Thursday, 30 April 2009

Sandboxes and little girls

Tobold is a blogger I very much admire. Not only does he have the ability to see key issues and summarise them but he is great at starting interesting discussions.

This was very much the case this time when Tobold reported on Dr Richard Bartle's keynote speech at the Game Designer's Conference.

Dr Bartle is a provocative and controversial figure in the games design blogosphere. He ran MUD1 back in the prehistory of the MMO genre and has been an academic and writer on the subject ever since.

Here are some Bartle links

Career summary
His site
I've already played Warhammer. It was called World of Warcraft.
The torture controversy

Two things are undeniable about this games design commentator - he is one of the most accessible people on the internet, enthusiastically jumping in to discuss issues with players, and he is one of the most original and controversial thinkers on the subject.

On to my recent discussion with him over at Tobold's site.

In his Games Developer Conference keynote Bartle laid out a blueprint for future MMO game design that pigeonholes WoW as a linear game. You follow the yellow brick road of questing until you hit 80 then follow the now purple-lined new yellow brick road of raiding.

My take on this is that WoW is not like some simple linear game where you can only do one set thing after another. By misrepresenting WoW his blueprint is built upon faulty foundations.

We discussed sandboxes. I remember first seeing the term "sandbox" applied to computer games in the mid-90s. You had games like Planescape: Torment where you clicked the dialogue to be told where to go next. There would be some options for variety but those mostly returned you to the main plot path. And there were games like Daggerfall where you could wander anywhere and start up something interesting.

In Daggerfall you could do the obvious main quest from your starter area or you could travel somewhere else and do some different quest chain or just explore or do something else.

Just like WoW.

Now the term sandbox has evolved. Essentially what people mean by sandbox is its no longer sandbox if you can do anything you want. Its sandbox if you are denied a single obvious route to take. The word has changed its meaning.

So while in WoW you can roll a Human and go off to the night elf zone or try to singlehandedly attack Orgrimmar or go day-trade on the auction house or gain a handful of levels then become a permanent battleground twink WoW is characterised by game analysts as not actually presenting any other option than the yellow brick road, ie questing your way to 80.

Raph Koster summaries Dr Bartle's presentation as
It basically makes the case that freeform play (and even user-created content) should be the elder game on top of a more directed and guided play experience

Key word is more, the problem with the presentation that I have is that everything is clear-cut and black and white which naturally leads to revolution being the solution not evolution.

The truth is far more blurred.

One interesting example is the history of pvp in WoW. Originally there were no battlegrounds, arenas or honour. The value of doing pvp was simply the thrill for its own sake. This led to three main manifestations of pvp.

- A constant large multiplayer zerg between Southshore and Tarren Mill that occasionally died down but was at least daily on every pvp server.
- Spontaneous raids on targets mainly aimed as Ashenvale (Horde aggressors) or Crossroads (Alliance aggressors)
- low level skirmishing usually 1 v 1 in places like Stranglethorn Vale where people were basically doing their quests with the camera panning 360 degrees all the time and a very nervous atmosphere.

All of this was player-generated content, emergent and an environment so rich that interesting things just happened. True sandbox pvp.

And it mostly died when battlegrounds were introduced. The incentives given for theme park pvp trumped the thrill of sandbox pvp.

But the sandbox is still there.

Southshore was still just south of Tarren Mill last time I looked, Stranglethorn Vale is still populated with 35-40s sneaking through to do their quests.

So sandbox has ceased to become a term that refers to what players CAN do in the world, it now refers to what they DO do. In other words it's a game-defining quality which is incentive led .

Not only is the sandbox there in pvp (although virtually unused) it is very much there at end-game. WoW end-game simply cannot be characterised as purely raiding. I am entertaining myself now writing a blog post with WoW closed but this is still part of WoW's complex and diverse meta-endgame. In fact there are more things that people are actually doing in WoW endgame considering the range of machinima movie-making, mathematical theorycrafting, add-on writing all of which are forms of entertainment arising from WoW's end-game which will generally keep players subscribed to WoW.

Another thing to consider is that sandbox has now become a gaming word like casual. Everyone knows what they think it means, no one actually thinks it means the same thing as everyone else.

1 comment:

  1. Sandbox seems to have degraded into a word that just means "the game never rewards you." The second a reward is thrown in for anything, then it's not a sandbox, it's directed play and then before long it's called a linear game.

    It's a bit silly to argue for sandboxes. People don't do well when totally directionless. We get bored, we wonder why we do anything, and perhaps most importantly, it creates all sorts of design problems. Imagine a sandbox where people are spread over everything (since there's no here>there). Try to add an expansion: it's going to dilute the population everywhere.

    I don't mean to imply that sandboxes are bad and should be rejected, but instead that a middle ground is necessary: have advancement in many possible directions, but have advancement or else the donkey gets bored when his carrot is gone.