). But why not let the newbies start out as light fighters? Like in EVE, they would be nimble and fast, and could easily outrun and outmanoeuvre the veteran players in their heavy armour. But their weapons and overall damage wouldn't be enough to hurt the veteran in his shiny armour. Nor would they want to get within his reach. Still, there would have to be something stopping the veteran from simply taking his armour off and outrun the lesser-skilled and under-equipped newbies, killing them with his two-handed sword or whatever. Being good at heavy armour makes you worse at running fast? Or maby just the weight of it in your inventory enough to bog you down? Why wouldn't a light player be able to use a huge two-handed axe? It drains his stamina so he can't run/it's too slow? Maby. There's also the ranged combat to take into consideration. What would stop those ranged builds from dropping newbies like flies from afar? So many questions and I'm not sure I know all the answers yet. But with enough thought and cleverly made game mechanics I think it can be worked out.

There's also the whole trouble of making a skill-based fighting mechanic on large MMO servers, since they tend to lag and be heavily loaded a lot of the time. I think this is why many older MMOs go with dice-rolls, stats and math. It's much less work for the server (as opposed to sending and receiving data-intensive network packages constantly when somebody is fighting). But Mortal Online have made some progress on this front. So it might just be feasible yet.

Maby I should start writing this down somewhere as I come up with theoretical answers to these questions (other than on RPS). :P

19-06-2011, 02:21 AM
TillEulenspiegel, I think you very nearly mirrored my own dream sandbox MMO.

For years now I've yearned to have a great sandbox co-operative experience with my friends, either on a private server or something big and MMO-oriented. But unfortunately, all the sandbox MMOs have been hardcore stress-fest PvP games, with hefty death penalties that make them totally out of reach for me in my need to relax in my spare time.

One thing I will disagree on, however, is that I don't think simple travel outside of towns should be a co-operative necessity. I almost always play as a duo with my partner, but even as such, I feel a heavy requirement to always be grouped with someone else could really kill my and many others desire to be in the world. Leaving you feeling trapped and impotent. Perhaps just save the co-operative focus for the more far flung reaches away from civilization, and that would give a better mix, in my opinion.

19-06-2011, 05:14 PM
Yeah, MMOs have been pretty disappointing. Wurm seemed like a great MMO but after 4 hours of playing I was unable to find an unclaimed scrap of land, most of the towns were abandoned, and there was simply nothing to do but explore.

Guild Wars is still pretty fun, but I can't motivate myself to play any characters other than my level 20. It's simply boring.

I was talking with my dad the other day about my frustration with MMOs. I told him that I wanted an MMO that broke the rules. I don't want to just be another faceless player with the same armor and the same spells and the same appearance as every other player in the game. I wanted to be able to find an ancient cave, glistening with arcane power, that holds the secret to inter-dimensional portals. I want to be able to become a dark lord, ruling over the other players until they discover my secret and overthrow me. I want to be able to become an assassin, taking incredibly dangerous jobs to eliminate players. I want players who get banned to just be cast into another dimension, a type of underworld where they can still play but it's separate from the main servers. Perhaps there's a tear in space that evil mages can exploit to create a gate from the underworld to the main server, forcing the good players to band together to repel the invasion from hell.

I realize that my "dream MMO" would be incredibly difficult to make, let alone balance. But I just want an MMO where I can actually create a unique story rather than follow the well-worn string of quests that millions of other players have completed.

19-06-2011, 07:18 PM
I wouldn't play a sandbox MMO without decent PvP. In fact I can't really see another reason to play one.

Eve, for a while there, was exactly what I wanted from a game, but it seems to have evolved past a sweet-spot where I could game as I wanted. I wrote about that extensively in my post-mortem of Statecorp.

What I'd really like to see is a proper territory-based MMO, something where it would be impossible for the larger groups to wholly dominate territory control. What Eve's territory system couldn't quite manage was breaking up the territory to allow smaller groups in. A game that did that and had interesting small-scale combat would be the game for me.

