Category Archives: Sandbox

Starbound and the Hopeless Quest for Space

So I recently started playing Starbound and it is worlds and galaxies better than expected. I made some bad beginner experiences with Terraria in the past which almost cured me off 2D ant farm builders for good. I’m glad, I gave Starbound another shot though – it’s quite the wonderful space odyssey with vast and very satisfying exploration! The graphics are much cuter than Terraria’s too and there’s the whole Firefly space hub theme which is obviously awesome. Oh and you can play instruments in a band and collect pets and fossils, so what’s not to love?

Naturally, Starbound also comes with complex crafting and progression as well as free creative building, with a million fun deco items to collect. Instantly, the building and decorating fever caught me the way it has done before in Minecraft, Landmark or Portal Knights. And in very much the same way did I find myself in desperate need for more and more SPACE before long!

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Playing the guitar in my own spaceship is pretty stellar!

It makes me laugh how all these building sandboxes follow the exact same script from initial delight to panicky overwhelmification, or at least that’s how it always goes for me. Every single time, I find myself in the same psychological spiral plummeting towards deep frustration with my very imperfect build. The same old inner monologue ensues –

“Oh wow this world is awesome, I need to create my hub asap and collect all the things!”

/builds small hut with door, roof, windows.

“OMG there are so many different blocks and plants and crafting items – I NEED MORE SPACE!”

/expands house with second level and basement.

“I carry too many items!!! I need more chests to organize all these materials that I need to keep forever!”

/creates 20 chests for different mats. Also expands basement.

“Where did I put the wool?? I can’t find ANYTHING in this mess! Need better organization!”

/expands all rooms, builds different storage with labels.

“I found this lovely new wallpaper and ornate wood blocks! These will look so much nicer!”

/starts redoing entire house structure, swap materials, add little details.

“My house looks so cool now but I still have so much more furniture to place and all these ugly storage chests everywhere! I really need MORE SPACE but there’s this horrible mountain to my left now and I already hit the vast body of water to my right. This is hopeless, I can’t work like that – I NEED TO START OVER ENTIRELY, ARGH!”

/frustrated noises.

….

You might argue I know better by now; that I don’t need to create a definite hub right away, or hang on to every and all materials – or alternatively, I could just build with a lot more foresight and planning.

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So…much….vexing….chaos.

Well, I don’t! I do try but I am always overwhelmed by micro-management halfway through and my inner perfectionist hates how shabby things start looking further down the line, once you discovered the fancier building blocks and items. Starbound has some fine tools to help with re-decoration and item management too (the pixel printer gotta be the greatest idea in the world of builders ever, but I don’t have it yet!) but it’s not gonna save me from the hopeless mix and match or storage hell I’ve already gotten myself into.

So, I guess I’ll start looking for an entirely new location to build from scratch again soon and transfer all my preciousss belongings…it’s a daunting prospect already but of course I’ll do it anyway, because I’m crazy like that! Prepare for that interstellar burnout!

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Tomorrow is a new dawn with so much to organize!

Fun and Whimsy in Portal Knights

Besides sinking some considerable time into Overwatch last week, I have found myself enjoying Portal Knights, an already very polished title currently on early access and available on Steam. I almost missed Portal Knights thinking it was another Minecraft/Trove/craft-something voxel game but the graphics looked cute and bright and I kept reading role-playing game in various descriptions. It was coop mode which finally got me to try it with my best mate however and 15 hours later, we were still going!

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Portal Knights is a breath of fresh air in the sandbox voxel world because it’s very much still a “game” and not another open world life sim. Now, I do love me some open world games as y’all know, but I’ve written before about my trouble with building fatigue in games that make it their primary purpose. I can go nuts for 3-4 weeks building my fantasy castle and then feel very burned out, wondering what’s the point.

This question never arises in Portal Knights. Instead, you unlock mini-worlds via portals that follow a very linear, level-based progression. As you journey from one map to the next, you gather better materials, beat harder dungeons and bosses to level up and become ever more powerful. Never knowing what will lie behind the next door, you want to return to your home base ever so often to craft better gear and potions or do some optional gardening and decorating if you like. This makes Portal Knights very much an adventure game on single-player or coop that features some crafting and free building on top. Scratching several itches at once is what this title does really well; I look forward to see what else the developer will come up with in terms of game modes (survival?).

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For a more detailed overview, check out my full Portal Knights early access preview over at MMOGames! This is very much also a game to enjoy with family, in case you’re looking to play something together with your kids that allows for shorter session gameplay while still being a longer project you can work on together.

