I’ve been thinking a fair bit about MMORPGs recently, particularly sandboxes and how they’ve been designed. There’s a growing interest in sandboxy features, but the games tend not to do too well for a variety of reasons. Mainly PvP orientated endgame and open PvP being offputting to a lot of people and leading to problems with balancing freedom and discouraging toxic players.
But also often the lack of sand in the sandbox. Sometimes there’s just not enough to do. This often leads back to PvP orientation for sandboxes because “players are content”. Which is not necessarily bad. Territory and resource control PvP can be very interesting and dynamic. There’s whole genres of games based solely around that concept. MMORPGs on the other hand are supposed to be larger in scope than that, otherwise they’d just be a MOBA or FPS or something. Most people are looking for something more persistent and complex than those genres if they’re looking at sandbox MMORPGs.
This brings me to my main point: Most sandboxes seem to rely too much on PvP as content because it lowers development costs and provides a dynamic experience, but that only works if the systems supporting the PvP are well designed and sophisticated enough to make it interesting. What these sandboxes need to really round them out into a full immersive experience is more dynamic content. Developers spend most of their resources creating quests and zones that work as some sort of progression working towards the endgame PvP. These zones, just like in their themepark predecessors lack variety and provide a static experience. This creates “farming spots” to fight over as a resource, but also make experiences repetitive rather than variable. It also creates a strong disconnect between the majority of the content, which is PvE and the endgame PvP.
What I think is needed to really make these sandboxes experiences diverse, dynamic and engaging is more dynamic content. Spawns that roam, resources that are not always in the same locations, diverse spawns rather than a zone full of the same creatures en mass. Creatures with a variety of abilities and stats, strategies and equipment. For example, if there’s a brigand camp, not all the brigands would look or be the same. They’d have different weapons, some would have armor, some wouldn’t. Someone with a bow fights differently to someone with an axe, who fights differently to someone with a knife. Also because often these predetermined spawns make no sense. bears do not herd in groups of 30 in an area with hardly any food, and no prey animal is going to hang around in a forest area full of bears.
Take the starting area in World of Warcraft for humans as an example. Northshire Abbey. The area is full of orc raiders and spies. The area makes no sense at all. How did the invaders get there? It’s an enclosed, gated valley. It is also the most absurd intelligence operation in history, not only do the Horde have hundreds of spies standing around outside the Abbey, but they’re all in plain view! Is the Abbey so important that you need to watch it so closely? Why?
Then there’s the raiders burning the vineyards. Why? Is this a distraction? So the huge and entirely obvious army of spies can get past? How does that work? Also there’s a patrol of royal guard that comes up to the gates of the Abbey THEN GOES AWAY! Why? Nothing about the situation makes the slightest sense as a scenario, but mmos are full of these completely nonsensical zones full of wildlife and mobs that don’t seem to have any reason for being where they are and making even less sense that they are still there a day, a week, a year later. A static world is single player content. If you’re trying to engage players in your world and keep people engaged, there needs to be community.
In many of these games they add group content. Dungeons etc, then they add group finders. Then people get put into groups with random people and run a dungeon. Most of the time no one needs to even communicate with eachother. This sort of interaction does not create community, it creates routine.
By creating dynamic, changing environments, influenced by player interactions (or lack thereof) you create a truly persistent world where the content is constantly changing, where resources are constantly moving, where communication becomes important, where communities form around locations. It keeps content fresh and lowers the monotony. It also allows players to create their own adventures and experiences, rather than creating one for them to experience. As a result, developers have longer to create new content, which adds new variables, new resources and new experiences without making all previous content obsolete. It makes the full game a game and not just a race to the “end game content”. In my opinion, the very idea of “endgame” in a persistent world means your entire concept is flawed.
That does not mean that everything has to be accessible to everyone at all levels, on the contrary, it means that you can add content that requires a completely different strategy, more people, different equipment and encourages players to either try something new, or find somewhere new. It also doesn’t mean that there’s no room for set experiences, such as dungeons, however I still believe these are made more interesting by making them an area with a theme, rather than making them a preset scenario. You can still add events and variability to these areas that makes them a more dynamic and variable experience.
By creating dynamic persistent world content, you make a world where you just set the rules and let it go, let the players change it. There are challenges to getting the rules right, you can’t predict how players will end up using systems to exploit something, and that provides a lot of work, but that happens with static content too.
Open worlds should not have so much level specific content, but should instead have mobs and bosses that are varying in difficulty. A creature can be many things. It can be a group monster for relatively new characters, it can be a soloable monster for a mid range character and it can be something that an experienced character finds challenging only when there are groups of them. Roaming world bosses and roaming groups of creatures can disrupt an area, changing the dynamic. If there are consequences for those creatures being there it also creates reasons to fight them other than just loot (although loot should be proportional to challenge).
A great deal more can be done with dynamic open worlds than are currently done, and I beleive it would greatly benefit both players and developers to implement more and change some of the mindset towards MMORPG game design.