19-06-2011, 08:55 PM
I wouldn't play a sandbox MMO without decent PvP. In fact I can't really see another reason to play one.
Open free-for-all PvP, or controlled? If the former, see every sandbox MMO out there. Darkfall was pretty good when I played it in its first month, I can only imagine it's much better by now. Combat was great fun. Being ganked in town by a member of a guild which had unilaterally declared war on your guild...wasn't fun.

19-06-2011, 10:29 PM
What I'd really like to see is a proper territory-based MMO, something where it would be impossible for the larger groups to wholly dominate territory control. What Eve's territory system couldn't quite manage was breaking up the territory to allow smaller groups in. A game that did that and had interesting small-scale combat would be the game for me.
This. EVE has been getting better at letting minor corps/alliances in with the sovereignty changes, but the blobwars still occur often. Having minor gangs or groups fight over smaller turfs would indeed be more interesting than having, say, the two groups with the largest player-base fight each other endlessly over the same area/resource, wiping out any minors who won't join them, as so often happens in these games. It could be as simple as making logistics and support/communication harder (and thus making attacking it easier) as your territory expands.

This could also be a good way of keeping the number of participants in a single fight down. I mean, even EVE has problems with huge amounts of players fighting in the same area. A more down-to-earth MMO with any kind of sophisticated combat system would have a hard time not overloading the server node when a large amount of players are fighting in the same spot. With smaller groups doing skirmish-type fighting, this wouldn't be a problem.

Darkfall was pretty good when I played it in its first month, I can only imagine it's much better by now.
From what I've heard of others, the endgame in Darkfall isn't very good. It ended up with everyone being skilled at everything (all combat class types in a single char I guess?) and having their item storages filled with the best armours and weapons. I.e. huge newbie - veteran gaps and no real consequence in PvP (since you can just go pick up another set of the same armour if you die). This would be a result of the problem that I talked about in an earlier post. The one that EVE Online circumvents with different-sized ship hulls and clever game-mechanics.

But I really cannot say for sure since I haven't actually played Darkfall myself...

19-06-2011, 10:48 PM
On the subject of combat within an MMO I'd really like to see something like Warband's combat. I'm not sure just how possible that would be given that in an MMO you'd be playing people form all over the world and ping differences in Warband are pretty damn important.

I think Mortal had a good crack at something different, one on one combat can be pretty good in that (I beat a knight to death with my fists at one point in beta) but it's when there are loads of people fighting that things get a bit iffy. I just don't think FPV melee combat works with a large amount of players, maybe it does in different environments (Dark Messiah, PVKii) but not really one with the depth of an MMORPG.

So perhaps sometime in the future when our internet speeds are so good that people don't even stop to think about internet speeds we might have Warband's twitchy combat. And no, melee combat where it's just one type of attack and one type of block just won't do.

20-06-2011, 03:32 PM
Remember Seed? Seed? Remember Seed? This Seed.


Virtually the reverse of what you're talking about.

A sandbox MMO can't be a sandbox without player killing, but the consequences for killing your enemy should be different when it's done on a battlefield or up an alley.

20-06-2011, 05:31 PM
Nice to read these threads once every so often. And as I am (with a few friends) interested in developing an MMO devoid of NPCs centered fully on player interaction / diplomacy / construction it's good to read about those developments.

We've been going at it for a long time and though we are still finishing our respective studies (game design, art school, music) your ideas are so strongly echoing our thoughts up to here. And meanwhile we'd come up with some great ideas that have found their life in other mmos, there's plenty left for us to pick up on: so here's some recent ones you might like:

- Instead of having weapons with specific properties that are pre-set or even random such as in Borderlands; it would be crazy if your weapon was called 'Kingslayer' because someone killed a king with it and you happened to catch the assassin. Weapon bonuses coming from the history of the weapon and its usage.

- Including how the weapon is forged, instead of a simple smithy you could take your little party of three with its newest member who you want to introduce to the game by taking him to a big volcano in order to forge that first sword of his.

- And later on, when he has grown into this; and you have stumbled upon a great artifact that allows you to build your own vehicle, showing this to him in your workshop. When his dagger plunges into your backside so he can take that artifact from you, it will be imbued with this deed of backstabbing your closest friend.

