Essentialy, the idea behind a sandbox MMO is to be as nonlinear as possible. However, a theme-park MMO is one where you are essentially led around on a string as far as what to go to. But, let’s be honest here. It’s not that. Here’s what we are really debating.
Stated End-game or Open End-game:
That’s what we are really talking about. Or, an easier way to put it, developer stated end-game or user stated end-game. When you finally look at it in this light, you see that you can actually combine them. A common term for an MMO that achieves this balance is a ‘sandpark’ mmo. EVE could be considered this of sorts, as there are factors that give players enough influence that allows them to create their own end-game through wars and economy. In a game like WoW, in stark contrast, you hit 85 and are directed by item levels which way to go. It’s kind of the gaming worlds nature vs nurture. However, I think that these days, it’s time to build a better mouse-trap
First, you have to have a good hook. I think this hook is where you become a specific type of MMO, and commonly what happens in blogs and possibly just normal chatting is people think of the type of game they want to play first, and it just doesn’t work that way. You need a good launching point for your story. From here, you can go a few ways, the most common being something realistic and believable, or something completely fantasy based yet following a story. Science Fiction usually follows the believable, with Fantasy choosing to follow ‘lore’. That’s what I’ll be focusing on tomorrow, Logic or Lore, since that single choice nudges you toward a specific genre. This is typically where most games start. The ‘What’. Or if you prefer the cheese.
What, you thought I was just pontificating about MMO’s? Heck no, I’m out to make one. Logic and Lore aside, it comes down to open ended story or a fixed story. Now, I’m not really a fan of fixed story, so open ended definitely seems the way to go. This is going to probably end up being more sandbox less theme park, but here’s where you have to stop and back up three steps. You have to make some hard choices that you might have already made and not even thought about, but will color the entirety of your project. Are you going to let the type of MMO dictate further choices? If I choose sandbox now and try to push myself in that mold, I’ll run into issues later if I need to add in theme park pieces. Alternatively, if I paint myself into a corner with theme park pieces, but suddenly need a feature with randomness and lack of repetition, will I already be too far into a theme park design to even back up? So, before painting ourselves into a hole, let’s go back those three steps to what real game makers think of first.
See? I said three steps back. Before design, before genre, you need to pick a person. Rather, a personality. This also comes down to how large do you ‘want’ your game to be? WoW size? EVE Size? Rift Size? Angry Birds size? Here’s another common pitfall to those in the blog world. They tend to think of what they specifically want out of a game and rate it from that, however, they usually fail to see what they like and merge that with their original ideas. Now, we know mechanics that work. Leveling, Items, and Abilities. These have been around since DND, and they still exist because they truly are the most identifiable signs of ‘progress’ in any game. Stretch one of them out too much though, and you have the dreaded ‘grind’. So, how much is too much? How many levels before you dread having to get the next 5, 10, or 20? Of course, that’s hard to say till you drill down your audience. Now, instead of going after say the ‘WoW’, ‘Rift’, or ‘EVE’ audience, let’s do it the old fashioned way. Let’s go after the Sci-Fi RPG player.
As far as Sci-Fi genre goes, there really has been a void of good MMO’s in this area. Fantasy ones seem to outweigh the Sci-Fi ones in this field, but I don’t believe it’s because there aren’t many Sci-Fi lovers out there. Recently, you do have SWTOR pulling ‘some’ Sci-Fi fans, but here is where theme park takes an ugly turn. If you don’t like the lore, you’re left out. Especially with so much emphasis on the ‘polish’ of the game, or immersion.
So, how do you fight this? Well, my tactic is simple. I’m going for 0 immersion. Anything that happens above that is a bonus. By not forcing myself into trying to force the player into the world, it lets me focus on the mechanics that need focused on. If the world is rich in the right ways, and you make the interface non-intrusive, immersion takes care of itself. Here is where, many times, MMO’s fail. They try to hard making you feel like the hero, only to remind you in 4 seconds that the server is full of heroes.
To start, I am working on a sci-fi based MMO that will focus on the player’s plight with things happening TO them, not them trying to save the world like a lone ranger.