Friday, March 5, 2010

Oversimplifying MMOs

We are all familiar with soundbites, or short snippets of audio/video used in TV or Radio news broadcasts. In politics, the soundbite is a powerful tool that politicians use to distill very complex issues into very clear and simple points. A complex topic like supply-side economics can be summed up with “Stop Killing the Golden Goose.”

Shadowar wrote about this in response to my blog entry about the term Sandbox:
In this [West Wing] scene, the two characters are talking about the necessity of creating a simple, 10-word statement that explains the breadth and scope of just such a system. What the old, crotchety man is saying to her, is that it’s not possible. In no way can we ever reduce them to sound-bites and flash cards.
This really sums up my gripe about using the term Sandbox to describe specific games. Ask 10 people what Sandbox means and you’ll get 10 different answers. In response to my entry, Syncaine wrote a 1000 word essay about what is and is not a Sandbox or a Themepark. And I’ll credit him with a great explanation, but the mere fact it takes 1000 words to describe a Sandbox is indictment enough that it’s a bad choice of words.

Soundbites win elections
A soundbite has a very clear purpose. To break-down a much more detailed thing into a much shorter snapshot. In the political spectrum, it’s a means of persuasion. Politicians hire spin doctors to get 10-word statements to explain incredibly complex and layered issues. The intent is to convince you they are right.

And they work.

Effective use of soundbites will win you an election. It won’t actually solve anything, but it will win you the argument.

This is how I view the term Sandbox. It’s an ambiguous metaphor being used as the blogging equivalent of a soundbite. It’s useful for winning the argument, but not for any deeper discussion about MMOs.

Specific features or Game attributes
I took some criticism from people who called my dislike of the term Sandbox as being too Academic or Intellectual. I find this a bit comical.

MMOs are not deep complex political issues. They are pretty straight-forward. And if I speak about the feature or the specific game attribute of a game, I can get my point across very quickly and concisely.

Supposedly, the average gamer is too stupid to figure out what I mean when I call something Level-based or Skill-based.

Coppertopper had a comment on Syncaine’s blog that I found illustrated this problem perfectly:
I was reading Keens blog about his recent introduction and play time in UO and the idea of plopping down a house anywhere seemed way more ’sandboxy’ then what you had to go thru to get a house built in Darkfall.
The “feature” that Coppertopper is referring to here is Persistent Objects. Objects that you place or interact with that stay that way after you leave them. In UO, if you dropped a hammer on the ground, it stayed there until someone else came and picked it up.

Now, if I’m just using the term Sandbox to describe an MMO, this feature (or lack of feature) is lost in my description. However, if I say that UO and EVE both have Persistent Objects and Darkfall does not, then you know EXACTLY what that means. It means that if you abandon a ship, structure or cargo container somewhere in EVE, it stays there even after you log off.

EVE is like Darkfall?
Having recently played both these games recently, I can tell you that they have very little gameplay in common with each other. In fact, Darkfall has much more in common with EQ and WoW than it does with EVE.

But if I had a nickel for every time I read “Sandbox games like EVE and Darkfall”

These two games are constantly being lumped together because of some very broad esoteric design decisions. It’s to the point where I read things like “EVE is Darkfall in space” and I cringe.

I guess that “space” thing is just a minor difference. I mean, it doesn’t have nearly the impact of something like not having levels or a clear progression path.

Never mind that combat is not remotely similar. Movement is not remotely similar. UI is not remotely similar. Inventory is handled differently. One is vehicle based, the other character based. One is 3D, the other is flat. One has sharded zones called Solar systems, the other one flat big world. That I can take a piss break in the middle of EVE combat and can't take a drink of soda while playing Darkfall.

Need I go on?

I first made this point on Syncaine’s blog, so in fairness, I’ll post his response:
From a game perspective, DF is closer to EQ than EVE. But from a player mentality (as in, wtf do I do today) DF and EVE are very close, and nothing like EQ/WoW. Now how you design your rules to foster that mentality varies, but I think that makes up the core of the ’sandbox’ term.
Ah.. so Sandbox is all about player mentality? Hmm. Well, that strikes me as a hell of a lot more Academic and Intellectual than my desire to discuss FEATURES instead of soundbites.

Don’t worry. Your Sandbox is safe.
I have no illusions that I’m going to magically talk people into using different terminology. Sandbox is ingrained in the community and it’s a very effective tool to argue a point.

It’s a great soundbite. You will win lots of internet arguments with it.

I’ll also concede that it’s been used often enough now that while ambiguous, it’s message is commonly understood even if it doesn’t mean the same thing to all people. In fact, for some, it’s enough that it simply represents EVE and Darfkfall.

I’d just like to see more discussion center around specific features of a game.


syncaine said...

