A Better MMO

Kaylriene recently posted on Sandboxes and Themeparks. I love reading the different perspectives people have on this sort of topic. World view can be so incredibly different based on your own experiences and when you started. This particular topic was one once near and dear to my heart, too. Reading Kaylriene’s post appears to have restoked the coals. So. *cracks knuckles* Let’s do this.

I agree with much of what Kaylriene wrote — but I never thought I would see the day where any iteration of WoW was accused of falling into the ‘Sandbox’ camp. I can agree though that WoW Classic was certainly further toward the sandbox end of the Sandbox <—-> Themepark continuum though.

Eventually I want to give my own take on what a better MMO formula might look like. But first… There was an assumption that we’re all on the same page on the definitions though, and I’m not absolutely certain that’s true. So defining our terms to talk on the same page might be helpful after all.

Sandbox Games

Sandbox MMOs rely heavily on principles of emergent gameplay and player-driven story creation. Rather than tell a story of a war through a scripted quest chain, the sandbox MMO developer is more likely to create a system where guilds may officially declare war on each other. Then allow for land ownership and scarcity of certain resources to drive the conflict.

Without the rails allowed by the theme park style of MMO, there is often a strong element of players needing to find their own fun and set their own goals.

Ultima Online and Asheron’s Call were early examples of this style — with EVE perhaps still holding top dog spot for this style of MMO at present.

Outside of the MMO space, you can see examples of this concept too — Minecraft being a big one. And the slew of survival-esque games that followed.

Theme Park Games

By comparison, theme park games tend to be more of a directed experience. You are passed around from NPC to NPC, each with their own story to tell and set of specific actions you need to complete for them.

Your goals are often set for you and rather than making stories, you are being told stories.

World of Warcraft — including Classic, I would contend — falls into this camp. Final Fantasy XIV, Elder Scrolls Online and truthfully, most of the big MMOs today.

Sandbox and Themepark aren’t Binary Though

A game doesn’t necessarily have to fall into a single camp. It isn’t just one or the other. Games can absolutely layer directed content over a player-reactive world. Even WoW contains some elements of each.

Or, you can simply choose to ignore the theme park entirely and go wandering through the garden. This doesn’t necessarily increase player agency or world reactivity, but it pushes the needle a little further toward the sandbox end by having the player find their own fun.

My Ideal MMO Looks Like…

A world first and foremost. A place to virtually live. A place you can settle and build onto — even if this comes with limitations on place, so as not to create a littered landscape.

Give it an economy similar to EVEs — where players of all skill levels can contribute in some fashion, even if it is simply in the creation of component pieces that other players would then turn into the end products usable by still other players again. And ensure there is a mechanism by which these created products can leave the economy again.

You might be with me so far. I suspect I’ll begin to lose a few more people here though — so I’ll note that the next aspects aren’t strictly speaking necessary for a ‘sandbox’ experience. Just my ideal version of one. :)

Location should matter as a core tenet of the game. I’m not entirely against fast travel, but I am against fast travel that requires no decision making on the part of the player. What do I mean by this? Well, for example in Asheron’s Call you could recall or open portals to a very limited number of locations.

You could bind to a dungeon that you wanted to go to, and then summon a group in as a form of makeshift LFG if you wanted. But this was a choice you had to make and it had an opportunity cost against binding to another place. Otherwise you moved on the power of your own feet through a seamless world.

Global storage if it exists at all should be minimal, getting the necessary resources from place to place an undertaking that carries risk and requires some forethought.

There is more I would like, but many of them orient around being a PvP game. And as much value as that can add, I no longer view it as a necessary component. So this is the detailing of the sandbox elements more or less.

Now, throw on the Theme Park! Layer it all over the top like a fine sauce.

Bring on the quest driven stories. Make the people of the land matter with their own needs and stories to tell.

Bring on dungeons and instanced raids (although world bosses should absolutely also be a thing)!

Annnnnd I’ve done a terrible job of explaining my vision — turns out this isn’t the sort of post I should try work on over lunch at work. I didn’t fully finish it there, but then a late night tonight due to heading out for one of my sons’ Birthday has also lead to less time on this than I would like.

But you know what? It occurred to me just how much I was (attempting) to explain the vision behind the Ashes of Creation MMO. Which is no doubt why they managed to extract a Kickstarter backing from me. So perhaps go read their description as well for an additional view of what I mean — although they also talk to the dynamic aspects which I haven’t raised at all.

I don’t know if we’ll ever see Ashes of Creation in our lifetime. Or if it does come out in an MMO form whether it will even remotely resemble the promises. I’m well over the stage in my life where I was content to hype and hope and wait for an MMO.

But still… If it does. It could be a beautiful thing.

