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.

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  1. Nithe Gamer says:

    Sounds like an interesting conversation. Probably even a little depressing.

    Nice post. I never gave much thought to sandbox games and why they do or don’t work.

  2. Tesh says:

    I’d rephrase that a bit: “Freedom is irrelevant without education.”

    “Direction” carries the implication that you’re still being told what to do. Education allows you to make your own choices, and give yourself goals.

    • Gordon says:

      I think education still leaves a lot of people without direction. I never took the term direction to mean being told what to do, more like having goals or a path. Education, in my opinion, is more of an enabler, allowing you to accomplish things and perhaps give you a better idea of what’s available in the world. I still know plenty of highly educated people with no idea what they want to do in life though.

      • Tesh says:

        Call it “education about potential goals” in game design terms, then. Tell people what they can do, and how to do it, and let them choose which of several options to pursue.

        • Tesh says:

          Actually, you can skip a lot of the “how to” if you have sufficient “verbs” for players to experiment with, tools that make sense in the game world and allow the player to accomplish things.

          • Gordon says:

            Good point. I’d wonder though how many people actually want to make up their own minds though. If anything, games like WoW proved that gamers like simple, pre-determined paths to follow. They don’t necessary like to have to think about what to do. Maybe a gentle nudge is the way to go :)

          • ehhh says:

            It depends on the person your talking about, some people have to be told what to do, and other people despise it. There are self learners and people that learn better through lessons. Some people like to think while others do not…

  3. Stabs says:

    I think sandbox has become a hopelessly muddled term. Originally it referred to games like Daggerfall which were far more open than their predecessors. Daggerfall was basically like an offline WoW.

    Now it seems to have blurred into pvp. If your content is players it is a sandbox game, if your content is mobs it’s a theme park. Theme park is a dirty word. Therefore any good/interesting game is a pvp game.

    When game design theorists talk about how powerful sandbox can be they refer to things like the Goons infiltration of BoB as if it relied on the game being sandbox. It didn’t.

    If Wintergrasp was WoW’s endgame, not pve raiding, people would be infiltrating Envidia and Method. It’s a way to win in pvp.

    The other dangerous thing about flinging the word sandbox around like a magic word is that it confuses game development into thinking the way to make a game is to leave stuff out. Eve has a lot of very subtle and well-thought out design, it’s not just the big empty space it seems to be.

    Lastly SWG was not a flop. For a year it was a huge success, breaking records for growth, top MMO equal with EQ. It failed not because of bad design but because of a bad Live team.

    • Gordon says:

      I would agree with the muddled term aspect of ’sandbox’. It really is quite abstract and starts to represent an ideal rather than a factual type of gameplay.

      I wouldn’t call SW:G a flop either but it certainly wasn’t successful. My reason for that is the initial reviews along with long term subscribers numbers. SOE definitely wouldn’t have initiated the NGE if it had being doing well. The whole debate of dev vs live teams is interesting too but I don’t know enough about that. SW:G just wasn’t ready to be released when it was, that’s for sure.

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  5. Stabs says:

    Incidentally Richard Bartle made a very interesting keynote on this very question:

    When Tobold posted about it I had a very interesting conversation with Richard and others in the comment thread

  6. Drekkin says:

    I agree with the premise that freedom needs some direction, but the qualifier of balance for me is choice.

    Second Life left me standing in leather apparel in a literal virtual sandbox wondering what the hell to do next. There are spaces within that game to go and play in the cyber-dirt, and almost no limitations on what you could create from nothing, but I didn’t like the game because of that exact factor. Real life’s more limited choices seemed so much more attractive in comparison to that particular MMO’s freedoms as I actually have things to achieve in the everyday that don’t always feel like I’m just killing time, and there are actually tactile rewards. It was a depressing experience because it did tell me that as much as I nag on about the “sandbox”, I apparently still want my carrot + stick.

    Conversely, other MMOs may also involve nothing more than the satisfaction of a job well done, but the choices are far more linear and limited in scope. They feel hollow because there’s no personal element to toeing a line.