Black Desert Online as a PvEr? Round Two: YES you should play!

Two weeks ago I asked the pressing question of whether Black Desert Online is actually a game for PvErs out there, including information we had on how PvP flagging works in the game and how it affects the later gameplay experience. I did make it clear in my post that when talking about PvE, I am referring to that established definition of “player versus environment” the way we’ve come to use it thanks to MMOs such as WoW, Rift, GW2 and many others. That means player versus quests, player versus dungeons, player versus raids and all associated and preconceived progression. Black Desert Online has little of that, plenty of quests and dailies aside; what it does have however is an incredible sandbox appeal, so much that it very well may be the game many jaded MMO veterenas, on both sides of the spectrum, have been craving.

Now here’s the important bit of news that requires this update: as it turns out, some of the previous information regarding PvP was in fact wrong. It’s frustrating how hard it is to find much corroborated information for the NA/EU installments of the game but basically, PvP is a little different for us at the present time, as was finally confirmed to me ingame by guild mates who are way past level 50:

  • PvP on NA/EU servers starts at level 45 (not 50)
  • While becoming eligible is still non-consensual, this does in fact not extend to any lowlevel alts (also goes for the Russian version of BDO)

In lieu of any contrary news or things planned for the game, this in itself is pretty huge if we understand how BDO works. The game is all about your different characters working together, sharing whatever progress you make but having separate energy pools to invest in various undertakings, such as resource gathering or crafting. The great news about this: you don’t have to level past 45 to access any of Black Desert’s huge non-combat content. If you opt to be a crafter, gatherer, trader, breeder, house decorator, farmer or candlestick maker – you can do it! Most of the quests related to these activities yield no life/skill EXP, only kill quests do; 50 hours in, I am still only level 21 because I started crafting and thus my character has basically been stagnant while I keep progressing in other ways.

And if  I should ever in fact require one higher level character, I can always use my “main” for that sort of adventure and switch to my alts for the rest. Right now, they are located in different towns and already assisting me a great deal. This is a big point about BDO, to conquer the world for yourself, decide where to make temporary or longterm homes and how to make best use of your different characters.

The game has no level cap either which to me proves it’s not about a set progression or reaching certain levels to unlock content. You can truly make your own adventure and if you ever need to venture anywhere with a level 45+ toon, wear the ghillie suit from the store and you’ll be next to invisible to other players (or just switch server channel if there’s any PvP, problem solved). For the amount of content BDO offers while not requiring any subscription, I am more than happy to put up with that.

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The cities are madness

Yes, you should play in this sandbox!

After a considerable learning curve, I finally start feeling like I am “getting” into the flow of things (and there’s more and more guides for everything else). Now to be clear, I am still scratching the surface of BDO but I’ve finally managed to establish some resource nodes, I am training workers who bring back goods of my choosing every hour, I am gathering EVERYTHING I want to, I am crafting to the most satisfying animations and I am riding from place to place for hours because there ain’t any shortcuts. I tamed a wild horse two days ago and felt spectacular. Oh and fishing, just because my alt does that on her own when I go /afk. All of this is going on without obnoxious gold seller messages or botters due to the way PA handle the economy and regulate your ability to binge-craft, farm, fish as well as trade and sell goods.

The world of Black Desert is mind-blowingly beautiful in a Witcher 3 kind of way. More importantly, in this MMO the world truly is the player – you are not, you are just a lowly peasant that gets to do things in it. I could tell you about Calpheon city (Eri has done) and how ridiculously gorgeous, lively and huge it is, easily the most beautiful and largest city ever in MMORPGdom. The scale, the authenticity of how its crafted, the busy streets, they will break your heart. And yet none of it is the highlight of the game; there are so many regions, so many towns and hubs and little things, with individual economies and resources for you to engage with, I could go on for hours! Don’t get me started on the different funky fantasy races you encounter as you go along, I should probably dedicate a next post just to them

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Cooking, brewing, drying, grinding, shaking, thinning…

I also got a new home in Velia now and am completely over the moon by the way Pearl Abyss have solved player housing. The fact that you own different, physically existing houses all over the world that let you phase in to perfection, is nothing short of a stellar job. Fancy a small hut by the river? A three-story apartment building with a cellar? A windmill with a fireplace? You can have it – you can have them all to do all sorts of useful things. Or you can just decorate to your heart’s content, open the windows and watch the view outside. In the Korean version of the game, there’s even big-style automated farming via NPCs and personal shop vendors. Every time I cross one of my own workers during my travels, it puts a wide smile on my face because they too actually “exist”.