The Ashes of Creation Kickstarter video that took my money!

Kickstarter 10 Years Old

I may’ve missed the fact Kickstarter just had it’s 10th birthday entirely if not for Kim’s post over at Later Levels. It’s a service I’ve fallen away from over the years. I don’t tend to go actively looking for interesting projects like I once did. Kim says, “Although the quantity and quality of video game campaigns has declined recently” which I find interesting because while I agree with the sentiment — I wasn’t sure whether it was a reality or just a perception born of my inactivity on the site.

Certainly the media frenzy that once existed highlighting every other game to go on Kickstarter has died down. But is this a shift in interest, or as Kim says, an actual reduction in quality and quantity?

In any case, that’s not actually the focus of this post! Kim also went through quite a nice retrospective of the titles she has backed over the years and I’d like to shamelessly copy the idea and do the same. ;)

While I’ve also backed the odd thing on Fig or elsewhere over the years — I’ll keep this one Kickstarter-centric.

First Backed: Planetary Annihilation

Clearly I haven’t been using Kickstarter myself for 10 years, as my first backed project, Planetary Annihilation went up August 2012.

Unfortunately this is a serious contender for the ‘Most disappointing’ backed project as well. The original title has since been pulled from sale, and the ‘Standalone Expansion’ / ‘Oops, let me fix that’ release Planetary Annihilation: TITANS remains in its place.

It was a game of big ideas, coming in to save us from the relative disappointment of Supreme Commander 2 from a couple of years prior. Now we were talking whole planets. Asteroids you could strap rockets onto and use as WMDs.

The concepts were excellent. The execution considerably less so, although I will admit I’ve given almost no time to TITANS. It came out a year or two after the original and while given to free for owners of the original, it didn’t appear to be enough of an improvement to warrant a serious look-in.

Best Backed: RimWorld

Looking back over my 25 backed projects (including 3 unsuccessful projects), I realise I’ve been very lucky. There are a great many amazing titles in that list.

Had I not backed RimWorld I would be really, really hard pressed to make a decision. Fortunately, I did back RimWorld so the choice is easy. It launched onto Kickstarter October 2013 at a time when there had been a recent glut of Dwarf Fortress-alikes, but none that could really capture the essence of it.

I’d say it was less a genre and more a series of failed and abandoned experiments. I couldn’t tell you now, why in that context I would have backed RimWorld. I don’t recall what I saw in it that set it apart. Possibly I was still just holding on to some final shred of optimism? ;)

Whatever the reason might’ve been — RimWorld is an amazing experience. I don’t know how many hours I’ve given to this title in the alpha’s before Steam, but it would be… a lot.

If you’re remotely interested in the Colony Survival concept, I can’t recommend this one enough.

Worst Backed: Underworld Ascendant

Sigh.

I think the biggest issue here is one of expectations vs. reality. I don’t feel that they were unwarranted expectations, though. This is from some of the minds behind the original Ultima Underworld series (to which this is a spiritual successor), behind System Shock. Thief.

I would struggle to go all the way to saying Underworld Ascendant is bad, at least not if you can get around all the crash bugs. But it is aggressively mediocre in everything it does.

Still… At least it came out?

Least Likely to Ever Release: The Mandate

It was to be a SciFi RPG. In Spaaaaaaaaaaaace. There was a combat focus to it, you were to be able to upgrade and replace your ship like you might expect in a title of its sort. Space station building was to be in like the X series. There was also to be a heavy crew-focused element to it.

In some ways, I imagine the concept of the game to be similar to what Star Traders: Frontiers has given us, but in a 3D format. (As a side note, Star Traders is fantastic with a pretty impressive rate to updates.)

But uh… The last update was April 2017, talking to the reduction in team down to just a ‘core’. It was still set to continue, but the surveys at the time were very focused around concept simplification — to such a degree that the resemblance to the original concept was becoming minimal.

I no longer expect to see anything from this project, but if anything does come of it — it likely won’t be the original idea we bought into. And this should serve as a timely reminder to all that Kickstarter (and similar) is not a pre-order service.

Latest Backed: Ashes of Creation

I backed this one May 2017, and I remember clearly thinking I wasn’t going to get my hopes up. MMO projects in particular have burnt me in the past. But even so, I liked the ideas they seemed to be chasing.

Ideas around a dynamic world, impacted by players and where/how they chose to build up. They wanted to drive an economy where trade and transport were real considerations.

So far I’ve not seen anything particularly promising. They’ve worked on a battle royale I suppose as a test of the technology and classes.

It may one day come to something, but I’ve well and truly learnt my lesson where new MMOs are concerned. Wait and see, and seeing is believing. Just don’t get invested until that’s possible. ;)