Sandbox vs Themepark, I love this topic. But in this post Sid67 looks at the base words used to describe the two sub-genres in the MMO world, and disagrees with their meaning (and I’m fairly sure I was not the first one to start using the term ‘sandbox’, but I’ll gladly accept credit). I tend to think both words do a good job describing the basics of what each style offers and who they cater to, but this does not mean MMO X is 100% sandbox or themepark, and I think at least some of the confusion arises from this fact.
Let’s start with sandbox. The basic idea is that you can build whatever you want out of the sand, so creativity is rewarded and guidance is low. A very creative person will make some really cool stuff from the sand, while the uninspired will dig a small hole or make a mound of sand. The more ‘tools’ or ‘toys’ in the sandbox, the more options you have to be creative. Providing JUST sand does not make for a great sandbox. How quickly you get bored of the sandbox is in large part up to your personal motivation (of course if the sand is really glass shards, even the most creative person is going to quickly move on). Someone who continues to come up with new castles to build will have a great time. Someone digging a hole will find the task boring after the first attempt.
A themepark is a pre-constructed place intended to amuse. Each ride has a set beginning, middle, and end, and is tuned specifically to entertain in that given amount of time. While a park visitor can wander around, a good themepark is laid out in such a way that it guides you from ride to ride in the most entertaining manner, and skipping around is often seen as less-than-optimal for your enjoyment. Regardless of the visitor, the ride is the same for everyone, every time, and the only time the themepark changes is when the builder (devs) make a change. You generally will grow bored of the themepark after you have been on the rides a few times, though someone’s tolerance for repetition will factor in heavily in determining the number of times you can repeat a ride and still find it entertaining.
Themeparks are more successful than sandboxes because, at their most basic, they are easier for the ‘average’ person to find the entertainment. You don’t need to think, to be creative, or to be self-motivated, you simply need to show up and let the ride run its course. There is a reason so many families visit Disney Land yearly, usually in the same week each year. It’s safe and easy. You don’t need to look for a new vacation spot, you don’t need to worry about the new spot being ‘fun enough’, and you don’t need to worry about the experience or the quality changing. You just book your trip, go through your routine (going to the same restaurant, the same hotel, the same car rental), and get your safe and controlled experience.
Now personally I’d rather play a $2000 raid-boss gerbil than do the above, but millions love it, and if you are in the tourism business, that’s a very large, easy crowd to aim at.
Sid67 also implies that the word themepark is meant as a negative due to the ‘on-rails’ connotation. I don’t see it that way at all. I think for many, ‘on-rails’ is exactly what they want in an MMO, and the more guided the experience the better. If you ask them about it they might claim to want freedom or the chance to do something unique, but look at their actions and its clear what their real preference is. Ask that Disney Land family why they are not more adventurous or creative and they might get insulted, but not enough so to stop their yearly tradition. Not many will admit to wanting to be just another soldier in an army, but give each one of them the chance to step up and be a leader, and see how many make the effort and take advantage of the opportunity. Most people ARE sheep, all too happy to be lead day to day so long as they are kept safe. And as MMO history has shown, like in the real world, even when given the opportunity to stand out, the majority would rather blend in.
To take it back to the MMO genre, the majority would rather be told what quest to do next than to create their own. The majority would rather play it safe and fight a mob they know they can beat rather than face something with a high chance of failure. The very option of having multiple ways of accomplishing something is not seen as a benefit, but as a problem. The majority are all too happy to follow one path, because if you have only one option, it’s not your fault if it’s not a good one.
Some themepark games do a better job than others at creating the illusion of an option, or the illusion of being unique, but it’s ‘bad design’ to actually offer an option or an opportunity to be unique. If you offer an option that matters, it likely means one will eventually be considered ‘better’ than the rest. The result is ‘gimp’ character builds, bad specs, wearing the wrong gear, or wandering an area that is impossible for you to succeed in (or even more difficult than intended). Being truly unique means everyone else is ‘missing out’ on that content/experience, and the first time that happens its time to grab your pitchfork and head to the forums.
The two terms are applicable. The issue is facing the reality of their implications. Admitting you would rather be a grunt than a hero is not something anyone wants to do, yet playing the role of grunt is what most end up signing up for, even when the option of being a hero is available. The grunt is just ‘easier’, and like someone with a slow-to-update blog said, for most easy=fun.