Slides and SandboxesAshterothi
One of the terms/stereotypes that has been bouncing around since the very early days of MMOs (and really gaming) is the notion of “Theme Parks” and “Sandboxes.” Theme park games are relatively simple to design. Games such as World of Warcraft pretty much exemplify the Theme Park essence. Effectively, a theme park game is a game that you have “rides” to go on and “games” to play. Doing these rides, and playing these fun mini games unlocks prizes, trophies, and perhaps keys to other rides, and puzzles to play with and in.
Often times in Theme Parks the mechanics are built such that players are encouraged to play nice with one another. If the game does sport opportunities to fight your fellow man (allowing player interaction is important to justify the MMO-ness after all) often those opportunities are in gladiatorial arenas or in set piece battles. In other words, PvP “rides” you can go on. Player interaction is largely encouraged to be cooperative and positive, or sporty and competitive. Doubly so for random encounters.
Sandboxes have been gaining popularity in gaming culture, mostly because of Ubisoft’s desire to reinvent their definition of the sandbox in just about every conceivable way. However, this definition of sandbox misses the mark. In fact, in many ways most Ubisoft games are just gigantic theme parks, with challenges and events for you to enjoy, tick off, and get prizes from. Where Theme Parks are about experiencing, Sandboxes are about building and tearing down. A sandbox has no definition about what should be done within, all that exists is a boundary, a medium, and some tools. What is built, and how well it is built is now a reflection of the user, not the creator of the game. In many ways Minecraft is a better archetype for a sandbox, most assuredly in ‘creative’ mode. In this way the Sandbox puts no demand on what is made, but only constraints on how the tools function and go together.
EVE has always been lauded as a “Sandbox” MMO, and with good reason. With its player driven economy, politics, industry, at all, EVE has seemingly always been committed to giving people the tools to operate in the Sandbox in more clever and interesting ways. CCP Soundwave once said it was CCP’s job to develop better shovels for building castles and boots for stomping them down. In this way EVE is nearly unparalleled in the gaming space and one of the principal reasons many do not consider EVE a ‘game’ as much as an art itself, or perhaps the medium by which art can be made.
But EVE isn’t just a Sandbox, not everything is player created and controlled. Simple things such as skillbooks and complex features such as missions stand less as sandbox elements but more as props for the playing within and near the Sandbox. These elements stand mostly outside of player control, players only interacting with secondary and tertiary effects, as opposed to elements such as sovereignty in which the primary interaction is controlled by the players alone and the rules of the game. In these ‘side’ elements players are allowed to cooperate and interfere, the game providing varying degrees of protection from bullies as well as solutions involving overwhelming numbers, and often provide intrinsic rewards for engaging. These are not Sandbox elements, and as such have often been ignored, suffering from “good enough” disease. Nonetheless, they do exist, and function as a significant portion of the game.
It is these precise elements that allow for a higher engagement rate in EVE, improving the overall experience. The big challenge with player driven content is that it relies on everyone to play along at the same time. Many games get over this by having matchmaking, or other such systems to force “good” matches and games, EVE eschews these tactics, instead getting around this through the use of player set timers, and the concept of predator/prey scenarios.
This is where all of this comes together. A better experience for the prey will increase the prey population leading to a better experience for the predator. The content of players can only be as good as the content that attracts the players. EVE PvE is ran because it is rewarding. In this case the reward is the ISK required to step up to even more ambitious efforts. Few, if any, rat or mission because that isn’t what they signed up in EVE to do and even those who do admit it gets stale after some time. The problem with outright ignoring the slides and jungle gym is they become dated, rusted, and potentially outright broken. If the gym equipment of the playground sucks then the people don’t use them and don’t play with them; and if they do it’s begrudgingly. Ultimately people leave because all they see is dangerous, ill maintained, playground equipment.
On the other side, we come to the question I have been asking for years: What if EVE PvE was good and fun? What if highsec was a place focused on education and engagement? What if playing the game itself was fun enough, even on those nights you don’t run into anyone?
I suspect that such changes and improvements could vastly improve player retention. A better PvE not only allows players to come to grips with the game on their own terms but it allows anyone who wants to just play a bit to decompress good and rewarding ways to do so. Such improvements will not only improve recruitment, but retention as well. The paradox being that more content that favors those who wish to interact with the universe means more people in space doing things and thus more activity across the board. All of the “stepping stones” from highsec to low and null won’t do any good if it is highsec itself that is turning people away from the game.
In contrast, the Sandbox itself is healthier than ever. New tools and objectives have poured from CCP over the last year and now we have perhaps the biggest grab for land and power ahead of us in the ‘DO IT’ initiative. The biggest thing EVE needs is people, and to get people you need content. People are great content but you still need a solid and reliable universe as well.
Finally, we need to step outside of the entire game. Ultimately these Theme Park elements are not the only slides in this playground. CCP has presented several new offerings and it seems like the biggest lesson of Dust was that not everything that is tied to the EVE Universe has to be directly attached to the New Eden simulation that the EVE client attaches to. I have written before about the need for development of the EVE Universe, as well as the game client, and this last year has seen a major push in this direction. Games like Gunjack and products such as the upcoming “Frigates of EVE” book offer more unique lenses into our favorite cluster. There are so many other untapped ways to explore the IP, CCP is literally limited only by their imagination.
It’s time to realize that EVE is bigger than the sandbox.