[Get Critical]: The Themepark Part 2

Last week we summed up the critical flaw with themepark design: endgame. This “requirement” of modern themepark MMOs is the source of much player discontent. We can’t lay down themepark tracks faster than the car can move, so we make infinite loops that try to keep you occupied until the next expansion.

No ride lasts forever…

The Better Solution would be a Sandbox MMO, which revolves heavily (if not exclusively) around player-made content. Players drive the economy, the politics, and the ecology of the world. (Think EVE, Minecraft…). Players feel like they make a difference and enjoy a stronger community, and because devs don’t have to hand-craft every pixel of content, they enjoy shorter development time and low upkeep costs. It also has some disadvantages, but that’s for another topic.

So, Are Themeparks Unsalvageable? Despite the (many) inherent advantages of sandbox games, join me for a moment in a thought exercise — Can we save the static, hand-crafted themepark model without resorting to dynamic player-made content?

Themeparks revolve around two forms of progression to keep you engaged. (1) The ever-present level grind, and (2) the gear treadmill. You do quests to get experience, so that you can access better gear, to advance to the next area, quest, level, gear, new area, quest… all with the intent to reach ‘endgame’. Sometimes in your journey you’ll spot “old” instances along the way, but they are no longer relevant (only endgame is relevant).

Endgame is actually nothing more than running out of combat levels, and so you simply have the gear treadmill left. One form of progression. To improve replayability without opting for a dynamic sandbox, we simply need to (1) add additional forms of linear progression, or (2) introduce unlockable content that keeps old stuff relevant.

Quest Log:
Objective: Salvage 4 [Alternative Forms of Progression or Reuse] from the nearby [Themepark Crash Site] and return them to [Machination the Naive] at [Critical Hit]. Beware of trolls.
Reward: 1250 gold, and an item: [Armchair of the Hobbyist Designer]

Let’s begin shall we?

Salvaged 1/4: [Geographical Area Reuse] – Typically you start in the ‘Derpy Forest’ which is designed for level 1-10 characters, and move on to the ‘Forum Troll Mountains’ for 10-25, and so on… Even if there are multiple “chains” of areas, we still have the problem that there is no incentive to revisit old areas.

A possibility is to decouple physical location with your level progression. For example, Guild Wars 2 provides incentives by scaling your level down to match old areas (which I hope becomes standard). You might even create an entirely different exploration level that gates access to more restricted areas. Whatever we do, it should help keep old areas relevant (instead of wasting all those hand-made assets).

Salvaged 2/4: [Removal of Combat Level Gates] – Ok, I cheated. This is a deemphasis of an existing progression system, which in theory should make the game less engaging. But what we could do is stop ‘gating’ your other lines of progression (crafting, politics, lore, geography) with combat level checkpoints. This encourages people to access the full breadth of the game (if they so choose) in whatever order they choose. It actually might encourage frequent re-rolling to experience non-combat professions and progressions without having to do the combat level grind from scratch.

Salvaged 3/4: [Stronger Lore Progression] – Include lore finding as an actual system, instead of an intrinsic reward. Certain lore questgivers might give you hints as to where books, scrolls, ancient inscriptions, or key NPCs might be. You could progress dedicated ‘cryptography’ or ‘excavator’ skills to help find them. By scattering (and hiding) lore points all over the world, you provide incentive to revisit old areas and instances.

Help me finish this quest by suggesting your own replayability boosters. Thanks for bearing with me on this restrictive thought experiment. At the end of the day, we can rack our brains to reimagine themepark progression and replayability. But a sandbox does all of this for free by transforming all content into reusable content. By design, themeparks are restricted by the need to hand-create every pixel of content. Gating using combat levels could be decoupled, or even eliminated. So…

Can we diversity themepark progression? Yes, with some reinventing.
Can we make better sandboxes, “sandparks”, or something else entirely?

Bring it on!



