Tuesday, February 5, 2008

theme parks and sandboxes

I have a few friends. Very few, really, but I tend to stick with the ones I have even when they do things like stab me in the back. Maybe I'm a masochist, or maybe I'm just not that socially smart, whatever it is, I am a pretty terrible judge of character.

Anyway, a preponderance of my friends play games. All kinds of games, and I think this isn't unusual, since games are entertaining and smart people tend to be good at them and I hang out with a lot of smart people. However, a little more disturbing is that the preponderance of the games that my friends tend to play have become MMOs.

MMOs are interesting. They seem to come in two basic flavors: the theme park flavor and the sandbox flavor. To be fair, I didn't coin this terminology. I've seen it used in many places, and I can't find attribution back to an original source, but it's not me.

The idea here is that most MMOs -- in the DikuMUD style -- are like a theme park, you show up, and they have a number of different entertainment options available for you, you pick one, and then you go on your ride until it's done. Some, like Project Entropia or EVE Online or even the old school Ultima Online are more like sandboxes. You hop in and then figure out on your own what you are going to do.

The theme park games are fun, and grab a lot of folks, even those that aren't hard-core gamers and only want to play for a few hours a week. You might not have the best gear, but you can always find something fun to do.

The sandbox games tend to require copious amounts of time, even if you aren't playing competitively. They tend to be much harsher. Losses are not replaced, and can be catastrophic. Hours, measured over several months, of efforts can be wiped out in an instant. And yet, these games have rabid followings. Why?

I think they more closely mirror society. They have more realistic economies, more realistic governmental (player run and initiated) structures.

I first started MMOs with a Star Wars based MUD that I can't even remember the name of sometime around 1992. I'd been playing BBS 'door' games for quite a bit longer than that, but they were all solo things. Only the biggest BBSes at the time had multiple phone lines, and I only phreaked my way into those to download porn. That was a much more valuable way to spend my stolen bits than playing multiplayer games.. at the time..

My first real MMO experience was Ultima Online though. That game stole 4 years of my life. Many of the staples of the MMO experience didn't exist yet. Eventually UO go in-game guilds, but it didn't start out that way. Eventually it got an in-game reputation system, but that too, was a novelty. In the beginning, there was no way to tell who was a good guy, who was a bad guy, and whether to stay and fight or run (running was often futile anyway) until the other player yelled 'Corp Por' and you died. The whole world (except the cities.. sort of) was a PvP zone. It was a very harsh place. And I loved it. I played both sides of the 'PK' fence. But out of nothing spontaneously came organizations of 'good' and 'evil' players working together because they needed the protection.

Economies are even more interesting, especially in games like Project Entropia (which doesn't like to call itself a game) where the in-game currency is tied to real world currency for value.

But that's a post for another day.

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