Wednesday, February 15, 2012


Distance is measured in time, not space.

That's not literally true, of course. But it does seem to map to how we think of distance. I live half an hour from work. The grocery store is a 5 minute walk away. The big city is four hours away.

So when you apply this to virtual worlds, geography needs to take into account travel time. Uldum is right next to Stormwind, despite being on another continent. This is because the portal is there. The portal is a convenience, but it also makes the world seem less like a world. Without the portal, the game would be more inconvenient.

I was reading the debates between theme parks and sandboxes, and it occurred to me that inconvenience is a very important factor in making the virtual world behave like the real world.

Take the entire concept of trade, for example. At one level, you buy items where they are cheap, transport them to where they are expensive, and sell them for a profit. But this entire transaction works because of inconveniences. Resources are distributed unevenly. The markets in the two different areas are not connected. There is a limit to how much weight one can carry. The transit takes time. The transit might be dangerous.

There are a lot of elements in a modern MMO that would need to be stripped away to model this type of trade. No common auction house, weight restrictions, and a long travel time to get from area to area.

The theme park MMOs are all moving towards smoothing away as many inconveniences as they can. And the playerbase demands it. Look at the outcry when portals were removed from Dalaran.

And yet, for sandboxes to truly work, I think they won't work despite inconveniences, they work because of those inconveniences.

But inconvenience is, well, inconvenient. Maybe sandboxes can never work, because the required inconvenience to truly simulate a virtual world will just drive players away.


  1. It's a valid observation, but as a counterpoint I offer EVE Online. It's quite sandboxy and it's doing just fine.

  2. There's a balance to be struck. On one hand, a perfectly convenient world will be bland. On the other hand, who has ever described the DMV as must-play?

    It's highly personal, and I think related to the life context. If life in generally annoying and inconvenient, then a good game escape will be convenient. But if life is generally convenient, then a sandbox adds a desirable contrast. The mistake is to assume that games are played in isolation, as opposed to being part of the total experience in a person's week.

  3. Cid Phoenix, oddly enough, I think Eve Online matches my description of trade almost perfectly. But maybe it is an indication that you can be successful if you get the balance just right.

    The question of course, is if it could be more successful if it was more convenient. I don't know.

    Kleps, that's a really interesting point. I'll have to think about that.

  4. Back in the early days of EQ, my enchanter made loads of Steins of Moggok (this was back when they were a good off-hand!). They were unique so after making each one I had to roam around looking for someone to sell it to before making the next one. And making one involved travelling across most of the breadth of Norrath to collect ingredients. I made loads of money and repeated the quest so often that my high elf was neutral with the Ogres in Oggok. It was *awesome*. And that's a sort of gameplay that's just utterly unavailable with modern MMOs (not counting Eve).

    Had to share.

  5. "for sandboxes to truly work, I think they won't work despite inconveniences, they work because of those inconveniences"

    I agree. If you look at the kind of features people want in a sandbox, there is definitely a theme of limiting the power of a player:

    -risk and danger
    -meaningful death
    -full gear looting
    -lengthy character progression
    -less/no solo quest content

    Sandboxes work because a playerbase all agrees to abide by these rules. It creates a sense of community and achievement. Just not getting yourself robbed/killed is a sign of success.

    But I would argue that the mass market of online gamers want to log on and play for short periods of time without having to fight these inconveniences.
    They want to play a computer game where the potential negative impact of other people is minimised.

    Unless the trend changes, I anticipate sandboxes and themeparks will always coexist, with the latter being several magnitudes more popular.

  6. As Nils might point out, something cannot be considered "inconvenient" unless a more convenient option exists.

    People were pissed at removing the portals in Dalaran because it was literally removing convenience for the express purpose of sinking more time (or perhaps more charitably, shepherding players out of Wrath content and into SW/Org). We've had city portals since TBC content, so they're an expected feature now. Had portals never existed though, there would be few people complaining about all the travel time despite it being a complete waste of millions of peoples' lives.

    I don't buy the argument that travel time makes the world bigger, or in this specific case "more like the real world." A (virtual) world gets bigger/more real the more things you put in it. Velocity has nothing to do with anything. If it did, every MMO could make their game more real/big simply by making players move 10/20/50% slower.

  7. I think the part you are missing is freedom.

    Themepark mmo's take freedom and control out of the players' hands.

    Sandbox games allow other players to provide you with the convenience you seek.

    No global AH? Hello traders who move goods to your location

    Long, boring or dangerous travel times? Hello paid escorts / taxi services

    Sandbox games are all about giving freedom and control to the player base. This does include enough freedom to ruin the game for themselves, but that is the responsibility that comes hand in hand with freedom.

  8. @Azuriel
    "As Nils might point out, something cannot be considered "inconvenient" unless a more convenient option exists."

    There is always a more convenient option - play a different game.

    That's why most devs would rather nerf/remove inconveniences then lose subscribers to more 'casual' titles (for better or for worse).

  9. For travel in general the explanation is pretty simple:
    - I have 30 mins to play, one game allows me 1 min transportation and 29 mins of play, the second 25 mins travel and 5 mins play. Which one will I choose in your opinion?

    All I read about the sandboxes (which are the current trend in MMO blogging) has a minor problem: unless you devote enormous amounts of resources/time to them, they will fail. So it's not hard to see why in the current situation (tons of games, older players) these games end up being niche.

  10. "Maybe sandboxes can never work, because the required inconvenience to truly simulate a virtual world will just drive players away."

    Eve Online.

  11. @Bronte

    Look at the number of people playing Eve, against the number of people playing Theme Park MMO's.

