I’m part of the people who are amazed by Minecraft but couldn’t care less about playing it. Just like in SWG my store was a mess but I enjoyed visiting random houses to see how players decorated them. Like I am fascinated by EVE Online but will probably never play it.

I’m a sandbox passive player meaning that my fun comes from seeing others play these games. That must be why I built 2 sandbox MMOs. Well 1 true sandbox MMO and another leaning toward it.  It must be some kind of voyeurism.

While working on Star Corsairs recently I figured some stuff about me as a gamer and about how to create better games (we’ll see about that last part later though …). Don’t just tell me “here’s where the fun is, go find it!” I’m already gone. The solution? Sometimes it can be as simple as adding stupid rocks …

Purpose

I need to get started. I see the wonderful thing you created but first give me something specific to do and make sure I get a glimpse of the wonderful thing you created. Don’t throw me in the sand. Just show it to me under the rocks. Eventually I’ll get to it if you can keep me long enough.

From what I read Skyrim might the kind of sandbox game I might enjoy. It’s not just a big world with weird opportunities it’s also a game with a story. Sure you can put it on pause for hours but in the end you know that you’ll deal with this story. You don’t need to figure everything at first you just follow the story. If I believe what I have now read many times you come to a point where “oh that looks cool I’ll go take a look” and then it happens again and again and again getting you deeper down the rabbit hole and you’re not even aware of it.

This is what I need. Sandbox is not an end it’s a way of handling a story. I felt the same with GTA 4. Sure I could do crazy stuff at any time but I could always get back on track to follow the story that would teach me a bit more about the world. More important is that I’m doing all my crazy stuff for a purpose. There is an end somewhere and I’m going there as slowly as I want to.

Motivation

If I have a sandbox world to play in but what I do in it doesn’t matter then why would I bother. You know it’s really hard to satisfy explorers as what we can discover thousands of players before us discovered it as well (unless you have a kickass world driven by players like Golemizer has … hehe).

Here’s a funny story I might have already told on this blog (if that’s the case then your memory is better than mine … or your search engine). When I started to play SWG (my first MMO) I visited all remote locations of every single planet as a poor poor ranger.  I built camps far away from any players would ever get to just in the hope to see something amazing that few have seen. I was naïve I know. I was expecting that exploring remote locations would reward me with some sort of encounter few players would ever experience. So there I was sitting in my camp far far away on a mountain for something nice to happen. Nothing ever happened. That’s when I figured that I was wasting my time. Oh I was having a good time until I figured out that nothing would ever happen. That sandbox feeling goes away quickly when there’s no reward … I wasn’t even asking for loot. Maybe just see some very rare cutscene or something. I’m pretty sure I was the only one back then crazy enough to camp for 30 minutes at the end of a map on Tarquinas in the hope to witness something rare. Well I wasted my time. All I got was empty screenshots and memories of playing an MMO alone …

So if you’re to create a really big world give us something to go after. The places I built a camp it was impossible to build a home so there was really nobody around. Why was this even in the game?! I can’t even claim to be the first one to have built a home there! This space is just there because you didn’t know what to put in there! Motivation. Give me a reason to try weird things. A sandbox game is not just a huge world. It’s a huge world with surprises. At least you could have allowed me to build a home there! Nope. It was just wasted space on a server. Why would I try to explore remote location anymore when all I have to do is follow some waypoint on my map … Getting an advantage for exploring would be nice but maybe witnessing something rare would be enough. I spent enough time alone on the mountains of Tatooine to claim the right to get some kind of unique event. Nope. Nothing. That’s not interesting. That’s literally just sand …

Keep me playing

The best idea EVE Online came up with was time-based skill training. I’m pretty sure that by now some SWtOR players already reached the cap level even if the game is not officially released by now. What does it mean in a sandbox game? It means that players have reached the “end” and have nobody to play with. A sandbox game is useless if you can “finish” it early. What if I could max all my skills in EVE Online in a matter of days? Well why would I check the game after and then see that X guild have built some starbase I could try to destroy or that Y guild have decided to ambush players in that zone. I need a reason to come back. I must never feel like the game is over. I must never feel like you expect me to create the content for the game.

So time-based skill training is an artificial way of slowing down players. It’s a damn clever way to keep players around. Don’t count on them to take it slow. Make it slow for them. Just don’t let them feel they are gimped because of your system. Avoid the grind at all cost (otherwise call your game WoW) but give them a reason to come back to check how things are going. Great I’ve unlocked that skill! Let’s see how this goes. Oh look! Something nice happened in the game while I was away. I’ll be playing this for at least 2 more weeks before I take a break.

A sandbox game must be slow … or it must keep living while you’re away. The problem with MMOs is that for it to live it requires a critical mass (so it must be slow) and for a single-player game to live it would mean insane coding “oh you haven’t played for 2 weeks so now the king is dead, you have lost your title so here’s a new quest to get revenge based on the things you haven’t done …”.

You can’t push new content fast enough? Fine. Just give me a reason to check the game in a month. What did my character unlocked after a month? What’s different that didn’t required you to create a whole new expansion? Is there a reason for me to check the game again beside starting all over again?

An end

Yes an MMO can end. Give me the best looking house looking award I don’t care it can be an end for me. If I’m playing a single-player game give multiple ways to end the game and that might just be enough for me to start all over again and try to reach that different ending I didn’t see. Let me be all-powerful. Let me die in an epic way after playing for 200 hours. Let the end mean something. If there’s no end then your game is just some brain tool I will keep ranting about.

I wasted a lot of time on Sim City. It always ended with me quitting out of boredom. Something didn’t worked out but not that bad so I quit out because it was just a mess but not messy enough to call it a failure. Or I mastered it all and now I just don’t know what to do next to satisfy me. Let me know about the end. Just don’t tell me how to get to it. At least if I know I can get a specific result I might keep trying (and if I check on the Web how to do so then it’s my own problem and I guess I don’t really care about a sandbox experience anyway …).

If there’s no end then it just becomes work (if I stick around long enough). I always have to do better because this is what the game tells me to do. I can never be good enough for the game.

What could be an end to a game like Minecraft? Well they have enough money that they could give a monthly $1,000 price to the most original piece posted on YouTube. That could be an end. If there’s no end again your game is just some tool used for imagination. Don’t call it a game. It’s just a sandbox! You create the games in the sandbox. The game is not the sandbox itself!

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