Updated Fri, Feb 22, 2013 by Ralphedelominius
For as far back as I can remember MMO gamers have loosely categorized titles as being either a theme park, or sandbox experience. While these labels have been haphazardly slapped on the side of games not unlike stickers on produce at your local grocery seller, in this day and age what those labels really mean is how similar a game is to the core gameplay models of EVE Online or World of Warcraft.
Given the genre’s roots in both tabletop gaming and MUDs, those two titles are some of the highest profile examples of a sharp split down the center of a much bigger gameplay pie. I tend to look at that split as representing a key difference in philosophy when it comes to roleplaying games in a more general sense:
This represents more of a core setting that itself creates a somewhat blank canvas for gamers to form adventures therein. A good setting will be rich with lore, and help spark the imagination of gamers so that – over time – they begin to develop a vested interest in not only exploring that setting, but finding ways to make a lasting mark within it.
The way this most commonly translates into MMOs is that the game world provides both the setting and the tools for players to essentially create their own adventures. In recent years, Minecraft has even shown us that the tools can oftentimes even trump a rich setting so long as players are able to help shape the world through to their liking.
A key difference with a theme park experience is that it takes that core setting, and places it into the hands of a skilled dungeon master who essentially serves as a tour guide for other gamers rather than allowing them to run around all willy-nilly with no clear purpose or direction. Most often, the developers assume the role of dungeon master in MMOs, and we as players are simply the willing participants who choose to go along for their scripted rides.
Over the past eight years developers have been slapped upside the head with the hard reality that attempting to create a full-on scripted experience is both a costly endeavor and one that runs the risk of alienating gamers from the word go if they don’t particularly enjoy what the dungeon master has up his or her sleeve. That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of gamers who crave a more scripted, single-player experience only on a more massive scale, or one that has the option of social experiences rather than having them hardwired into core gameplay systems.
At the same time, we’re beginning to see some very clear overlap between the much looser sandbox or more tightly scripted theme park experiences. The hastily slapped together graphic below attempts to help illustrate how combining elements from both of these world-building approaches has the potential to create some compelling gameplay opportunities.
During my recent hands-on time with WildStar, I had the opportunity to see a working model of the above graphic in action. While I obviously wasn’t able to experience the entirety of the game in one sitting, Carbine helped fill in the gaps for me to get a better sense of the big picture.
If you’re more of a theme park gamer, WildStar absolutely has plenty of more directed, dungeon master style systems in place for you to enjoy. But if you prefer a looser, more sandbox MMO experience, the game offers a fair amount of options here as well.
The net result is that overlapping of theme park and sandbox gameplay is being given proper nourishment from both ends of the spectrum, and helps make WildStar feel highly unique, yet familiar and comfortable at the same time. Call it what you will, but I’m personally chalking that up to a combination of the veteran team, the lessons they’ve learned through years of direct experience, and their willingness to iterate on concepts until they make sense for the game.
On the surface, it might sound as though Carbine is making the mistake of attempting to be all things to everyone in equal measure. What usually happens in that scenario is that sacrifices are necessarily made along the way or the game loses its sense of identity, no matter how valiant the attempt may be. And while it will take me a much larger chunk of time playing the game to be certain, so far I’m left with the sense that WildStar neatly blends aspects of both theme park and sandbox gaming in such a way that very little – if anything – is really being sacrificed to make it work.
I’ve been having an internal debate over the past couple of weeks as to what label seems most fitting for WildStar. Considering that it neatly cherry picks elements of both theme park and sandbox gaming, tosses them in a galactic blender, and serves it up as a savory bit of gaming curiosity, the game really doesn’t neatly fit into one category or the other.
Chances are, many gamers will take one look at the exclamation points above NPCs heads and forever brand WildStar as a theme park game based on their own experiences. However, I suspect that if people are willing to look beyond some of the more obvious surface elements, they’ll begin to realize that the game offers so much more than that.