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Today I sent in a question to Massively.com’s podcast, “massively speaking,” and I’d like to publicly share, ask you the reader, and then personally begin to answer this question from my own perspective, inviting further discussion here and wherever else I link it.
"World building" is all the rage, in that it’s a major theme in many of the forthcoming wave of "next gen" sandboxes, indie and otherwise. Off the top of my head, I can think of Uemeu, TUG, Windborne, Shards online, and Landmark, some of which may have official servers and such, but let’s be real, their competitive edge is that they are all also amorphous blobs of game clay just waiting for excited community hands to sculpt them into something amazing…
Or something decidedly “amateur,” potentially cast aside when today’s consumerist gamer isn’t pleased or aligned with the linear thought behind the appeal of user #24601’s dream world, are unwilling to suspend their scrutiny, and then realizes that there are countless fully developed and professionally maintained options beckoning their time and money.
The meat of my question is this:
In a strictly MMORPG context, are the consumerist, heavily marketed-to “time is money” generation of today’s jaded RPGamers even capable of sustaining nevermind a market, but a single title’s worth of “all user generated content, all the time” offerings to a quantifiably “successful” degree, or are “pro games” so accessible now that the time is long gone when many players will so readily accept the novelty of a mainly “UGC” title, just like the time is gone when the novelty of the internet itself could sell a game, meaning “first gen” MMORPGs?
From my perspective, I am intimately acquainted with this conundrum, as this was exactly the question I found I asked myself when I closed down my NWN world. When I launched said world, you could probably count the number of notable MMORPGs on one hand, WoW was just picking up its vanilla head of steam, and after a couple years, with dwindling player attendance, I found myself taking the player’s perspective of “why would I play this when there’s WoW?” It made sense, and that chapter of my time as a NWN dungeonmaster came to a close.
I have of course indirectly tackled this question on this very blog before, in the post before this one, as a matter of fact, and one answer of course comes down to intangible things like personal attention from an amateur “staff,” community ownership of the world, and all those sorts of things that, in today’s competitive MMORPG market, can be summed up by that “suspension of scrutiny” I mentioned above, or as I’ve called it elsewhere, “managing expectations,” which… well… tell that to today’s gamer, seriously. That was easy to do when the major competitors were EQ, UO, DAOC, and a fledgling WoW, but today, when the MMO aficionado has to decide between hundreds of titles, many with AAA budgets, and on criteria like accessibility, company reputation, and payment models, how can a player-run, and therefore volunteer-run world hope to compete?
Honestly, I’m not asking this rhetorically, I’d love to hear and perhaps discuss some opinions on this very subject, because I’m personally at a crossroads in my interest going forward: I’m wondering if there’s any realistic point to putting the time into building worlds and telling stories in the future of this diluted, jaded, competitive online RPGaming world. Of course I think my stories would be worthwhile, but, like a devoted novelist, so would any person vying for a playerbase’s time and loyalty… But unlike books with finite pages, it’s much harder to balance many MMOs, and there will be so many of us asking you to do so.
So who will be left to play those player- built worlds, how cognizant of their options will they be, and how much will that impact these worlds, the games that house them, and their “success?”
I honestly hope the future is as bright as it’s made to look by all of these quality games mentioned above… but I do have doubts, because I care. Help me out here, folks!
I’d love to hear from you, find me here or on twitter @omedon666
Note: I do not include Minecraft as an RPG, solo, co-op or MMO, because of the “user avatar,” non-immersive “character” style. You’re not playing a character in minecraft, you, as a user, have a set of building hands with a pre-set skin that you might have customized. It’s fun, it’s successful, but it’s a huge stretch to call it or play it as an RPG.
As of this posting, Shards online’s kickstarter is still going, you should back it, see my previous entry for the link!
Shameless plug out of the way, there’s a topic, or series of topics near and dear to my heart that I find need to be addressed in the wake of all these “player run” games (like Shards online) coming to the table down the developmental pipeline over the next few years.
As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I used to head the development and plot of a Neverwinter Nights persistent world server back in the day. Before I sat in the Iron Throne of “head of plot,” however, I was just one of many DMs (dungeon masters: storytelling server admins) contributing to a friend’s world, and I learned a lot from this friend. One of the lessons I learned in my time as “just a DM” was to never, ever accept money “for my time” from the players, and to keep the game volunteer-run and volunteer-powered. I would not realize the importance of this advice until years later, as a veteran of many paid MMORPGs, looking at a new wave of player-run opportunities on the horizon. I’m going to spell that wisdom out for you in this entry.