Just a quick correct, DF does have persistent object. If you spawn a mount and log off, the mount will stay in game. The difference between UO and DF in this regard is that an item in UO would stay on the ground until the server reset, while in DF most things have a timer before they go poof (for mounts its 30m if no one touches it).

I'm sure DF could let mounts stay online until or past the server reset, but its not hard to image how this could easily be abused to make parts of the world unplayable.

melodiousgames said...

As always an insightful post. However, you have a vien running through the post that suggests that the term 'sandbox' is being used in an underhanded way to win some sort of argument. I'm not sure what type of argument you can have where calling something a sandbox makes it win, or saying something is a sandbox makes it lose. It is simply a term (and a poor one) used to explain.

I can see how it 'could' be used as a conversation stopper, but haven't yet seen it actually happen in any way that was overtly noticeable.

Tarik said...

This is quickly becoming my favorite gaming blog. Please keep up the fine work.

I think you have hit all the right points here. But just to synthesize and agree, I think the real issue with the false sandbox/theme park dichotomy is that it's become overly laden with values. It's become a farming exercise in all the worst ways, akin to (though much smaller in scale than) judgmental frames such as "death tax" or "pro life."

In the hands of the syncaines of the world (and more on that later) this becomes just another way to, lazily and in very few words, deride another's game or gameplay or, more accurately, lift oneself and one's tastes up over the mindless hoi polloi.

I'm an EVE player, and an FPS player, and an RTS player, and an RPG player. I did a few tours in WoW and am heading back in for a taste of WotLK. As an old pen-and-paper RPG and avid RTS guy, it's hard for me to figure out how anyone really prides themselves on MMO skills (though in full disclosure I'm terrible at MMOs and regularly trounced in PvP by my girlfriend). MMOs aren't the most complex game systems out there

yet, approaching games with an open mind and a broad view, the idea of deriding someone's tastes in computer games seems, to me, as silly as deriding someone's tastes in music. It's a sort of sophomoric, puerile kind of self-congratulation akin to those sniffy remarks we used to make about being into some bad "way before all those suburban bandwagoners."

So: for me the core issues is that the terms are bad because they've been subverted to bad purposes and bad intents. Not so much because they are inaccurate (they are) or often misused (they are).

All that said, I don't mean to trash Syncaine. I'm a regular reader of his blog and I find him pretty entertaining most of the time (though the Darkfall stories are boring as watching paint dry). I don't blame him or get terribly angry with him when he gets on his soapbox.

But Syncaine is what he is: the Anne Coulter of MMOs. I take them equally seriously. But I level the same criticisms at them. His nonsense is entertaining when taken with the requisite grain of salt. But all too often it's taken up by a gaggle of yahoos who lack any portion of their leader's wit or charisma. You tend to get a tiresome train of yes-men and hangers on aping the complaint du jour in various fora, and honestly, that I could do without. (Though in fairness, in Coulter's case it's downright dangerous/irresponsible; in Syncaine's it's just annoying.)

And the moral of the story is, I would have tried Darkfall at release had I not already had double my fill of its Greek chorus of yammering boobs. This sort of simplistic, advocacy framing never seems to advance anyones cause. It mainly just lends itself to a lot of ill-informed shouting.

Tarik said...

Gads. "Framing exercise," not "farming exercise." The other typos I'm ignoring.

SolidState said...

> "I’d just like to see more discussion center around specific features of a game."

Me too. So it's too bad you're getting sucked into this dialog with Syncaine about the differences between WoW and DF.

I enjoy reading about interesting game features of other games, even though I don't play them. I can even enjoy comparisons to other games when that comparison is actually used to make a point about a specific design decision (and not bash the other game).

What I don't enjoy is the frankly infantile insistence by Syncaine to compare DF to WoW and call one better than the other. It really is unfortunate that he cannot admit that loving a good PvE game != being a "Disney family of mindless theme-ride loving lemmings" since if he would only realize it, the quality of his blog would improve.

I guess that's the main reason why I don't like this "theme-park/sandbox" discussion. Apart from the fact as you pointed out that the terms are badly over-loaded, it is simply used by Syncaine to bash "the other side". His arguments boil down to "anyone who plays a themepark game is a grunt" - his words. What's the use of such an argument? That isn't clarifying "Themepark" vs. "Sandbox", that's just his usual WoW-bashing and I think sid67 you might as well give up on trying to educate Syncaine. It's an attempt doomed to failure as is any argument with a typical Internet troll and by arguing with him you are just feeding the troll.

Looking forward to more interesting posts - and discussions - about PvP, PvE and all other types of MMOs.

Adam said...

I'm unclear why you insist on noone using what is a very useful to distinguish between two reasonably distinct game concepts (despite your attempts to muddy the water).

