The Sandbox Ecosystem

The people at Goblinworks really speak my language.  Every time I read something over there it’s like they’re camped out inside my brain taking notes.  Just search for ‘sandbox’ here and you’ll find pages of me talking about qualities in sandboxes lacking in today’s mmorpg’s.  I’ve even written a few posts about my ideal sandbox MMO.

Goblinworks has done it again with their most recent blog entry which talks a lot about how sandboxes function at a macro and somewhat micro level.


Players fill many roles.  There are the people who love to do nothing but fight, and those who would rather craft, gather, or build.  Each of these play-styles supports and relies on the other two.  Players create content, or as I like to phrase it a ‘purpose’ or ‘reason for existing’, for every other player.

The way Goblinworks describes Pathfinder as a sandbox game summarizes further how a person will play a themepark vs. a sandbox.

You can think of Pathfinder Online as the inverse of many theme park MMO designs—those usually have sandbox elements, but the overall game is driven by the theme park: You go on quests and clear dungeons to get the loot and character power you need to go on harder quests and clear more dangerous dungeons. In between, you might go fishing or you might buy and sell goods in an auction house, or you might just explore the world. In Pathfinder Online, the inverse is true: while you’re engaged in harvesting, crafting or exploring, you may find yourself plunged into an adventure—interaction with the scripted part of the game.

When I play a sandbox game, I have a different mindset than when I’m in a themepark.  Playing becomes entirely about improving my quality of life.  I usually do this by seeking to increase my share of the wealth, my piece of the pie, or my stake in the world.  That usually makes me a crafter. I think that’s why I don’t mind logging in to a sandbox and doing nothing but gathering resources or making things.

Regardless of the why, everyone in a sandbox ends up ‘living’ in the world rather than progressing through it.

When people think of dynamic content in today’s MMO it’s all about scripted events popping up randomly in a zone and how many of X mob must be slain to make that event go away.  When I think of dynamic, the kind I have experienced in years past, I think of a world and community that responds based upon input from the inhabitants.  In SWG or UO a player could find an empty space of land, place a house, and forever alter the world.

I was one of the top chefs on my SWG server.  I required tons of resources and relied on suppliers because I could not meet the demand of my customers by myself.  While I was still building my crafting empire and things were tight, if my suppliers were gone, or there was a resource drought, I would struggle to  pay the rent on my shops and harvesters.  That was dynamic and very representative of the sandbox ecosystem.

I’ve focused a lot on the interconnectedness of the players in a sandbox, but the Pathfinder Online blog entry has a lot of information about how they plan to work their PvE.  It’s a fascinating read.

  • I am still somewhat intrigued by this game but the notion that all my hard earned time and investment of my character can be all for not with the simple notion that someone can come along and take what is mine. Open world full loot PvP will forever and always will be a barrier for a sandbox that wishes to truely become popular. The notion of the ganker as small as the percentage is and as many built in barriers such as criminal penalties will never ever garner my support. No matter how awesome the game is!

    Untill they decide to do like old school sandboxes like Asheron Call white servers or UO Tramel servers and make PvE servers with no PvP this title will be off my radar. I even had a very nice and several detailed email conversations with one of the Devs about this concept but they seem to not want t obudge and truely do not understand that Full loot PvP (no matter how minior of a chance for it to occur) are a detractor for the vast majority of MMO gamers.

  • Finally a new post, I’ve been visiting Goblinwork’s site like every day. That said I usually also like the idea of doing nothing but gathering and crafting but since EVE I’ve also found that I really like being the gatherer’s bodyguard. So the harvesting hazards has me interested.

    Harvesting hazards: These are opponents that are generated randomly as an effect of harvesting certain resources. The longer a harvesting operation continues at a given location, the more likely it is to attract unwelcome attention. These hazards are scaled so that the larger the harvesting operation, the more numerous the creatures attracted will be. And like wandering monsters, the further the encounter is from civilization, the tougher the opponents will be. A single character harvesting close to an NPC settlement will likely be able to fend off the occasional interloper with a relatively minimal amount of ability and gear. A large party operating deep in the wilderness is going to have to be prepared and well organized to fight off substantially harder hazards.

  • This game doesn’t have full loot. It’s actually pretty minimal in what it does let you loot. All equipped items stay on your character and only your inventory is in your corpse. Dying and being looted by an enemy has a pretty hefty chance to destroy any items you are carrying to the point where only a few items remain, just like in EVE. Since many ideas are coming from EVE I also am expecting inventory spaces to be rather small so even if most of your items remain your attackers likely will not be able to carry all of it, unless they are traveling with a wagon. And since your inventory space might be small to begin with you probably didn’t lost much anyway.

