Apr 12

The Case for Sandbox Mechanics

Why Star Citizen’s Persistent Universe will fail in maturity unless there are strong tools for player-created narrative.

Every winter since 2007 I get the itch to jump back into Eve Online’s unique player-driven sandbox. Opinions vary wildly on the gameplay experience in Eve and there’s a healthy camp who’ll shout about “spreadsheets online” (and they’re not necessarily wrong). While there’s a healthy amount of compare and contrast exercises which can be had in looking at both Eve and Star Citizen’s budding persistent universe, I think the most important lessons can be learned from Eve’s meta-game.

In March, Chicago author and journalist Andrew Groen’s first book, backed by a successful Kickstarter campaign, was published. The book is called Empires of EVE: A History of the Great Wars of EVE Online and, at the time of writing, has a 4.9 star rating on almost a hundred reviews on Amazon and is the #1 selling book in a handful of subgenres on the Amazon Kindle and Book stores. There are many variables at play here (not the least of which is Groen’s efficacy as an author) but the success of this type of publication seems to capture and promote the most important lesson that CIG can learn from EVE online: meta is king. What Star Citizen needs in order to continue to hold a strong player base and build a foundation for long-term (10+ year) success is similar sandbox elements that provide EVE players with tools by which to create their own narrative.

While EVE’s lore and backstory form the setting and contribute to the universe in their own way, the player narrative is what has enraptured players and spectators alike and is the origin of the loyal player base. It’s remarkable that many of the reviews of Empires of EVE on Amazon are readers who claim that they never have, nor likely ever will play EVE Online but have followed the meta-game and loved reading the history of the player-versus-player conflicts. And while bystanders don’t provide revenue to support the game’s continued life, they do keep the conversation and community alive. In my case, if I weren’t following the EVE subreddit and catching up on the meta-game from time to time, they wouldn’t receive my $15-30 each winter when I re-subscribe to poke around New Eden. Generally speaking, it’s fair to say these narratives contribute to the health of the game as a whole.

In any modern game, especially in the online RPG space, the need for a satisfying endgame gameplay loop (or several) is critical to keeping a mature title alive. In most traditional MMO’s (think WoW, GW2, etc.) this usually takes the form of working towards the best gear or a certain rank in PvP play. In a sandbox, however, the endgame needs to be different. Once players have explored everything that the PU has to offer, what will remain? For how many dozens of hours will players continue to log in to complete the same trade, exploration or mining missions?
What will keep players logging in isn’t missions, revisiting places they’ve already explored before, or amassing wealth – and no game developer, CIG included, has or will ever be able to produce content at a rate that will stay ahead of the rate of consumption of all players. At a certain point (which will, of course, vary by player), the largest contributing factor to someone logging in to play Star Citizen will be the meta-game.

Using EVE’s sandbox mechanics as context, this brings me to the current development plans for Star Citizen’s persistent universe. As currently understood, there will not be the same level of sandbox freedom provided to players in EVE in the Star Citizen persistent universe. However, some level of player-controlled structures have been discussed.

Take the $19M stretch goal, for example, “Manage Space Stations – Players will compete to own and operate a limited number of space stations across the galaxy.” In an answer to a question during 10FTC-39 Chris Roberts stated that organizations wouldn’t necessarily be able to create space stations but that it was a “cool idea” in the long term. He did, however, share that “Definitely organizations will be able to have some sort of real estate” and that they “already talked about having some sort of persistent areas in space, like an asteroid base/derelict station that a group of players can take over and make their headquarters and defend it from other players.” These controllable installations are on top of the typical “guild hall” or organization hangars that you might possess planet-side. Chairman Roberts went on to offer that down the road CIG wants to have real estate for players and organizations to buy and own (such as factories).

