SWTOR’s Middle Path Critiqued

I finally got around to reading the latest SWTOR Dev Blog about The Third Element.   In the post, Damion Schubert talks about his ideas of how themepark and sandbox games are different.  The big idea of the entry, as alluded to in the title, is that SWTOR will be following a different path and not falling into one of these categories.  He even references a “middle path” as I have many times when stating that both games have their problems.  Speaking ideally, I do believe he (and Bioware?) are on the right track with this line of reasoning.  A pseudo-sandbox with some themepark elements would most definitely be the best design.  However, I want to address a few things that Damion says that I disagree with as well as some ideas that I see a little differently.

In the second and third paragraphs where he lays out his definitions of the two styles, there is clearly a bias.  Sandbox games are placed into a negative light with statements like, “players have the ability to use and abuse almost anything around them, including other players.”  He also states that the actions of players, while creating the depth, have little depth themselves.  I can not possibly disagree more because of the inaccuracy of that statement.  In a sandbox game — a GOOD sandbox game, mind you — the actions of the players are supposed to have the most depth of any design element present.  What the community does, right down to the individual, should carry with it meaning and depth just as much as the depth brought about by their interaction.

In the third paragraph he starts right off by stating themepark games are the opposite and that themepark gamers “favor fun and balance more than anything” …. and sandbox gamers don’t want fun or balance?  That’s a very ignorant and blindly made statement that I can only assume wasn’t meant to be worded that way. Throughout the paragraph it could have been said that the players are led by the hand and shown how to have fun a specific way, but instead it’s worded such that themepark games are about facilitating fun whereas the depth-lacking sandbox games are something only curmudgeons would enjoy.  The analysis was simply lopsided.

If I were to stop reading right there, which I almost did, then I would assume immediately that SWTOR is going to be a themepark game.  After all, we already know that players are going to be led through the game by a story and that the player’s individual experience trumps any group experience or interaction present in the game — this has been stated by the developers already.  However, Damion states that they’re taking a more middle path.  So I read on.

This next statement is another indicator that Damion doesn’t understand what a good sandbox is and that he’s only had experience creating (or playing) poor ones.

But I also believe that the game vs. world debate is missing a third element: community.”

Honestly, both themepark and sandbox games of the past and present have had community.  EQ2 has community.  EVE has community.  So what if the biggest of them all has no community (WoW)?  Community is not inherently missing in all of them or a third element to finish off a three-pronged discussion.  Even if you break it down to “game vs world”, community should be in both and not some third factor.  Without community, these are no longer MMORPG’s.  So yes, community should be present and present to the point that without it you can not have a good sandbox game at all (and present to the fact that it sets apart shallow themeparks from those with depth.)

Nevertheless, community is indeed important regardless of how it is classified or forgotten.  I like how this one guy, Damion Schubert, at least states he cares, even if it is all a facade like most dev blogs.  I’m not falling for it one iota, but I like how the ideas are at least being propagated.  The idea that “…crafters – true dedicated crafters – can make a name for themselves and be important in their community” is something I’ve stated, along with many other community driven ideas, ad nauseam.

So whether or not Bioware pulls off a middle-path approach with emphasis on community or not, it’s still the right way for future MMO’s to steer their design.

  • I was a little confused at the article as well, as it seemed to be about themepark vs. sandbox, then started talking about community, which to my mind is a complete non sequitur. The post is somewhat fragmented in this regard as I don’t believe the two topics are closely-enough related.

    I think communities themselves, and not just individuals, have a Dunbar number. WoW as a game doesn’t have a community for this reason .. it’s too big, too spread out.

    The important take-away from this dev blog is, as you pointed out, that they’re actually thinking about community early enough in the process. Hopefully they’re including their CM’s in this phase of the design process as their input would be critical.

  • I still don’t understand how this game is going to be set up..
    Will towns still be filled with players? And will it be open world, as in seeing other players when you leave a town?

  • I think you misinterpret the article. Especially regarding his opinion on a “sandbox” approach. It is quite clear that he wants to point out downsides and advantages of both. Then he goes on to sell us that SWTOR will supposedly have the advantages of both systems. We will see.

  • the problem is that we have a religious war on our hands: themepark vs. sandbox. People who hail sandbox games as the messiah will read any criticism of the sandbox as blasphemy, and any reference to themepark as heresy. And vice versa.

    I think you, Keen, have been fairly objective in this debate. hopefully you’ll stay on the path and realize (as you do here) that it isn’t the label on the game that matters, it’s the individual features and how they are implemented and polished, and lastly, and you are absolutely right here, the community.

  • Oh and in regards to the article for which my comment ‘religious war’ wasn’t intended: It’s spot on.