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I don’t know what I’ll be doing in two weeks time or three months from now. All I know is that I’ll still be playing Black Desert Online and doing 19347262094 things that have absolutely nothing to do with combat (and that require no cooperation other than from your own alts if that matters to you). I may build a cart for my horse and start trading for reals. Maybe I’ll get into making my own furniture or clothes. Or I’ll learn how to sail, build a boat and sail away forever, to make a new camp somewhere else.

Did I mention Black Desert Online has tents and campfires to pitch in the deep black of night? Yep.

If you’re at all into any of the things I have described above, just do yourself a favor and play this. (I have one 7 day guest pass for the first person who’d like one)

About that Black Desert Online Learning Curve

Five days into Black Desert Online, including some beta testing and headstart, my current state of mind is best described with this picture:

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HALP! (click to enlarge crazyness)

I still don’t know what the fuck I am doing. And that is probably a good thing too, given how I generally find new MMORPGs too easy, too repetitive and too been there done that. Really, BDO is doing a lot of stuff its own way; I can’t say how effective or worthwhile it all is yet, but between node and worker management, haggling and raising amity with NPCs, one million gazillion crafty things and sub-menus for every possible resource, horse breeding, AFK-fishing, shipyards and feeding pets while looking to unlock the perfect residence, I have my hands full and then some. That Black Desert Online learning curve is no joke even for seasoned players.

Sandbox musings

While browsing the official Black Desert Online forums, I chanced upon this provocatively named youtube rant by WoW raider Kungen – ye, that dude that ran/runs Nihilum and raided with Ensidia for a time. I honestly never payed much attention to WoW’s 1% although there was a time when I statistically would have belonged among that group, albeit much further down the ladder from our Scandinavian overlords. In the few interviews I ever read back in wow.com’s time, most of them seemed aloof and not in touch with anything.

Anywho, after several minutes of WoW tirade Kungen goes over to waxing lyrical about BDO, its great sandbox premise and horizontal endgame “progression”. I confess, I found the video rather entertaining for all the ways he hits and misses various points related to his general WoW malaise. He is quite obviously incapable of relating to what constitutes the majority of WoW’s non-hardcore player base. Where there’s only “easy peasy mythics” left for him in today’s endgame, other players would argue that the game has added a lot of non-raiding related content over the years, from achievements to pet battles and the garrison. That doesn’t interest Kungen because raiding was the greatest in vanilla and after that, the game gradually went to shits. Here’s where I agree with him: WoW took a big turn for the worse after the conclusion of the Arthas arch in WotLK; I too am a Cataclysm-unsubscriber. And I hate flying mounts in WoW, they rank right after achievements for me.

The rest is mildly amusing, given how this hardcore player fails to realize how his playstyle adds to his own detriment in MMOs. He probably level 50+ during the BDO beta too or something, so I wonder how long the enthusiasm is gonna last. But hey, it’s nice that even the “WoW elite” (…) can appreciate Black Desert Online for doing things a bit differently.

Should you play Black Desert Online as a PvEr?

Important Update: some of the info in this post is outdated. Please see this update!

One of the lingering concerns from the final Black Desert Online beta is the very PvP-centric focus of the game. Given that we’re dealing with an MMO that comes with such a beautifully crafted world, complex gathering and crafting mechanics, interesting housing and farming features, horse taming, boat building and whatnot, it is understandable that there’s more than your average Darkfall crowd lining up for BDO. The biggest questions from PvErs are therefore twofold:

  • Can I turn off PvP mode for myself / will there be PvE servers?
  • What about classic PvE content, aka dungeons, quests, endgame..?

The first question is easily answered at this point: nope. While there are ramifications for player killing in BDO, once your first character hits level 50 (edited for correction: level 50 is not the level cap as BDO has none), you are available for PvP. There is no opt-out at the present time. This also extends to whatever alts you may create on the same account which will no longer benefit from any newbie moratorium. There is the misconception that “flagging yourself” for PvP in BDO means consensual PvP but that’s not in fact the case; flagging yourself is required to engage in PvP but it does not save anyone from being ganked whether they are flagged or not.

Now, from some of the replies I received to my early CBT2 impressions and also reading more related forum articles since, it appears that ever since the Korean launch PKing in BDO has been nerfed to a point where “it’s no longer fun for hardcore PVPers” due to hefty karma penalties. Indeed, there’s been a lot of  outcry over this. This may serve as some reassurance to all those who would like to try Black Desert without being continuously ganked by others; while you can be killed anywhere, it doesn’t look like it’s gonna happen an awful lot. BDO’s main PvP content is siege / arena / instanced PvP.

