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Sandbox Quests

Tobold made a post the other day that got me thinking about the more philosophical angle of the differences between themepark and sandbox games. In the post, Tobold relates the common DM nightmare of players striking off on their own, plundering the crypt/castle/ruins before technically getting the quest to do so. While one solution is the Warhammer-esque “Bears bears bears” method (retroactive credit), Tobold went with “All roads lead to Rome” where he simply moved the quest-giver to where the players were going. As I mentioned in the comments to his post, the latter is not particularly innovative; WoW has had the occasional mid-quest updates since Cataclysm, and GW2’s Hearts are all location-based and automatic rather than relying on quest-givers.

The thought that struck me though, was this: at what point does a sandbox become a themepark?

Take, for instance, Darkfall. I don’t think anyone would claim that Darkfall is anything other than a sandbox. But it also has what amounts to “quests” in any other game: Feats. I suppose these are more similar to achievements than quests per se, but they are basically “Do X, Receive Y” activities that drive player behavior. Would having Feats tied to NPCs in a town or camp change Darkfall into a themepark? I don’t see why they would.

It seems clear to me that the difference between sandboxes and themeparks are the difference between player-motivated actions and developer-motivated actions. Do what you want in Darkfall, do Siege of Orgrimmar/Timeless Isle/LDR/etc in WoW. But I am starting to think that that line is a bit fuzzier than it is typically portrayed. “Do what you want in Darkfall, but farming X over in Y is more rewarding than Z.” How different is that really than themeparks? And isn’t it possible for someone to treat a traditional themepark MMO as a sandbox?

So, now I’m thinking that the line between these two paradigms really comes down to developer attitude regarding content. If the developers feel that they have to create the content themselves, it’s a themepark; if the developers let players amuse themselves, it’s a sandbox. Am I missing something critical? I mean, player housing and non-instanced dungeons are prototypical sandbox qualities, but a Darkfall without either is still a sandbox, right? And clearly the line is not drawn at the mere existence of quests or directed player activity either.

Are these themepark/sandbox distinctions more arbitrary than we have been led to believe?

Instant Gratification vs Fun Investment

All this talk about Magic: the Gathering makes me want to revisit a topic I briefly touched on last week, in the comments here and elsewhere. Namely, the sort of denigration of “instant gratification” and the elevation of investing in “long-term fun,” which is presumably shorthand for “doing a series of boring things for a reward later.”

The choice between instant gratification versus an investment in long-term fun is a false dichotomy. Gaming is an instance in which you can have your cake and eat it too.

One of the examples activities that was used to illustrate how “boring gameplay” can lead to bigger returns in fun was painting figurines in a tabletop game like Warhammer. Simply purchasing already-painted figurines would just not be the same despite having no direct gameplay relevance. I agree. I also agree with the notion that, say, using cheat codes to become immortal, having infinite money, and so on right at the start of the game likely diminishes the overall amount of fun you can derive from it.

But here’s the thing: someone who paints their Warhammer figures probably finds the act of painting them fun.

I used to play a lot of Magic: the Gathering back in high school. The games were nothing serious, just some 3-5 person chaos multiplayer amongst friends. However I would routinely spend about 10 hours crafting decks for every 1 hour a given deck would actually see play. In fact, if any of my decks began to routinely win, I stopped using them and built new ones.¹ And I had fun!

Deck-building was almost better than playing the actual game for me. There is something deeply satisfying in seeing a complicated scheme all fall into place, top-decking the one perfect counter that changes the game right when you need it to. But running all those scenarios through my head, pouring over all my available options, whittling down a pile of 250 cards I wanted to use into a perfectly-tuned 60-card machine was pure entertainment in of itself.

Another example: D&D. I ran a 4-year campaign throughout all of college, and a little beyond. As a DM, I let my players have ample freedom, but I made sure the world they inhabited was scaffolded in lore such that they had a place in it. In other words, I wanted to give them the ability to take the world as serious as they wanted to. Of course, most sessions started and ended with them starting a bar fight rather than the existential pondering I secretly wanted them to do. But it is not much of a stretch to say that I spent 20 hours per week in preparation of one 3-6 hour session. Never once did I consider those 20 hours a chore. I was excited to DM those games because it gave me the opportunity (and justification) to spend all that time world-building.

Now, clearly, what an individual finds fun is going to be subjective, and possibly something that changes over time and circumstance. But my point here is that the sort of activities necessary for long-term enjoyment – figure-painting, deck-building, world-creation – can be fun in of themselves. Not only can, but should. This extends to all in-game activities.