  • This blog is an attempt to cover up the fact that they are making a single player game. Unless players NEED each other community will suck and since you can solo the whole thing…

    From all the info they released it will be a an extreme version of a theme park that will make WoW seem an UO successor. Craftin statement is just another lure/carrot to dangle in front of dedicated crafters.

  • All smoke and mirrors to try and keep both the sandbox and themepark fans interested in a game that is going to end up being KOTOR will some grouping when you want it. SWTOR has shown 0, thats right 0 signs that it has anything in common with the MMO genre other than the possibility of a monthly fee.

    They are going to set themselves up for a big box sales followed by mass exodus of players, just like every other “triple A” MMO we’ve seen released lately. Huge hype, followed by 2 weeks of “this is awesome” followed by people completing that “awesome” stuff and going “What now? Well..I guess WoW is still around”

  • Yeah this game is not going to be an mmo, the sooner they admit to themselves and players, the better. At least that way people who buy the game know what it is going in.

  • Such cynicism for a game that no one really knows anything about. I suppose when you set your expectations up and get beat down a lot that can explain some things though. Makes me sad, people. I guess it’s much easier to be a cynic than it is to be an optimist.

    I’m curious as to why you think it’s so unlikely for developers to care about the games they make, Keen. Not everyone who writes a dev blog is insincere.

  • In a sandbox, not everybody gets to slay the dragon. “Epicness” and “Fairness” can greatly increase in more tightly scripted and bounded interactions. Yes community is central to all styles of MMO’s even if it is just some sort of EPeen measuring stick. The volume and importance of these interactions differ in these types of games (I think generally sandboxes make community involvement more important) as well as the balance between competition and collaboration (this is better split up as PvP/PvE focus then sandbox vs. themepark in my mind, although I do feel sandboxes make better PvP settings and vice versa).

    I read this diary as saying they are going to make a MMO mostly on rails, but stressing community interaction.

  • @Frank

    It’s called being Jaded, being smacked in the face everytime we try to listen and never once do they speak the truth.


    Honestly, I want to know some peoples opinions on what community is, it seems to fly over my head because I seem to have a different view as to what it actually is. Just curious to see other peoples views on that topic.

  • I’ll echo that SWTOR likely isn’t going to be sandbox in the slightest, this post was just to make you think it is.

  • ‘“Epicness” and “Fairness” can greatly increase in more tightly scripted and bounded interactions.’

    Depends on your pov i guess. Not sure if you were referencing instancing in any form when you mention scripted and bounded interactions, but if yes then to me epicness is greatly diminished with those qualities (not so much in the scripting but in the “bounded interactions” part).

    Again…not sure if that’s what you meant though.

  • @ Alice- agree. Based on what i’ve seen so far SWTOR is going to be the antithesis of a sandbox, and i won’t be touching it with a 10-foot pole. Nor with my wallet.

    I’m sure it will still sell a metric ton of boxes and many people will like the game however.

  • I don’t think he means community oddly enough, but communal: he wants activities to be multiplayer and not singleplayer. The examples he gives are crafting and conversation, which are activities you do by yourself with no impact from others. He wants players to affect and play with each other in even mundane things.

    Community is useless in any discussion though, because there isn’t one in any mmo, just a playerbase. The playerbase is often too fractured to be a single unit, and are more a collection of warring nations. EVE’s carebears versus pirates for one, or pvpers versus non in other games. Or the raiders versus casuals.

  • Community usually refers to people on a single server/side and how much interaction there is between them. Basically how connected is the graph of social interactions.

    If you want a great community you need a system where day to day activity of players is heavily dependant on each other. In sandbox games you get guilds dedicated to selfpreservation, ganking, whatever.. if you are alone you are usually a gnk bait. In a game like DAOC or EQ strict class dynamics build interdependency, even for leveling you wanted a group. As a result of that though by the time you maxed out you usually knew most of the active population of the server if not personally then from their reputation.

  • @Dietx – that’s when you combat that stuff with being realistic about MMOs being released. Lots of people are guilty of this. Everyone knows MMOs will have growing pains. Everyone knows they’ll not exactly pan out as how a developer says and it takes time. But yet people decide to believe things that aren’t indicative of the MMO development and release process.

    As for @Dblade’s notion that there isn’t community in an mmo, that’s something I disagree with. As someone with experience managing gaming communities, there is always a community in any MMO, bound together by shared experiences, perception of standout personalities, and events that are comedic, sometimes dramatic, but always shared.

    I agree that “Community” is not exactly what Damion is talking about, but there is such a thing as Community in MMOs. You see it in daily interactions and discussions, multi-page threads on forums, and in-game chat. They don;t have to be a single hive mind, just one that is contained within the experiences they share playing the same game.

  • Don’t know if you’ve read this yet. But based on your Allods coverage–figured you’d like to read gPotato’s fail, Part II “http://aika.gpotato.com/news/2010/04/07/important-service-announcement/”

    Two possible hit games in a row. One person handling it.

