The endless sandbox vs the safe theme park.

MMOs are designed without a ‘game over’ screen, and one of the major appeals of the genre is that the player, rather than the game, determines when you are done. No matter how much you loved Final Fantasy 7, at the end you always kill Seph and the credits roll. In an MMO you can keep going, and ideally you should always have things you can do. Your character, and the world around him/her, will continue for you as long as you keep logging in.

That was how I saw MMOs when I played my first, Ultima Online, and that feeling of the game never ending still has major appeal to me. There was never a point in UO where I was ‘done’, where every goal was accomplished. I could always gain more wealth, or help my guild grow, or just get engaged in whatever everyone else was doing. UO was a sandbox MMO before the concept of sandbox was created. It was design to be a virtual world, a world that REACTS to the players rather than the players reacting to the game. When I finally moved on from UO, it was not because I had killed the final boss and the game told me it was over, but rather it was because I was done with my character, I had accomplished what I wanted.

It’s 2009 now, and while the MMO genre has exploded in popularity, we have very few sandbox MMOs. EQ1, and to a much larger extend WoW, popularized the theme park MMO, with one of the more basic differences being that the game more or less dictates your actions (sets a path), rather than reacting to whatever the player is doing. The advantage of this is that every player always has a goal, and more importantly always has a carrot within clear sight to keep them going. A well designed theme park MMO will always guide the player and keep them on-rails, removing the chance they may stray or get lost, or even worst, find themselves without a goal or motivation to log in.

The genre’s current top sandbox MMO is EVE, and the number one complaint about it is a lack of direction. Players hear all about the endless possibilities and the exciting things happening, yet when they go to log in and experience it for themselves, they more often than not are unable to find what they are looking for. Or they find the path only to learn of the barriers in front of them before they reach whatever goal attracted them. (Letting off a Titan shot sounds awesome, but actually being able to fly a Titan is far beyond most gamers limits)

The original appeal of MMOs, an unending world with limitless choices, is also the genre’s biggest crutch when it comes to appeal to the mainstream. EVE may be the genre’s best designed, best looking, and most advanced MMO, but unless it adds NPCs with golden icons above their heads, it will always remain a niche product. (Which is not to say its not a success, because it is)

The major problem with a theme park is that eventually you have been on all the rides, and while repeating the best ones is fine for a time, even that beings to grow tiring. Adding more rides is possible, but customers will always ride then to boredom faster than they can be built, and if you are sticking with your theme, each ride gets boring faster than the one before it. Change the theme and you might alienate a portion of your customer base, driving them away permanently (in the theme park world, this is called Not Good Entertainment)

This is why I’ll always favor the MMO going more towards a sandbox design over that of a theme park. I know that no matter how fun a theme park may be, it’s time is limited, and eventually my character will be forced to retire earlier than I had planned. While no actual credits will roll, the cap will be hit and the gameplay will change. At the same time, I’ve seen enough MMOs to know that designing a good sandbox MMO is very difficulty, and even the best laid plans go up in smoke the day the players are let loose in the world. In that regard, the theme park is the ‘safe’ bet, an almost guaranteed quantity of entertainment, while the sandbox will always remain hit or miss. The misses may sting with disappointment (hi Shadowbane), but the hits more than make up for it.

About SynCaine

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

31 Responses to The endless sandbox vs the safe theme park.

  1. mandrill says:

    Theme park games get boring and rely on a constant inflow of new players who haven’t been on the rides before, this impacts the community and makes it inherently unstable in the long term. A sandbox game (EVE being the only example I can think of off the top of my head, thats how rare they are) relies on the people playing them bullding relationships and a real sense of community.
    As this post over at RPS and its consequent comments say, with EVE ,and I believe this to be true of any other sandbox title, the people are the game. It has been invariably shown that people are far more interesting than a rollercoaster, simply because after one ride you know where a rollercoaster is going to take you. People are unpredictable, and they are unperdicatbale in unpredicatbale ways, unpredictable squared. Until the big mainstream MMO makers realise this, and the fact that if they act on it in the right way they’ll rake in the cash, we’re not going to see very many more Sandbox MMOs.

  2. Yeebo says:

    The problem with MMO sandboxes is that they generally lack any directed content at all. Designing a bunch of systems, and then dropping a player into the middle of them and expecting them to make their own fun is pure lazy game design. Offline RPG designers have been making sandboxes that contain also contain compelling story lines and quests for years. For example the Elder Scrolls series and the Fallout series. Even non RPG sandboxes such as the Grand Theft Auto series generally manage to include compelling storylines for players to follow, while still giving them tons of freedom.

