WildStar - Themebox vs. Sand Park
New MMOGs are oftentimes labeled as being either a theme park or a sandbox experience, but why can't they be both? Today we explore the spaces in between when these two worlds collide, and how WildStar helps make the magic happen.
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WildStar Week Episode Four
WildStar: Themebox or Sand Park?
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 genres 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.
WildStar and the Spaces In
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 dont particularly enjoy what
the dungeon master has up his or her sleeve. Thats not to say there
arent 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
At the same time, were 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.
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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
wasnt 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 youre 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 Im personally chalking that up to a
combination of the veteran team, the lessons theyve 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 Im 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.
WildStar: Themebox or Sand
Ive 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 doesnt neatly fit into one category or the
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, theyll begin to
realize that the game offers so much more than that.
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