The MMO genre is in a pretty fascinating place right now, and that’s an opinion I still maintain to this day regardless of what I write beyond this lead-up. That said, I’m beginning to see something of a bothersome trend in the form of the survival sandbox MMO, and I’m not really a big fan.
Allow me to elaborate on why survival sandboxes aren’t just boring and lazy, but they’re missing the point of the MMO genre and further making things more disjointed.
Now I should explain, as ever, that I don’t hate on those who like this style of game or think those players are leading to “the death of the genre”. I just find this type of game design to be as underwhelming and lazy as the much-hated WoW-killer design. In fact, I find it even worse.
We’re finally moving past the idea that WoW is The Rule of MMO Design Law. For some reason, however – maybe we can blame Minecraft I dunno – people are now thinking that a survival sandbox is a substitute for a compelling world. It’s not. It’s just a really big map with barely any rules or thought.
Sure, maybe there are mechanics that make a sandbox an endeavor of development. A lot of these games even have some really compelling engines for making a personal stake in the wider world, temporary as it may be. But beyond all of that, it’s still lacking the sense of craft that a real, escapable world has. A world that has lore and life and governing principles that steer its forces and inhabitants. Players don’t make a good substitute for that level of writing and creativity. All we’re looking for is the fastest way to the best whatever.
I’m not asking for long drawn-out lore steps or quest boxes that people will smash through anyway. I’m just asking for at least a little attention to detail in why living in this sandbox is a good idea beyond “KILL EVERYTHING THE WORLD IS BROOTAAAAWWWLLL”
Another big thing that makes this game type diminish the genre is a lack of systems that make cooperation happen versus systems that imply cooperation. In a survival sandbox, you’re mostly focused on your own skin. Devs likely were hoping that people would be inclined to team up, but seem to have completely ignored that earlier “get the best thing fastest” point I’ve made earlier.
Basically, people kind of need to be cajoled into working with each other. Which can bring a sense of community that – guess what – helps you build a world instead of a PvP map. If it’s done right, of course; there’s plenty of PvE systems that have forced people to team up and they haven’t exactly built strong communities either.
Hell, EVE Online, for as brutal as it is, has this pretty much done just about right. I don’t think they’ve written a particularly interesting world, but they’re the closest to that ideal of making communities form as a result of its game systems. Your stuff can be blown up, but that’s due to you ignoring the things EVE Online has designed that engender cooperation. If you’ve lost your stuff, it’s because you were careless.
Another thing a survival sandbox lacks is the sense of true ownership. A connection to the world that makes you want to come back. Be it that aforementioned community or a way to own a parcel of land free from the maelstrom of PvP murder bands, a survival sandbox ends up being just a drawn-out deathmatch with customizeable walls to hide behind.
Granted, this is more going back to my own mindset of living a more pastoral life in sandbox-style MMOs., but the systems in survival sandboxes that feed that crafter in me are always focused on your own personal advancement. They’re not ways that draw me, a person who wants to be a really good blacksmith, to the benefit of other players. I can craft weapons for myself only, which makes me feel removed from the greater playerbase.
Just because I can build the walls of a building and craft a sign that says “Item Shop” in a survival sandbox doesn’t mean I actually own an item shop. It’s just a target for someone else to destroy that happens to have a stupid sign on it.
I dunno, maybe it goes back to this whole endless argument of “what is an MMO anyway”. An argument that I have been raked over the coals for. And not just Reddit randoms either; people whose opinions and work I actually respect and look up to. It’s an event that hurt me a lot deeper than I expected.
Still, the seemingly endless parade of survival sandboxes feels less like an advancement of the MMO genre and more like just another bubble whose walls are even thinner than the MOBA bubble. And maybe some enterprising studio somewhere will come up with some really interesting mechanics that will break up the drudgery, but I’m not seeing that level of effort right now.
As an MMO player, I don’t want to simply live to see the next sunrise in your world. I want to look forward to seeing that sunrise in your world.