What Does “Sandbox” Really Mean to SOE?
After John Smedley gave his keynote address at SOE Live, the one item that stuck in my memory was that he called EverQuest Next a “sandbox.” In fact, he said it will be “the largest sandbox” game that has ever been made.
While I am not unfamiliar with the concept of a sandbox game, nor completely oblivious to what it means in the MMO industry, I have to be honest and say that I really have no prior experience on which to base my notions.
Here is, essentially, what came to mind:
The ability to build and create, within a free-form object space that is defined by the user. If I envision a sandbox of the kind that I used to play in as a child, this broad definition makes sense. I could build, I could destroy. I had a 9×9 foot space that was essentially my own world, at least for a few hours, or until the rain came.
How could this apply to an MMO?
Well, first of all, the basic things like player housing, dungeon creation, and role-playing, and perhaps adding to that: player cities. These are the obvious ones. Players have long been creating their own nightclubs, bars, shops, and yes, even brothels, within EQ2’s limited (although expansive in relation to other games) housing system. It isn’t quite a sandbox, but it’s the closest thing to it. You aren’t actually going out and mining ore to build the bricks that will make up the walls of your housing. You aren’t learning carpentry skills so that you can build a sawhorse that cuts the wood you just chopped down, no. It’s not quite to that level of micr0-management, but the premise is there: players creating and sharing.
It all makes me question: is “sandbox” really just a newfound way of expressing an entirely socialized experience? Imagine if Facebook were imprinted on to a fantasy MMO the likes of EverQuest. Is that the new “sandbox” we are envisioning? Players create, players share, players like and dislike, players comment, players collaborate. Obviously it would all be a bit more technical, a bit more focused, a bit more fantastic than your average social media setting, but is the underlying premise actually one and the same? Total open-endedness within a confined space, allowing players to freely interact, construct, destroy. Like children in a sandbox, playing together.
I’m not really sure I have a definite idea in my mind of what the term really means, viewed under the modern-day microscope. How will a mainstream franchise meld “themepark” and “sandbox” together — any better than it has, already? I could argue that EQ2 is exactly that: as close as I’ve seen to a melding to two different ideologies in MMO-land. I am trying to envision a trick up SOE’s sleeve that could be so groundbreaking and awesome as to demand that over a year’s worth of work be scrapped in favor of its new direction. Player-created dungeons? We already have those. Ok, how about player created dungeons that permanently reside on the landscapes of the world, not just as obtuse zones that you magically enter from a windowed interface in the UI. That would demand that the world be very, very, very large indeed. Probably impractical, given that you’d have all kinds of horrid hovels popping up, every person fancying herself a decorator, an architect, and a landscape designer.
So what else? If not free-standing player-made structures, then how about player-designed quests? Could players take an existing dungeon, create a quest or bunch of quests to take place within, design the rewards, including their own item meshes or textures possibly, and then add their “dungeon” to the selection at the entrance? Suddenly Stormhold becomes “Night of the Living Dead – Sean’s House of Horror, Part 1.” Hmmm. Sounds good in theory, but that’s essentially what the Dungeon Maker in EQ2 already does, minus complex quest scripting. Gives players a jump-off, and sets them loose.
How about in the cities then? What about real player houses and shops, clubs, establishments, open 24-7 for anyone to come and go — or whatver business hours the player wants to establish. What if you go to the registrar to open your business, solicit advertisements? Hmm. Sounds cool but a little bit familiar … like Second Life, maybe? What was it I didn’t like about that game … oh that’s right. It was just like my real life. Totally boring, and more of a chore to upkeep than actually being fun.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m really, really excited about this notion of a “sandbox” EverQuest — but I wonder what it really entails?
Food for thought. Until more details — heck, anything, even a screenshot — emerge, we’re all just guessing for now.