Yes there are other game features that you can focus on with other words.

That's the beauty of language. Real people use it to help them communicate... not just spin (lol dude you didn't even have a slight sense of irony when YOU brought up "spin doctors" as a way to malign the use of sandbox vs themepark?)

Please yes lets have a discussion of object persistence, UO vs Darkfall. I remember some really really serious negatives about it in UO.

Anyone remember how you claimed territory in UO? You made forges every few feet so noone could drop a house...that's a pretty bad failure of object persistence and game design.

The lack of a "planning and zoning" board turned into a nightmare for UO players as the game went on. Darkfall villages are one very reasonable way to avoid a pile of issues.

sid67 said...

@Adam & melodiousgame:

I rarely read Sandbox in any context where the person using it is NOT a supporter of the genre. It's a very favorable soundbite that is useful for supporters.

"That's what's great about a Sandbox..."

"You don't find that in a Sandbox..."

And so forth. I'm not saying it's always used in that context, but 99% of the time that's the case.

Likewise for Themepark. You very rarely hear supporters of a 'Themepark' talking about how it's a Themepark.

In truth, it's really only used by Sandbox supporters who are attempting to contrast the two games.

melodiousgames said...

Well, indeed depending on what part of the internet you hang out in, like Syncaine's corner. However there are very large parts of the mmo-discussion community that take a more neutral stance. Out of all of them the one I think stands out the most would probably be Keen.

Adam said...


Good words have meaning and convey values.

Both of these words do a good job with that.

Many many people seem to -value- themeparks. They enjoy a vacation that they don't have to think and plan out. People specifically defend WoW by saying "I don't want to have to think after work".

If people are offended by their game being called a "themepark" it doesn't make it any less true.

It usually means they hadn't ever really given much thought to their game and the -inherent- limitations that come with the heavy content control that a game like WoW has.

Once again the fact that they -decide- to be offended when confronted with that by these two words doesn't make WoW any more of a sandbox or any less of a themepark. It just is what it is.

Tarik said...


Nothing changes the fact that the theme park/sandbox dichotomy is almost exclusively used by people who fancy themselves "hardcore" to sniff at and look down on "theme park" players.

Given that, while the term may have utility in forum pvp, it has very little use in civil discourse about games design. Particularly as I'm not sure what the hell it's referring to other than World of Warcraft on one end and perhaps EVE or Darkfall on the other. And as Sid points out, EVE and Darkfall are pretty dissimilar in most major respects.

Adam said...

"""Nothing changes the fact that the theme park/sandbox dichotomy is almost exclusively used by people who fancy themselves "hardcore" to sniff at and look down on "theme park" players."""

What relevance is how you guess at how some people might describe themselves as "hardcore" in whether the themepark/sandbox is a useful dichotomy?

FWIW I've never actually noticed anyone describe themselves as hardcore on my corners of he internet, but I understand you need a bit of character assassination to make a point that you go on to nullify in the next paragraph.

"""Given that, while the term may have utility in forum pvp, it has very little use in civil discourse about games design. Particularly as I'm not sure what the hell it's referring to other than World of Warcraft on one end and perhaps EVE or Darkfall on the other."""

So in fact now you are saying the sandbox/themepark dichotomy is useful in diffeeniating between World of Warcraft and Eve/Darkfall?

You seem confused on this.

"""And as Sid points out, EVE and Darkfall are pretty dissimilar in most major respects."""

Yes in any field dichotomies are not used in isolation to evaluate things.

In looking at Darkfall and Eve you might add in the direct (fps of Darkfall) vs the indirect (right clicking autopiloting of Eve) or any number of other axis to examine these two very different games.

If Sid67 wants to broaden the discussion to examine some of these areas he has but to post...

Tarik said...

@ Adam

Happily, you're actually the perfect illustration of what I'm talking about. You yourself use "theme park" in a rather derisive way:

"they don't have to think"

"they hadn't ever really given much thought to their game and the -inherent- limitations that come with the heavy content control that a game like WoW has"

"Theme park" players, in your caricature, sound pretty underinformed and lazy. Their game sounds inherently brain-dead and stifling. We don't know much about the game from that description except that its terribly limited and appealing to very uncritical gamers.

So I think you find the dichotomy useful because it seems to suit your ends: denigrating one group of players in favor of some other. So I agree it is useful for you. But it doesn't change my own view that it isn't terribly useful in a lively and civil discussion about games design.

Max said...

I find it funny people call DF sandbox when it has practially no sand . Sandbox without sand

I think UO is best example of "sandbox" mmo to date and so far no single other MMO came up close in terms of providing tools for players to influence the environment

DF is just empty static world with grind and 0 content. its not a sandbox