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What about PvE servers and classic PvE content?

It is always tiresome to see how fast forum discussions on PvE servers get derailed and attacked by those who feel threatened by peaceful playstyles. Or rather that’s not what the PvP player fears: what he fears is the exodus of potential sheep for slaughter. PvP players know fully well that they are a minority. I guess from that point of view I understand their frustration – BDO was primarily developed with PvP in mind, so that audience considers it “their game”. Yet, it is simply a misconception that not having alternatives would mean everyone stays together. This is not the year 2000 where desperate MMO players stick around no matter their environment. These people will simply leave the game never to return. If you want outdoor PvP in any meaningful fashion in MMOs nowadays, it needs to be consensual while allowing everyone else to perform other roles. That said, for reasons already stated above I have my doubts PvE servers are even required.

Furthermore, it de facto doesn’t look like Pearl Abyss have any plans for PvE servers. In this, I believe some of the passionate PvP advocates on the official forums to be correct – it doesn’t make an awful lot of sense to have PvE servers in a game with so little classic PvE content or endgame. It’s a sandbox MMO which is basically the opposite of getting themepark PvE content handed to you. And to drive this point home further, the developers have made it pretty clear in a very recent pre-release interview that they have no intention to turn BDO into a classic PvE game:

Q: Are there any plans to add instance based dungeons and or raids for end game PVE content?

A: Adventures and fierce guild wars in Black Desert are strongly established on an open-world system. Some special content might need to utilize an instance dungeon system, but we are not going to add a repetitive instanced dungeon, where the sole purpose is getting rewards.  Guild- and party-centric raids are already implemented in the game now, and we are developing more advanced kind of raid.

Q: Are there any plans to do epic quest lines for an in game reward. I.E. Extremely difficult quest lines that could take month+ to complete. Rewards could be unique high end weapons that have special characteristics, stats, or an extremely unique look.

A: No matter how hard a quest is, it can never deliver the same level of achievement or anticipation once it is cleared or a walkthrough is published. Most of the quests in the beginning stages of the game are simple and guiding, but as the player proceeds toward a later stage of the game, such as Valencia, desert and maritime quests demand long-distance travel and intense adventure. A quest in Black Desert should be an extension of the exploration of the in-game region, and can also assist players by making the exploration more convenient or helping with character growth.  However, we’d like to state that we do not prefer a type of quest that players feel obliged to complete, in order to become stronger or to gain rewards. Players should play freely and naturally in the game, and it is never fun to be pressed into doing something to get rewards. We do plan to add some difficult quests, but the estimated time of arrival is still not set.

I must admit, while I do not find outdoor PvP enjoyable personally (but I am willing to give it a shot based on everything I know), I love everything about the answers provided above. The devs have no intention to do what’s already been done to death elsewhere. If you want long questlines that everyone can go look up on a Wiki after two days, go elsewhere. If you want to repeat the same dungeons over and over for rewards, go elsewhere.

That’s not to say that there won’t be any types of repetitive grinds in Black Desert Online, I know there will be. But it sounds like there’s a clear vision behind this MMO and a decided focus on sandbox over PvE. And isn’t that what so many have kept asking for in the past? Personally, I look forward to see how things turn out. Should you play Black Desert Online as a PvEr? Let’s find out.

No purpose, no nothing

No purpose, no nothing – that short but poignant conclusion to so many things, coming to me once more while writing Monday’s post and then Kadomi said it again, literally, in the comments:

I don’t enjoy not having a purpose. What good is all that freedom if it leaves me feeling empty after a while?

“Who may be allowed to linger that is fulfilled by purpose?” I’ve asked that before, in slightly different context but no less relevant to this cause. A purpose is an end (hence the double meaning) and in many ways, endings bring a certain degree of linearity or at least progression to life real and virtual. Yet, purpose is also what fulfills that life lest in not be literally point-less. There is a cosmic balance here, a trade-off and even our favorite genre in video games, MMORPGs must struggle for it – that balance between the sandbox and themepark, between too much freedom and too little, too much endgame and not enough satisfaction.

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To what end?

No purpose equals nothing, in virtual worlds too.

No purpose, no point for guilds.

No purpose, no point for housing.

No purpose, no point for gear.

