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 World of Darkness  is CCP's bid for the MMO mainstream
World of Darkness is CCP's bid for the MMO mainstream Exclusive
April 24, 2012 | By Christian Nutt

CCP Games, the Reykjavik, Iceland-headquartered developer of the space-faring MMO EVE Online, has rooted its success in a clear game design goal: to provide full sandbox gameplay designed to empower players to create emergent situations.

Now the company will use that design principle with its upcoming World of Darkness MMO. In development in its Atlanta, GA studio, and based on the White Wolf tabletop role playing IP of the same name, the game is headed up by creative director Reynir Hardarson (pictured).

While MMOs typically promise players virtually limitless possibilities to explore and interact, there's a streak of linearity and hand-holding that is prevalent in MMO design. Hardarson suggests a few theories about why other developers don't follow in EVE's footsteps in providing more opportunities for emergent gameplay.

"Designing for emergence is very difficult because you can't test it," says Hardarson. "But it's extremely fun to design this way, because you design for theory. You can't test it. The market can test it."

"We feel we've discovered some design principles which aid us in this quest. Because of this ability we have for EVE, it sometimes feels like we're kind of aliens in the industry," he half-jokes.

Hardarson and his boss, CCP CEO Hilmar Veigar Petursson, don't have much time for other developers' MMOs.

Petursson accuses them of making "massively single player" games.

"All to control the content and the narrative, and not embracing that people want to play together, which is what we strive for in EVE," he says.

"When I played Warhammer, I ragequit," Hardarson admits. Mainstream MMO design is about doling out hand-crafted content -- "like, here's a cookie, and all that" -- on a linear path. He wants to explore.

"I'm not a five-year-old. If I want to go in the cave and I want to die, that's my problem."

Hardarson describes the World of Darkness MMO as "a sandbox very much inspired by EVE."

"We really relinquish a lot of power to the players because we believe in emergence; the most powerful positions in the game are populated by real players," he says.

It's not just EVE that is an influence on the game's direction, though -- the live action role players of the Vampire the Masquerade tabletop game play this way, he says. "It's really about politics and power plays," says Hardarson.

"It's not a coincidence we merged With White Wolf games."

Still, he recognizes, "You cannot go pure sandbox all the way." This is something EVE has struggled with; while it does grow, it hasn't attracted a mainstream MMO audience due to its difficulty, complexity, and "learning cliff" new player experience.

"The problem with pure sandbox is you are limited to the hardcore," says Hardarson.

And the company had to abandon or severely downscale its plans to add new player-friendly PvE content into the game after its existing player base revolted. Clearly, the developers see World of Darkness as a chance to advance these same goals in a fresh context.

"Our position is that this [type of gameplay] is a really positive thing, and if you go there you'll maybe have an enjoyable experience, but it's kind of like this nebulous thing, really. 'What is it that I'm going to do?' We want to drag you into it," he says.

The way to drag people in will be traditional "theme park" style PvE play, he suggests. Once players get into the setting, they'll see the appeal of the sandbox play.

The game will have purely social play, too. "Having friends, knowing people, doing favors, gives you power in the game. You can play just socially and you can progress," says Hardarson.

"You don't even have to play the game," he says. And "if you want to play the PvE, you can do that all you want," he says.

But when it comes to the emergent, backstabbing sandbox play that powers EVE's success, "We will entice you to join -- there is pressure on everyone, because everyone's valuable," says Hardarson.

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Mark Venturelli
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The article's start made me feel like "hell yeah!", with the whole dissing of the clearly idiotic and limited WoW-model of MMOs that dominate the industry (and recently culminated with the absurd "single player MMO" that is SWTOR).

But then they say "but full sandbox is too hardcore, so we're adding PvE". I am confused now as to what is their goal.

Matt Robb
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I took the "theme park" analogy as meaning there will be "rides" to train users on how different systems work and interact in a hands on way, so they have some clue what they're doing when they step out into the greater "sandbox" world.

Aleksander Adamkiewicz
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Matt, its what EVE has been doing for a while now too, it does have tutorials concerning gameplay.

Nobody explains the metagame though, and its impossible to explain the metagame with "rides", and thats where every sandbox goes inevitably.

I have been closely following the WoD development, and from what I've seen the game will be just like EVE.

CCP has stated previously that they want to again focus on a player-driven economy and faction pvp.
Oh, it will have permadeath too, and ways to "insure" against it.

From the first day I've heard about WoD till today I have changed my opinion. The more I hear, the more this game sounds like its going to be a horrendous clusterfuck of ideas/concepts.
It just doesn't sound like sandpark or themebox, it sounds like EVE with vampires.
CCP as a developer has a strong bias towards their own tropes and seems not able to shake some of the really bad ideas that come with it.

I really wish the development team well and I want to see a great WoD MMO, because I was dreaming of one since i played the old Vampire The Masquerade games, but how it looks now, its not looking very appealing.

Nathaniel Marlow
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This is only tangentially related, but what you said about games not explaining the metagame, or even having a reasonable capacity to explain it at all, really clicks with me.

