Wednesday 2 May 2007

Playing games in a sand-box world

I got to thinking about games and worlds recently. Very loosely, by "game", I mean something with fixed rules and objectives, and by "world" (or "sandbox") an environment in which you're free to do as you wish. They're more vague labels on a spectrum than concrete concepts. There's Van Hemlock's splendid post inspired by Raph's equally splendid post itself inspired by a rather neat Slashdot comment. If only I'd posted that /. comment for a truly Ouroborosesque moment... anyway. Speaking of Slashdot, Zonk was back in Star Wars Galaxies, and pointed out as one of its original problems "Too Much World, Not Enough Game". What really triggered this post, though is a post over on the LotRO forums which, once you strip away the Tony Harrison-ism of the game being an outrage, basically points out that LotRO is more "game" than "world". And that's fine by me, I tend to get a bit lost in worlds.

The most obvious "world" is Second Life, and I tried that and couldn't think of anything to do. In single player games, though I've played and enjoyed Daggerfall, Morrowind and Oblivion from the Elder Scrolls series, I haven't finished any of them. For the last two, I hit a point somewhere through the main plot and was paralysed by indecision, unable to choose between continuing my vital quest to save the world, or performing some tasks to raise my standing in the Fighters' Guild (and Mages' guild, and Thieves' Guild, and Feng Shui Consultants' Guild), or exploring some interesting looking ruins, or helping some townspeople, or picking up some nice crockery. I loved Elite back in the day, made Elite status and everything, but that was twenty years ago when it was mind-blowingly original; my favourite space-sims after that (Wing Commander, X-Wing, Conflict: Freespace) were much less free-form, and I didn't feel compelled to subscribe to EVE Online after a ten day trial.

So objectives and a sense of direction are important, but not to the exclusion of everything. As Jimmy Page described Led Zeppelin's sound as "tight but loose", so I prefer my games to be structured but free-form. To try and demonstrate I'm not a raving self-contradictory madman, consider Deus Ex or Operation Flashpoint; each level has clearly defined objectives, but you have some latitude in how you complete them. Not so much latitude that you could spontaneously decide to leave the army and take up farming, though. Perhaps my favourite examples are the Grand Theft Auto III series. I really don't like driving games, but after GTAIII was so successful on the PS2 I thought I'd give it a try on the PC, and loved it, even the driving and racing elements. Everyone praises the sandbox nature of the games, the fact that you can just run out, grab a car and drive around listening to the in-game radio, and that's great, but if that's all there was, a city for you to make your own way in, I'm sure the games wouldn't be anywhere near as popular as they are (though I'm equally sure some people would prefer that). At the heart of the GTAIII games there's a linear (fail a mission, try it again) story, and it's the combination of that plus the side missions plus the freedom which really made the games for me.

So back to MMOs, I don't mind the treadmill giving some structure to the game, starting you at level 1 in the level 1 area doing level 1 quests killing level 1 monsters, rather than chucking you in the middle of nowhere...
"What should I do, oh starting NPC?"
"I dunno!"
"What, there's no great evil befalling the world?"
"Not that I know of"
"No princesses need saving?"
"Nope, we're an autonomous collective"
"Oh. Don't suppose you need 10 murloc eyes, at all?"

That's not to say I don't want the treadmill cunningly disguised as far as possible, with enough choices and alternative options to give an illusion of free will, and so far LotRO is doing that well enough for me.

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