There are many differences between sandbox and theme park MMOs, but I think one that often gets overlooked, at least by fans, is the one I want to get into today: the ability to play a sandbox MMO ‘wrong’.
Wrong not in the optimal or min/max sense, but wrong in that you are not using the tools available to you to get the most fun out of the game. Theme park games don’t have this problem because they basically force you to play ‘correctly’. You can’t accidently stay in one place too long; the game moves you on. It gives you breadcrumb quests, it grays out the current quests/mobs, and it stops giving you xp/items, all in the effort to get you into the next zone/area it wants you in. That’s not always the case with a sandbox game, and that is one of the hurdles such games face when trying to keep new players.
Say you just started EVE, and you get into combat missions to make money and get new ships while your skills train up. The usual path in EVE for a mission runner is to go from level 1 missions and move up when possible, getting better money/drops as you increase the challenge. But unlike a theme park game, level 1 missions never go ‘gray’ for you, they never stop being available. At no point does the game force you to stop running level 1 missions and makes you run level 2 or 3, so it is entirely possible that a new player will continue to run level 1 missions long past the time he/she should have moved on. It’s also entirely possible they continue to run level 1′s until they get bored and quit, thinking that is all the game has to offer. If they never get into a good Corp or chat channel to learn the rope and move into the more interesting aspects of EVE, their one and only impression of the game will be the constant and easy grind of missions featuring only frigate enemies. They quit and leave with the impression of EVE being a silly and pointless grind. Apply that example to mining solo and it only gets worse. Throw in a bad accidental trip into low-sec and its downhill fast.
The above scenario is not likely to happen in a game like WoW. As soon as enemies and quests get too easy, they go gray and the game moves you into a harder area, on and up until you hit the cap. Death is just one short trip to a graveyard should you stumble off the pre-set path.
Of course the flip side is that WoW also FORCES you to stay in those low level areas. You can’t create a level 1 priest and go raiding Black Temple, or queue up with your buddies in the Arena. Both scenarios ARE possible in EVE, as a day 1 pilot can indeed join his Corp in level 4-5 missions, or jump into a donated frigate fitted to tackle and go on a PvP run. Not only is it possible, but that new pilot will also actually contribute something of value, especially the tackler in PvP.
But back on point, the problem still exists that players COULD play EVE or another sandbox game ‘wrong’. Aside from placing new pilots in rookie chat (a good start, but usually the channel moves too fast to really help) and having a short tutorial, what can be done to help new players out? Is it possible to have the freedom that sandbox players love, while still helping new players out enough to get them to the ‘good stuff’ in the sandbox?