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MMORPGs: Sandbox vs. Themepark

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December 10 2011

More and more often, you will hear people describe a game as either a "themepark" or it's opposite, a "sandbox." The former implies a largely structured and developer-engineered experience, while the latter gives players a more active role in altering and defining key game elements. In the MMORPG genre, the themepark approach has been a great deal more successful than the sandbox approach in recent years, so it's natural to wonder whether we will ever see another high-budget sandbox MMORPG.

It should be noted that games rarely fit neatly into categories, and most games borrow from both the themepark and the sandbox concepts. Still, there are some general features that align loosely with each type of game, which we will address in greater detail below. This is not an argument in favor of either approach, it is merely an attempt to define the game design concepts involved.

Sandbox Design

As the term suggests, the essence of a sandbox game is that it provides building blocks and basic rules, and leaves players to decide exactly what to do with them. Lego is an excellent example of a real-world sandbox toy. With a little imagination it can become many different things, whereas a toy train will always be a toy train, even if you pretend it's a airplane. Here are some of the key characteristics of sandbox MMORPGs.

  • Perhaps the most central feature is the ability to have a lasting impact on the game world, whether by building structures, controlling territory, or other means.

  • Character development tends to be more freeform, with few class or level restrictions. Progression is often skill-based rather than level-based, such that using a particular skill increases your proficiency in that skill.

  • Intricate crafting systems are often seen in sandbox games. In some cases almost everything of significance in the game is ultimately created from resources gathered by players. When players can build things like fortresses and space stations, this ties into having an impact on the world.

  • They almost always have a player-driven economy, allowing people to trade a wide range of resources and items with prices determined by supply and demand.

  • A political structure is sometimes present, which lets players elect leaders, form official alliances, declare war, and so on.

  • Rather than pre-defining all game objectives, sandboxes frequently let players define the game's goals through their interactions with each other and the roles they choose to pursue. PvP of some form is frequently part of this, but it isn't essential.

  • Sandbox games have not traditionally relied on static quest systems or storylines.

Second Life is probably the best example of a pure massively multiplayer sandbox, although I think most of us would agree that it's not really a game. The lack of any encompassing gameplay element leaves people free to do almost anything they can imagine, assuming they're willing to create it first. More game-oriented examples include Ultima Online, Eve Online, Wurm Online, Fallen Earth, and the original Star Wars Galaxies.

Themepark Design

The idea behind the themepark game is to provide a robust collection of "rides" from which players can choose those that entertain them the most. The rides are typically held together with a quest system or storyline, and players can rarely alter the rides or create their own, which helps to ensure that the quality of the rides isn't compromised. Because player progression is more tightly defined, the game is easier to balance, but characters also become considerably less unique. These are some common characteristics of themepark MMORPGs.

  • They usually have a highly structured storyline and a quest system that directs you through game areas that are appropriate to your level. The quest system is also the primary means of making progress in the game.

  • The bulk of the abilities your character can obtain are determined by your choice of class. As a warrior, for example, you cannot one day decide to work up your fireball spell because that spell is only available to mages.

  • Themepark worlds tend to be largely static; you can't burn down an enemy fortress, build a fortress, lay claim to a portion of the game's territory, or even permanently kill one of the game's mobs. Any changes that do occur come from the developers rather than gameplay.

  • Factions are typically pre-defined rather than being created organically through player-driven groups like guilds.

  • The game's best items usually drop from the game's most difficult encounters, or are rewarded for PvP, rather than being crafted by players. Crafting tends to be relatively shallow and it's generally not possible to progress very far through crafting alone.

  • In most cases the primary objectives in a themepark MMORPG are to reach the level cap and kill the biggest, baddest boss in the game, and/or fight your way to the top rank in the PvP system. This generally entails completing the central storyline and obtaining better equipment for your character by playing group-oriented end-game content.

One of the best examples of a virtual themepark I've come across is Free Realms, but World of Warcraft and EverQuest are also good examples. The vast majority of recent MMORPGs fall on the themepark side of things, in part because it has proven to be a very successful model. It also ensures that players don't have the freedom to mess up highly refined gameplay elements or invade the world with flying penises, as entertaining as that may be on occasion.

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