Oversimplifying MMOs
Posted by SERIAL GANKER [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 5 March 2010, 5:05 pm
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.

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