A player-run server is a volunteer-run game, a volunteer-run game is a game that runs on mutual fun. Picture the player-run server as the DM’s home that you visit to play dungeons and dragons. Generally speaking, you eat the cost in gas and time to attend or make the gaming session happen, because you are going to your friend’s place for good times! In my home DMing experience playing D&D, there was a point in my late time as a storyteller when the players started to compare how much gas money they were spending, and wanted the game to reflect that somehow: competitions for “MVP,” some loot considerations for their real life gas money expenses, and so on. I stopped this gaming campaign shortly after this began, because, as I saw it, the spirit of the social get-together was lost. I felt that if I as a DM wasn’t providing the kind of fun that made people forget their gas money expenses, I wasn’t having fun as a host, and that was it. On a player-run server, your admin probably has a full time job, or is a full time home maker, student, or parent. Not only are they not paid for their time as an admin, they should NOT be paid for their time running the game, because the nature of their lives says they can’t give you time on demand.
What they can give you, is an experience that you can’t get from a professionally run game, because in a professionally run game, everyone is paying, so everyone is “equally entitled” to the state of the game and the efforts of the people running it. As these games get bigger, that means that that “equal share” of admin time translates into a safe, maintainable “none of it.” It becomes policy not to do anything creative and fun for the player, because that wouldn’t be fair to the other players, the other paying customers. There is no rapport, there is, instead, professional accountability.
There is certainly a place for that professional accountability in a big, pro game. I’ve been very thankful for GM assistance with bugs and game issues while playing big pro games, but it’s not the same as the NPC innkeeper suddenly coming to life and roleplaying with you responsively. That personal attention, which is incredibly fun for both storyteller and player, is the edge and the thrill of a volunteer-run game, and it can’t be guaranteed or paid for, because it’s something motivated and enabled by “I, the storyteller, have time to have fun now!”
Consider also the size of the community “expected” in a volunteer-run game. I’ve seen some people suggesting that they should be seeing 500+ people on a shards online cluster. Now, I forget the context of this comment, and they could be talking about the official servers, but let’s springboard into a “what if,” and assume that there are craaaazy people expecting to see 500+ people on a volunteer-run shards cluster.
While it is always possible to get more volunteers to help run your game (every shard in a cluster potentially has its own shard god, or local admin, right?) at the end of the day, you’re still not entitled to any one admin’s time. No matter how many people you have over to your mansion that holds 500 people, you’re still entertaining up to 500 people, and that host or hosts is/are still someone that no one is entitled to, because no one is being paid for their time or their fancy to host. It is, of course, possible to build a world and a ruleset of dominant co-dependence, so that most of the entertaining is done player-to-player (which, I mean, can and should happen on any online world with a community of any size), and that’s the only way I can see a three-digit population working at all in a game like this, but still, heck, even more so, those players aren’t entitled to each other’s interaction. The great thing about fun-motivated, volunteer storytelling admins is that they themselves are motivated to involve themselves with the players, because of course we’d like to host a fun party! That’s why we’re hosting! Doing that for larger and larger communities just becomes daunting, in my opinion. As I see it, volunteer game communities need to stay small, which means players need to manage expectations…
…And that’s what this whole seemingly scattered blog entry is about: players coming from large pro games managing expectations when coming into the smaller and mutual-fun-powered realm of volunteer-run games. This is just one guy’s perspective, but honestly, when we had ten people logging into our world in NWN, we were ecstatic! For me, the volunteer run game is a home with a DM screen set up for someone who will pop in and out to welcome friends old and new into a cozy chair for face-to-face storytelling. I personally hope to build a world that will have enough fun ”time consuming busywork” (likely crafting) to keep people engaged and interested in the world between admin visits, but I have a solid, experience-forged expectation of my own and other player run worlds. There will always be professionally run games and servers (Citadel, the creators of shards online, will indeed have official servers that they will run), but they are, in these visceral, human ways, a separate animal than the volunteer-run game, for reasons that are unavoidable in a situation where the ToS actually forbids players from making “for my time” money off their servers (which is wise, by the way).
The currency exchanged between a volunteer admin/storyteller/DM team and their players is fun. It’s subjective, it’s rarer, but it’s far, far more precious, and you can’t get that experience on a huge professionally run world where you’re potentially just a number. All it takes is a slight management of expectations, and countless worlds of storytellers’ imaginations are yours to explore!
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Yes, I’m doing it again, I’m turning the white hot light of my enthusiasm upon yet another forthcoming sandbox title!
Those that have read here before may remember when I passionately went on about my Neverwinter Nights (NWN) persistent world admin roots:
Well, for those that don’t feel like clicking that purposely naked and honest link to my own blog above, allow me to summarize: I used to help run a Neverwinter Nights persistent world, it was amazing, I loved it, and it changed me forever as a gamer and a storyteller. So imagine my enthusiasm when I discover a game in development that looks to reincarnate that vibe and those endless possibilities for storytelling!
Shards Online, currently in development by the charming and highly accessible Citadel Studios, a collection of very experienced game developers (seriously, their collective past experience reads like a history of MMORPGs), is an updated, fresh, brand new take on the power placed into storytellers’ hands by the kinds of tools offered in NWN. Yes, it’s a game, but for me, Shards is so much more than a game, it’s a platform for telling stories, and building online worlds for players that long for something earthy and connected to the people whose passion are powering said stories and worlds.