This is promising and, in the opinion of this backer, absolutely vital to the long term success of Star Citizen’s persistent universe upon its eventual release. Once we’ve acquired and flown all the ships, once we’ve explored everything, once we’ve blown up a thousand Vanduul ships – what will remain? For CIG and the Star Citizen community, hopefully the answer is not “nothing”. While I admit that reaching a point where one runs out of content may take a long time, it’s about reaching the point where you’ve seen enough that it’s no longer thrilling that is at the crux of what I’m talking about here. Elite: Dangerous is procedurally generated. No Man’s Sky as well, for that matter. Someone might argue that E:D has essentially an endless amount of content. But any reasonable gamer will recognize that there comes a point where a procedurally generated “endless” experience becomes rote and simply isn’t fun anymore.

I would offer, then, that the answer for anyone who reaches the point where the honeymoon-phase has elapsed and that new-M50 smell is long gone and asks “what remains?” that the answer will be very clear: the community. And not just the community, but the community held in symbiosis with a CIG-created toolkit which allows for players to create their own narratives. With any luck, much like EVE Online’s player base, we will provide stories worthy of a book read and celebrated by non-players a decade from now. By the look of it, recent events in EVE have triggered the outbreak of the largest war seen in years. I’d be willing to bet a plethora of new stories are being written which could fill the pages of another book as time wears on.

I believe that Chris Roberts and all of the development team at CIG understand how critical game mechanics like organizations, player owned/controlled spaces, player-influenced economy are to the long term health and success of this venture. As a backer, I encourage other supporters of Star Citizen to continue to emphasize the importance of features which allow for players to tell their own stories, small and large, throughout the ever-present dialogue of open development. Without the tools to create the personal stories we’ve imagined for ourselves in the future PU, Star Citizen can only hope to be as significant as an iridium flare, one of many games whose light shines bright for a moment only to sail on by into irrelevance.


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  1. Derek Hawkmoon

    I think the biggest pvp endgame will actually be more about cap ships than stations. Rembember the biggest caps never disappear and I can see how glorious it will be seeing an understaffed Bengal carrier trying to repel a swarm of pirates with the action going from space to ship etc.
    Of course this means a Bengal should be a significant advantage or noone will bother

    • Splicepoint

      Thanks for your insight. Interesting thought. I’m actually okay with that so long as they don’t despawn and there’s also a balanced way to defend them such that it isn’t necessary for organizations to keep a team logged in 24-hours a day to defend their hard earned fleet. Ultimately, I’m for function over form. As long as the player owned game spaces are there, we’ll find a way to tell our own stories. Thanks again for the comment!

  2. Freeman_c14

    Good article, Eve really does give the players the tools necessary for them to create their narratives but one thing that i want to add is that having compelling mechanics is key in my opinion. Eve always had a problem with overly engineered and overly complex mechanics or a complete lack of depth in other areas (like mining for example) so making the game mechanics easy to grasp and hard to master is what will make or break Star Citizen and i think CIG’s is heading in the right direction judging by the design posts they released so far but not only that those mechanics have enough depth they have the potential to synergize and create powerful experiences. Port Olisar is the biggest example, we have only a glimpse of what the PU will be and we already have tons of stories in the sub-reddit with a few of them showing the power of thinking outside of the box (Big Benny’s delivery)

    • splicepoint

      Thanks for the reply – agree with your perspective on mining in Eve (although I must admit it did take up a bunch of my time) and I’m looking forward to CIG making these other areas of gameplay fun rather than a grind which supports the other activities which are fun (if that makes sense).

  3. Psylence

    I’d like to start by saying that I agree, and I think you make valid points. Mind you, I’m not going to follow this up with disagreeing, just making sure I put that out there first.

    I’m game for a little conjecture! As someone pointed out, there is the cap ships. Also, with respect to the factories, they did mention that players can put out job postings for shipping, defense, etc, and that would presumably be more automated than hitting ‘gen chat’ and asking. If I were a betting man, which I’m not but that’s neither here nor there, I would wager they would integrate it into the sort of mission hubs they’re creating. I mean to say, if they’re already generating missions that way, why not allow players to add theirs in as well? I could see this very much playing out in the same way the EVE system does(both good and bad).

