by Scott Roberts
It's a world of laughter, a world of tears;
I was originally going to entitle this article "Sandboxing", but I simply couldn't resist the opportunity to inflict "It's A Small World" on you all. Please pardon my impertinence.
The topic for this week's column is inspired by a long-running thread on the Skotos forums regarding a phenomenon known as sandboxing, one which has more recently become a hot topic of discussion on Skotos' Castle Marrach game as a series of promotions and shifting in the power base has occurred therein. The phenomenon is by no means unique to Marrach, however, and the sociological aspects of how "sandboxing" occurs in online and other games bears further inspection and discussion.
What Is Sandboxing?
The term "sandboxing" is used in this instance to refer to the situation which occurs on many games, when you get to a point where a cadre of experienced and veteran players occupy many of the available spots on the "power ladder" in the game, and hold onto them for dear life. This happens in many different kinds of games, from text-based games like Marrach to MMORPGs like Everquest. A core group of experienced, dedicated (some might say obsessed) folks take over roles in the center of things, if you will, and there's not much room for the newer players, who came to the game late, to advance their own characters to positions of power and authority. This is referred to "sandboxing" as the resultant dominance games that occur tend to be quite similar to those children who could best defend and dominate the sandbox in playgrounds across the land: the space was limited, there were always more who wanted to play in it than could fit; and the ones who were best at keeping their position in the sandbox hierarchy tended to be the ones who were always in the sandbox.
Why does it happen?
It's becoming rarer and rarer lately in the world of online games to find one that hasn't been filled to capacity and then some. Most online games have had upsurges in players far exceeding the original capacity that they were expected to attract, which, while that might be considered a Good Thing by the designers and those who stand to profit from the games, certainly makes the problem of sandboxing a difficult one to handle. Ultimately, sandboxing occurs when the designed sociology of the game world cannot accommodate the wishes and, more importantly, the number of players that the game attracts after launch.
How can it be dealt with?
One of the stumbling blocks in dealing with the sandboxing effect is that few games out there allow for permanent death of characters and even in those that do, the folks who are the best at defending themselves and eliminating threats tend to gravitate more or less permanently to the top positions in the sandbox. Different games have different patterns of dealing with the sandboxing effect. Some games use "shards" or different servers that are essentially carbon-copies of the same world, only with different players in them. These often fill up rapidly with folks, and of course this robs from the "uniqueness" of an achievement; they usually wind up turning into microcosms of the same sandbox that exists with the first place. Witness the "uber-guild" phenomenon on Everquest servers as an example, where the major "raids" which occur in that environment are normally the sole domain of the top guilds on any one particular server.
Some games deal with the sandbox effect in a different manner, encouraging retirement or forcefully eliminating players once they've reached too long a "tenure" at a certain position or level. This tends to annoy those players who have reached those levels; there are folks who do things (especially in level-based games) wholly out of character in order to avoid this final retirement of a character that they know and love.
Other games, Marrach amongst them, strive to provide places for newer characters by promoting older characters to new positions. This can also cause friction amongst the players as they resist the movement from an environment in which they were once king of the hill to a new one in which they might find themselves less powerful than they originally were. As well, many of these players will simply create new characters in the old arenas to compete with newer characters, relying on their superior knowledge of the game and perhaps OOC contacts to secure for themselves good positions similar to those their original veteran characters have left behind.
There is also sometimes a great deal of frustration displayed on the part of those who are not promoted. In a level-based game, promotions of this sort are relatively easy to adjudicate in that one can set a certain level or goal of experience, equipment, goal, or other threshhold which determines a promotion (witness on some MUDs the practice of "immorting" once reaching a certain level, becoming a hero unlinked to the game world's "mortals"). In softer RP environments, however, such promotions are rarely as cut-and-dried as all that, and resentment tends to rear its ugly head amongst those who are not chosen for such promotion. This can prove destabilizing in two ways: first, the new people who have been promoted will often find themselves falling back on their old connections, friends, and mannerisms and getting upset when this causes them problems; and second, those that have been left behind may sometimes feel cheated by not being promoted, viewing the newly-vacated positions in the sociology they remain in not as new opportunities for their own advancement but as mere second-prizes compared to the promotions given to the people that once held them.
And The Solution Is...
As touched on in several of my earlier columns, in most cases the solution is patience, tolerance, and a willingness to make your own fun. Obviously, the different forms of dealing with sandboxing will appeal to you or not appeal to you, the same way that a particular genre of game appeals or does not appeal. One of the keys to enjoying a game is to work along with, not against, the staff; your first reaction to something you perceive is bad should not be "Why are they doing this to me?" but "How can I turn this to my advantage?" Sometimes the answer may not be obvious at first or second glance, and talking quietly to the staff about your concerns after giving it some thought will get you a lot farther than antagonistic or upset outbursts.
It's really that simple. Just about any gaming situation can be turned into an opportunity for... more roleplaying. Not every game, even achievement-based games, needs to include in it a constant sense of achievement. While for many this is exciting, a much more broad-based excitement can be had (in my opinion) in the struggle against adversity and setback than can be had in the endless treadmill of trying to get yet another notch up the ladder. Your mileage may vary, however.
This solution might sound a bit shallow, but I'm more a commentator on the sociological realities of the gaming universe than I am someone who pretends to have all the answers. Now, I don't want to get off on a rant here, but one of the things I've been finding very frustrating about some columnists and game reviewers lately is the way in which they tend to come off like latter-day televangelists. Clad in the frock of former game designers, gurus, or just programmers or veteran players with a grudge, they fill up bandwidth with grandiose diatribes on how thus-and-such a designer should have KNOWN BETTER than to include (insert pet peeve of columnist/reviewer here). I find it very simple to yell and rage in text-based format for an audience of angry readers looking for someone to find another chink in the armor of those who run and support games. Anyone could do it. It's another thing entirely, however, to counterbalance rants and disapproval of game designers or game design with a healthy dose of the concept that the consumers of these goods have an obligation, if not equal at least partial, to work within these games to amuse themselves and others. After all, they're multiplayer, INTERACTIVE, online roleplaying games; all of the entertainment cannot by the very definition of the game come from the designers, or we're all just standing next to each other at the virtual slot machines waiting for the wheels to spin around and the next jackpot to come out.
And Next Column...
Give me some ideas, folks. What would you like to see analyzed in my next few columns? What particular aspect of gaming interests you? I've beaten up on many of my favorite topics to date; perhaps there's something that interests you? Add your comments to the post below, if you're interested...