Sandbox or Theme Park?

During the recent posts about stories in MMOs, the topic of sandbox vs theme park MMOs came up, which got me thinking on which style I prefer and why.

The first MMO that I played heavily was Ultima Online back in 1997. UO was a sandbox style game almost to an extreme. At the time that distinction did not exist, as UO was really the only major MMO out at the time. Once EQ was released the sandbox/theme park separation was born. Since then most MMOs have favored the theme park design, although a few sandbox games have been released and seen success, most notably Asheron’s Call and EVE Online.

UO and AC Darktide still rank highly on my top list of MMOs, and some of my favorite personal MMO moments come from those games. I can still vividly recall my first run-in with Og in AC, or the day I finally purchased a perfectly placed house in UO from another player. That said, WoW is also high on my list, but for very different reasons, chief among them the friends I made during my time as an officer in a raiding guild. The raiding itself was fun enough at the time, but the people I met and continue to game with are what make WoW memorable for me.

Looking at the current MMOs I subscribe to, WoW and EVE, I realize both serve a very different purpose.

WoW is my easy, relaxing game. I can log in and with little effort or thought make progress by grinding out some quests or running an instance while socializing with old friends. It never really produces any “that’s awesome” moments, but I don’t expect it to. It’s a safe and guaranteed good time, the definition of a theme park MMO. Sign up, sit down, and enjoy the pretty sights and sounds of the ride. WoW has nailed this formula, and that in part has lead to its massive success. It SHOULD be used as the prime example of how to make a great theme park game, as it has perfected all the selling points of such a style. While WoW overall is not perfect, it is fairly close when it comes to the casual progression of ones character while providing adequate social options. Gathering a steady group of friends and playing WoW together is some truly enjoyable gaming.

EVE on the other hand is almost the exact opposite. If I don’t log in with a goal or purpose, there is not much to do in EVE. My two accounts are at the point where grinding missions or solo mining do little other than increase my ISK balance slowly, and unless I’m terribly bored or in dire need of ISK, I avoid both. If some PvP Op is going down with my Corp, I jump in when I can. Those are generally hit or miss. We either get some kills, get ourselves killed, or nothing happens. Like everything else in EVE, nothing is guaranteed, and you never know if a small skirmish is going to explode into an all out fleet battle with billions in losses. Same goes for my industrial pilot, most days little happens on the market out of the ordinary. A few missiles sell to small buyers, I buy a few rounds of ammo, etc. But there is always the chance that someone makes a multi-million ISK purchase, or dumps millions of ISK in product into one of my buy orders. Those days require further action, and serious market decisions must be made. A bad call could cost me weeks of work, while a good one could make all that effort worthwhile. The highs and lows of EVE are tremendous, and in between those peaks lies a large amount of steady nothingness.

So which do I prefer? Well both actually. They compliment each other well, in an odd sort of way. Whenever the safe grind of WoW becomes a bit boring or stale, I have EVE waiting for me to offer some unpredictable action, good or bad. Understanding EVE is a game, even the bad can be enjoyable as a learning experience, and when I do hit those highs it makes all the effort to reach them that much more rewarding. But there are days when I simply don’t feel like putting too much effort into my actions, and WoW is a nice fallback to have.

If I did not have the luxury of both and had to choose one, I would have to go with EVE. Not because EVE is inherently more fun or a better game than WoW necessarily, but because it offers more options and freedom. If I get bored of questing or gear grinding in WoW, my options are very limited. If however I get bored of PvP in EVE, I can always fall back and focus on the industrial side of the game, or perhaps jump into Corp management. EVE simply offers more possibilities as a game world over WoW due to its sandbox style, which has always been the main strength of that style.

I think the important thing to realize is that we are lucky to be gaming at a time when both options are available and represented with high quality games. Different people will gravitate towards different styles, depending on each player’s personal preference. I would advise everyone to give both styles a fair try, as many would be surprised to find the enjoyment in both. While the theme park offers instant gratification, the sandbox takes a little time to get into and see the fruits of your efforts. Like many things in life, you often get more satisfaction from a result when you put a greater amount of effort into it, and I believe sandbox games represent this in the MMO space. While many bring up ‘it’s a game, I don’t want to work’, I believe this is selling your gaming experience short. Even in an on-rails game like WoW, you still ‘work’ towards certain goals; be it grinding rep, crafting skill, gathering gear, etc. WoW hides the work in clever ways, but at the end of the day you still put in effort to accomplish a goal. The real difference is that the goal is more clearly defined and the path set in stone, while in a sandbox game you must find your own goals and find your own path.

