Enter the Sandbox

NCSoft's Thomas Bidaux explains the attraction of virtual worlds, and what makes them different.

The Virtual Worlds Forum, part of the London Games Festival, is taking place in October, and one of the keynote speakers at the event will be NCSoft Europe's director of product development, Thomas Bidaux. spent some time with him recently at the company's Brighton base, to find out his thoughts on the ongoing development of virtual worlds, and how they might chance in the future.

Q: How difficult is it to innovate in the MMO space?

Well, obviously very difficult. I think all MMOs navigate by sight - they look what others have been doing, and keep that in their field of vision when they try to bring in new stuff and innovation.

There are very few examples of people going in a different way, not looking at what's already been done and trying to do something on their own.

It's also difficult because there are big budgets, so you have to have some kind of confidence that you're going to get your money back. And if you just do things in a vacuum without any reference to what's been done before you take much bigger risks.

That's true for MMORPGs, because the volume of content they require, by their nature makes them very expensive. But there are opportunities to innovate that are not as financially heavy as that, and it's something we're looking at, especially in Europe.

Online has four key features that make it different from offline, and trying to tackle those features with different genres and add quality and experience to the game through those features is what we're trying to look at, at the moment.

Q: What are those four features?

Firstly you have access to the client, so you can make your game evolve, and patch it. You have multiplayer, so you have people connecting with one another, you have co-op, PvP, and so on. You have persistence, so you have the data on the server, and you can leverage this data and have things happen in real time. And the fourth thing is the business model - you have access to the credit card of the user, in theory, or SMS or whatever.

For the past twenty years the business model has been about the box, and you sell that box. But people don't even think about that as a business model - they don't have that in their mind. Now, online opens up a lot of different things. You can monetise things differently, and online allows access to information, you can unlock contents or features on demand.

So you can design games very differently than if you're tied to the need to sell a box. For those four aspects, if you take any game and see you have access to all of these things, you can make much more. And they're tied together as well.

Q: Is one of the key developments in MMOs in the past few years that of an increased accessibility and enhanced user experience?

The key thing is that it comes from a very hardcore audience, with MMORPGs, and back to text MUDs, where you spent hours role playing through a text interface - that's the core origin.

Moving into a broader audience, accessibility is the key thing. If you look at very successful games online, in terms of the number of people they reach, it's just about the one-click access. And that's the idea behind Guild Wars; making the clients about 80k in size, so when you download it you don't feel you're downloading a game, but you can still do a lot of things with it.

We have lots of projects to go in that direction, to try and break as many barriers as possible, to get the reach to people who don't consider online gaming yet as their hobby, and bring them into it.

Something else is about trying to make it as seamless as possible, which is difficult because of the regulations - because people are chatting together and we are talking to kids. So you need to be sure that on the one hand it's very easy to access, on the other hand there are no problems with security.

But there a lot of things that you can do to get the player into the game first, then once they start playing to ask for the credit card details. Then before they can chat to people to get their physical address, so they see the game, see it's a serious game, see we're a serious company, and they don't mind giving that information.

Q: Layers of complexity are usually introduced gradually in MMOs, is that a key aspect in making them easier for new players to learn?

You don't want to have any tutorial, you want the progression through the game to be easy, and to have it explained to them throughout the game and the mechanisms from the very early quests that are simple.

If you are designing an online game one of the interesting things is to take a player by the hand and have him go through a lot of things to learn about the game, but as you go through, you leave him on his own more and more.

Ideally you want the player to ask: "What do I want to do today?" And the game doesn't tell him what to do; it offers a range of options. So there's a world of opportunities, and the player can say "Ok, I want to do this thing."

It's very tricky though, because those transitions are happening at different levels for different players. If you let them go too early, casual players don't know what to do, although the hardcore players will be happy, and go and do what they want - but they're the minority.

There's a point, somewhere between the theme park and the sandbox. They both interest different people, and we are a lot more into the theme park business at the moment, but some are more like sandboxes than others.

Ultimately you need a bit of both in all the games if you want to be sustainable in the long term. A sandbox is the ultimate time drain, people will spend years playing a game if they can do anything in it. On the other hand, if you want them to start a game, you need to have that theme park element too.

If you look at the EVE Online numbers, it's a sandbox game, the churn they have at the entry point is very high, but the people who stick, stick longer than in any other game. Because they are playing that world, they are buying into that concept.

Q: If you look at the contrast between theme park and sandbox, the bigger numbers seem to be with the theme parks. Do you have plans to move towards more sandbox-style worlds, and if so are you concerned that they'll attract fewer people?

As far as MMORPGs are concerned, we have a lot more experience with the theme park model, so that's where we can add the value.

We have a couple of projects that have more of a sandbox emphasis, but all of them will basically be theme parks. But over time I think in the genre there'll be more and more theme parks that have high-end sandbox content, and more sandbox games that will have theme park entry levels, so there will be conversion.

They won't be the same thing, but they'll have their own intrinsic value.

Q: Do you think numbers will increase for sandboxes over time as more people become familiar with the concept?

I think there's an education part. I think you need to be comfortable with the notion of sandboxes in order to be playing those games. So the more MMORPGs we have, the easier it will be for people to get along with the sandbox concept.

I just think though that some people have personalities that are different - I think some people prefer to play a game that is a bit like a story is being told to him, and doesn't want to be in something that is too much without clear definitions. It's entertainment, and I think that's down to personality.

Some people will always be drawn by theme parks, and some people will always be drawn by virtual worlds. The one kind of game won't kill off the other, it would be naïve to think that, there's an audience for both.

Thomas Bidaux is NCSoft Europe's director of product development. Interview by Phil Elliott. Part two of this interview will be published next week.

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