    SWG’s Legacy storyline, for example, is a one size fits all pathway of advancement. In comparison with EQ2’s many and varied quest choices – while also catchall’s – the pathway of a single storyline comes up short. EQ2 provides a choice – a quest might provide the XP required to advance, but you don’t necessarily have to do it. There’s other adventures out there to choose from.

    As others have said, “direction” implies a limitation of choices. You’d rather directionS. Forks in the road and options that remind you you’re actually developing you’re own character rather than running through the par for the course.

    In the end, you want a number of paths to follow so you’ve got that essential element of choice. The more the better.

    • Gordon says:

      Very interesting perspective on the sandbox approach. I think it’s definitely true that many gamers just want short term rewards and the class carrot and stick routine. Most players probably play WoW because it’s quick, easy and fun and, most importantly, a form of escapism from their real worlds. To make a MMO too vast makes every choice difficult and rewards the short term reward. That’s were the whole direction vs freedom argument fits in: ultimately we need a direction before we can be free to achieve it. Having all of the power in the (virtual) world is useless if there’s nothing to strive for.

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  9. Alex says:

    I would like to say that I am an Eve online Player. So i will refer to everything from an Eve online point of view. In fact its the only MMORPG that i have played for a long period of time. I used to play wow, but I stopped because I felt that the game was simply too linear and there was a rush to go from 1 to max level then do “endgame”. People kept telling me to just grind to lvl 70 (I stopped before WOTLK came out). I felt heart broken by that because i wanted to enjoy the actual World of Warcraft and role play and discover storyline. Blizzard put so much effort in making wow a well polished game yet people just care about itemizaition and instant gratification. I switched to Eve because i realized that I can create my own story and with real people and real success was something worth cherishing. I am not a uber hardcore gamer. I go to college, I study, i have a real life like most people. But i also like gaming.

    First off I would like to say that Eve Online is originally NOT intended to appeal to everyone. I think most Sandbox games are like this too. I think however that giving “directions” really does limit the freedom of the game unintentionally. I really hate achievement systems because then everyone will then grind their achievements to make themselves feel that they actually accomplished something. The problem with a majority of gamers now a days is that they want to feel the sense of accomplishment but its something that requires little creativity. People dont enjoy the game for the sake of playing or creativity. They just want their epic items and the stuff that makes them look cool.
    THe otherside of Sandbox that most people fail to do is socialize with people in game. You can grind to lvl 80 in wow by yourself. But you will not like Eve without joining a corporation or finding a good wingman. The achievements in game are set by players and as a new player if you join a corporation you can discover what those are based on who you play with. I joined a mining corporation and many people say that mining is the most boring job in eve (it is). But even with a group of players doing a mining op that took coordination, then selling the minerals on regional markets felt exciting. Then we increased our ambitions and did pvping and joined an alliance. These people became friends, and i communicated with them on a regular basis
    On a side note, i do wish that eve was more flashy and twitchy like wow. That way i think more people can join. Automated combat is ok, and the tactics in pvping are great. THe skill system thats automated is a blessing because i dont have to grind. I think that people get turned off by all this stuff is because they want accomplishments. Rather people should just enjoy the game as much as possible and play it for the sake of fun rather than accompishments. I do think that sandbox games should have better tutorials but guiding people to the endgame takes away from the sandbox game. People should play the game for fun, and who cares if you arent the leader of a super alliance or can fly every ship in the game? Alot of people arent. Eve can be simple and complex at the same time, but with a group of good friends it really doesnt matter that much where you are in the Universe because you create your own space.

  10. SomeGuyson says:

    I think we have more freedom once you consider that we don’t have to worry about the basic necessities of survival-

    Due to this statement, I find this conversation moot. The basic necessities of survival are much harder to obtain from my point of view. If I’m broke, (witch most of the time I am), I cannot go out into the wilderness and hunt/gather, as that is illegal. Yet, I make too much money (about $15,000/yr), witch is too much as a single person for food stamps. So, I am very much so not free as I work 10-14 hours a day, 5 days a week, and feel trapped in rent and figuring out how to feed myself. From there, I invest my time in games to forget the hell of existence.

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