Thursday, October 11, 2007

Sand Boxes

The term "sandbox" gets thrown around in MMO discussions sometimes; in this case, it refers to games that do not force players into the normal treadmill gameplay of gaining power to get access to the next area, by instead offering an open world which players are free to explore as they wish. This has the advantage of being more immersive, but is often confusing to new players. World of Warcraft has proven that a low barrier of entry is a good policy for games aiming for a mass appeal.

But why would it be called a "sandbox"? True enough, a pit of sand is hardly the most exciting thing to expose players to, but it does offer a good analogy as to how to make a simple world be open.

Take a swing. Kids can swing from it. Inventive kids will try jumping from it, or maybe standing on them, but in the end, that's all there is to it. Swinging. Same thing for a slide. You slide down the slide. Trying to climb the slide just doesn't work. It's just a slide.

In a sand box, however, things are a bit different. You're not limited to only one thing. Most kids will want to play with the sand; building cities and castles. That's the core of the gameplay; most people who play MMOs do it for the adventuring. Some other kids will go
sculpting faces and animals, practicing their crafting skills. Some will just sit in the sand and chat with other kids. By their very presence, they make the sandbox a more social environment. Try chatting with a kid going down a slide, or building a castle out of a swing. Yeah, poor results.

Of course, there can be more to it. Kids will bring their trucks and dolls (sorry, action figures) and make-believe great stories. Stories of heroes going out to kill evil dragons. Stories of explorers finding new lands. Stories of imaginary people having great, imaginary adventures. That's what kids want, and it seems there's a bit of a child in all of us. A child who just wants to play in the sandbox again.

1 comment:

Talyn said...

I go 'round and 'round over this in my thoughts as well.

My first MMO was old-school SWG before all the changes a couple years ago. That was a sandbox. However it also had a lot of "ok, now what do I do?" moments, most of which were "solved" either by hopping on my speeder and seeing if I could find something new or by grinding mobs.

WoW, LOTRO, etc. all guide you along with quest icons so you know who to talk to to get tips or to tell you where to go next. Now, personally, even in those games I'll go off the beaten path and see what I can find, and I often end up in zones higher than I should be for my level at which point I run into the "mob barrier" I can no longer pass due to level aggro. So, in a sense, I'm "sandboxing" in a linear game, up to a point.

It's been proven the theme park games work, and linear games work. Sandbox games, on the other hand, have not yet proven they have what it takes to reach beyond a very niche market. A big part of that, I'm sure, is because the very few sandbox games to be released have also only appealed to a very niche market.

I think a "best of both worlds" approach would be the way to go, though. Give us the sandbox to play in but also give us the quests, the stories, whatever. Give us some direction or suggestions of places to go next but don't shove it down our throats; let us go anywhere we want and do anything our characters have the ability to do at the time.

Which, of course, means Step 1 is eliminating levels...