Many
moons ago, the MMO industry sprang forth primarily on the
strengths of two classic titles: href="http://www.tentonhammer.com/taxonomy/term/154"
target="_blank"> style="font-style: italic;">Ultima Online
and href="http://www.tentonhammer.com/taxonomy/term/38"
target="_blank"> style="font-style: italic;">EverQuest.
While these games clearly set the tone for the current dominance of
fantasy settings, it was the “theme park” elements
of EQ that went on to pave the way for the success of games like href="http://www.tentonhammer.com/wow" target="_blank"> style="font-style: italic;">World of Warcraft
and href="http://www.tentonhammer.com/lotro" target="_blank"> style="font-style: italic;">Lord of the Rings Online.
As popular as UO’s more “sandbox”
approach may have been, very few developers have followed that
particular path. Fewer still have gone on to polish sandbox gameplay to
the same high degree as Iceland-based CCP and its reigning sci-fi king,
target="_blank"> style="font-style: italic;">EVE Online.


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New
Eden is a massive sandbox waiting to be explored.

Before diving headfirst into why I think EVE is clearly the best
example of sandbox MMO gameplay currently on the market, I think
it’s important to take a closer look at why MMO
“theme parks” are so dominant, and how this helped
spark interest in a return to sandbox play, which has been most
recently seen in the veritable frenzy surrounding upcoming titles like href="http://www.tentonhammer.com/taxonomy/term/109"
target="_blank"> style="font-style: italic;">Darkfall.
To do that, we need to briefly step into our time machines, so strap
yourselves in and hang on tight – we’re about to go
on a whirlwind trip through gaming’s past!



RPG
meets MUD




In the late 70s, while the so called “cool kids”
were busy bopping their booties to style="font-style: italic;">Disco Inferno,
the gaming subculture that eventually birthed the MMO industry was
still considered full-on nerd territory. Back then, AD&D and
similar d20 RPGs fostered the notion that you could not only assume the
role of characters in a fantasy world, but that you were in full
control over their destiny. While the d20 rules might have provided a
handy framework to help facilitate the adventures, your imagination and
creativity were your only limits as a gamer. This was sandbox gameplay
in the most primal form in other words.



During that same period, divergent paths in video games also began to
emerge. The Disco Inferno kids went on to fully embrace style="font-style: italic;">Pac Man Fever,
and the Atari 2600 laid the foundation for how popular culture would
eventually view graphical gameplay. In fact, the concept of controlling
a character that could ultimately only be steered down a set path is
the basis for the vast majority of the gaming industry as it stands
today.



Meanwhile, a clever individual named Richard Bartle created the first
Multi-User Dungeon, a text-based computer game that allowed RPG fans to
populate a virtual world from separate locations for the first time.
This was still considered uncharted territory back then though, as the
notion of taking a d20 RPG system and combining it with a graphical
virtual world setting took nearly two decades to finally come to
fruition. In the meantime, console gaming had long since been embraced
by pop culture and still remains the primary focal point for mainstream
media to this day.


Virtual
worlds vs. multi-user single player games




Our current society is partially built upon the notion that there are
more people who prefer to be told what to do or how to do it than there
are individuals who thrive on seeking their own path. Our daily lives
are saturated with predetermined rules, and the notion of a structured
existence is paramount to leading a so-called happy, productive life.
We place creative types and pioneers on a pedestal, in part because
they achieve things most of us only dream of doing. In the game of
life, there are more spectators than there are players.


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EVE
and other sandbox MMOs share common roots in PnP gaming.

The thrill of adventure can easily be experienced by reading a book or
watching a movie, both mediums being voyeuristic by their very nature.
This is also reflected in how many choose to approach MMOs, which
isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Theme park MMOs thrive on this
concept, often providing a perfect blend of structured gameplay and
social interaction. When we hear a new title described as being
“solo friendly,” this is the first thing that comes
to mind for many of us.



But what about those gamers who prefer to forge their own virtual
destiny? For many, simply killing the same raid boss once a week
isn’t enough – they want an MMO experience that
provides the opportunity for their actions to have a real impact on
their virtual surroundings. This is where EVE shines brightest, and why
I consider the game to be the best example of true sandbox gameplay
currently on the market.