  • I think the point of the article is that the whole Sandbox vs Theme Park debate is pointless. It sounds like when they consider feature priorities, things like ‘Smoother levelling experience’ or ‘Open world for players to explore’ get ranked below ‘Encourages people to work together’.

    In other words, community is more important (to them) than a super theme park experience or a big world to splash around in. The balance of park/open is likely to be decided by expediency.

  • SWTOR is shaping up to be a very ambitious project. Which means I am very leery of it. 🙂 The devs are saying all the right things to keep me interested, but I have heard a lot of this before in other games. I do think Bioware does have skill to pull it all off. But only when the game comes out will we see.

    The article in question does not say anything earth shattering. But it is nice to know what the devs are thinking.

  • What Bioware game has ever had a large “open” feel to the world?

    This badboy is a themepark through and through. It’s all Bioware knows. That said, I’m certain it will be a great game worth playing, I just harbor no preconception that it will be an MMO. Subscribe, play the one month needed to beat the game, unsubscribe.

    If it’s KotOR that allows me to play with friends like Baldurs Gate/Neverwinter Nights, that’s cool enough for me to get my buds together and play it for a couple months.

  • My point about Epicness was on the individual scale. I greatly prefer the sandbox model partly because you can take part in events of epic scale, but those highlight the fact that individually you’re more or less mundane. In a theme park everybody gets to experience the strong character progression and feel like a hero in their instances or controlled battlegrounds.

  • @Frank

    If every new MMO that comes out has little in common with what was promised and even fails the developers expectations we have a right, well maybe not right, but you can’t blame the community for being pessimistic and jaded.

    I don’t understand how Bioware expects to give us a very focused story line and retain anything aspect of sandbox. Unless they just use the story to get you to max level they say “hey end game is sandbox!” which in that case would be a cop out.

    The begining of the game should resemble the middle and end. I don’t like how most MMOs change into complete different games later one so new players have very little idea what they are getting into.

  • even with this blog we still have no idea on how this game will end up until we play it. at this point everything is speculations and guesses so i wouldnt try to shoot it down to early keen. overanalyzing the situation now because of something ONE developer said is a little over zealous on your part in my opinion – take a chill pill. its just a game.

  • beyond stating ‘our game will be in the middle between theme and sandbox’ and ‘we will have crafting’ can someone tell me what piece of information he provided?
    If TOR is going to be in the middle, then that would imply it have to have at least one or more features from a sandbox.
    A minimum for a sandbox would be to change landscape in some fashion: build a house,city,spaceship, space-station, or commit some action that permanently effects the world, ie: control a city, control a planet. I get the feeling that ‘sandbox’ in TOR’s context will mean the GTA4/non-mmo concept of ‘sandbox’ ie: you can walk around the open world areas. I think it’s going to be as ‘sandbox’ as warcraft is.

  • I thought BioWare’s plan was to make “Story” the third element. Or was that the fifth rail? =P

    I think they’re trying to convey that their MMORPG will be Different instead of The Same.

    I usually have a lot of faith in BioWare and also in Gordon Walton, et al, but for some reason I’m skeptical with SW:TOR, because I really do expect it to be mostly The Same. Most of their audience probably doesn’t want Different anyway.

  • I think it all comes done to trust for me. I have NEVER been let down by bioware. I think they represent the very best in western RPGs and I though they haven’t touched the MMO market, I trust them to put out something that will be fun to play. I get a little worried when I think about how this game will create a lasting appeal and reason to play, but I will buy it if for no other reason than to enjoy the story elements. Even if this game turns into a single player rpg with other people hanging around in hub cities, I will still enjoy the heck out leveling and experiencing the story, it just might not be an MMO.

  • Whoever said he,Damion Schubert, is trying to point out problems for both sides you are incorrect in a sense. He is pointing out a MILD indifference towards to what I call “THE HAND HELD GAME” where they force you to follow the path they designing and then completely bashing free world game play.

    Basically telling us what players want and need. He isn’t even trying to hard to make it look like any opinion he wrote that article as if what he says are facts.Basically what I see it as is a sort of hint that they have no real intention on doing much WORLD type content but trying to justify it by saying how “bad” open world is and what the “third element” wants.

    First of all, the “third element” is probably the biggest pile of crap I ever heard of. Especially because he is trying to pretend he knows what he is talking about. The “community” is the “third element”? What? By the looks of this game and their “OH YEAH GUYS YOU CAN SOLO THE WHOLE GAME” there won’t be much of a community to begin with. Not only that they seem to think that a game community consist of one group of people.

    Damion Schubert has no clue, whatsoever, what he is talking about. It’s just biased “I work at Bioware we are the best game company ever” drivel. Period.