7 thoughts on “[Get Critical]: The Themepark Part 2

  1. [Addendum]: Alas, I should have done more research on GW2 before writing this. It’s a prime example of making the leveling experience as engaging as possible.

    Instead of just one incessant drive to up your combat level, there are also a myriad of little secrets, hearts, stories, lore, puzzles, and fun interactive bits scattered and hidden EVERYWHERE!

    Well done GW2! They’ve added other forms of progression, and provided a host of little unlockables (and level scaling) to keep you coming back. Great example of a themepark IMO.

  2. Fascinating reading once again. May I ask, how commercially viable do you believe a sandbox MMO would be today? I’m inclined to think, perhaps erroneously, that the majority of players wouldn’t really know what to do with a sandbox, and may perhaps find it too unfamiliar. But again, I stress that’s just a hunch.

    Or, is it that you’re simply addressing the more narrow point that sandbox game structures help fix the endgame conundrum in a more interesting and efficient manner than a themepark MMO might?

    • You’re correct. Just for this article, I’m addressing the endgame problem and replayability (which sandboxes inherently fix). The idea is that a pure sandbox actually can accomplish an “endless” game, but a themepark cannot.

      You’re probably not wrong in seeing a learning curve that the majority of players would not be willing to overcome. A pure sandbox is actually much cheaper to develop and maintain, but comes with market disadvantages.

      Without that comfortable structure and scripted progress, you’d have to settle for a very small niche market. You also lose a lot of lore and storytelling power.

      Currently, if you want to work towards “endless”, but still hit it big (1 million+ subscribers) you’d be better off providing a themepark, but with “layers” of sandbox that are separate from levels. (Things like player-driven economy, guild cities + guild combat)

      That’s where we start blurring lines and get into the “Sandpark”. If the goal is to introduce more player-driven content, sandparks are the most “Commercially Viable” step. It still gives familiar structure but with added layers of ‘sandboxy’ sitting on top of the leveling grind.

      • I think a proper sandbox could be very viable at the moment as there is an overly strong sense of dissent against the current mmo paradigm. The problem is that many of the current and in the works sandbox’s are done by small companies on a relatively small budget. Its hard to deny that we like our new shinies and graphical power. So i think the relative niche nature of Sandbox comes down to the quality of the world rather then the quality of the mechanics. Also due to the many poor titles due to lacking time, money or manpower many people are hesitant to putting in their key resource.. Time.

        I think it also comes down to the rigidity of rulesets in these titles, you either get some ffa blood letting or a more complex version of farmville… where is the happy medium or marketing to the diverse nature of us picky players. I want my partial loot god dang it.

        As to the article i would like some real and well thought out open world pvp. Territory and resource control, Building, politics and no silly gear grinding (gear tied strongly to crafting, not benefits between tiers minimal).

      • 😀 That’s actually very encouraging to hear. I’m just a hobbyist, but in my off-hours I’m helping friends work on a sandbox with precisely that focus — open world PvP (EVE on the ground), combat is skill-based, and so there is no gear grind, open unexplored frontier, exploration/guild-made towns, contested resources for crafting…

        You’re point is a good one — I myself claim to wish for all these things… but in a AAA level of size, quantity, and graphical quality. Darkfall, Salem, WarZ are basically what I want mechanically, but they have yet to prove themselves in terms of quality.

        Thanks for pointing that out — it’s like trying to decide between plot or characters in what makes a good story. A good story has both and doesn’t have to choose.

      • That’s awesome and good luck with it… That’s one rocky road ahead just don’t give up hope.
        As i said just remember rulesets aren’t set in stone, play around, diversify and you might just draw from a large player pool. One of my first posts was about that very thing, it is the one thing I’m passionate about in game design, more player options.
        Also aesthetic and design direction are more important than graphical fidelity.
        At the moment I’m getting my sandbox fill in project zomboid but there’s heaps on the horizon. The depopulation looks like it could be good and Embers of Caurus have some overly ambitious but great sounding mechanic.

        Good luck and I look forward to hearing more about this mystery mmo.

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