Here’s
the sand and some tools – have at it!




EVE’s New Eden provides the perfect backdrop for true sandbox
gameplay. While some of the big questions like “why are we
here?” or “where am I?” have already been
determined, everything else is truly in the hands of the players. This
is seen in nearly every aspect of gameplay, from a fully player-driven
economy up to some of the gigantic alliance battles that help determine
ownership over entire sectors of 0.0 space (those areas not policed by
CONCORD). Each and every player is in control of their own destiny in
other words, and the actions of individuals can have far-reaching
implications that are genuinely impactful on the future of New Eden.



This has led to some pretty intriguing player-driven events over the
years. Look no further than the recent disbanding of Band of Brothers
as href="http://www.tentonhammer.com/node/64347" target="_blank">a
perfect example, where the
actions of an individual have had far-reaching effects that will no
doubt fuel an all out war that will last for months. But to reinforce
the leading role that player choices play in EVE, it’s
important to note that should you so choose, you can avoid the current
PvP battle raging in Delve entirely.


The primary ingredient for any successful sandbox MMO will always boil
down to whether the developers are giving players the tools to create
their own destiny. Not everyone wants to play the hero who slays the
dragon and wins the heart of the maiden who turns out to be an evil
sorceress that in turn traps the hero’s soul inside a charm
that gets tossed into the bottom of a well after all!



In EVE, players can truly create the exact character they want to play
within the overall framework of the game. Sure, there will always be
certain limitations inherent with MMO development, but what CCP has
done is put the tools directly into the hands of EVE’s
players, allowing them to shape the world around them as they see fit.
Whether you want to be the director of a gigantic corporation or prefer
to set up a small mining operation in secure space that choice is
really up to you. And unlike most other MMOs, that choice is never
permanent.


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Players
in EVE can happily exist without ever entering into direct PvP
conflicts.

That leads me to another primary area that ultimately helps EVE stand
out from the crowd. Rather than creating a game world where players are
forced into PvP situations simply by logging in, New Eden is vast
enough that it can cater to a wide variety of player types. If you want
some structure, there’s always mission running for NPC
agencies or factions. If combat isn’t your thing, there are
plenty of opportunities with mining, hauling or even fabrication. But
if PvP is what style="font-style: italic;">really
starts your blood pumping, EVE offers some of the best PvP your MMO
money can buy.



Taking all of those things into account, it’s no surprise
that EVE has seen continual growth over the years. I honestly believe
that the only thing that’s held the game back from seeing
even bigger success goes back to what I mentioned earlier about popular
gaming still being perhaps a bit too grounded in structured gameplay.



There are notable exceptions of course, as it’s hard to
ignore the hype surrounding two of last year’s biggest
releases, GTA IV and Fallout 3. A key factor in their success comes
directly back to what makes EVE shine so brightly; namely that it
provides a perfect marriage of structure and freedom, neatly wrapped in
a package that ultimately provides players the ability to forge their
own destiny within that setting. EVE is many things to many different
people, and to me, that’s the hallmark of what sandbox
gameplay is all about.



I challenge the descendents of style="font-style: italic;">Disco Inferno
gaming to give EVE a try. Sure, sandbox gameplay might not be
everyone’s cup of tea, but choosing your own virtual destiny
really isn’t as scary as it sounds. With one of the best free
trial programs on the market, I encourage anyone who hasn’t
already done so to href="https://secure.eve-online.com/ft/?aid=104134&bid=8"
target="_blank">download the EVE client
and take it for a virtual spin. You may come to realize, as hundreds of
thousands of EVE players already have, that sandbox MMOs are where
it’s at!


To read the latest guides, news, and features you can visit our EverQuest Game Page.

Last Updated: Mar 29, 2016

About The Author

Sardu 1
Reuben "Sardu" Waters has been writing professionally about the MMOG industry for eight years, and is the current Editor-in-Chief and Director of Development for Ten Ton Hammer.

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