I do not buy the argument that something like Darkfall/EVE’s AFK resource-gathering systems is fun “because it gives you the time to do something else.” An activity doesn’t become fun by adding in a separate fun thing; an activity is either fun in of itself or it isn’t.² An unfun thing can become tolerable when mixed, but that is not a point in the base activity’s favor. Being punched in the face is alright if you give me $1,000, but I would rather just have the $1,000. Is desiring just the money considered “instant gratification,” or is that simply rational?

You can rightly question why I am not currently building Magic decks or constructing D&D campaigns if they are so fun in of themselves. The truth is that without the payout, without the destination at the end of the journey, these (investment) activities are not as fun to me. However, while they might not be as fun – that is, they are less fun than other things I could be doing instead – keep in mind that they still are fun. An actual destination acts as a force multiplier, if you will, to the entertainment of the journey. Contrast that with many of the in-game “investments” we are tasked to complete which make no sense to perform at all without reward, e.g. they are the punch to the face.

The distinction is important, because I feel it is far too easy to for us gamers to fall into the cognitive dissonance trap of “retroactive fun” and Sunk Cost fallacy. “I spent 5 hours farming herbs, it must have all been worth it!” Even if there is no real difference between actual fun and retroactive fun in practice (and isn’t that a depressing thought?), it does matter when comparing games mechanics in the moment.

All things considered, you should desire the mechanics that are both fun now and even more fun later. We simultaneously can and deserve to have both.

¹ A successful deck was a sort of “proof of concept” for me. Could my infinite damage combo reliably work in an actual hostile environment? Coming up with combos was a lot easier than constructing a deck capable of pulling them off, after all. Plus, my goal was never to craft a (P2W) deck that beat my friends 100% of the time; that sort of thing is never fun to play against anyway.

² It’s probably more accurate to say fun is a gradient rather than a binary distinction, one that can shift from one moment to the next. But I still believe that the unfun half of the scale hits zero right near the border.

The Cart and the Horse

Why would someone start playing a game that was only fun with the friends you made after playing the game?

One of the criticisms of my Darkfall series of posts was that I never even tried to join a clan. This is true, and I said up-front that I was not going to try; it is why I labeled the series “Unfair Impressions” in the first place. Part of the reason I made such a decision was that I am not particularly feeling sociable at the moment. Another part is that, ironically, it didn’t seem fair to whomever’s social fabric I would be using like a dish rag; I don’t fully subscribe to Gevlon’s worldview, but getting a social benefit without returning the favor does feel like leeching to me.

The biggest reason though, is that I fundamentally believe that games (even MMOs) should be fun in of themselves first.

Think about your first MMO experience. Did you start playing alone? I walked into Azeroth with nothing, and left six years later with a half-dozen friends from across the country who still ask me to join them at the next New England meet-up. That is the sort of MMO and “virtual world” dream scenario, right? But just like any relationship, it did not develop overnight. It took time. Time spent playing the game without said friends. And at any time, that window of opportunity to convert me to long-term guild player could have closed if I didn’t feel engaged or entertained enough compared to my gaming alternatives.

I am not against a game requiring investment to play, or even a game in which the most enriching experiences are to be found in grouping. I am against a game requiring a priori buy-in to justify itself. It is not reasonable, to me, to suggest clan play makes the sort of new player experience I wrote about irrelevant. Maybe Darkfall doesn’t care about catering to new players or “hand-holding,” and that’s fine. But I feel that it is a tiny bit ridiculous to then claim the game is good (or another game is bad) when you have already committed to that position before even downloading the client.

Any game is better with friends. Requiring friends in order to have fun playing a game at all is not a strength, it’s a weakness. A deficiency. There will be thousands of players playing your game for the first time, alone. Does the game then facilitate friendships? Good. Does the game present a whole bunch of impenetrable nonsense? Bad. All your 30-minute boat rides and clever grouping schemes won’t work if the players never even make it out of what passes for a tutorial.

The longer I play something like Planetside 2, the greater the opportunity for me to get hooked into somebody’s social fabric, even if I’m kicking and screaming against it the whole way. In fact, joining an Outfit would be a sort of natural evolution to someone’s daily gameplay. But that evolution is only possible because the underlying game is fun to play, e.g. I’m playing it a lot right now, solo. With Darkfall, the consensus seems to be that the opposite is true: you have fun playing a lot only after being integrated into a social fabric woven before you actually start playing.

To me, that just sounds like putting the cart before the horse.

Unfair Impressions: Darkfall, Final (?)