Let me tell you just a few of the kinds of things that this platform will allow you to do:
-Build your own world (“shard”) with a non-voxel toolset. Not that voxels are a bad thing, I’m just being up front and specific.
-Host your own world for friends and/or the public
-Set the rules of your own world, toggling things like PVP (it’s NOT mandatory!), death penalties, and crafting
-Set up every small detail of your world, from what the merchants are selling, to where the monsters wander, to what those monsters actually are! (Beware of flaming bears!)
-Build a home on your own world, right out in the open, and not instanced!
-Link your world to worlds potentially developed by other players to form your own single-ruleset universe (“cluster”) for even more exploration and virtual real estate!
With the exception of the multi-shard cluster connection itself requiring modest, “cost-covering” rental fees to Citadel themselves, everything in the above list comes with your purchase of the game, with subscription fees only coming into play if you want to play on the Citadel-run, official servers. While some details may change in development, most if not all of those pivotal points are core elements of this platform’s intent: to put the power into the hands of the players.
(the above image was placed there by me, the author, a bitter former NWN server admin, and doesn’t necessarily reflect the opinions of citadel studios. :P )
In one of the first public statements made about the game, the studio clarified what jaded Neverwinter Nights enthusiasts have known for years: that large, AAA studios will never build a platform like this again, because it’s not easily monetized for mega cashflow to the studio. Giving players the power to run their own free or incredibly inexpensive worlds takes money out of the cash shops and subscription fees of large games, so of course large studios aren’t going to do that, which is why Citadel, a “proudly indie” studio, needs the awareness and assistance of players and potential admins like you and I in order for Shards to see the light of day sooner than later! At the time of this posting, there are 17 days left in their crowdfunding campaign at Kickstarter, and if there’s one critique I can aim at these fine folks, it’s that the word on the street isn’t loud enough! People like you and I need to already start taking ownership of our potential future worlds and get the word out NOW!
The kickstarter link below has way, WAY more info than I would think of cramming into a single blog entry, so go there, read, read some more, watch videos, read and pledge! Any pledge of $20 or more will net you a digital copy of the game upon successful funding!
While kickstarter is not the “last resort” of Citadel studios (they claim to have many tricks up their sleeve, and have a “Kickstarter agnostic” development roadmap), your help can speed this game out the door and into the hands of storytellers like me!
Now then, shameless crowdfunding plug out of the way, allow me to gush about Shards a little bit more!
I am incredibly impressed with how much Citadel are prioritizing intuitive hosting! Anyone who’s tried to run a NWN server in the last few years knows that even before the news came out that Gamespy is pulling the plug on NWN hosting (which seriously sucks and seriously makes Shards a timely saviour!), it has been a convoluted mess not only to get copies of NWN into players’ hands, but also to host the damned thing with any degree of intuitive connectivity for the players! On top of the completely free and intuitively implemented option to just build your own shard that comes with the game and open it to the public, Citadel is set on maintaining solidly performing, easy-to-use clusters to make hosting a universe of many connected worlds just as simple. So many times while hosting NWN, I wished for a paid, reliable, professional hosting option that didn’t involve an unofficial third party, and Shards is providing that, so I’m stoked!
Oh yeah… gameplay! It’s also a game… I should… probably talk about that!
Actually, talking about the game is a little tricky, not because Citadel doesn’t have a handle on it, they do, as evidenced by their recently streamed “battle of the backers,” but talking about a game like Shards gets as fluid as talking about it as a platform, because the gameplay is also fairly flexible for this or that cluster admin to customize for their world(s). I think the closest thing I have to a complaint on this front is that the movement and combat are “top-down diablo style” and click-to-move, but that’s only because I’ve been so used to up-close 3rd person gaming for so long in MMORPGs, however, Neverwinter Nights itself was click-to-move, so it’s not too much of a “problem.” Indeed, as I’ve said recently in conversations about the game, this style of game lends itself well to the D&D storytelling type approach, because it looks like a tabletop with miniatures on it.
I can also say that Citadel have answered (on their own public IRC channel to talk to the devs) all of my questions about open character customization and progression in very positive ways. You don’t have to be stuck in “the armour of +10 strength and +10 ugliness,” and your logistical progression is not tied to class, but to what skills you choose to utilize and practice in. Neither wardrobe nor gameplay will prevent you from being the character you want to be!
Sadly, I can’t be more specific than this because I never played Ultima Online, but the gameplay is apparently largely inspired by UO, and the UO community itself is a major branch of enthusiasm in pushing this game, and it seems that Citadel studios are a bunch of UO fans. What I have seen is that the player graphics are “good enough,” the animations are fluid, the scenic art style is lovely, and the fantasy flair potential is right on target, with fireballs and lightning bolts and huge castles and other settings typical in these games. Although, again, to speak fluidly about the platform, while I may be “captain fantasy,” it’s already been stated that running, say, a steampunk style world is totally doable with the shards online foundation!