    Further, in some ways MMO sandboxes don’t even get the sandbox down as well as offline sandboxes. For example, in Morrowind you could design practically any spell or magic item that you could think of. It was even possible to design items that were so powerful they basically broke the game. Obviously no online multiplayer game can give you that kind of freedom. You could also permanently kill every single NPC in the game, or a kill off unique NPCs. Another form of freedom that an online game simply can’t give to players.

    I think what really galls me the most is how little sandbox MMOs have evolved since UO. Scripted MMOs are beginning to approach the polish, user freindlyness, and overall production quality of scripted offline RPGs. Sandbox MMOs are still nowhere near the quality of their offline analogues. EVE ranks among the most heedlessly complex and obtuse game designs I have ever encountered. It’s like on of those flight sims from the late 80s that would come with a phone book sized manual. It seemingly revels in the fact that you have to fiddle with tons of systems that add almost nothing to the core gameplay. And this is the pinnacle of modern MMO sandbox design?


  3. Tesh says:

    The trouble with a sandbox is twofold: 1) gamers need to bring their own fun, and 2) players will want to be able to build sandcastles. 1) is pretty self explanatory, and just indicative of a different sort of player and a different market (sometimes just a niche). 2) is the scary part; giving players power to build their own sandcastles and affect the game world (other wise why play in a sandbox?) is opening the gates to griefing and abuse. It’s definitely something that will help realize the potential of the MMO genre, but it’s also something to be very careful with.

    That’s why we get theme parks; they are safe. That’s why people complained about the Zombie Apocalypse in WoW; their safe little treadmill bubble was pricked by players with power to alter the game.

    I lean to the idea that sandbox MMOs, where the players are the content drivers, are closer to the potential of MMO design. I’m not convinced that the market really wants that.

  4. spinks says:

    I’m not sure. People say they want a sandbox (and I do too!) but maybe what they really want is the illusion of a sandbox, but with the structured stories and content of a railroaded game.

    It’s funny you should post this today because I was planning to write some stuff about how WoW gives the illusion of choices tomorrow :)

  5. Scott says:

    Sandboxes are an illusion anyway. You can’t “do anything” or “build anything” in a sandbox, you can only work with the limitations of the sand, so to speak.

    Ever notice that *most* of the hardcore “give me a sandbox or give me death!” guys aren’t interested in “doing” or especially “building” anything of their own — no, what they want is to trample down someone else’s little sandcastle, find the character of the person who erected that sandcastle and mock him mercilessly before finally maiming, killing and fornicating the guy’s skull then maiming, killing and fornicating the skull of the horse the guy rode in on. Why is that?

    Having said that, my dream game is a hybrid; give me the best illusion of choice and freedom while also giving me high-quality directed content. That way I have the choice which to play at any given time, which is part of being a sandbox. Give me stories to participate in while I also have some freedom to create my own story. Give me stories that have a definitive beginning and end, and give me longer, more “epic” stories that take months or years to culminate. All the while I can be free to to “my own thing” as well.

  6. syncaine says:

    Scott: You can’t build anything in UO or EVE? What about houses built to create a town in UO, or permanent space stations in EVE? Player defined territory in both UO and EVE? The notion that everyone asking for a sandbox is an old school UO PK is rather outdated as well. Are the majority of 0.0 players in EVE PKs, or are low-sec pirates a minor faction? 0.0 consists of waring Alliances, which means both sides are there because they enjoy the PvP, not because they are wolves looking for sheep. No sheep in 0.0.

    Tesh: Gamers as a whole need to bring the fun, not each individual gamer. Look at 0.0 in EVE, does everyone entering need to set up an alliance, or find a faction to war with? Nope, all of that has already been done by players who DO bring the fun, the ones motivated enough to go out and do it. Plenty of other players join up and help out, but the fun was already created by others. And good game design (rare) will allow those castles to be built, while not destroying balance. Human nature, not game tweaks, keeps 0.0 ‘balanced’, because as soon as a leader arises, factions spring up to bring him down.

    Yeebo: To each his own. While EVE is not as user friendly as WoW, it’s not rocket science to get started either. And some complexity has to exist in order to facilitate a working economy, or balanced PvP. Which system in EVE does nothing?
    Single player sandboxes are easy, and are nothing like an MMO. You can easily create a game-breaking character in both ES and Fallout, but it’s ‘okay’ because you only effect your game. That’s kids stuff when compared to balancing thousands of possible characters that interact. Not to mention both ES and Fallout do actually end, and while they are packed with side content, that too does end. The ‘content’ of an MMO sandbox does not end, and designing that is far more difficult than putting in another location or side quest in a single player game.

