EVE Online: King of the Sandbox MMO

Posted Mon, Feb 23, 2009 by Sardu

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.

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