Take GW2’s gear grind – so futile, so unfulfilling because it is not required, does not prepare you for any kind of endgame that exists. And what is endgame, by now such an unpopular term, but not a purpose or “life after”? Take LOTRO’s homesteads – beautiful but empty, forever instanced away from the world of men, not serving any purpose really. Take any other MMO you can think of that allows you to solo self-sufficiently, obtain everything on your own and then wonder why people don’t play in guilds. Having co-founded two lasting, successful raidguilds in WoW, I am very pragmatic: guilds are common ventures first, uniting people with the same purpose for that purpose. More often than not, that purpose is what keeps the best guilds alive. So what?

I made some wonderful friendships in MMOs founded on a common goal; common goals glue people together. Maybe they are the only thing that truly does. Common goals on the horizon add purpose to our stride, infuse our dreams, inspire our achievements social or otherwise.

To clarify, that’s not to say that there’s no such thing as individual purpose defined on an individual level in every game and for virtually anything (even jumping puzzles! eww) – there absolutely is and it matters too. However, in isolation this doesn’t tend to create the same value on a cooperative level and not the same longterm appeal, either. Not in my experience anyway.

Give me purpose, give me endings

No purpose -> no point -> no end -> no meaning. If things can only have meaning if they also end, let’s have ends and lots of them. Let’s have many purposes.

MMOs and not just Landmark, need a ‘hard’ purpose for the features they implement. It sounds simple and yet it’s a glaring oversight in so many games, yes sandboxes and themeparks alike, and it always backfires in the mid- and longterm and affects the community most strongly.

Oh sure, a game’s early flame burns brightly like a bonfire in the night and by all means, warm yourself at that fire. Enjoy it while it lasts. In the long run however, you’ll want some meat on the bone to roast on that fire and sustain you. In the long run, you will need that.

Off the Chest – Landmark Edition: Shelving Landmark, Wanna-be Devs and my Trouble with Votes

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Having enjoyed Landmark’s closed beta for several weeks now, I am putting the game on hold for the time being. I am in fact not even sure I’ll bother with claim upkeep until launch. This by no means comes as a shock: I’ve predicted and talked about building fatigue in sandbox games in the past and I’ve been through the same stages of declining enthusiasm with Minecraft. Landmark has some powerful building tools and beats Mojang’s giant in every cosmetic respect, which is great, but for now the game isn’t offering any content besides building or the more recent tool grind introduced in last week’s patch. Since I see no reason whatsoever to painstakingly upgrade tools or crafting stations for no better reason than because I can, nor wish to build anything else for now, that’s it for me and Landmark until SOE implement social features.

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The new, ugly tech forge.

The game isn’t very enjoyable right now when it comes to social interaction; I’m not sure what the alpha players were gushing about because ingame community to me is not people posting fancy pictures on forums or re-tweeting them on twitter (which I do too). Don’t get me wrong, player organized swap meets and building contests are nice and so are SOE’s regular dev streams where they interact with fans – it just doesn’t make the actual game any more social than it is and it doesn’t make your neighborhood any less dead. The majority of any MMO’s playerbase are not on message boards or twitch and the server landscape ain’t lying: no matter what island you jump on, the place feels pretty empty and themes are all over the place. (Yeah, I know they said theme servers are coming.)

Landmark needs a purpose for all the housing, needs trade, quests, guilds and cooperative content if it’s meant to last down the road. Unlike Minecraft it won’t have the myriads of differently themed, self-hosted server modes nor the leagues of addons that have given that game such longevity. Landmark is a restricted sandbox and while most of the social features I mentioned are announced in the blueprint, I am not convinced it’s ever going to be more than “building with your guild (maybe) and a few quests and achievements”. From that point of view, I worry about its self-proclaimed endgame-free future the way anyone should who has watched GW2’s identity crisis. But hey, Landmark really is beautiful and atmospheric and if EQN becomes all the better for it, you’ll hear no complaints from me. More power to die-hard builders, may you stick with the game for years!

On wanna-be devs and rabid fanbases

After some brief brushes with Landmark’s official forums, it strikes me how rabid a yes-(wo)men community the game has inspired, as far as vocal minorities go anyway. Every half-reasonable topic on game design or even innocent list of personal preferences / wishes for the future, is getting derailed by righteous defenders of the blueprint. Clearly labeled player <suggestions> are often shot down because someone has learned each and every single line by heart ever uttered by Dave Georgeson (clearly not his fault, he’s awesome). I have already experienced some of that defensiveness myself on twitter and as a design-oriented, critical blogger, it’s not something I am used to. This is not my type of community and frankly, if you’re already in aggro-mode during alphas and betas, maybe you shouldn’t be a play-tester. MMOs change all the time.

