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Challenges with designing sandbox style mmorpgs

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Sandbox style MMORPGs are the only style of mmos that I enjoy. Ever since I left Mabinogi, I could never find another one that enticed me. This left me wondering; Why can’t I find another good sandbox MMORPG? Only recently have I come to terms with the answer. It’s really hard to make. That’s it, that’s the TLDR.

A large part of the following is based on my personal understanding towards games and the book “A Theory of Fun for Game Design” by Raph Koster. In chapter 8, Koster talks about the principles game designers try to adhere by to make their game fun and long lasting. Specifically, “emergent behavior” and using players to “generate content”.

Mabinogi is a game I've spent countless hours of my childhood in. After school I would be running through the streets of Dunbarton, playing music while waiting in dungeon lobbies, or haggling for my next upgrade. The combat was the most versatile(?) out of any game that I've played but, my go to past time would be challenging players to a game of “Play Dead Race”. This is the essence of a sandbox game. Systems that have deep, self generating challenges. The beauty of Mabinogi was that I could be a soup ladle wielding magician or an alchemist giant. The success of a sandbox game is defined through its breadth and emphasized through its depth.

Emergent behaviour is achieved through having a large depth of content to which players can optimize and explore facets of the game that the content designer did not foresee. An example of this is the skill system in Mabinogi. Players can choose to use just about any skill in the game from Combat to magic to ranged and even life skills. Skills have many aspects to them. These include the stats that they scale with, passive stats it provides and effects/debuffs it would apply. For instance, Alchemy skills scale off of the player’s total stamina. Players would choose to assign ability points(rank up) towards not only alchemy but also life skills such as Rest or Cooking to increase their stamina. Of course other skills could also provide stamina. Interlinkage between different elements in the game allow for choice and opportunities to innovate.

Conversely, player generated content stems from the breadth of content. There must be many ways to interact with the game in order for this to happen. Things such as a large variety of skills, minigames, game modes and a player market all contribute towards the breadth of the game. Let’s talk about “Play Dead Race”. This is a simple mini game players have created using the “Play Dead” action. This action/skill launched the player a few feet towards the opposite direction they were facing(

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). Combined with the action of rolling a dice(

), a mini game was spawned where contestants would take turns rolling a dice and the winner of the dice roll could use “Play Dead”. After several rounds the first player to reach the finish line won. As rudimentary as this sounds, this simple interaction along with many others form the core of sandbox gaming.

Hopefully you now have a grasp of the core components of sandbox games. We can now dive into the challenges in creating a sandbox game. Once again we will continue to explore “emergent behavior” and “player generated content”.

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Creating a game with depth is challenging, observe chess for example. There are 16 pieces for each player with 6 different types of moves and a goal of capturing the opponent’s king. The board is just 8×8 in size yet there are an estimated 2×1040 of possible game states after 40 moves(Shannon Number). Check out that link to see how many permutations the game state could be in after just 10 moves!

Having a complex formula for damage calculation does not guarantee depth. Consider this formula for calculating player damage dealt:

Damage Taken = (Player.BaseDamage + Player.Strength – Me.Armor/Weather)*Number of pages in a dictionary

There are a lot of things going on but how many of these things can the player actually control? Depth emerges from having a system that allows many things to interact with each other creating a harmony of player determined consequences.

In chess, every piece can interact of the other pieces in some form. Revising the formula from before we get:

Damage Taken = (Player.BaseDamage + Player.Strength – Me.Armor/Player.WeaponSharpness)*Number of cats the player controls.

Now the player can choose to increase their strength, get a sharp weapon or bring along some cats.

Wait, why don’t game designers just do that? Adding meaningful interaction for every single thing is extremely resource intensive and sometimes unfruitful. Players will often gravitate towards the most optimal solution and balancing a game around that takes a lot of testing, fine tuning, and repeated introduction of changes to shift the meta.

Next, let’s take a look at player generated content. This is the heart of every sandbox game. Minecraft is a game with few hard set rules and yet players are able to create their own game modes, machines, and structures. There is a wide variety of blocks to choose from and while many of them do the same thing, having the variance even in texture changes the game in large proportions. Implementing such variety in MMORPGs is challenging. Every time you introduce a new mechanic such as “Play Dead”, “Roll Dice” or set up player shop, that’s a whole stream line of processes you need to add. Perhaps there’s no animation to roll a dice or we need to change the way players move to add “Play Dead”. Refactoring code is often times more challenging than building a new component and is generally avoided. Good/experienced designers will foresee the required core components but even the best can’t predict what will be introduced in a year or so.

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At this point I’m getting tired of writing so I’ll probably wrap up with this: Making sandbox games is hard. It is a delicate combination of balancing depth and variety. Making a good sandbox game is even harder, you must remember there are other aspects such as story, sound, visuals, gameplay, lore…. All of which requires resources. To many game developers, making a theme park game is just more profitable due to the amount of resources saved.

In the future I hope there will be more mmorpgs like Runescape and Mabinogi but for now, thanks for reading.

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