The success of Minecraft has been a tremendous boon to gamers who like to smash, but also like to build. Developers rush to offer Minecraft fans bigger and better opportunities to mold a virtual world to their whim, while even classic MMORPG properties like Everquest are creating avenues for sandbox play.
A static world is just so 2006.
Ark: Survival Evolved is the latest example of taking the best elements of Minecraft and adding features that players want—attractive, realistic graphics, a more intuitive interface and crafting system, and the ability to tame dinosaurs for riding. It cleared development costs within its first month of early access sales and was one of Steam’s top three highest selling games for 2015.
An even bigger boost came when Ark became available for Xbox One, making it one of the few survival/sandbox games available for console.
Avatar creation is one of Ark’s finest touches; players can use sliders to adjust features like the length of jawbone and arms, and there are enough options so that you can create a reasonable facsimile of not just Homo Sapiens, but also Neanderthal or Clovis Man if that’s your jam.
Ark’s landscape and climate are appropriately brutal—to the degree that it has an actual temporal setting, it seems to be during the Ice Age. Mastering fire is vital, since it provides warmth and allows for cooking more sustaining food than the berries you forage from shrubs. Factor in that many of the dinosaurs are very dangerous, and it’s no wonder I often found myself sighing heavily and complaining that “life is hard for a cavewoman.” (Though at that point I didn’t even have a cave. A cave would have been a huge step up.)
But it’s just these difficulties that make the game utterly addictive.
There are enough clear, attainable goals (tame a dinosaur, build shelter, learn to fashion weapons and tools) to offer a sense of progress, and the constant challenge of trying to survive in a harsh, dino-filled world makes every day you stay alive an achievement in itself.
More, the challenging gameplay makes cooperative play almost a necessity. When you’re freezing, starving, and mostly naked, your best friend is anyone who can build a fire quickly, and Ark offers robust tribe and village systems in multiplayer mode that allow access to more complex modes of play than merely solo survival.
The open world nature of the game is crucial to its appeal.
While the need for survival directs play in a very basic way, the freedom to create and build is what makes it amazing. If the game were more limited, if you could only build standard houses rather than whatever ridiculous structure you dream up, it would still be entertaining, but it wouldn’t have the same replayability factor. In this way, Ark, like many of its open-world brothers and sisters, is an indicator of how players are beginning to demand more opportunities for creative play.
And what’s good for players is good for developers, too. One of the classic challenges that MMOs have faced is that devoted players quickly race through expansions and then are frustrated by the long wait for new content. Allowing users to create their own towns, menageries, and structures helps allay this problem.
If you give users tools, they will build and create endlessly, allowing developers to focus on exciting new tools rather than static content.
Sandbox play is nothing new, of course—classic games like Neverwinter Nights and Ultima Online, the great-granddaddy of today’s MMO behemoths like World of Warcraft offered all kinds of options for players to create their own world. But the huge, unprecedented success of World of Warcraft literally changed the game for developers and players alike, making theme park play—that is, a static world that can be explored but not modified—the order of the day for a whole generation of games.
The massive popularity of Minecraft established that players were eager for a game that let them express themselves more fully, and now even MMOs seem to be coming around to the benefits of opening up their worlds for players to shape and create.
ArcheAge, which blends classic questing with sandbox mechanics, allows the actions of players to shape the server’s economy and its landscapes. Games like Life is Feudal and the forthcoming Black Desert seem poised to create an exciting variety of worlds and landscapes for players to leave their mark on.
Everquest Next has made building such a vital part of its play that it released its building utility, Landmark, as a separately playable beta to allow for more rigorous playtesting.
Of course, offering players freedom has its downsides, and sandbox games can require vigorous moderation; there’s always that one player who thinks it would be hilarious to build their own Dachau or use tools to create some other wildly offensive bit of content. But keeping players civil without limiting their creative play is a challenge that every multiplayer game faces in some form or other, and active moderation tends to lead to a healthy server population rather than the reverse.
And while sandbox games can suffer when they aren’t created with the right balance of tools and content, it’s exciting to see so many different kinds of games developing out of a creative, inspiring mode of play. Never mind Survival Evolved—it’s time for Gaming Evolved.