I was not sure there was going to be a Day 3 to this series. Hell, Day 2 came as a complete surprise for that matter. My default expression in life is “Impress me,” to which Darkfall just laughs. “Okay, show me what you have to offer.” “Show yourself.” There is an inherent nobility to that uncompromising sentiment, a sense that all the other games out there selling themselves are, indeed, engaging in prostitution. Darkfall instead has the purity of your back yard, with the creek your mother told you to stay away from. No one gave you a quest to turn over rocks to see what lied beneath them; you just did it because you were there, and hey look at that weird bug, I wonder what happens when I… eww.

Sorry, sometimes I get carried away with my own bullshit.

#MMOLogic

#MMOLogic

In truth, I continued playing Darkfall because I was interested in how onerous it would be to make arrows for my Skirmisher. The spiders never dropped any coin, the vendors were asking for 30+ crafting mats for 1g, and my initial try at crafting wooden planks left me with not enough gold to purchase a pick axe to mine the requisite stone for arrowheads. Considering my character was ostensibly an archer, would the game allow me to run out of arrows?

Of course it would.

I abandoned the spider spawns, and tried the other starter monster spawn location. It too was farmed out; in fact, I don’t even know what mobs spawn there as none lived long enough for me to point at them. From the map, I noticed some ruins off to the west. If there’s ruins, there’s monsters. Sure enough, it was zombie spawn city.

My potential future. Kill me now.

My potential future. Kill me now.

While I sat on the fringes watching characters in clearly superior gear farming through the zombies like butter, it occurred to me that there is a distinction between sandboxes that few ever make. There is the sandbox in which you perform repetitive actions in order to have fun later, and there are the ones in which you have fun doing fun things that leads to more fun later. Darkfall, to me, is the former; Minecraft would be the latter. And the funny thing is that the former doesn’t sound all that different from what I was required to do in WoW.

The zombies that trickled past the farmers did end up dropping hard currency – around 1-3g every 5-10 mobs. Examining the pleasure I felt when I walked away with 22g at the end of the farming excursion was a sobering experience. There were likely better spots for gold farming, even in the protected newbie zones, but it was a glimpse back into the churning abyss of a grind without end. Work hard today so you can have fun later, as opposed to having fun… having fun.

In any case, I remain pleased that I gave Darkfall the ole college try. Every time I read Syncaine’s latest post about ganking a dude and stealing all his stuff (and his boat), or about how he AFK farmed while writing the post, I can visualize what exactly all those shenanigans looked like. And then realize that game he and others are playing exists primarily in their own minds.

Which isn’t a bad thing, of course. It’s just not my thing.

Unfair Impressions: Darkfall, Day 2

I felt like the screenshots were not enough to fully immerse you in the world of Darkfall. So here is a video of me attacking some spiders. Don’t forget to switch to 1080p quality!

In terms of the tutorial, I finally realized why I was stuck on the “skinning” portion. While you can loot leather from the glowing gravestones, if you have a skinning knife you can also skin… the gravestones. Because that makes sense. The failure rate seems ridiculously high, but eventually I loot one.

The next step is to hearth to your bindstone, which I did exactly two minutes later. Literally, guys, it’s a 120-second cast. I started it up and left to make my lunch for the next day.

This actually reminds me of another curious thing: AFK-farming seems encouraged in Darkfall. Much like in Guild Wars 2, you must buy a logging axe or herbing sickle in order to gather materials, and these items have charges (durability in this case) that deplete on use. The difference here is that you can start up the animation in Darkfall and walk away from the keyboard – your character will merrily continue chopping timber until (presumably) the axe is worn down to the nub or the tree runs out of wood. It reminds me of what I have heard about mining space rocks in EVE, insofar as gathering only requires button presses once every half-hour. Is that supposed to discourage people from farming, or a concession that farming is so boring the game will do it for you while you Tab out and play something more engaging?

At the Southern FFA border.

At the Southern FFA border.

In any event, the next stage of the tutorial was taking a 100kg (!) mount idol from the bank and summoning a mount. From there, you are tasked to running to the border of the protected area, sticking your toe over, and then coming back inside. Ah… so I was paranoid for no reason this entire time. Well, sorta. Apparently if you aren’t careful, people can actually steal your mount and ride away. After which I assume you are shit outta luck. Considering that unsummoning the mount takes a minimum of 2 seconds after dismounting, you’ll never want to actually be in town riding the thing.

After much squinting at the abysmal UI, I finally found and dabbled with the Prowess system. Essentially, you earn Prowess doing things, doing a certain number of things (Feats), and presumably other ways too. Prowess essentially act as skill points you use to upgrade skills, increase your ability scores (Strength, Dexterity, etc), and so on. Most skills start a 1 and can be increased up to 100 with an increasingly harsh cost ratio (1:1 up to ~25, then 2:1, etc); each upgrade level typically improves cast speed plus some miscellaneous qualities by some percentage. As an example, putting points into Archery lets me fire faster and deal more damage per arrow, whereas Mining let’s me increase my AFK-yield.