  7. Scott says:

    @Syncaine: perhaps I should have used some emphasis on the word “anything.” I did not mean there was no aspect of building whatsoever, just you’re limited to the handful of resources available. “Build” a house out of a small selection of pre-fabricated house designs. Plunk several pre-fab buildings in close proximity and call it a town. The only creative aspect of making nearly “anything” was arranging items in your homes artistically in say, SWG, EQ2 or Vanguard but… other than aesthetics that also has no larger meaning or usefulness. Mind you, I’m a huge fan of aesthetics but I’d rather do it on my character, etc. for others to see rather than locked away inside my character’s house.

    Perhaps the “PKers” are just the vocal minority but that’s *all* I hear about from the fans of all the upcoming sandbox MMOGs: Darkfall, Earthrise, Mortal Online in particular. It makes me picture these great-looking (well, perhaps not in Darkfall’s case) modern expansive virtual worlds that are inhabited largely by the mouth-breathing Xbox Live kiddies who just want to gank everyone, swear at everyone, and make everyone else’s game time miserable.

    EVE is the exception — the overwhelming majority of EVE articles on blogs I read are “I logged in, I have XX million ISK, I set some skills to train, I logged out” with the occasional “I was podded QQ” tossed into the mix.

  8. syncaine says:

    Well how unlimited does the building aspect need to be? Housing layout in UO was more function than look, blocking off areas while giving access to vendors or training areas. The location of a guild town was important for mob location, and mining. The thing is, its up to the players to determine how important something is to them in a game. Everyone has a different definition of importance though. Some alliances are perfectly content to occupy a less desirable area of 0.0, while others fight tooth and nail over the premium areas. Unlike WAR though, those players have a choice, while in WAR everyone files into the same keep/fort, or queues up for the same wintergrasp map in WoW.

    PKs are always the vocal minority, it’s part of their game. The point is not to kill you, the point is to make it sting and get a reaction, and forum warfare is part of that. But in both UO and EVE, they were the minority, and I don’t see that changing unless you do bring in the xbox live crowd (which is an amazing cesspool of the human race)

  9. Sightless says:

    As I think about it, a system like EvE has the potential to be the hybrid sandbox/theme park MMO you guys are hypothesizing about. In highsec, things are (mostly) safe. There are missions, and dungeons (deadspace complexes) and all manor of safe activities to participate in. Whats really lacking is that defined path to lead new players along meaningful content. The procedural missions in eve get old fast, but what if CCP put in ‘handwritten’ missions and used them to pull you around highsec and define the world and lore behind eve? The pure sandbox of 0.0 is still out there, and EvE would remain, for the most part, a sandbox game. Do you think this would satisfy the theme park cravings of the ex-WoW player?

  10. Yeebo says:

    Like a hardcore flight sim, nothing in EVE literally has no function whatsoever. And I don’t think a true sandbox can be as simple as WoW. However, I still maintain that having a game play like a spreadsheet in space is not the only way to give players freedom.

    EVE is noticably harder to get started in than either UO or pre-NGE SWG. However, I don’t see that an individual player really has a wider array of options at their fingertips in EVE than in SWG or UO (pre-NGE SWG particularly). That’s what I meant by complexity that “adds nothing to the core gameplay.”

    I also don’t buy your contention that offline sandboxes end. You seem to equate a game having a storyline to follow if you feel like it with “the game has a beginning and an end.” The storyline does indeed have an ending, however when the story ends you are still in a sandbox. You are limited only by your creativity and the tools at hand.

    For example, I played Morrowind for six solid months, and never even got even 1/3 of the way through the main story line. Most of my time was spent exploring, maxing out with the factions I liked, and trying out crazy shit. The function of the story line was just to ease you into the game and teach you some of the basic mechanics. After that you were free to continue to follow the story or just wander off and do whatever you felt like.

    I certainly agree that a online games are immersive, engaging, and replayable in ways that offline games can never hope to match. I’d love to see a developer harness that in a sandbox MMO that isn’t designed by and for hardcore sim fans.

  11. Yeebo says:

    @Scott: your first post made the point that I was trying to make in a far less combative tone. I agree 100%.