I’ve wondered a little about this particular hype for peaceful building-MMO Landmark and have come up with a few possible explanations:
a) The Landmark community consists of a very broad demographic with very different interests (builders only, PVErs, PVPers) many of which may not be overly familiar with level-headed design debates. Richt now, everyone thinks the game is just for them.
b) Publishing blueprints way in advance and telling your playerbase that they’re your co-developers isn’t good for people’s egos and for keeping an open mind towards deviant player suggestions.
c) Games with a strong focus on individual “claims” make everyone more entitled and aggressive than usual.
d) I clearly need to stop bothering with anything public forum.
e) Also: EQ/SOE-evangelism.

If you have any other theories to add, I’d love to hear them!

The trouble with voting systems

My Inn of the Last Home has received a bit of love since the global voting system was introduced last week, via the ingame gallery feature. For those unfamiliar with this recent addition: players can now showcase and tag their claim with one screenshot in a global database that others can view and instantly up-vote (without having to visit). The new tool is wonderful insofar as it easily allows you to discover other claims and themes on any island and seek them out because coordinates. Yet, the voting system in particular has left me unfulfilled just the way it always does on webpages, blogs and elsewhere.

What is a vote on content? It doesn’t tell you whether the content was examined/read fully, why it was voted on or by whom. It’s impersonal numbers with no way to interpret or to create social interaction. Give me one personal blog comment I can reply to over 100 up-votes any day of the week.

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Thanks (but I really wish I knew who you were!)

For social games, the feature strikes me as even less suitable. Sure, I absolutely get the wish to highlight great claims and make them more accessible for everybody. At the same time, it makes being discovered for newcomers a lot harder once you have 50 or more “top claims” that everyone will seek out before bothering with the lower ladders. And claims receive votes for all kinds of reasons: wonderful castles of 100 hours of work will be awarded the same or less votes than chaotic swap meets somebody put up for the community to contribute to. That’s a problem, as well as going by a single screenshot for multi-claims is. Votes don’t differentiate.

For me personally, it simply takes the fun away not knowing who visited the Inn or if they even did. So really – here’s my suggestion on what to implement instead, SOE: a guestbook. Give visitors / voters of claims the option to fill in a guestbook on site where they can leave a notice and name, so creators actually feel like there’s real people out there enjoying their work. That would be quite awesome (just a suggestion, don’t shoot!).

EQN Landmark: The Case for and against Admin Mode

Already in this early alpha stage, EQNL has managed to enthrall many of my fellow gamers and bloggers happily digging away at voxels, while others are still contemplating founder packs or quietly observing things from the sidelines. I’d be lying if I said Landmark didn’t look very appealing – I have loved similar games in the past and SOE seem to have improved on them a great deal where the overall handling, aesthetics and graphics are concerned. Yeah Sony, you had me at different brush sizes for building!

Yet, there is at least one fundamental question where Landmark’s future is concerned; it’s one I’ve been eyeing with mixed feelings from the beginning and so have others, including the wider gaming press –

This was Everquest Next Landmark in Admin (read: God) Mode—pure chaos slamming head-on into raw creativity. It’s the best online sandbox game you’ll probably never get to play, and that’s a shame, though Everquest Next Landmark is still amazing even without Admin Mode’s sheer madness.

[…]For all SOE’s talk of player-driven design and enormous sandboxes, the development team seems set on giving users a fairly specific type of experience. Here are these areas where you can build, and here are the places you can’t. Here are the resources you have to mine to progress through the different tiers of the game. Here are the trappings of a real MMO inside this incredible building tool. Now, the details of that experience are still up for debate, but the fundamentals—the “arcs” of a players experience—are set. [PC World]

Most of this is not possible in the version of EverQuest Next Landmark players can now obtain. You’ve got to physically mine resources, earn your tools, you can’t just levitate everywhere – nor can you build outside your own “claimed” area. There is, in other words, no analogue for Minecraft’s creative mode in EQNL. Also missing: the option to run a private server and spread your filth far and wide away from the public eye. To keep it from affecting other players’ experiences, in other words. EQNL merges that sort of handiwork-heavy experience with a multifarious MMO realm, and that means compromises. Full freedom simply isn’t an option for now. But what about later? [Rock, Paper, Shotgun]

The Landmark players are currently enjoying is no longer a god’s alpha. It’s the alpha of things to come – of Landmark the hybrid social building game, not MMORPG and yet not unrestricted sandbox. Of course it’s far too early to rule out more options for the future but in the light of SOE also developing Everquest Next, their real MMO, I hope they will seriously consider alternatives to a survival mode-only Landmark soon. When questioned about creative mode by PC World, the ever enthusiastic Dave Georgeson took a cautious stand, declaring the team was “looking into potentially allowing such a mode on private servers, though that would come in a far distant future—if ever. And only if players actually wanted it.”

