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.