Friday, March 4, 2011

Sandboxes and Free Markets: The Sandbox

                For years after arguably the first Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game (MMORPG) Ultima Online; many games have attempted to recreate the free form sandbox that it was highly praised for. Released in 1997 Ultima Online created a stunning graphical MMORPG with immense depth to the likes of which had not yet been seen. In 2003 Ultima Online boasted 250,000 concurrent subscribers, again a feat that had never been accomplished before. Even today Ultima online is recognized as the pioneer to all MMO’s proving that not only were MMO’s possible, but also highly successive. The key attraction behind Ultima Online, and the source of many copy cat attempts, was its sandbox environment.

                The dominant quality within all sandbox MMO’s is freedom. This freedom allows for seemingly limitless amount of choices. These choices come in the form of customization and goals. In a sandbox environment a class structure (In regards to Rogue/Cleric/Warrior… etc) is completely absent. The power sets that you choose are dependent on your play style. You define the strengths and weakness of your character and are not held back by any archetype restrictions. There are also no factions/realms, the only friends you may have come in the form of guilds/clans/corps. There is not a prevalent direction within the game, no series of enticements created by the developer to reach a certain stage. The only goals of a sandbox MMO are the goals that you put forth.

                There are varying degrees of developer presence between different sandbox MMO’s. The idea of a quest is largely used with more structured MMO’s (World of Warcraft, Lord of the Rings Online, Warhammer, to name a few). Quests will play a backseat role or no role at all in a sandbox. Non-Player Computers (NPC’s) are also generally rare in a sandbox. The developers leave the populating of the world largely up to the player base to create the sense of immersion and massiveness. Another form of developer presence is limits. These limits that are sometimes seen in sandbox MMO’s as skill point caps(Ultima Online, Mortal Online), a system that does not allow you to master all trades at once, however this is a much more liberal system than a hard level cap (seen again in your structured MMO’s) that is accompanied with archetype/class systems.

                Freedom is the driving force behind a sandbox MMO, between sandboxes though there is also varying degrees of freedom. There is a ‘guided freedom’ approach or a ‘pure freedom’ approach. These differences in freedom are largely noticed within the first few hours of a sandbox MMO and are often shed once a player gains knowledge of the game. At this point players are often left alone to define their goals.

                Within a ‘guided freedom’ approach you are often first placed in a solo instance (A world separate from all players). Here you learn the ropes and can occasionally come back to these areas to allow you to progress in the game with minimum risk. Once done the solo instance (if there is one) then you are placed in the multiple player universe, however the protection of your character is still present. This is noticed when either Player vs Player (PvP) combat is forcefully turned off, or there is a heavy presence of guards. Eventually these ‘new player luxuries’ are dismissed and the presence of the developers slowly recedes.

                Pure freedom skips the new player luxuries and places your right in the world. Instancing is a foreign concept and is nearly never used. The world is open right from the start; you are not forced to complete a series of starter missions. Once started, you are also not funneled into linear paths in an incentivized order. To accompany the open world and nonexistent developer presence (In the form of NPC guards or non-enabled PvP) your are placed in an open world, free for all PvP world.

                A common mechanic and largely celebrated by your average sandbox enthusiast is the capability of loss. Within a sandbox your items and cash are not protected from death. In some cases stats are at stake. Sandbox MMO’s play on the line of life or death where the fear of death is a largely motivating factor. The capability of loss brought on by death causes players to weigh their options before making action.

                Today many MMO’s release in an attempt to capture the essence of a sandbox game. Sandbox development is largely headed by indie companies. These companies include the maker of EVE, Perpetuum, Love, Mortal Online, Earth Rise, and Darkfall. Each and every year the sandbox market grows both in games produced and subscribers. EVE online is recognized as one of the few games that since its launch has continually seen subscriber counts rise. There is clearly no end in sight for the continuing growth of the sandbox MMO.

Part 1 of 3 – Remember to check back for more!

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Sandboxes and Free Markets: Intro

                After a week of a busy schedule I’m back and posting again. From now on I plan to attempt a twice a week posting schedule with some variations in-between.
                What I have for you is the topic of Sandbox and free markets. These posts will be broken down into three sections for ease of reading as well as allow comments specific to one topic at a time. For those unfamiliar with sandbox games, a very current attempt at one is Mortal Online, and for those unfamiliar with a game that instituted a free market is EVE. The first two posts will give a description between first a sandbox, and second a free market. The third and final post of these two topics will be attempting to tie these two game mechanics together. Expect the first post, a rather lengthy one, to be up tonight.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

The CGI Trailer

             With the rapid advancement of graphics technology, computer generated imagery (CGI for short) is becoming common place. Nearly every blockbuster film being released has received a face lift via CGI effects. Games are not foreign to a CGI touch up at all, personally I remember loading up Diablo and being awe struck by the opening cinematic. Naturally however I was disappointed when I loaded my game up and it was merely a 2.5D development (I was little and did not expect different). Before the release of every MMO it is always big news when they decide to release their opening cut-scene/cinematic to masses, or in SWOTR’s case, their many CGI trailers. Obviously, over the years of playing games I understand that what I see in these trailers is not based off of gameplay, some are even kind enough to include a ‘Not Actual Gameplay’ tag when screening them. 

