I’ve made no attempts to hide my distaste for survival sandbox MMOs and games. They’re one of the laziest forms of game design and I still hold to that opinion for the most part. That said, I have slowly begun to find a few exceptions to the rule that have endeared me to at least a couple of aspects to the sub-genre and, perhaps in some small way, helped me to build a bit of empathy and appreciation for those who love these kinds of games.
It started when I was running through No Man’s Sky for Choose My Adventure. I was directed to try out the game in standard mode instead of sandbox mode, which initially gave me pause but started to turn into a delight. This was, primarily, because the game did a very good job of not getting in the way of enjoying the world and seeing its sights. Sure, there were materials I had to collect and items I had to craft in order to make basic necessities, but most of these materials were readily available, making the entire thing just a quick stop as opposed to an arduous and obnoxious project.
On top of that, moving forward to the next personal milestone or unlocking the next piece of tech felt rewarding, with requirements that demanded a bit more focus but were once again not hindering or trying to punish me. Sure, I had to put down a base and a couple of specific items in order to achieve a certain new tier of things to chase after, but it was less an ultimatum so much as a concise instruction. And it all just layered on and drove a sense of discovery and exploration. I wasn’t just scraping by; I was moving up.
But no more has this sense of making appreciable, honest, forward progress been more keenly felt than during my current time in Elite: Dangerous. The desire to fire this one up again was stirred up by two things: the upcoming Odyssey expansion, and the fact that a good friend of mine is also an avid player and we wanted to go on space adventures together. She aimed me at resources. She provided guidance. She put up with some truly terrible jokes. And through it all, I started to grow in confidence, in ability, and in personal power.
Once again, I was left to thrive. And this is in spite of the game’s general insistence on not guiding players very well. Sure, it has tutorials that explain how things work on a base mechanical level, but it also doesn’t really seem to do a good job of providing a guiding hand, which is what my friend provided to me and has made this game all the richer for me.
The incremental but steady progress has been the hook for me here: All I’ve been dong to this point has been running trade route loops, buying and selling commodities between stations to rake in a profit. But in spite of how boring that sounds on paper, there have been little logistical things to plan and consider as I went along which made me feel even more connected to the task. And watching my credits balance and character net worth rise was all the dopamine hit I needed to press on.
Soon enough, I got my first ever new ship. And then I bought a second one. And then I traded in an old one for a new one with the express purpose of trying out mining sometime soon. Week after week, layer after layer, I started to pull it all together and achieve things. And that’s the difference here: achievement. I don’t want a survival sandbox, I want a thrival sandbox.
To this point, I’ve run into a couple of fresh problems with my newly purchased space truck, a Lakon Type-7 Transporter. This thing is a big, chunky, beautifully ugly thing that has some new proclivities to work around like a power plant that overheats and a size that demands a large landing pad, which in turn limits the number of places I can trade at. But those don’t feel like walls to me so much as little challenges to work around and surmount. I actually relish the opportunity to clear them.
While I’ve certainly stacked the deck in my favor to enjoy Elite Dangerous as much as possible like connecting with help, finding resources, getting peripherals to enhance immersion, and playing on a PvE server, it ultimately has brought me a true sense of understanding why survival sandboxes hook people in, even though I prefer the thrival sandbox game type. Gaining character levels or item levels in MMORPGs is nice and all, but there really is nothing like the feeling of personally defined, fully realized, and ever fluctuating power goals. There’s nothing like feeling you’re thriving in a world versus simply meeting a demanded upon metric as required by a meta.
I still don’t like survival sandboxes. But I do like thrival sandboxes