This entry is starting to run long, so I’m going to close with the most open-ended of topics: modding. NWN was famous, notorious and lauded for its ridiculously powerful “modability” and the endless possibilities that the NWN community could apply to their worlds through community contributions. I am proud to say that Shards is right on track with this ethic! Indeed, when the “battle of the backers” went live yesterday, one of the first things Citadel clarified was that much of the function of the particular deathmatch style game they were running was powered by mods to core functions of the game! The sky is pretty much the limit for both players and their admin/storyteller overlords.
In case you couldn’t tell, I’m very, very excited about the potential that Shards online offers to the gamer that is willing to take a step back in AAA bells and whistles for the sake of open ended possibilities and storytelling: a gamer like me!
As some have pointed out, I’ve been on a pretty solid kick lately of expressing opinions in hopes that I can bring my “dungeon master,” storytelling RPG playstyle into one of the many wide open “build a fantasy world” sandboxes in development.
Having recently placed Windborne in my interest sphere next to TUG, one question has popped up amongst my observations of this budding sub-genre of online gaming. As a proud “altoholic,” having liberally utilized the multi-character potential of MMORPGs to tell large-cast stories with small casts of players since I first discovered these games, I have to wonder if the minecraft ethic of “your singular avatar is just your in-game building hands, not really a character” will carry over and thus limit the “voxel RPG” experience.
I don’t even know if Landmark will support multiple characters, being the “building engine” end of the EQN family, but when I asked the TUG community their thoughts on alternate characters in their voxel-based, survival crafting world, I was presented with multiple opinions, and was exposed to what may very well be the greatest point of resistance in fitting my hopes for a personal ensemble cast into a voxel RPG future: Social competitiveness.
I love the storytelling, creative side of RPGs of all kinds. I love when they spawn microcosms and societies of their own, and while I can sort of see how some might have fun in settling into even the smallest “political PVP” in these multiplayer microcosms, every time any incarnation of “but then you won’t be community-accountable for your actions,” or “but I should know who you are and that I have more/am better than you” plagues the storytelling potential of my online worlds, part of me dies inside.
There are a series of competitive survival playtests currently being conducted in TUG’s “alpheta” stage, and mechanically speaking, that’s a sound idea, really. What I implore the good folks developing “build your world” games, and specifically Nerd Kingdom to consider for their privately hosted “no ‘always on’ rules” implementation down the road is the idea that while having large communities of players to barter, politic and compete for survival with is fun for some, there are those of us that would rather co-operate and colonize vast communities consisting of few players and many characters. If official servers are to be “one player, one avatar,” for whatever reason, that’s fine, it’s clear that there’s a market for those that would like to get back to shaking hands with a familiar face in trade and in community politics… But I’d also like to see support for the capability for a handful of players to populate a frontier with a bunch of alts. Not all alts visible and online at once, mind you, just different faces and hats to wear in our procedurally generated, handcrafted frontier towns! We don’t care that multiple characters will benefit from one character’s work and structures, we actually prefer that. Obviously banning tools would preferably be on an account level. Competition can exist on many levels, and on every level, a preference to co-operate instead of compete can feel drowned out by rigid development toward those that prefer the competitive.
The potential for world-building in the future of online gaming is bright, and those worlds can be enjoyed by many players with one avatar apiece, or by few players with many differing faces, different perspectives from which to see and contribute to the world through roleplay, and I truly hope that one of these forthcoming titles will allow for both ends of this spectrum. TUG seems to be the frontrunner for this degree of flexibility, but I hope it becomes a widespread consideration, which I can guess would best come hand in hand with private hosting!
I’m pretty excited for the future, and thank you once again to everyone involved in forging ahead in developing these sets of world building tools for many to enjoy!
Why, I’ve looked at the calendar and it appears we’re due for me to go off on how toxic the MMOniverse at large is, and why the solo player deserves design consideration always. Good thing massively.com posted a wildstar column that sparked such a rant from me, in which they mentioned solo content, and the inevitable backlash such a topic unfortunately receives. Here are my comments.
Honestly, my favourite counter to solo/duo content in an MMO, from a comedy standpoint, is always the tired old: “But if people can progress solo, they won’t group.”
Yes. That’s correct. Because grouping with today’s internet public at large is, more often than not, “tolerated,” not preferred.
Oh, I have no doubt that the preference exists, and should be supported, but if adding soloability to an MMO “kills the grouping game,” then the grouping game isn’t the dominant preference, and shouldn’t recieve such an extreme lion’s share of the game’s focus (“raid or die”). The people leaving the grouping game to solo… most likely never preferred it, and it just shows up more when the option exists, and those people gravitate to what they likely wanted to do all along, but were just tolerating the drama of their raid group for personal progression.
This also bites into the ol’ “raid content should have better rewards because drama/logistics/organizational work.”
