EVE Online: King of the Sandbox MMO

Many moons ago, the MMO industry sprang forth primarily on the strengths of two classic titles: Ultima Online and EverQuest. While these games clearly set the tone for the current dominance...
Many moons ago, the MMO industry sprang forth primarily on the strengths of two classic titles: Ultima Online and 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 World of Warcraft and 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, EVE Online.

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 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 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 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.

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 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.

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 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 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 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!

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