About SynCaine

Former hardcore raider turned casual gamer.
This entry was posted in EVE Online, MMO design, PvP, Ultima Online, World of Warcraft. Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Sandbox or Theme Park?

  1. CrazyKinux says:

    Beautifully put Syncaine.

    I think you’ve nailed it, which should put a stop the the EVE is better then WoW, or vice versa debate. They are both games, both MMOs, but they favor different experiences. And neither is inherently better then the other. They’re both excellent in what they attempt to do.

    You’ll still the fanboy who’ll argue till death for either. But eh, Death, Taxes and Fanboys will always exist.

  2. syncaine says:

    Well look, it’s the phantom blogger. You going to actually start posting again now? Haha kidding, welcome back, and thanks for the comment.

  3. CrazyKinux says:

    To be honest, having taken more or less a month off, I’ve realized how much I enjoy the whole MMO blogging community. Having no way to speak out and voice my opinion is next to impossible.

    So yes, you’ll be hearing more of me little person! =)

  4. syncaine says:

    Hopefully you post a few updates on what you are doing in EVE, always liked those posts. Still enjoy all your links and such as well.

  5. Mac210 says:

    I play 2 main MMO’s alos – EVE is my second choice that I just joined about 3 months ago. My first choice is still World War 2 online. In my opinion there is no better basic pvp online game than WW2OL.The game continues along since June 2001 and I have been subscribed straight since November 2002.

    I was kind of surprised I do not see any WW2OL reference. The game has change a lot since the first days.

  6. Pingback: /swords » Blog Archive » The Council for Stellar Awesomeness

  7. Chris says:

    Yes, Eve is indeed a sandbox game–complete with the sandbox bullies. :-/ Personally, I’d rather go with something middle of the road–a game with options, but also with systems in place to block griefers and all that other garbage that I play games to get *away* from.

  8. MrMe says:

    I like sandbox because usually the game isn’t made for carebear god damn raiders who don’t want to ” be hurt”
    or fucking socialize at all, just instance hop.. Which wouldnt be so bad if others could go in the instance like a public instance but its not, its turning an mmo into a 1-10 player game.. which is bullshit.

    Crafting in wow means nothing because you replace all the shit later. Might as well just take first aid and forget it. No home ownership and the the worlds of Eq and WoW are fucking too small because raider carebear mother fuckers have to get to instance to instance in less than 3 minutes or they throw a fit. A level 40 can map the entire wow map in 4 hours moving non stop.

    Looking forward to when i finish wow to playing something more like that.. without to stupid level til 70 or 80 then boom another expansion bullshit.
    These games are themepark money sinks they exists because of bad players who bitch and moan and cry and shit. I Grief, I kill because i enjoy it, I like weeding out the weak mother fuckers and making them cry, and so do alot of us,.. but darkfall left us shorthanded .. alot. but until then ill give you my usual burn in hell carebear mother fuckers.

  9. Femmie says:

    And MrMe is just the type of asshole those of us who can see more in a game than being a PVP X-Box Junkie would like to get away from.
    Your command of the english language is obviously abysmal and so you resort to swearing to try to prove how big you are.
    Your a tiny man with big mouth and probably a little penis, who probably also bullies the elderly, blind and children in Real Life and runs home crying when some one comes along and takes you apart.

  10. Pingback: Curious about Darkfall? « Game Sigil

  11. MMOGamer says:

    I choose sandbox over themepark because of its freedom. But there are not many sandbox MMOs in the market. I read a description for ideal sandbox and that kind of game is my choice but there are no games like that. :) You can find the description here:

    Ideal Sandbox MMO

  12. Icarius13oo says:

    Oh, wow… I’m so glad I found this post. I thought I was the only one who wanted freedom in MMO gaming! Also, thank you MMOGamer for the extra link. :-) Yay, I’m several steps closer to finding MMO bliss!!

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