This boils down to “I should get more because I’m enduring not-fun-things on my fun time.” Why should that be rewarded? You’re contributing to a toxic “don’t suck on my time” atmosphere. That’s not good. Why are we incentivizing that?
If you LIKE the idea of group content, and have a group of actual FRIENDS to play with together, and have the communal sense of humour to eat wipes, learn and burn, and progress, yes, you belong in group content, but there’s no reason that should have a higher reward output, because you’re not “working” any harder (in a well designed scenario) because it’s ideally all fun. Your group size is just being catered to, which an MMO should do, but if you’re enjoying the company of friends, why do you need bigger upgrade numbers for your efforts? If your efforts aren’t “work,” just “playing with the group of FRIENDS I have,” why should that reward more?
Before anyone says “because it’s rewarding socially healthy interaction,” ok, but by doing that, you’re dooming the game to vast amounts of socially UNhealthy interaction when groups of NON-FRIENDS form to upgrade faster… and you get the spiral MMOs exist in now on the social quagmire front.
The answer is to have people want to work together if that’s their thing, not need to work together “to be a real person” or to “progress reasonably,” and to support all group types, starting at the group size we all pay and log in as: one.
Man, I miss City of Heroes/Villains.
Anonymous said: I've noticed you've written several VERY long rants about relatively specific game mechanics and tagged TUG in your more recent ones. But some of these rants aren't really related at all, and I'm wondering why you're tagging TUG in these rants?
TUG is actually a very common thread to many of the things I’m discussing: private servers, survival crafting, voxel-based building, sandbox, and flexibility of rules are all things TUG (the untitled game) have touched upon in development :)
I’m also pretty sure I mention TUG in most if not all of the posts you’re referring to.
I have to be honest, I never thought I’d get into the whole “MMO sandbox” thing, simply because it usually came part and parcel with open world, no consequences PVP, and all of the “community” issues that surround it. As I’ve said before, I’m not really down with PVPing with the faceless internet any more, but as I’ve also said before, I’ve played on and helped run a less massive, sandbox-ish world, even thrived in a situation of relatively open PVP before. As I contemplate that, It occurs to me that there are two words in the “MMO sandbox revival” conversation that really need to be louder, and not necessarily limited to only a few games:
No, I’m not talking about the illegal “I have a bootleg copy of X themepark MMORPG to host,” I’m talking about the intentionally provided option to host a professionally maintained and patched game privately, exclusively, and at one community’s own pace and rules set. It’s not a new concept, but it is certainly an… “off concept” in the MMO-niverse. I mean, after all, throw in all of this “exclusivity,” and is it truly “massive” anymore? That’s a good question. My answer to that would be to suggest that the game can still have “massive” level appeal, with hundreds of thousands of people playing it, just maybe not together, all at once, by the same rules.
I will come right out and say that if you are rolling your eyes at the aforementioned scenario, you and I probably weren’t meant to game together, and that’s ok. See, the beautiful thing about private servers, is it allows for hubs of shared interest to congregate and enjoy themselves their own way. Do you like PVP? Host a dog-eat-dog version of the game that’s all about survival of the fittest! Do you like building and cosmetic creation? Host a version of the game with a rules set focused on crafting, gathering, building and less about combat! Want something in between?… You get the point.
Some people may have a problem with sacrificing the “massive” aspect of MMORPG for this sort of approach, but to them I submit this question: how is this fundamentally different from insular, devoted guilds with different goals in your local themepark MMO? I have a feeling that some of the dissenting answers here will take one form or another of “where is my/our show-off audience?” Perhaps some people need to feel they are invested in a huge world with many, many players for whatever reason. That’s a valid point, and a sandbox does somewhat thrive on “players as content,” and fewer players means fewer perspectives meshing into the pool of ideas. I propose that the freedom to populate one’s own world around them with their friends, or a world belonging to a tight community, makes up, somewhat, for the latter issue. I’ll admit, the people that need a “show-off audience” don’t really get any consideration from me, as I don’t think those impulses should be stoked or encouraged. I do think that a central “game community,” hubbed by forums and social media, can plug many of the social holes that a game “fragmented” by private servers might end up having. I also think that official servers should probably exist in parallel with the private servers, because if every server is exclusive, that’s not conducive to the game growing in popularity for newcomers and fresh blood. Also, I’m sure that those developing the game have their own ideal for how the game should run. The difference is, with a private server option, and a flexibly configurable game, those ideals potentially exist less as rules and as more of… a guideline (said in a pirate accent!).
The game that takes the private server approach should also exist mechanically in a way that can potentially support solo play if need be, that part’s important, because I can tell you, as a former NWN server admin, nothing kills an open to the public, private world’s growth and ability to meet new people like hosting a game that is immediately dependent on other people. Players need to come into these things at their own pace, and angling a game toward “have friends or fail” doesn’t work on this front if the community has downtime or off hours, with the game still hosted as an “always online” attraction. Now, yes, it must be said that it is a privately hosted community’s prerogative to host a notably codependent game if they so choose, but the game’s core mechanical existence needs to support this spectrum in both directions to give help to communities that do not want that barrier of entry to exist on their version of the world. I personally would think that more inclusive models should be given priority, but I’ll also freely admit that my own server would be pretty exclusive on fronts not related to gameplay, so different strokes and all that.
