Go back a few years, and you’d see that the major MMORPG debate at the time between developers was whether it was better to provide a “sandbox” or “theme park” experience for players. Let me explain: “sandbox” MMOs (Star Wars Galaxies, Ultima Online) would create a world and give players tools to experience the world as they wanted — free-form gameplay, you see, without a lot of underlying structure. “Theme park” MMOs, like World of Warcraft, theorized that players wanted to be guided through the game like rides — going from zone to zone on a set course, experiencing the world the way the devs intended.
In theory, it looks as if the sandbox concept offered far more potential for vast, shifting, unlimited content. In practice, players felt like they were dumped into a world with little or no guidance, and had to stumble around feeling foolish trying to find things to do. Eve Online made the sandbox approach work, to be sure, but even after more hand-holding was programmed in, it remains a very hardcore, obscure game to this day — with massive amounts of user-created content that makes the game universe a dynamic place to explore.
WoW was the effective trump card for the theme park system. It proved that players didn’t mind having their hands held, to be guided as long as they had plenty of choices as to what “ride” they’d want to go on that day. Most MMOs post-2004 came around to this way of thinking — even SWG with its notorious NGE switch. The biggest downside of a theme park MMO is that once you’ve gone on all the rides dozens of times, there’s very little left. You can make the rides longer or harder to get on, of course. You can try to pump in some more dev-created rides, but those take a long time and are consumed incredibly fast by players. Hence, sooner or later, people arrive at the end of their theme park experience, burned out and lacking a reason to do anything else.
So both schools of thought have pretty big pros and cons associated with them. The question is, how do we move forward in this industry? The semi-obvious answer is: let’s marry the best of the sandbox system with the best of the theme park system. Players love to be included in the creative process, love unlimited content, and love being led through an experience without feeling lost.
I’ve been holding off mentioning this for fear that you’d think I’m a little crazy (but at this point, post-manatee, you already know that) — every night when I go to sleep, a little trick I use to help me fall asleep quick is to “design” something in my head. Usually it’s a game, and the fun is trying to think up game mechanics I haven’t seen before but would love to play, or to take old mechanics and use them in a fun twist. An idea I’ve always been fond of is for a MMO to provide a structured environment where players would receive tools to create their own content within the boundaries of the MMO. For instance, giving players their own dungeon, which the player can deck out with “loot” (monsters, treasures, traps) they find in the game world as they play. Then other players can come in and try to beat their dungeon.
I know it’s not an original idea, but the more I think about it, the more I take a shine to the topic. After reading a piece on Word of Shadow about user-created content, it prompted me to get my thoughts out on the subject. I sincerely believe that MMO devs who adhere to the theme park model — and yes, this includes WAR to a huge degree — have to be moving in a direction where they hand tools to the player to let them create their own content within the boundaries of that world.
WAR’s primary answer to that is to provide the broadest and most structured PvP system in the MMO landscape. PvP is user-created content — it’s always shifting, never the same, and lets the players “write the stories” instead of the devs. WAR is banking on the RvR/PvP system being the primary motivator for players to stick around long after they’ve exhausted the PvE content. It remains to be seen how compelling this content will be — and a lot of the onus is on the players for how much they participate in it.
Taking a different tack, the mostly-PvE City of Heroes/Villains has announced that they’re working on user-created missions (dungeons), a la their user-created base system, for other players to explore and conquer. As a current CoX player, this is probably one of the best pieces of news that game world ever received, and it frees the limited dev team up from making new PvE missions to working on other content.
Even World of Warcraft is slooooooowly cranking around to the idea of incorporating sandbox elements in its rigidly-structured game, with the new PvP outdoor zone. And there are probably tons of other, smaller theme park MMOs I’m not mentioning that provide a lot of user-created content as well.
I think it’s a very exciting time to be a MMO player — the games just keep on getting better!