No matter how big or amazing the virtual Sandbox you’re planning on building for your games, it’s going to have something in common with the silica stuffed playground analog in the real world: walls. You can do your best to hide them, integrate them into the landscape, or write an elaborate story about how in the future the city is surrounded by deadly radiation, but integrated or not, you need something to pour the sand into.
So-called “Open World” games have improved a great deal since GTA3 first landed on the scene with a collective “Eureka!” from everyone who’ve played them. And they’ve been around long enough that we’re starting to generate sub-genres, from Bethesda RPG focused fantasy environments, to the criminal ridden dystopian super-cities of Crackdown. And the MMOs are beginning to borrow from that tradition, slowly offering more interactive treats than just things to see and monsters to kill.
But players like to do more than play. One of the first things they’ll do in any environment is throw themselves repeatedly against the walls of their entertaining prison like a fly smacking into a closed window. That isn’t actually mean it’s a bad thing. You’ve got to have rules, and rules mean edges. Sooner or later they’ll head the other way.
But once they do it’s important that there’s something fun to do besides breaking the world you’ve put them into. Gaming is about turning thoughts into action, and if you’re not keeping them busy with planned entertainments they’ll always find a way to overcome the limits of the system.
That may not be a problem in a single-player game, but it’s a red-alert crisis when your players break through the constraints of a multiplayer world. Any exploit, no matter how trivial can lead to a potential melt-down. Like a crack in the damn, the flow of water may seem trivial at first, but it’s the pressure behind it that can quickly lead to catastrophic failure.
One of my favorite examples of this was The Sims Online. Trading in the god-like powers they’d been given in the single-player version they instead were given a chance to become one of the burbling Sim creatures. It was a simple life of work and reward, as you ground your way up the ladder; day to day life, only not as good as the real thing. And pretty quickly the players figured out how to exploit the system.
The game provided power in numbers, the as people banded together into gangs, it revealed itself to be an ideal simulator for criminal activity. A mob moved in, calling itself the Shadow Government, and creating rackets and intimidating other players. A virtual sex industry soon sprang up as well. As shocking as these developments seemed to be, they’re actually pretty classic game activities. There’s a reason that GTA uses crime as its backstory, and it’s not just to piss off New England Senators.
In the end the problem isn’t what people were doing, it was that it was well outside the simple, wholesome intentions of the game. The players had jumped the walls because the fundamental gameplay wasn’t compelling enough to stop them from trying. So if you’re game is popular enough to attract a big crowd you need to be damn sure you give them something to keep them occupied. Otherwise they’ll make up their own games to play.