January 29 2012
A while back we discussed the difference between themepark and sandbox MMORPGs, noting that the former model has been a great deal more financially successful than the latter in recent years. We haven't really seen a big-budget sandbox MMORPG since Star Wars Galaxies, which launched in 2003 and closed its doors, after many revisions, in 2011.
Could a game of this kind turn a profit in this day and age? There still seems to be a considerable number of people that would be willing to pay for a first-class open-world sandbox MMORPG.
Sandboxes Are Risky
Themepark games tend to rely largely on a "proven formula," or a collection of game mechanics that have been well-established in earlier games. We still haven't arrived at the same kind of formula for sandbox worlds, so expectations of them are much more varied. Sandbox fans have a set of ideals that are often contradictory, and there isn't always a practical way to implement them.
A good example of this is PvP combat. Some want it, some don't, so the themepark approach is to make it consensual by confining it to certain instances, zones, factions, and/or servers. It's an acceptable compromise for most themepark fans, but it's an immersion-breaking implementation of PvP for many very vocal sandbox fans, who envision something closer to free-for-all with full looting, in combination with employing it as a primary end-game activity. They want non-consensual PvP with significant consequences, and that's hard to sell to the PvE fans that make up a larger part of the potential audience.
Sandboxes Are Difficult
From both a design and a technical standpoint, sandbox worlds face greater challenges than their themepark brethren. They aspire to provide dynamic elements like player housing and player-made forts or cities, which is quite complicated in a persistent online world without using instances. Not many MMORPGs even attempt dynamic environments, but some do manage relatively simple staging effects, such as the destruction of the fort in WoW's Wintergrasp zone.
If you want players to be able to make more permanent changes, like building a bridge or cutting a path through the forest, the problems compound. Furthermore, if you make world-changing events a central feature, you run into the issue that those who aren't online when the event takes place miss out.
There are also significant technical hurtles to making online worlds more dynamic. You don't want people to have to download and install large patches for every little change, so you need a way to stream information about dynamic parts of the world to users on-the-fly. This rarely works very well, and tends to result in having objects pop into the environment right next to you. If you ever played Shadowbane you're undoubtedly familiar with this effect.
Another technical limitation that is often neglected when we dream about games is player population. You can have thousands of players in an online world as long as they're not all in the same place at the same time. If a big event brings even several hundred of them together, lag will start to interfere with gameplay. I'm sure many of you recall Wintergrasp before player limits were imposed, and you'd have as many as 4 or 5 raid groups on each side, which would be about 300-400 players in a single battle. The latency was truly epic until Blizzard capped the zone at 2 raid groups per side, or 160 players.
The flexible, player-driven systems that sandbox fans desire have their own inherent difficulties because it's hard to predict what players will do with these systems. There are many pitfalls here, such as skill balance and faction balance, that are easier to address in a more rigidly structured game. As well, player-driven systems break down very quickly if a game doesn't have a healthy population to support them.
It Will Happen
Sandboxes are difficult, but they're not impossible. I think it's safe to say that there will someday be another sandbox-style MMORPG that is a big hit. I doubt, however, that it will be a big-budget title, because "risky and difficult" simply can't procure the same level of funding as "tried and true." A smaller scale project will have to pave the way before anyone is willing to devote large sums to games of this kind. But I believe that day will come, and it could be a title such as Pathfinder Online that brings on new generation of sandbox MMORPGs. I'm also hopeful that improvements in technology will make a lot more things possible in the games of the future.