    What I’m getting at, is that I would be shocked if SC didn’t look at EVE and learn from some of their lessons. In fact, I think they already are in a lot of respects. Case in point, they’ve already said that the communications will matter. If someone were to sufficiently jam your communications and you’re off the beaten track, there is no reason to believe the police will show up even in a “high sec” area. Not to mention the recent discussion how you could, theoretically, outrun your own warrant by staying in front of the transmission.

    In short, and I know I’ve hardly kept it as such, I would be surprised if we didn’t have nearly as much (if not more) flexibility in Star Citizen to create our own story as people do in EVE. The systems that have already been talked about seem to point exactly to this possibility, not to mention how it will be augmented by the systems in place. Even the rats are rumored to have teeth and stories all their own.

    • splicepoint

      Thanks for your reply – I agree with you that CIG seems to be working towards creating a universe which includes all the tools I’m hoping for!

  4. Max

    I must be an old-school curmudgeon then because I’m there to play the game, not to socialize. And yes, my experience confirms that this sort of thing only works as long as there is sufficient hand-crafted content remaining in the game – the old Elite was open-ended but I lost interest the instant the “background events” ended. My hope therefore is CIG injecting sufficient new content as time goes by to keep things interesting for people like me, less interested in mechanics or player interaction and more focussed on discovery.

    And there’s a very interesting question here that I don’t consider answered at all even though some swear it has been: how will “quest generation” work for hand-crafted missions? It has been clearly said that there will be a lot of procedural or player-generated missions in SC – but that only works for “rote” stuff like move this, protect that or go scan there. It has also been said that a specific foe can only be defeated once, globally, going away for everyone else – but that, again, only works for things that can be infinitely re-generated automatically; they did note though that this will not be the _only_ kind of content.

    So what happens with things that need unique content (new audio recorded or at least new text written) each time? It would clearly not be possible to generate enough of these by hand for any number of players, no matter how few, if they are meant to be truly, strictly single-use. Will these be available many times again for many players to experience, or will they be artificially made to last by being incredibly hard to discover / complete? Because I don’t really care that right now everybody else can complete the exact same PI mission at Covalex as I can; I do get entertained. On the other hand, if only one person could complete it and because of that it would require defeating hordes of enemies to avoid completion and going away in the first ten minutes after its launch, I would probably just find it too hard and give up: I could never hope to compete with the chart toppers of a player base of millions. Finally, if the point would be to make it so damn hard as to be possible only though large-scale player cooperation, I’m not even interested. So how will this work…?

    Either way, I’m in it to see and experience new things – if none of those remains, getting a mission from a guild instead of a procedural generator will do nothing to liven up the resulting “rote” gameplay for me; “join the line in this here caravan and better be online at 02:30 am when we leave!” is actually worse than “take X ore to Y by date Z for pay W” – not that either sounds very attractive. It might just be I have no chance of long-term play in Star Citizen. Guess we’ll wait and see.

    …now get off my lawn!

  5. Justsayin

    It’s all good to be a sandbox. It’s great to expand into different directions and zones. More busy work helps make a game less boring. However just like in Eve, once you’ve done everything your willing to do your gonna quit. Sure new ore to mine or mobs to find are a draw, however even if the community does what they are want to do some will still not want to play.

    I know I’m in the minority of thought here but eventually a game should die or be reinvented. More for the population of players to actually have something new to do than just old enemies with new skins. Look at Destiny as an example for that last one.
    I look forward to how SC responds to the needs of players and how players respond to themselves. I just know that eventually players will make it harder for other players in sandbox games and the first nail gets driven.

  6. Hank

    Many years ago, when CR was laying out the concept he had for SC, he basically said he wanted to do everything that this article asks for. Except for a player controlled economy – while players can influence the economy, and even locally (or system-wide perhaps) have a degree of control over economy, we will never control the economy. And I understand why. He doesn’t want large groups to basically rule the universe just by being big and strong enough to bully everybody else into accept7ng their terms. Which is a lesson learhed from EVE. Because the reality is, EVE is just as useful for learning what not to do as it what to do. And CIGs ability to do both of those things is much more important to the sanbox style of the game than either one of them is individually. Just my 2c.

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