  • @Zederok: It’s not FULL loot, just what is in your inventory and not equipped. So if you’re lugging around resources they can be stolen. I do agree, though, that a server without the looting of corpses may be needed. I think being able to PvP is important, though.

    @Gringar: I thought their ideas about scaling based on distance from civilization were very intriguing, and the harvesting hazards make the body guard idea very reasonable.

  • I’ve been following this game a bit. And they seem to be a lot more thoughtful and have much more insight into making games that a lot of the Sandbox Indies out there. However, I’m so jaded at this point (Mortal Online, Darkfall I’m looking at you) that I have to say “I’ll believe it when I see it”

  • I loved this blog from Goblinworks too, particularly around the areas of hazards “generated randomly as an effect of harvesting certain resources”, and monster encampments that “left unchecked, will escalate, becoming larger, more numerous and generating more and more powerful foes”.

    I think you summed it up well with “When people think of dynamic content in today’s MMO it’s all about scripted events popping up randomly in a zone and how many of X mob must be slain to make that event go away.” What I want – and what I think could genuinely maintain long-term player interest – is dynamic events being a reaction to the actions the players take. Build a settlement in previously uncivilized lands? Monsters gonna attack it and you better be ready to fight them off. Mine for mithril? Balrog gonna pop out and eat you so you better be ready to fight him off.

  • Games like this only work if there are no special rule-sets like “no corpse looting”, etc.

    And since they’re pulling so heavily from EVE and are looking at the world in terms of hexes, I would really like to see them push a one ‘server’ concept. It’s by far the best part of EVE, and something that’s almost never repeated successfully – One server with everyone on it.

    Hell, go talk to those crazy ice whalers at CCP, see if you can license some of that carbon and back end tech which allows those 40-50k online users to live in one world, and allows for 2000 people to be slugging it out if they really want to in one zone (system), albeit with induced lag via time dilation.

  • EVE works with all those players on one world because each star system is its own server. Which is why you need jump gates or some sort of loading to go from one to another.

    They may already be leaning towards one world in this game since they’re talking about laying out the world in hexes. Each hex would be like a star system in EVE, complete with its security rating. Players that prefer non-PVP can stick to the high security areas near civilization, and still contribute a fair amount, but the farther away you go from main civilization the more dangerous the PVP and greater the rewards are.

  • Full loot is great and I fully support it (even though I am likely to be at the receiving end of the penalty more often than not) but what is the full loot system coupled with?

    Is it a faction based system where you are encouraged to kill people of the opposite faction? (DAOC with full loot)

    Is it a total open system where everyone can kill everyone without any consequences for the winner? (AC Darktide style)

    Is it a reputation based system that requires some sort of decision making where you can kill someone but it isnt usually done unless you are willing to accept some consequences (UO Style)

    I think that full loot fits best with the last system where there is some sort of decision making process involved that allows you to kill someone but that has a price associated with it. I kind of find the AC Darktide system less desirable – because the reason to kill someone often is “because I can.” In UO style games, the reason to kill someone may be “because I can” (but you may be a “red” flagged player and there may be consequences) but often people dont kill people unless they have a good reason.

  • There is a problem with the web sites secruity certificate (Goblinworks). If my anti virus program can’t trust them niether can I.

  • “…loot PvP (no matter how minior of a chance for it to occur) are a detractor for the vast majority of MMO gamers.”

    This actually is likely a good thing. Most of the issues that I have with major MMO’s are related to their catering to the larger casual crowd. I would far prefer a game that has a single server full of dedicated old school gamers as opposed to one with 100 servers of players that expect to hit cap in 2 weeks and faceroll more tactically adept opponents due to having overwhelming armor/weapon bonuses (gear-centric games kill skill and shift focus away from enjoying the act of PvP’ing to the valor/honor earned per hour).

  • “Regardless of the why, everyone in a sandbox ends up ‘living’ in the world rather than progressing through it.

    This sums it up. People aren’t racing to “endgame” only to complain that they are bored by “endgame”.

  • The lead guys working on this have actually worked with CCP, which is why a lot of ideas seem to be coming from EVE. The inventory loot system is coupled with a security system.

    Each hex will have a security rating based on how close it is to the starting civilizations. If someone attacked you in a high security area “marshals” will rush in/teleport? to utterly destroy the attacker. If you want to keep your inventory relatively safe you can stay in the high security areas. It’s no shame either, if you look at EVE that game requires that at least some people stay in the high-sec areas to mine the basic ore because EVERY recipe uses it.