I have a love/hate relationship with finding out what balance issues exist when starting an online game and trying to divine if a certain weapon or class or whatever is completely useless (or the opposite) in ways not immediately apparent to a novice.

Simon Ludgate
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I disagree that "sandbox" and "pvp" are inherently linked, any more than "theme park" and "pve".

Sandbox gameplay means giving players as many choices as possible and letting them set their own objectives.

Theme park means giving players as few choices as possible and directing their objectives for them.

Whether these objectives exist within the realm of conflict with other players, or cooperation with them, is up to the designer. Objective-based pvp combat like WoW's Battlegrounds or even shooters like Day of Defeat are arguably "theme park" in nature. Collaborative storytelling or construction games, such as D&D or Minecraft, are very much PvE sandboxes.

I think the area of the PvE Sandbox has been greatly overlooked in the current swath of MMO development.

"The problem with pure sandbox is you are limited to the hardcore," says Hardarson.

This might be true in a PvP environment, but is not true in a PvE one. If we want to introduce sandbox to the masses and grow all types of sandbox games (a good and noble goal in my mind), it will be PvE, rather than PvP, sandbox games that herald the way forward.

Chris Zehr
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This is an intriguing idea. What kind of characteristics do you think a "PvE Sandbox" MMO would have? Would the Big Boss/Raiding environment still be possible, or would you just consider it a theme park addition to the sandbox?

I've always felt that games with complex and interesting economies kind of fell into this category (in addition to storytelling and construction). In EVE, it's still closely tied to the PvP sandbox, but in a game like Runescape, the economy is less dependent on PvP aspects. Do you think popular MMO developers are also overlooking the possibilities for the economic sandbox?

Simon Ludgate
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I think the feeling of epic battles can exist in a PvE sandbox, so long as the externally imposed rigid structure of raid zones and, especially, raid timers or lockouts were forgone. Likewise, theme park loot models, especially bind on pickup and "raid currencies" would have to be eliminated. I think an open economy is synonymous with sandbox game.

I think the key to the sandbox experience is unpredictability, randomness, and player influence. The game would have to grow and adapt to the players. Raids couldn't be finely crafted rail-bound rides like they are in WoW, they'd have to develop organically, probably through innovative use of randomly generated semi-persistant (not instanced!) dungeons, such that they exist until the last boss is defeated, then are closed off and a new one "grows" somewhere else.

You wouldn't have the same sense of scheduled raiding, or farming a zone. You'd probably only hear about a raid zone when its discovered, and players might all rush to be a part of conquering it. Depending on how the random numbers are tuned, raids could actually be rare occurrences. This could help restore the mystique to epic battles, bring back legends to virtual worlds, and encourage constant exploration as a meaningful activity.

Ryan Marshall
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Ultima Online, at least between Renaissance and Age of Shadows, was an open world (sandbox) PvE MMO with no quests or instances or classes or levels.

Although magic loot did exist, most people got by with the best crafted stuff since all gear wore down over time and only the crafted stuff was replaceable. Dungeons were open, and the toughest enemies required a group to take down. It was not uncommon for certain tough ("boss") enemies to be loaded down with ridiculous amounts of useful loot, particularly spell reagents but rarely actual cash, which had been looted from the corpses of player characters who had gotten in over their heads.

Aleksander Adamkiewicz
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I think you might enjoy reading my article on this issue and the discussion in the comments:

James Coote
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I think Alexander gets it right in his blog:

"Many sandbox games feature a way for the player to leave a permanent mark on the game-world"

This is the key thing about a sandbox for me. The players would somehow have to make the dungeons.

In any case, dungeons and raids are highly artificial. Personally, I'd like to see an NPC opposition with higher level intelligence. One that builds bases and collects resources and sends out armies.

Also, Eve-online style pvp will remain niche. No one wants to be a loser in real life, just to log on after work and pay to be a loser in the virtual world

Maria Jayne
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I always wanted to see what would happen in a large mmo community if you didn't have currency. It seems currency is a big issue for inflation, gold farming and grinding for things. I just wonder, what happens if you make a game where players have to figure out what things are worth and what they would trade for them without being told. I suppose it does leave the door open for scams but it also encourages players to interact more with other players, especialy if there are no npc vendors.

Sadly I think fansites and databases would negate the idea somewhat.

Andy Mussell
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"Asheron's Call" had severe problems with its currency, as I understand (never played it), to the point of it being unusuable -- or, at least, unused. Players established their own barter currencies, which I think were based around certain rare crafting items.

Simon Ludgate
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Actually, you can read about my take on the Asheron's Call economy issue in my original feature article on MMORPG economies:

I also interviewed Cardell Kerr, designer at Turbine, and discussed some of those issues, you may find his take on AC's economy and how things changed in Turbine's later games interesting too:

Ed Macauley
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Not sure how they're going to have lots of PVE friendly content after laying off the majority of the people that did that work, but it'll be interesting to see.

Paul Peak
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Supposedly they'd barely worked on WoD because they were getting drawn off to other projects. The Atlanta studio is now trimmed down and being refocused last I heard.