State of Sandbox PvE (and Zombies)

A bit ago when I was talking about sandbox as interactions, instead of sandbox as mechanics, with regard to the eternal MMO war between sandbox and themepark games, Telwyn had a really interesting comment. Basically Telwyn brought up the desire to have a sandbox PvE MMO that did not “devolve into open world PvP”. Bhagpuss also commented on that post, and I instantly thought of Everquest because of him. A sandbox PvE MMO without the huge PvP aspects (combat or economical) found in sandbox MMOs (like EVE Online) I felt could just revert to something like Everquest.

Players hop in to a zone and kill things. Some things need multiple people to kill. Some can be farmed on their own. And, for the most part the world is stagnant. If events like Guild Wars 2 dynamic events or Warhammer Online’s public quests were too scripted to be sandbox, then sandbox PvE would have to rely on the emergent enemy’s behavior routines. This opens the door for huge fun-destroying issues of where to put control. EVE Online keeps a lot of their sandbox PvE controlled in a separated wormhole space. Everquest restrained most mobs to their fixed environments.

Theme parks have areas like these too. At Disney World if a tourist enters the Pirates of the Caribbean area they are going to find pirate-costumed employees. It doesn’t feel accurate to say scripts or lack thereof are the dividing line between sandbox and themepark MMOs. I feel that it is again better to rely on the interactions between the players and the PvE content. How much does the content control the interaction?

I love all things MMOs, but I simply could not come up with simple ideas for massive sandbox PvE. I think creating one on the level of Minecraft multiplayer is doable. If the players ruin or lose handle on the environment, ditch that world and move on. That destroyed MMO persistence. There were also thoughts of crazy wars, but then how is a win point created. No one wants a Sisyphean task (even if it is in our blood). It was starting to get depressing, and it started to feel like Telwyn’s idea of a feasible, PvE-based sandbox MMO was out of reach.

Then I remembered an upcoming MMO. There are two I am excited about (you know, that aren’t releasing this week). WildStar seems like it is very active themepark where they are designing the mechanics based around intentional interactions, such as scanning wildlife or killing game while a hunter NPC is near. It feels very smart, but it’s not sandbox PvE. The other game, recently announced for the PC, is Undead Labs State of Decay. (It’s been in development as an Xbox 360 game for a few years.)

This was the answer. I knew it immediately as the synapses clicked, and Undead Labs has probably known it for a while. If players just walk out in to a sandbox version Elwynn Forest to kill, collect and then craft and trade, I think the MMO won’t hold much water. Fallen Earth seems like evidence that more is needed, but some people claim it is a sandpark anyway due to all the quests. PvE sandbox requires a struggle. A sandbox built on PvP has this necessity in spades, but it is a lot harder to force a struggle in PvE.

Zombies are the answer. Or at least a tried and true genre built on survival and struggle. Players aren’t heroes; they are survivors. Resources are worth their weight in gold rather than being merchant mulch. Enemies don’t just represent roaming punching bags of gold and XP. Enemies represent danger and death. (I’ve heard that this is the case in Wurm Online too, but I think Wurm Online has a different focus.)

State of Decay is starting as a single-player game with full intention of heading for the high MMO hills. It already has a lot of the persistence elements in that the world does not stop when a player logs off. Players have to scrounge for food and ammo. They have to choose whether to defend their home base or preemptively attack a horde. They really made the answer of a PvE sandbox MMO seems obvious in hindsight. Make it an uphill battle instead of the heroic rise to power.

In sandbox PvP, players are cogs in the great machine. Why should sandbox PvE be any different? There simply isn’t room for everybody to be a hero. In EVE Online players have to toil to make their names known. Why should sandbox PvE be any different? Everybody cannot win in a struggle. Yet, stories are made based on conflicts and interactions. This is where sandbox-style gameplay shines.

After I came to this full realization I became very excited about Undead Labs’ project. I know a lot of players look at sandbox MMOs and think PvP or crafting. PvE is for the themeparks, they assume. I think that State of Decay could show the way for a new generation of PvE sandbox. That’s why it is definitely on my radar.




7 thoughts on “State of Sandbox PvE (and Zombies)”

  1. Well, in a similar vein, in my early days of UO, the players had to band together to survive PKs if one wasn’t a PK oneself. Once Trammel was released, it pretty much destroyed a big chunk of what there was to do.

    That’s when the treadmill began.

  2. I think the issue is time. If it’s truly “massive,” then if a player or group of players comes in and clears a zone in PVE, you can’t just wait 4 minutes for a respawn and have it be ready for the next of the players to come through and still be sandbox-y.

    I can picture in my head mechanics for handling something like that, but it involves a retreat from zone-free one-world WOW style worlds, back to a world-map like a real map, with boundaries and borders and such (at least as a fast-travel abstraction). Monsters would need to have real thought given to their social structure (like the entries in the D&D Monstrous Manual plus something like Storybricks to define ambition and tribal politics) that gave them motivation beyond “stand around this campfire and kill player-characters.”

  3. ZombiU looks like it could be a good model for a survival MMO. Players start from a safe house and head out on missions, if they die they have to roll a new character, but any supplies they were carrying will persist in the world and can be picked up by the new character. It’ll be interesting how successful it will be.

    I’d like the Majora’s Mask mechanic to be explored by more MMOs as well, having a catastrophe that resets the world after a short time. Some progress is permanent and supplies can be ‘banked’ and inherited by subsequent characters, with the risk of some progress being partial and temporary until all the criteria is met.

  4. EQ was the first themepark and started this whole mess. Please for the love of god stop calling it a sandbox.

    Also I hate to do this but

    To specifically address the mobs issue: there is no reason a mob can’t mimic a PK in some aspects (being tough, ganking you, roaming, forming a blob) but not others (talking trash, being a racist, corpse-camping, 5am raids).

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