Rowan Blaze over at I Have Touched the Sky has managed to sum up in one picture what I expect eventually to happen everywhere in SOE’s Landmark.
I cropped his screen shot down to the essential message. Free Donuts.
And therein lies the seeds of destruction.
Not that I object to the sign. It is just a cute example of what one can do in a sandbox like Landmark. Innocent fun. And I am sure if the person with the adjacent claim was trying to build something with a different theme that contrasted with the idea of free donuts… maybe a place where donuts were currency, or perhaps some fantasy setting where donuts aren’t really a thing… Rowan would take down his sign. Heck, his sign… and his claim… might disappear on their own at this point in development. But even if it remained, I am sure he wouldn’t prop it up next to his neighbors medieval castle or whatever.
Landmark is in alpha after all, and a pay-to-play alpha at that. Everybody who is playing in the alpha really wants to be there and, judging from what I have seen, are very quick to let you know you can get a full, no-questions-ask refund the moment you complain about anything in Landmark.
That is pretty common with pre-release communities. They tend to be the most invested in the game and are always the ones to moan about how the community for a given game went down hill after release. How often have we heard, “The game/The community/People were much better/nicer in beta?”
So Landmark is in that happy, like-minded, orthodoxy enforced, pre-release community state where everything is new and people seem to care more about the game and the idea of the game than the current state of the game. If you worry about the current state of the game… well… you can get a full, no-questions-ask refund. It is a happy time of newness and excitement.
But the game will not remain in alpha… or beta… or pre-release… forever. The happy pre-release community that cares about the game will, if things go to plan, eventually be dwarfed by the a larger community that will not, in general, hold exactly the same values when it comes to Landmark.
Landmark will be an amusement, a distraction, a toy, a way to pass the time, and a way to express themselves.
One way that people have shown they enjoy expressing themselves in the past is through griefing their fellow players. And the more freedom you give people the greater the of griefing that will occur and the hard it ends up being to stop it.
Basically, the proposition I am putting forward is that the more sandbox-like an online game is, the more there will be griefing. And, with that in mind, I made a little chart.
That is my “pulled straight from my posterior end” assessment of the sandbox nature of some online games that came to mind given a few minutes thought. Feel free to object or suggest a re-ordering or inject where other games may sit on the continuum of sandboxiness. I am already reconsidering my placements, but I am too lazy to edit the picture.
At one end is Webkinz, in which your ability to do anything is pretty well constrained and interactions with other players is severely limited. This is a game for small children and their mothers. Your ability to touch the game is limited to decorating your own house, which only a select few individuals… if anybody at all… will ever see. Arrange your furniture in a swastika or penis shape and nobody will likely know or care.
I put League of Legends down the line towards Club Penguin because, despite its reputation, it seems to me that your freedom of action is pretty limited, and saying bad words in either game will get you banned eventually.
I put EVE Online in the middle, trending a bit towards the pure sandbox end of things. The thing is, for all of its sandbox reputation, it really isn’t all as much of a sandbox as you might think. The game is quite constrained by its mechanics. What gives it the air of sandbox is more about the lack of central narrative… there is so little “game” in the game… the range of potential career paths, and the tolerance by CCP for what one might consider griefing in another game. A sandbox attitude in a universe constrained by some occasionally strange mechanics.
I compare this to Wurm Online, about which I only know by what Stargrace has written. She had a number of tales of people clear cutting her trees or stealing her livestock, or making pests of themselves, or just general drama. That all sounded much more sandbox-like and much more grief prone… at least relative to the rules of the respective games… than EVE.
At the sandbox end of my little list I put Second Life. This is the bugbear, the thing that should scare you about sandbox freedom, as things sometimes end up looking like this.
I actually find that picture amusing. But then, I don’t have to look at it every day.
That picture is from a tale of an ongoing attempt to grief a player in Second Life, which including buying up adjacent properties and filling them with things meant to annoy the player. The tale of that is over at Broken Toys, from where I swiped the screen shot. So there is that, flying penises, and… well… you have to visit the place to see the range of things. Griefing… like porn… isn’t everywhere in Second Life, but it can be brought to a level of art that would surprise you.
Just down the line from Second Life I put Landmark. Again, my own gut call, and you can argue where it really belongs on the line. But given the sandbox claims and Rowan’s sign, I have to think that it is far closer Second Life than any traditional MMO.
And while I do not think SOE is going to allow anywhere close to the amount of freedom to do… whatever… that Second Life has allowed, there is going to be a line somewhere. The sign that says “Free Donuts” might be okay, but what if it gets changed to “Free Penises?” What if Rowan builds a tower that happens to look like a penis? What if he reconstructs St. Basil’s Cathedral, only with the onion-shaped domes looking suspiciously penis-like? What is with Rowan and his obsession with phallic imagery? (Do I need to say “just kidding” here? I will, just in case.)
What happens when we get this?
At some point SOE is going to draw a line, and then there will be a group of people who will push right up to that line and dare SOE to do something about it. And people will complain about those within the letter but perhaps not the spirit of the rules and there will be arguments and rage and rule lawyering and all the fun stuff we expect from online games, only magnified by the freedom allowed by Landmark. Is it any wonder that SOE canned that other sandbox title before launch? They were not ready for it then and I am not sure they are ready for it now.
Sure, SOE might believe they can police the internet. But will they be able to handle the conflicting visions and personalities that will eventually flock to Landmark? Has SOE articulated a plan for this? Is my vision too dire, or not dire enough? And how much enforcement can they impose and still keep things happy and sandboxy?