A lot has been made about how much we’re pushing this concept of “Sandbox” mmos being the future. Not a lot has been said about what that means.

To date most MMOs have been what I would call “content driven” mmos. What that specifically means is we have made things for the players to explicitly do either by themselves or as a group. This can come in a lot of forms including things like Dungeons, expansion packs, quests… or things as simple as a large area with wandering monsters in it that drop loot from some kind of fixed table. There have been a lot of innovations over the years.. things like Battlegrounds, or public quests… but by and large this idea of the MMO company making stuff for the players to  do has become the defacto.

My belief is simple – the content driven model is not where we should be aiming as an industry. Why? It’s unsustainable. When we first began making these kinds of games 18 years ago (I mean no disrespect to the Muds and other games out before Everquest) there was nothing to compare our games to. Players were so excited about being able to be a part of these virtual worlds that just about any content was exciting. Over the years the quality has really been steadily rising to the point where we have some brilliant narrative and exciting storylines in many MMOs today. We still thrill at completing a quest to kill the dragon or save some poor townsperson who was unlucky enough to get kidnapped by orcs. The real issue is a simple one – our ability to consume that content as players has gotten to the point that most content is done by the players nearly immediately after it’s released. It’s also laid out for all to see on any number of websites that contain complete spoilers up to and including the loot drop percentages.

I won’t argue why I think that part sucks. It’s too subjective. The thing that is tough as a game maker is that players are going through the content we make so much faster then we can make it that we’re constantly in a state where our players are looking for stuff to do.

A great example of this happened with SWTOR. I happen to think it’s a very well done game and the team at Bioware should be proud. However people that played the game went through the content so quickly that they became bored a whole lot sooner than the developers wanted them to.

This is a problem we all face. We all as game makers have to deal with the fact that we’re not just competing the content of WoW at launch. We’re dealing with 9 years of it. That’s a very daunting task and it makes the genre unapproachable if people try and fight that fight. Don’t get me wrong.. someone with deep pockets can still pull it off. TESO looks like it’s going to follow the content model and it’s going to have a lot of players. I’m willing to bet that it hits the same problem that  SWTOR did. Just not enough to do.

So if that’s the problem what’s the solution?

In my opinion the solution is focusing a lot more on letting players make and be content for each other. Battlegrounds are an excellent example of an Evergreen style of content where it’s the players themselves that actually create the content. Auction houses are another example. So are things like storytelling tools in SWG.. or the brilliant music system in LOTRO. Building systems into the games that let the players interact with each other in new and unique ways gives us the ability to watch as the players do stuff we never anticipated. We’ll see a lot more creativity in action if the players are at the center of it. Imagine an MMORPG of a massive city.. and the Rogue’s guild is entirely run by players. Where the city has an entire political system that is populated by players who were elected by the playerbase.

There’s a great example of this today with Eve Online. It’s a brilliantly executed system where the players are pretty much in charge of the entire game. Sure there is a lot of content for players to do, but anything that’s important in the game is done by the players. This is a shining example of how this kind of system can thrive.

Our belief at SOE is that it’s smarter to head in this direction now rather than waiting. We want to innovate and let players be a part of everything we do including make the game in the first place. We’re going to take the idea of sandbox gaming and we’re putting it at the core of everything we’re doing. We’ll obviously still be making awesome stuff for players to do, but we’re going to aim very high in terms of letting players be a part of the game systems. The more emergent sandbox style content we can make the less predictable the experience will be.