    I'm really annoyed at the how many online forum posters and bloggers fail to see subjective game styles really is.

    Both Sandbox and Theme Park MMOs can survive, but the numbers clearly show that Millions of players want the Theme Park, and Hundreds of Thousands want the Sandbox.

    And there is NOTHING wrong with that, unless you expect something else.

  12. I have nothing to say other than great, great post. I like the example of trade you used. Thanks for putting this so simply and well.

  13. For many of my characters, I've set their hearthstones back to Dalaran. There are portals in Dalaran back to SW/Org, and it also lets you get to Northrend easily.

  14. As someone who plays the economic or market side of the game and games in general and as a Trader in EVE Online with it's robust economy in my opinion it works well because of both "Inconvenience" and "Convenience" both as well a factor of "Time" given how large the Universe is to tranverse. The fact that there are many regions in EVE each withs own regional market separate from each other works well and for the population that either live and trade there or interregionally between several regions. Yet it adds Convenience and Inconvenience both where time is money in the movement and obtaining of goods which help drive interregional markets with Trade.

    Jita system is one of 4 major central market hub and the very biggest of all in it's location. Trade works well there because of it's convenient location to centralize allot of economic activity. Yet Jita is in it's own region separate from the other major trade hubs, as well as distance to travel to which adds to a time factor if you live in the farer regions away. And many do live in their local regions.
    Regional Trade works for one of many reasons because they are many other regions each with their own very separate market as submarkets for those regions. It's a convenient factor to trade in local region buying goods from Mission runners as well as selling to them there and many others that live in those regions. Even though there are other bigger market hubs each being it's own regional market. Not everyone live in one place like in Ogrimmar or Stormwind mostly like in WoW with one market for each faction.

    The fact to me that there are so many separate markets each for their own regions and each regional travel that adds time to transverse depending on which side of the universe you are or where you pop out of wormhole from is a reason just one part of many the reasons why the Economy works so well in EVE. Because of the inconvenience of time the smaller regional markets works for Traders who live and trade there saving the people who buy there. Time which is convenient for them at a price! And time is money in EVE in so many ways.

    The convenience of going to Jita is you can get allot of whatever your looking for there in one central location and often cheaper and in higher volume as compared to the other regions that don't trade the same volume. Often much lower volume they trade in the other regions. Convenience to shop in Jita, might not always be to leave with valuables and travel back to your region with it as pirates and gankers sit on stargates scanning your cargo. So to me EVE economy works quite well for allot of reasons. There is a saying in EVE that "Time is Money" and that is true. And the convenience and inconvenience both in Trade with each regional market adds much to how the game economy works with all it's complexity and PVP/PVE. And that's just only relating thing to just Trade only.

    Time is Money or ISK in EVE. I also learned this a long time ago as a Trade that the fact there is Inconvenience and Convenience to obtaining things that people need is at the heart of making profits in a player driven sandbox game universe.

  15. You've definitely got to have some inconvenience or time sinks. No one's mentioned cheat codes that grant levels or instantly travel or make you indestructible. If you can cheat in something like an MMO, the game is only interesting for a fraction of the time.

    Slow travel does make the world feel big, but it also makes you feel like you can't play the game until you wait through a non-engaging, low risk activity. Traversing long distances slowly doesn't add enough immersion to be worth it.

    I think the key to a good time sink is to make the activity at least somewhat engaging. One of my favorite executions of this is in the Elder Scrolls series. It's repetitive and time consuming, but makes some sense in context and can be cleverly gamed if you want to take short cuts.

  16. I think you are close to an important point: players consider PLAYING an inconvenience that get in the way of getting rewards.

  17. I think there is a subtle nuance to getting inconvenience just right. Certain inconveniences can be tolerated if they are done properly. Part of that line has to be drawn when you first introduce the game. The other drawback is that once you have given a convenience you have to be very careful when you take it away (see; Removal of portals in Dalaran). Whereas in other games, like EVE, long-distance travel being slow is accepted because its a major factor of the game: Allow instantaneous travel in EVE and the game falls apart.

    So in the end it depends on the focus and tone of your game. In a game focused on casual play and short dungeon runs like WoW, instantaneous travel to said dungeons seems less offensive, but in a game like EVE it's a necessary inconvenience.

  18. The short answer is, the players who like sandboxes will put up with most of the inconveniences. Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be a fixed standard for which inconveniences most players will put up with.

    As just one example, most "old school" players seem to dislike instances and are willing to put up with standing in line waiting for a boss to spawn. I, on the other hand, will put up with long travel times, keeping track of vendors with different prices, and many other such inconveniences, but lack of instancing actually =kills= my suspension of disbelief.

    I think the real trick will be for a developer to find the right mix of inconvenience and convenience that pleases a large number of sandbox fans, while still maintaining good production values. Right now, EVE seems to have the best handle on this sort of balance.

  19. @Helistar - Part of the point of the better sandbox games is that travel IS gameplay. So, from my point of view of a sandbox fan, one game might have one minute of travel and 29 minutes of shallow "gameplay" while the other consists of a full 30 minutes of "deep" gameplay, including the travel.

    It's the classic "world" versus "game" dichotomy. If the travel is interesting enough (beautiful landscape, anticipated danger, well-executed combat), you don't mind it so much if you don't reach your destination.

    As just one example, back when I played Asheron's Call, there were many evenings where my gameplay consisted of using portals to get to the edge of a "challenging" area and then simply running in a semi-random direction, engaging or evading all the challenges in my path, until my bags filled up. And I =loved= doing that. So much more entertaining (to me) than instantly teleporting to a dungeon and running through it silently with four strangers.