Alas, as far as such private servers go, SOE statements become even more hesitant: John Smedley calls them an issue of integrity (see RPS article) because there be penises on private servers and you cannot have Sony associated with male genitalia. Likewise, creative director John Butler is worried about ESRB ratings which irritates me a little given that private servers are well, private? I don’t know about you but if people need to build phalluses so badly, it would be a good thing if they had their own server to do that?

The ambiguity of admin mode

Technical and marketing-related matters aside, the topic of admin mode in sandbox building games is very interesting due to potentially different impact down the line. This is not just an issue faced by sandbox games with a social / cooperative or pecuniary agenda by the way, but one that presented itself to me while being deeply involved in Minecraft on a private server. I see both a case for and against admin mode features for this reason and while I would still always advocate pro playstyle freedom in new games, I remain somewhat ambiguous.

But let’s look at the strong vote first. The best argument for admin mode is clearly this: some players just love to build but not gather. While gathering, maybe similar to leveling up new characters in MMOs, is fun to some players, there is an audience for every sandbox building game that are exclusively there to do one thing and one thing only: to build dazzling worlds and run rampant with their imagination.

msthunderbluff

MC Thunderbluff by Rumsey

If you ever visited a Minecraft theme server for Azeroth or Middle-Earth, you have been blown away by the overwhelming size and detail of these player creations. It takes months, no years depending on the number of players, to create a Middle-Earth setting simulation in MC. It is also safe to say that without a creative mode (meaning flying and unlimited resources without gathering) many of these wonderful servers simply wouldn’t exist. It’s not realistic for an individual player or just a small group to manage the sheer volume of growing, harvesting, gathering and forging required. And that’s not considering the extra time spent on planning and coordination. More importantly, it would be considerably less fun and less motivating an endeavor for the more productively inclined.

I remember the moment during my very intense MC spree when I decided to switch from survival/normal mode to creative. I remember too, having to justify my choice to fellow players on our private server because “what, creative mode? cheater!” and “you’ll be sorry once the game got boring!”. But that’s the thing: I don’t think I would have continued playing MC without creative mode for as long as I did. I don’t think I ever would’ve finished my giant castle.

However, and this is where things get complicated in my case, creative mode clearly accelerated my path toward serious sandbox burnout once I felt I was “done”. That’s a big issue for pure sandboxes anyway (which to be fair, Landmark intends to surpass), that players feel finished once their creative energies were drained and there’s nothing you can really “do” with all these creations. The faster you get to that point, the harder it is to recuperate in my very personal experience.

What I would therefore conclude for admin mode is that it potentially causes conflicting effects by curing sandbox boreout short-term but also causing sandbox burnout more long-term. So the question is really which mode is more likely to benefit Landmark’s biggest target audience once you identify who they are (which isn’t so easy in a hybrid game).

I can only speak for myself: if Landmark makes me gather, pick, cook, forge and whatever else for weeks to produce a modest cabin in the woods, I won’t be playing for long. Been there done that. Boooring! On the other hand, if SOE handed me diamonds, gold and mahogany on a silver platter, I would build something considerably more satisfying and be done in four weeks time. Yeah, that’s a problem.

We’ll see how they solve it. For me, it remains a dilemma but maybe Landmark has finally found the answer to the big sandbox question. Until then, what do you think? Admin mode for Landmark yay or nay?

“Alpha”. It’s just not done yet

dg2

I do wonder how many times Dave Georgeson and EQN Landmark’s community team had to repeat above line over the past few days. I admire the patience. No matter how many times you explain “alpha” to somebody who is also paying money – and even to those that do not – there’s always a person who thinks your game could really be a bit more polished and optimized right now.

It seems public or paid-for alphas are becoming more and more common in the game industry and many are making their first steps into such early territory. Even more so than betas, alphas need capitalized words of caution; gameplay is fraught with bugs and frustrations, so there better be a conscious choice of what you’re signing up for. While satisfying curiosity is a thing, quite often it isn’t nearly as great to see the gemstone being cut before its made its way into that hopefully shiny diamond ring you intend on buying.

I don’t feel particularly drawn to MMO alphas, let alone paying for one (but hey, that’s what I used to say about betas). Syp doesn’t seem sold, yet Jewel and many other bloggers around the blogosphere have caught the bug of early sandboxing greatness once the servers finally went sort of stable. I can relate too well; when I joined Minecraft pre-launch, I fell deeply into the rabbit hole for several weeks. It was absolutely amazing. And I also burned out quickly once that fatal question of so many sandbox games hit me: and what next?