I’ll take a moment to address a common thread to themepark MMOs that this sandbox revolution would need to look at carefully: Lore and storytelling. TUG, for example, has a core of lore to it, and I’ll be honest, I’m so new to the game that I’ve spent almost no time looking into it yet, but the rune language and base core of story that I’ve seen seem sound and flexible enough to be taken in a few directions by creative individuals wanting to host their own worlds. What developers of lore for these games should bear in mind is that lore should be another switch or tool in the game, because I can tell you that as much as I respect what goes into the lore of the themepark games I play with my friends online… we usually ignore most of it. My mind never really left the “NWN dungeonmaster” frame, and my core posse and I have used housing dimensions and generic elements of RIFT’s lore (for example) to just back our own story in that game. Lore for the privately hosted sandbox I’m envisioning here should be composed of tools (like TUG’s rune language, great idea!) and generic themes, and be potentially, well, ignorable in details and specifics. This is just my opinion, mind you, and I’m not trying to tell said storytellers (who I’m sure are just as passionate about their stories as I am about mine) how to do their job. I’m simply saying that story and lore do have their place here, but I suggest that they need to fall into the same category of flexibility as it relates to prevalence and relation to core, mechanical gameplay.
What I’m using a lot of words to get at here, is that many of the issues that come up in “massive,” public-server games can be alleviated by simply expanding the toggles and switches available to players, and letting the community itself be its own series of checks and balances, through private servers. Themepark games will forever struggle with pleasing all of their audience all of the time, and systems, content, resources and developer time will be aimed at this equation for as long as the game exists. Am I crazy to think that aiming development time at instead creating more options to let players populate and configure their own sandbox worlds would be time and money better spent? The most effective systems to address so organic an equation as “people want different things” seem to be the organic ones that let people pursue those different things. Themeparks have shot off in different directions for years now… what I submit that we need now are sandbox games that let the players take a set of tools off into their own directions, with resources, data, ideas, and, somehow, funding flowing back to the developers to design more tools and ideas for those separate, private worlds to potentially use.
I’m not talking all in the hypothetical here either, I’ve seen this happen, I’ve seen it succeed for its community, and I’ve seen it essentially shelved and discontinued by the powers behind the game because it couldn’t be “sufficiently” monetized in a time when other online games were getting subscription money. That game was Neverwinter Nights, and I may sound like a broken record here, but this needs to happen again! Games like TUG, Star Citizen, and perhaps others I don’t know about yet could be this return to privately hosted sandbox bliss, and I’m excited to see that happen!
Here’s hoping we get this toolset soon!
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Today’s entry is another “comment copy-paste” from a massively.com piece on forthcoming space sandbox “Star Citizen.” I’m not a Star Citizen guy, but today’s article about potential PVP presence in their sandbox left me with a few thoughts I wanted to post. The article can be found here:
Here are my comments:
Not a star citizen guy, but I’m becoming a sandbox guy, so this column is relevant to my interests, and I agree with every word.
I used to run a NWN persistent world roleplay server with somewhat open PVP… around 10 years ago. It was a 100% “by invitation” experience in the sense that we were open to the public, but the banhammer was very very close at hand at all times. The thing is, I rarely had to use it, indeed the most infamous PVP’er on our server was my own character, who would often act as the in-character enforcement of “you’re going to get banned for being a dick, stop being a dick,” which earned that character a reputation as a dick… but people knew what I, the player, was doing, and no one who wasn’t a dick on an OOC level needed to fear my shady assassin in character. Ironically, that “reputation” was earned by, maybe… three or four kills, tops. That’s how often I needed to dust off the darker side of my character “the enforcer.”
I honestly likely wouldn’t leave PVP that wide open on today’s internet, were I to run that world now, as open to the public as we did it before. I am watching The Untitled Game very closely because, like Star Citizen, it will come with the capability to run private servers. Our potential server will (should the completed game meet my expectations) have a very very tight lock on PVP, meaning I don’t want any, as we won’t be inviting the kind of players that would “need it to enjoy themselves.” Today’s gaming internet is much further along that dark road of “griefing entitlement” than the world we knew only 10 years ago. The internet, and its anonymity, aren’t shiny or new or special or sacred: it’s commonplace, it’s expected, and it’s seen in most modern households as something as “just there” as tap water. That’s… not necessarily a good thing, but I’m not getting into that.