That all makes sense, but I was taken aback a bit from the “Boosts”. At first, I was thinking they were F2P-esque boosts, but that does not appear to be the case.

Ha ha, we got you good.

Ha ha, we got you good.

Instead, they are… err. Well, you can buy the first rank of “the Agile” boost for 200 Prowess, and it increases Dexterity by +10 and the Stamina by +37. Considering that manually boosting Dexterity by +1 costs 30 Prowess, I don’t actually know the point of boosts in this context other than a designer “Gotcha!” moment. I mean, I suppose that it is a way to quickly achieve your class’s optimum stats while still offering a Prowess sink for long-term players (e.g. Warrior dumping extra Prowess into Intelligence once everything warrior-y is bought).

If there is a third day of playing Darkfall in my future, my goal is to figure out the crafting side of things. I understand the basics, but I’m a little uncertain about how one actually goes about getting hard currency; considering that crafting consumes gold as well as mats, you have to have a baseline of income from somewhere. None of the mobs I have killed dropped gold thus far. Does it all come from vendoring goods? There are no “quests” of course, and there doesn’t appear to be an AH either.

So… yeah. Darkfall.

Unfair Impressions: Darkfall: Unholy Alliance

That’s right, ladies and gentlemen. You know you are batting in the Big Leagues when you can bamboozle people into believing you are a member of the Press™ despite running a blog that is barely eking out Google pagerank from an Amazon book review and a bioterrorism article written in 2004 that happened to use the phrase “in an age” in the title. I suppose that this is sort of the gaming blogger dream though, wherein people send you free things and you write about them; instead of, you know, the standard procedure of having to purchase things to write about, like some kind of animal.

Whatever the case, Aventurine has inexplicably included me on their Press mailing list for Darkfall: Unholy Wars, and I am now entitled to the game itself along with 30 days of Press™ subscription for free. Rather than allow this inevitably comical misadventure go to waste, I downloaded and patched the game last Wednesday night.

It is worth noting why this post is labeled “Unfair Impressions”: basically, I have zero interest in Darkfall: UW. In fact, I would say less than zero interest. The sum total of what I know about Darkfall is that it is a full-loot FFA PvP game that some say is the most skillful MMO out there. They also say it’s terrible playing by yourself. Fantastic. Let me wander around, lost and confused, as I endeavor to stay as far away from other people as humanly possible.

Well... they got the 2004 look down, at least.

Well… they got the 2004 look down, at least.

Okay, I’m not going to mention how godawful ugly this game is. Not even once. The screenshots really speak or themselves. And as far as I’m aware, my settings are dialed to the max.

I am in the first town. I’m pretty sure this area is still a sanctuary, but I’m nervous about accidentally left-clicking someone. Okay, let’s follow the tutorial. “Buy an axe.” Alright, let’s see…

Way to maximize useless screen-space while not allowing movement.

Way to maximize useless screen-space.

…good god, is this the vendor interface?

Alright, nevermind, let’s go out to a monster spawn.

Trust no one.

Trust no one.

Halfway across the bridge, I notice a dude standing around. Is he a ganker, waiting for me to cross into no man’s land? Is he AFK? Can I gank him? It seems like a trap, so I shuffle away and swim into the river. My default strategy when I feel threatened is to make killing me as annoying as possible. Not that it ever stops anyone, but I derive the same satisfaction I imagine a puffer fish feels when swallowed by… whatever it is that chokes on a puffer fish before dying to its poisonous organs.

Don't mind me. Please.

Don’t mind me. Please.

Monster spawn time. Cave spiders. I… think they shoot poison at me, but it is hard to tell. There are 4-5 people in the cave killing spiders already. Do they know each other? Is this zone still protected? I give everyone a wide berth and hang out in the cobwebs. I kill a spider and loot its tombstone. Leather. Spider… leather? But wait, my little achievement tutorial thing says I must skin the tombstone. But I already have… or have I? Okay, let’s kill another spider. Except another doesn’t spawn in my area, and now there are more people in the cave and it’s late and I want to play something else.

Alright… how do I log off? I binded myself to a stone in town, so maybe I can hearth back? After searching the painfully bad UI, I see the option. I click on the button and… wait. Still waiting. I get that it would be too easy to escape a ganking if it were quicker, but a full 120-second hearth timer?

Good lord, maybe this was a bad idea.