Freedom Without Direction – The Risk of Sandbox MMORPGs
Last weekend I was attending a rather fun soiree in a local bar/café and found myself getting stuck into a conversation about the concepts freedom and direction with one of my buddies and a drunk guy we’d just met. The topic started off because my friend was hypothesizing that we have less freedom today than we did in days-gone-by. Although I disagree with this (I think we have more freedom once you consider that we don’t have to worry about the basic necessities of survival) what was interesting was the profound statement that our rather tipsy third conversational member came out with. To paraphrase:
“Freedom is completely relative. If you don’t desire something, it doesn’t matter if you’re not free to achieve it. Freedom only matters if there’s something you want. Thus freedom is meaningless without direction.”
Random Drunk Bloke
This statement can be applied quite aptly to the design concept of sandbox MMORPGs.
Let’s look at EVE Online, for instance. When I first started playing it, I was preoccupied with learning the game and understanding how it works. After a little while, however, I found myself looking at the big picture and trying to decide what I wanted to accomplish. I had read about huge intergalactic wars between corporations, the assassinations of powerful leaders and the undermining of player sovereignties through espionage and deceit. I wanted a piece of that action but I had absolutely no idea how to get there, thus all of the freedom that I had in EVE was utterly meaningless because I lacked direction. In fact, it wasn’t until that I created my own personal goals that I could appreciate the freedom I had been granted to achieve them.
I think this is the big risk with sandbox MMOs and any sort of virtual worlds. Giving the player freedom alone isn’t enough, they have to have goals and a direction to go in. Without that, any freedom is completely meaningless because they have no motivation or needs.
It’s undoubtedly a tough thing to balance and probably one of the reasons why we see so few sandbox MMOs these days. The unsuccessful ones, like the original Star Wars: Galaxies, failed because they had grand ideas but were unable to deliver on both the smaller goals and overarching direction for the player. Who cared if you could mine your own resources and have dozens of the different professions – there was nothing worthwhile to accomplish by doing so.
I think EVE does a good job of balancing things out but I would love to see a MMORPG that has a combination of all of EVE’s freedom and yet all of World of Warcraft’s direction. Imagine having the step-by-step goals of questing, achievements, guilds, PvP, raiding etc yet with the ability (and freedom) to accomplish them anyway you desire, by any means necessary. That would truly be something to behold.