Friday, March 18, 2011

Sandbox Salvation: Pray For Us Gamers In Our Time Of Need

I have traditionally preferred turn-based strategy games but there are few genres I haven’t, at one time, sampled. I’ve never excelled at real-time strategy because I like to be able to step away from the game without worrying that a computer-generated horde is going to come and wipe me out while I grab a drink. I want to be tested on my ability to plan and think rather than how fast I can click the mouse. Warcraft: Orcs and Humans was the first, and last rts game that I enjoyed for any length of time. Funny how that didn’t translate into liking WoW, but then again WoW is....well, it is what it is.

I haven’t played a lot of first person shooters then, as you would imagine. I’ve tried a handful of them but with the notable exception of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare I never complete them. Maybe it would be different if I had a console (the PlayStation 2 gathering dust in the closet doesn't count). I’ve recently started Dead Space 2 but it’s just so awkward trying to play it with a mouse-keyboard I’m not sure there’s much point. I want to fight the monsters, not the controls.I really do want to like them but I find that usually I don't.

I recently jumped into the beta of EA’s Battlefield: Free to Play for instance, and just about pulled a muscle jumping straight back out. Does World of Tanks count as a first-person shooter? If it does then it'll be the only one I’ve fallen for in a big way. I like the look of Arma II (from the demo) but it is quite a system hog and gives me only 15 FPS on medium settings. My evil plans to both take over the world, and upgrade my video card/monitor can’t come to fruition soon enough.

Perhaps this upgrade will provide all the answers I’m looking for, or maybe I should buy a game pad for my PC. Yes, that’s it. It’s not me at all, it’s the stupid computer! If only it were better I’d be having more fun. I’d be better at all these games that everyone finds so wonderful and then I’d have more online friends! I’d be part of that vast, extensive consoling community that seems to be having so much fun without me.Well, maybe not because I'd still have to play them after all.

I think I've always been drawn to sandbox-style games. Isn’t that what a turn-based strategy game like Civilization or the Total War series offer? You could argue not, but games like Sim City, Railway Tycoon, and Silent Service (some of my early favorites) certainly did offer the freedom to build and/or pursue your victory in multiple ways (and at your own pace). Sandbox games provide a freedom of action and a risk/reward/consequence like nothing else.

I enjoy the adrenaline-pump of a good pvp match as my years in Warhammer Online attest, but now that I’ve moved on I don’t miss it in the least. It didn’t offer the ability to really create something lasting, nor did it offer any opportunities for sound strategic thinking to win the day. I am hoping that World of Tanks will provide the opportunity for great pvp fights together with tank-tactics and (soon to come) clan-based wars for control of entire regions. Maybe that will sate my lust for pvp.

The thought has occurred to me that I’m having a mid-life (gaming) crisis. I find myself once again downloading a lot of demos and buying games that I’d normally not think about playing. Variety is the spice of life and all that, but I am very cognizant of the fact that I am turning 28 (for the 13th time) very soon, and I am starting to feel a bit old. I’ve been playing games for 34 years, but I have only been involved in MMO’s for 5 of those years. Guild Wars was my first, and I know there is some debate (due to its instanced form) if it really is an mmo.

I don’t really get into all that- if it’s multi-player it's an mmo as far as I’m concerned. I’m not a connoisseur so when I say mmo I mean anything, really, with other players to add to the challenge, excitement, or general annoyance. Speaking of annoying I’m starting to wonder if I there is a point in all this....

Oh yes, Shadow’s post the other day got me thinking about why the hell I play mmo’s since my life has been dominated primarily by turn-based strategy. I especially liked Mr. Meh’s comment (within that post):

On terms of playing alone: I think you are right. I’m not sure that I or many like me play MMOs to be around people. There is this idea that if you are in an MMO, you clearly must like other people. And that’s just not true.

It made me smile because I remember my 1st year sociology professor explaining to us that being a sociologist has nothing to do with liking people- that’s for social workers. You only have to have an interest in studying them and that doesn't necessarily mean interacting with them either.

Perhaps both Mr. Meh and my professor are right (or maybe they are the same person!): I don’t like people but I did, in the end, complete a sociology degree, and now I play mmo’s.

People (real, live ones) add an element to game play that can’t be planned for and it adds both excitement and, at times,  frustration. I also realize that after a lifetime of playing solitary games I prefer to have people around. Whether that’s to show off my achievements, use them as content (pvp, trading, or corp thefts ala eve), or just to have some company I’m not entirely sure. Likely a mix of all of them.

Like Shadow I am searching for meaning in my games. Not the meaning of life, no, that search continues elsewhere, but gaming for me has always been about accomplishing something by pitting my brain (feeble as it may be sometimes) against the virtual world and coming out on top. This is why I don’t like theme-park style mmo’s. The path is predetermined and you are meant to enjoy the ride, not alter the course.

I also hate being told what to do even if its in a friendly, virtual way, so the sandbox, in the end, may be my only gaming salvation.


  1. I have to say that my definition of MMO difers from yours. Not everything with other people in the mix can be considered an MMO, imho.

    A few years back I played Mario Kart for the SNES via an emulator with friends. Later, I played Mario Kart (hmmm, never realized how much I played that game) on the DS with 4 of my friends in the same room. Although it was online or inroom or whatever, it was hardly massive and thats what the first M is about, no?

    I can safely say the only reason I delved in yet another MMO was people, specific people. If it wasn't for my desire to keep playing things with my guild I definitely wouldn't have bothered with Rift. But playing (even if sporadically) the same game as people I've come to care about gives me something to talk to them about, makes me feel like I belong and who doesn't want to belong somewhere.

    Also, defeating a noob and yelling "you just got your fanny kicked by a girl!" is awesome. Killing an NPC can never be as gratifying.

  2. I agree, not everything is massive.... I played Golden Eye with three others, and I wouldn't count that as an mmo...

    It's the persistent world vs. instanced/arena debate I don't really think makes a difference.

    LOL! I love it: a fanny-kicking game-girl. I was probably one of those noobs you killed in Warhammer :)

  3. I think a lot of MMO players have maybe seen everything there is to see in the themepark style of the genre. Though, by all accounts, Rift is doing well, and people who are playing it seem to be enjoying it. I'm curious to see where it is in a few months before going further on my analysis of just how much an outlier we may be!

  4. I do think the industry as a whole is ready for something new but tbh I have no idea what that might be. If we can avoid the usual trappings of 'the sandbox' maybe, just maybe, something truly new will emerge...

    I just think about how gaming was 30 years ago and how far we've come. I wonder where we'll be in 5 or 10 more. In the meantime I'll just play everything that comes along!