            Well more questions, yes I like asking questions.

            Have you ever confirmed your purchase based off a CGI trailer?

            Do you see a point in CGI?

            Do you enjoy CGI?

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Carrot and Stick

                The idea of a Carrot and Stick mechanic is a simple incentive process. Should you be baited with a reward you may be willing to do something you may have no done before. With this mechanic the conflict between monotony and reward can easily be subdued. The satisfaction of gain no matter how meager the reward in relation to the task can be blinding. At what point are Carrot and Stick mechanics conducive to fun an interesting game play, and at what point is it detrimental. 

                In any of your ‘Theme-Park’ MMOs the leveling process is entirely Carrot and Stick. Achieving the next level brings you the next skill, the next zone, the next instance, in some cases even the ever wanted mount. From the instant you enter the world you are charged with advancing the tiers/levels of the game in your attempt to reach God status. Upon approaching ‘end-game’ the incentive for you to continue playing does not lose its steam, in fact, many argue that is where the real game begins. Now you are faced with raids of ‘epic’ proportion, or even the task of picking flowers to receive that oh so reverent title of Master Gardner.

                There are major problems that arise from these mechanics, mainly which is the separation of the ‘casual’ and ‘hardcore’ crowd. Carrot and Stick mechanics reward time spent in game which in many MMO’s results in a - those who have and those who don’t in regards to gear. When gear becomes an issue progression becomes and issue for your ‘casual’ player. They are left behind and are simply not able to experience the content they pay for. However, there are two sides of this argument; how is subscription retention effected when you do not put out adequate content for the proclaimed ‘hardcore’ crowd.

                Amongst all the negatives of these mechanics there are most certainly positives. The same tier separation of gear that is capable of destroying the balance of power between the ‘casual’ and the ‘hardcore’ also creates a competitive environment amongst raiders. Creates a linear progression system that makes ease of use and allows for new comers to quickly learn. It keeps you looking for the next best thing which further encourages exploration. Simply put, the desired product of the Carrot and Stick mechanic is realized at the end when you have a feeling, sometimes fleeting at best, but nevertheless the feeling of accomplishment.

                In MMOs the Carrot and Stick mechanic has been long entrenched in game play development. It has become the backbone, the driving force, behind the ‘entertainment’ of an MMO. The reason I challenge as to whether we are being entertained or not is for the multitude of downfalls to this Carrot and Stick system. Are the rewards honestly rewards, is there true enjoyment behind doing the repetition?

To close I again petition you to answer a few question:

                Do you notice the Carrot and Stick mechanic at work in the MMO that you frequent?
                Do you enjoy this mechanic?
                Is it over-used?
                Are there better alternatives?

Sunday, February 13, 2011

The MMO market

The MMO market is undoubtedly growing with each and every year. The market posts record breaking numbers each quarter even in the face of economic disaster. This growth is recognized with the magnitude of releases each year and the endorsements of these products by larger company’s (Rift’s funding) and even states (38 Studios). With every release more and more attempts at innovative features are put in place, whether it is a persistent world, a player against players focus, or a more in-depth story telling experience. The expanding market is doing away with niche games and as new titans emerge in an attempt to topple those who came before they broaden their scope consuming the ideas of their predecessor and expounding upon them.

Which is where I purpose my first questions to you.

 What is the source of your interest in a game?

Has there been change in the basics of the MMO format?

Is change warranted?


Welcome to Game Theory, a blog devoted to approaching the methods created by developers to attract you, the gamers. I will keep the first entry short and attempt to convey the overall goal of this blog (This is not to say that we won’t deviate from the path every now and again, you know, keep things fresh).  The goal is to assess what lures players to a game, what makes them stay, and how gaming development is changing. I’m an amateur, by no means a professional, so posts will not be lengthy reports full of filler and nonsensical (I’ve wanted to use this for some time now) dribble. There will be many occasions where I will ask you, the reader, to give me your input in an attempt to cover more accurately my topics. I appreciate your visit and feel free to comment and do what readers do.