I know what I’m getting into with game testing. I’ve played in many betas and a few alphas, the latest being the DayZ standalone – one of the more remarkably playable alphas. At the same time, Bohemia Interactive have done a commendably transparent job of communicating what players need to expect from their early game development. Dean Hall, game designer for both Arma and DayZ and frequent twitterer, has continuously warned of joining early access for the wrong reasons, jokingly admitting that even he himself wouldn’t yet want to play it.

dayz

As far as I’m concerned, in alphas there be dragons. It’s a stage for implementation and debugging a lot more than gameplay and I don’t usually have the patience. Many of the final features are still missing so it would be wrong to draw too many conclusions from anything. For those who are into active feedback and “that NPC didn’t give me any gold” or “it would be neat to have dual specs” – really, wait for beta. Make your wish-list on the forums while you wait and still dream.

Alphas are for the rough cuts and while players are sometimes invited, it isn’t really about the things that tend to concern us later just yet. It can absolutely be exciting and interesting to see a game grow though and to feel like you’re a part of something, a lot more so than in certain open betas that kid players about much fine-tuning three weeks before official launch. Alphas can have their own magic for sure – I  just advise to bring your good shoes for the rocky hike ahead.

I will wait a little longer, cheering from the sidelines and savor this Vorfreude while I still can.

2014: Year of Voxels

A voxel (volumetric pixel or Volumetric Picture Element) is a volume element, representing a value on a regular grid in three dimensional space. This is analogous to a texel, which represents 2D image data in a bitmap (which is sometimes referred to as a pixmap). [Wikipedia]

I’ll be honest and say that I never really paid attention to the term voxel before SOE revealed upcoming EverQuest Next and Landmark this fall of 2013. In my very simplified terms, I understand voxels are basically cubes on a grid for all intents of 3D-gaming purposes and they’re what makes extreme sandbox experiences à la Minecraft possible – although Minecraft is in fact NOT a voxel game and mixing up the two will get you educated swiftly enough in certain corners of the gaming world. I can’t say that I am particularly concerned with the terminologies.

Quite clearly voxels are the new megapixels and everybody has them or if they don’t, well then they’re going to! Five minutes casually spent browsing the Steam store will yield results such as upcoming Forge Quest, Castle Story and Craft the World, alongside Vox which looks a bit like Trion’s upcoming Trove, and let’s not forget Picorama’s somewhat troubled Cube World project. While most are not content to simply copy Minecraft and/or Terraria gameplay at this point, I think we can agree that we’re going to see a lot of randomly generated sandbox crafting worlds in 2014, Year of Voxels.

https://picroma.com/cubeworld

https://picroma.com/cubeworld

I guess it’s understandable that two years into Minecraft’s great success, other developers finally decided it’s time to get a part of Mojang’s cake. As someone who enjoyed MC quite a bit, especially for its high customizability via supported server and client modifications and its community inclusion, I wonder a little how upcoming voxel sandboxes will be faring. No doubt, it’s a great concept for allowing players to go wild at content creation while running on your average PC. Yet, I think the longterm challenges of running a pure, crafting oriented sandbox game, likely online, can be greatly underestimated. Depending on how profitable you would like it to be, anyway. While Minecraft made an impact on this particular market just the way WoW was able to for MMOs, such mainstream debut successes aren’t easily recreated.

There is such a thing as “sandbox fatigue” for the average traditional player who, once basic mechanics have been internalized and the dream house was built, doesn’t really know what to do or where to go from there. Randomly generated maps have a tendency to become a little blah after a while, too. Then, there is the question of how well similar titles can set themselves apart from the competition; like for MMOs, players will likely opt for one or two such games at the most. This is where the degree of freedom offered in each game, combined with innovative play modes or successfully mixing genres in new and fun ways, is going to make all the difference.

Personally, I’m unlikely to jump on the voxel train; I did tolerate Minecraft’s graphics style because as the first of its kind, it’s become an amazing milestone of player creativity. As far as longterm commitment goes however, I like my (online) worlds a little more shiny and less quadrangular, as well as a little less randomly generated. After a few months of going back to Minecraft, I also did find my personal crafting fatigue, but that’s not to say I won’t be watching the voxel trend while playing some hopefully shiny new MMORPGs soon.

So, what about the rest of the MMO sphere – are you excited for any upcoming voxel sandboxes or sticking with your guns, TESO, Wildstar and Co. next year? Or maybe both?