Now, just as a sidenote; we need money ;)


20-06-2011, 05:52 PM
Actually, not to make that money comment sound dickish. Myself I've just invested in making a short movie that is related to the 'canon' of the game itself, if it works out as planned we'd like to turn this into a series. We're thinking hard about how to finance this project, which will be a go between building a world (or IP as those finance people like it) and story that might seduce investors, prototyping gameplay elements by making smaller games (hopefully capable of being 'merged' into the main game) hopefully seducing player base; and generally we are considering crowdfunding options like kickstarter.

The problem is the scale of an MMO, doing it right, finding ways to be novel without alienating too many people is also pretty hard.

20-06-2011, 06:24 PM
I do like the idea about weapons (Would be interesting if the same could be applied to other items), what Fable 3 tried to do with weapons springs to mind; more as an example of how not to do it since every weapon that morphed for me just looked ugly and silly. I would have preferred it if the weapons had more subtle changes to them which told their story, but such things are a little wasted in a single player centric game.

And good luck with financing your project. At the moment the they Minecraft was financed (Buy cheaper now and get all future updates and such free) seems to be the number one method of acquiring funding for indie projects but I can't really see how that would work with an MMO.

20-06-2011, 06:27 PM
That sounds very intriguing, AlexanderM!
What type of a setting were you thinking of using for the game? Sounds like a bit of a fantasy/steampunk fusion (sword smithery and vehicle artefacts), which would be quite a refreshing thing.

I like the idea of the event-based item naming. Problem would be coding it. It's going to be hard to make the game recognize the 'story' behind the weapon and whatnot. But you may want to have a look at Wurm Online regarding this; it gives your character titles for great achievements in the game. 'John the Giantslayer' or 'Master Carpenter John' for example (most of these are pretty simple though). And if I recall correctly; kingdom leaders are able to give out titles as well.

And I personally don't mind NPCs in Sandbox MMOs. As long as they only serve as "slaves" or perform the very undesirable jobs. A player hiring an NPC shop keep to sell his store's goods while he is not logged in or a tutorial/guide NPC giving newbies some tips for example.

Many of the current indie-developed MMOs started out as projects like this. I'm sure you'll be able to gather the resources you need to get going sooner or later!

Make sure to put up a link whenever that video is finished. :)

20-06-2011, 07:44 PM
Yeah the title system that Wurm has bears some resemblance. I think Wurm is actually quite interesting but has some horrible interaction design, some gamedesigners forget how punishing an experience can be for those unfamiliar with their ideas. Technically I have some ideas how to make 'events' significant in the game, it has something to do with datamining. I'd like to experiment with connecting this to 'variations' in regular behavior of the player (backstabbing your friend for example would be a significant data point). But it needs to be prototyped.

I have spent ages thinking about involving players in a role of 'guide' and 'tutorial' and I'd rather make that work than implement a computerized system for it. Promoting the proper behavior for a 'guide' seems quite interesting to me. Also I think if it works properly it makes for a beautiful starting experience.

Yeah, we just finished mixing the movie last weekend and I've hardly had any sleep since we finished somewhere 9 in the morning; the next few months will be quite interesting I guess with the reception of it. There will be a website dedicated to it that involves an online linear video editor.

The idea is not necessarily about the 'visuals' of the weapon, rather than to associate the 'qualities' (or stats) of a weapon with actual events from the game. Instead of just finding novel ways to name swords, it would be far more interesting to create a novel player experience by relating the history and use of an item to its qualities.

Generally speaking this is the essence of the project we'd like to build. A game that you can hear someone talking about in the train as if he'd just had a proper once-in-a-lifetime experience. With your only clue as to it being a game: the fact that those things couldn't happen in real life. The subtext of this being that the game should be about having a unique adventure that is emergent and procedural. As gamedesigners we'll be more involved in understanding what makes player facilitation and communication tick (such as emergent cooperation in Eve) than we are in making heaps of so called 'content' that is in truth just expendable. Having thousands of players is really a content farm that cannot be equalled by a team of designers; instead we should behave as loving sheperds in order to maintain some sort of vision.

I personally have no love for stereotypical fantasy or science fiction; so we'll be trying to have much of both. We'll have a lot of desert actually. Flying motorcycles. And swords. But you might have to excavate them first.