My point is, sandbox developers are right to consider any and all PVP implementation very carefully, and I honestly think that private servers are the best solution here, most notably trackable private servers that feed data to the developer. I’d be very interested to see, once empowered by the freedom of private server hosting, the stats on how many players are utilizing PVP when given a choice, and just how popular, in this genre, to today’s gaming public, the idea of “a world where you’re free to be a dick” is, next to simulated worlds for “carebears” escaping the most cutthroat, cold, evil PVP world there is: the real world.
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I’ve spent a few entries now talking about what I want and what I’m hoping for out of the next wave of sandbox games forthcoming, and in that wave I’m focusing a lot on “The Untitled Game” for a few reasons. One of the main reasons is their offering a private server option, and with that comes a pledge that there will be no standard “always on” rules set of base mechanics for the game itself, which is just a phenomenal opportunity that, again, as stated elsewhere, I haven’t had the pleasure of playing with since Neverwinter Nights. What I’d like to talk about right now is one major on/off switch that I’d love to see in the game, a constant in other games that keeps me from truly investing myself in games with voxel-based building opportunities.
I must be able to bank on keeping artfully built structures intact amidst the gameworld’s dangers.
A lot of people are comparing anything with voxels in it to minecraft, the game that made voxels cool, and so I’m going to draw a straight line to the very thing that keeps me from making anything special in survival mode (my favourite mode) of minecraft: Creepers. One thing that every rough, functional, hole-in-the-ground habitat I’ve ever built in minecraft have in common is that their “front porch” are usually composed of stone that has been placed, and re-placed, and re-placed again due to creepers sneaking up on me on my way in and out, exploding and destroying what I’ve made. Sure, eventually I upgrade to something with walls and windows and heavy lighting, but honestly, what stunts that development is the idea that the same process could conceivably happen to anything I build. Also, what works as functionally “creeper proof” might not fit artistically in the concept I want to build. I’ve asked creative friends why they don’t like minecraft, and immediately the “unwanted destructibility” issue comes up. My best friend is a wizard at creating home dimensions in RIFT, because she feels safe building things there: if she places it, it’s not going away, and so she can truly create masterpieces. That’s exactly why she feels free to create, and I totally get this logic.
This is not sour grapes from a minecraft player that has had his stuff ruined, that just comes with the game, and it’s fun, in that game, to try to eke out a creeper-proof existence… but I can also hope for a situation where I don’t have to think about building around destructibility hazards, and that’s what we’re talking about here.
I’d bet a large sum of money that most if not all of the screenshotted and spread around impressive structures we’ve seen out of the minecraft phenomenon have been built in minecraft’s creative mode, which boasts no monsters. Specifically, no creepers, and no “unwanted destructibility,” in that the only one taking down blocks are the folks that put them there. I’m sure that in multiplayer games, people also chip away at each other’s structures in a sort of builder’s PVP. What I want out of TUG or some game like it is the ability to remove this on a private server. Make the world dangerous for my character beyond my walls, but don’t make it dangerous for my walls. I’d love for myself or my friends to go crazy like it’s creative mode, while in survival mode (or “adventure mode” in TUG), because danger beyond the walls gives the walls meaning in the context of a dangerous world.
Yes, I know “danger to the walls gives the walls meaning too,” but honestly, threatening one’s artful creations threatens the motivation to create them in the first place. The greatest RIFT home builder I know has straight up said “I will not build a stone if it can be destroyed, or taken from me by time,” and I can’t really blame her. I want to bring this creativity into a dangerous world, and I can’t do it in minecraft because of (among other reasons) creepers and unwanted destructibility.
This is an opinion piece, this is something I want to toggle on a private server that caters to our specific finicky whims. It doesn’t have to be part of everyone’s game, but it must be an option before we will invest in a game the way we could truly get into it and make some beautiful things, beautiful places that we will run to when the sun goes down, slam the door and enjoy an evening by the fire as the monsters rail against our walls. It will make us appreciate these walls when we are out exploring and have to hole up in a cave for the night because we won’t make it back home in time…
But we need to know that home will be there, and that the structure isn’t threatened by the world itself. Other players we can screen, it is going to be a private server after all, but the mechanics of the game need to be “creeper free” for us to truly enjoy ourselves.
I’m trying not to get my hopes up that a game will emerge from the primordial ooze of this new era with absolutely everything we need to make the jump and truly invest into it… but TUG’s flexible rules make it incredibly possible, so I’m tentatively hopeful.
Here’s hoping we can build and depend on a lovely home in a dangerous new world sometime soon!
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Perceiving my personal timeline with any degree of pinpoint accuracy, before facebook, is a tricky thing, particularly since I’m trying to think in the realm of websites that have since been taken down (thanks a lot, EA) and can’t be referenced for dates any more, but… let’s say about ten years ago, I was swept up, by a friend I played EverQuest with, into a brave new world that would forever change how I viewed online gaming, indeed, gaming in general!
