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Sandbox MMOs vs. Theme Park MMOs: FIGHT!

Posted Tue, Oct 29, 2013 by Dalmarus

For years, computer role playing games (CRPGs) were all about playing a character or controlling a party in an expansive world, rife with danger and adventure. Whether that adventure took the form of gathering resources for crafting, exploring dank dungeons, or fighting for your life against a seemingly constant stream of monsters (seriously… just how many rats are in those sewers?!), the games were huge and took forever to play through. 

When MMORPGs evolved from the text-based MUDs that birthed them, they followed the same path as the CRPGs that came before them. Meridian 59, Ultima Online, EverQuest – they all were massive worlds full of danger. Rather than guide players through a set of predetermined experiences, the development teams created these games to allow players to live out their fantasy of playing a character seeking fame and fortune with their friends. Just like everything else, these games eventually began to evolve and it wasn’t long before the theme park MMO was born. 

Theme park MMOs are designed to set players on a set of rails, guiding them through the content of a game. Some people consider this a bad thing, but there are a lot of advantages it gives to developers. One of the biggest advantages to this method of game creation is that it allows the development team to create a very elaborate story or setting to deeply enhance the experience a player has. Whether this is through scripted events, quests, or mini-cut scenes, all of these things and more can be created knowing they won’t go to waste when a player travels along a designated adventure path. The biggest disadvantage of this style is that it limits player choice while adventuring.

 

Sandbox MMOs are nearly the complete opposite of this. Rather than choosing a predestined path for players to follow, this development style allows for the creation of an open world in which players are free to discover their own adventure at their own pace. The style of gameplay has its own advantages, the largest of which is player freedom. Players are free to go where they please, get into whatever trouble they find, and create their own adventures. The biggest disadvantage of this style is that players can easily become overwhelmed with too much choice, making them feel lost. 

Early games such as Ultima Online and EverQuest followed the sandbox school of development. When World of Warcraft came along and dominated the market with its theme park style of gaming, this method quickly became the law of the land for most future games. For the longest time, “sandbox” was a four-letter word to most development teams. Players had shied away from open and expansive worlds in favor of smaller guided experiences for so long that the few independent sandbox MMOs that released fared poorly. As a result, sandbox MMOs looked as though they were going to go the way of the Dodo in short order. 

It’s inevitable that everything in life eventually becomes old or boring and as a result, it was only natural that players of theme park MMOs have begun to cry for something different. In response, there are definitely some new games coming next year that are looking to alter the course of MMO history and introduce players to completely new concepts (more on later this week).

 

So which is the better gaming method? While I will gladly give theme park MMOs their due as something new and interesting at one point in time, in the end, they’re just far too limiting to win this battle. I’m not a fan of being put on a set of rails, even if there are multiple rails to choose from. I want the freedom to go wherever I want to. At the same time, that means I also want to be able to get into as much trouble as I want to. Part of the thrill of an MMO is taking your character into an area of the game that it clearly has no business being. 

EverQuest was great at this, as was Vanguard. Both games allowed you to roam the land freely. If you wanted to be cautious, you were able. If instead you wanted to try and sneak your way into a zone of ever-impending death, you were welcome to do that as well, but you’d better be prepared to accept the consequences. One of my favorite memories of Vanguard was seeing a ruined city, high atop the edge of a cliff far off in the distance. At the time, I had no quests for it and it was well above my level range. Even so, I spent a week fighting and sneaking my way towards it. The thrill I felt when I finally set foot inside the edge of that city resonates with me even now. 

That’s the magic a sandbox MMO can give that a theme park game never will. It may take extra effort on the part of a player to create reasons to explore and push further for themselves, but trust me when I say it is well worth the effort. Times are changing and the sandbox is becoming a welcome site to gamers new and old alike. If you think I’m wrong and you prefer theme park MMOs instead, let us know why in the comments below. You’re also always welcome to hit me up on Twitter any time as well.

 

@Dalmarus - don't confuse "open world" with "sandbox". EverQuest was an Open World, but not a sandbox.

Sandboxes are defined by the player's ability to have a meaningful, persistent effect on the game world. Building (and destroying) major structures, affecting the territorial boundaries of factions - especially if those factions are player-run, not NPCs.

The age of the AAA Theme Park MMO is nearly done. The last two games of this genre, WildStar and Elder Scrolls Online are nearly finished, and there are no more games like them in development - games with $100 million budgets, and teams of hundreds of developers. The fundamental problem is that the business model of theme park games doesn't work. Zenimax will spend $100 to $200 million making Elder Scrolls, and will likely barely break even and could easily lose money. It made about $200 million on Skyrim, and it would make about the same on a Skyrim sequel. AAA theme park MMOs don't make sense in financial terms.

The age of sandbox games is now beginning. For 1/10th the cost, you can try to replicate the success of EVE and have a shot at making $20-30 million/year in profit. Companies are going to be able to take more shots at that model, which means more games and more diversity of design. The economics if the sandbox model just make more sense, which is why there are LOTS of sandbox games in development.

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