No, I’m not talking about World of Warcraft, that would come after… before WoW, and after EQ, was Neverwinter Nights, an experience that would permanently colour my MMORPG impressions going forward. I started as a player, on a friend’s persistent world (I wouldn’t touch the single player aspect almost at all), very very briefly, because like my time as a Dungeons and Dragons storyteller (heck, ten years before that), as soon as I perceived the toolset for storytelling that this medium allowed, I wanted on the other side of the DM screen.
My friend helping to run the server I started on decided to start his own world, titled “Imperial Dusk” and asked me to be a DM. I took the offer without a second thought, and built areas and told stories on as free a canvas as I had ever been allowed before without stacks of paper and handfuls of dice. I kind of sucked at the area building aspect, and had to be reminded of the finer points time and again, but thankfully my more experienced friends had the patience to correct my building work. On Imperial Dusk, I got to tell one of my favourite stories ever, of a dryad who sold her soul to the darkness to save her daughter’s life, and one of the most iconic characters of my own personal, multi-game-spanning lore thread was born on Imperial Dusk. I still play her to this day as my druid in RIFT. ;)
After some time on Imperial Dusk, I got the ambitious idea, because of a strong support base of good friends from LARPing and from Imperial Dusk, to launch my own world. With the respect I’d had for my friend that started Imperial Dusk, it seemed an insurmountable task. I was, after all, just a guy with stories to tell. I sucked at the building and the scripting ends of things, but my friends did not, and so “Dracontide” was born. A world in the decline of a dominant age of dragons, and a rising age of man, where the gods (the same gods of Imperial Dusk and my highschool D&D campaign) wanted mortal man to own the next age, and gave them the canvas to paint their destiny. On a backdrop of an incredibly repetitive grind in varying, artfully sculpted areas, and an “ethic of earning,” EverQuest inspired degree of endgame exclusivity (which I would later regret and thus 180 on after playing WoW and relaunching Dracontide years later for a short time), we told the story of the Union of Adventure, assisted endlessly by an elite playerbase and storytelling and building/scripting team that would help each other to create what was, to me, the golden age of online gaming, and a reason why I don’t really have much of a “bucket list” left for my gaming “career.” Dracontide was one of those “I can die happily after this” moments in my life.
Over time, the allure of games that were much bigger, prettier, and professionally maintained lured us off of Aidar (the world of Dracontide) to WoW, and the MMORPG sphere beyond, where we, after many years of adding to and then whittling down our numbers, have now largely settled upon RIFT because of its robust personal expression and, surprise, area building opportunities. Neverwinter Nights’ unique opportunity faded into logistical headaches, as EA bought out the rights and made hosting servers an unintuitive mess, and the multiplayer gaming sphere moved on to more easily and quantifiably monetized projects and habits.
… But a new wave is on the rise…
Rust, Minecraft, The Untitled Game, EverQuest Next: Landmark, and gods know how many others jumping on the sandbox bandwagon in various ways with various ideas are starting to carve out a “new” (let’s call it “newly profitable”) niche in multiplayer gaming. One where, once again, building tools are in the hands of the players, and the first “M” in MMORPG is optionally traded in for, in some cases, private, themed worlds. Heck, in many cases these worlds are endlessly and procedurally generated in landmass and adventure. The middleground between “you can have private storytelling” and “you don’t have to place every brick in the world” is just… the opportunities are endless! Literally! Actually literally!
Before and amidst my MMORPGaming, I was also a LARPer, on and off, for about 15 years. One of my favourite themes in these games was that of a frontier town on the edge of wild, untamed mystery. Danger in every new nightfall, and a need for protected shelter were powerfully motivating themes here. In Neverwinter Nights, as the DM, of course I’d know the answer to the mystery, and would have a hand in almost every assault on protected strongholds and shelters. In a procedurally generated landscape, I could plant a seed of storytelling where the settlers on this frontier had a motivation and a connection in this wild new world, and let the game do most of the work! Running back to the “in development” shelter of civilization as night falls and the monsters come out is just such a fun and compelling vehicle for adventure and exploratory storytelling! I WANT THIS! I want it with graphics less extremely stylized than minecraft’s gorgeous but blocky look, I want it in a more traditional fantasy setting, and I want it now!
I won’t sugarcoat this: I do not have the time or inclination to build and maintain another Dracontide from the ground up, but I DO have the time and interest to take a procedurally generated world, or a world that my friends can help fill out, and turn it into a hotbed of RPing and storytelling among not only my friends, but perhaps some new faces… so long as I can boot the undesirables.
This is what I want out of this wave of sandboxes coming out. Amidst all of the titles, some have this part or that part, some have most parts. If a game can come out that hits a home run on all fronts (Honestly: TUG is looking to be the frontrunner here) I know I’ve made a lot of bold claims in gaming and creativity that haven’t panned out, but this sort of allure is so embedded in my gaming bones… I’m simply chomping at the bit to share this new wave of sandboxes with friends…
Bring on the spiritual successor to Neverwinter Nights… bring on my mysterious, online LARP frontier. The race is on to see which game will deliver first, and I will be waiting…
We will be waiting.
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