  12. Yeebo says:

    @Sightless: I honestly think a design very similar to that is what a sandbox MMO needs to have any kind of mass market appeal. GTA and the last two Elder Scrolls games had incredible mass market appeal, and sold largely on their sandbox design elements. However, both of those games also have the sense to lead around by the nose a bit before they set your free.

    Just because you decide to build a sand box doesn’t mean you can’t have a theme park in the middle of it.

  13. syncaine says:

    This is true, you can have elements of the theme park in the sandbox. The danger of that however is limiting that enough to still maintain the sandbox theme. It’s again opinion, but I think the options in EVE far outweigh those in UO, and that has a lot to do with its complexity. The market and economy for instance, while very spreadsheet like, are fantastically deep. If you removed some of the complexity, they would not function in the cutthroat manner they do now.

    The other issue is that time spent developing the theme park aspect means less time working on the sandbox. The theme park content is one and done, while the sandbox aspects can be used indefinitely.

  14. Tesh says:

    “Gamers as a whole need to bring the fun, not each individual gamer. ”
    Indeed. Well stated. That’s the point of an MMO, after all. I guess my concern is just that the game design itself be smartly designed so as to facilitate that without getting in the way, but also setting bounds to curtail or prevent abuse. It’s certainly possible, but a delicate balance that not every dev wants to get a handle on.

    Muckbeast has argued that “players are content”, and that’s very true in a sandbox. Sync, you’re also right in that the dev ROI is better because of the potential of perpetual use.

    I’m just noting that it’s harder to set these things up and have them work well. It’s more effort and money starting things up and staying on top of them. It’s cheaper and easier for devs to go the theme park route. In the long run, the sandbox will likely be smarter business, but not many companies really focus well on that.

  15. syncaine says:

    I look at it like this:

    The theme park WoW-like MMO is a summer movie. Most suck, some are blockbusters, and basically all of them follow the same model (big explosions, shallow plot)

    The sandbox is that indie movie, most of them no one has ever heard of, the critics love them, and generally they don’t make a dime. Once in a while, one breaks through into the mainstream and picks up some steam via word of mouth, and all of a sudden you see 10 copies of it next summer, most which again suck.

  16. Scott says:

    I’ll go ahead and let my tendency to be annoyingly literal rear its head here:

    The theme park content is one and done, while the sandbox aspects can be used indefinitely. … (bold emphasis mine)

    That applies both ways. Sandbox “content” is also plowed through quickly and can become boring and forgotten quite easily. Theme park gamers might get bored of the individual rides (content) but they continue on daily with the “sandbox aspects” like crafting, working the economy, etc.

    Also look at the theme park Mythic has built… in WAR the players (or the lack thereof) are the content (or the lack thereof) but it’s the furthest thing from a sandbox I can imagine. In fact, I’d say WAR out-theme parked them all.

  17. syncaine says:

    WAR is a theme park, with an attempt to add a sandbox at the end, which still plays far closer to a theme park than even DAoC’s RvR did.

    I would argue that if the sandbox content becomes boring, that’s bad design. The point is to design it so it can be reused, and remain interesting because the players input creates the interesting differences (war in EVE is almost always the same thing, yet who shows up is what makes it different. WAR is similar, but currently is struggling to differentiate each battle in meaningful ways)

    By contrast, the more unique the theme park ride, the less likely it is going to remain interesting when repeated. (LotRO shire mail quest) That’s fine as long as you can keep the content going, but we all know at some point, that becomes impossible.

  18. Swift Voyager says:

    In the March expansion of Eve they are adding what they call “Epic story arc mission chains” and “branching mission outcomes”, along with much smarter and diverse NPC AI, so Eve is making an effort at more themepark content already. They say this is just the beginning also.

  19. Scott says:

    @Syncaine: While you may not be the ganking/PK type, every single one of your comments goes back to PvP. Does a sandbox automatically mean only PvP to you? If not, then how exactly would sandbox non-PvP content not get boring (assuming we have equally talented developers on both sides of the coin) while theme park non-PvP content will get boring?

    For that matter, PvP *does* get boring. If it’s always the same maps over and over it doesn’t matter who shows up, you’ll end up with the same battles at the same choke points with each side using the same couple of strategies they used the last thousand times. It’s new and exciting while it’s new and exciting but as soon as you’ve played enough to really know the map like the back of your hand you can see the movements and strategies play out before they happen. You know what will happen and where it will happen, the variable is when.

  20. syncaine says:

    That applies to WAR and FPS games, but does not to UO, AC-DT, or EVE (the games I have the most experience with) The reason theme park PvP is generally limited is because of the on-rails nature of the park. The more you guide the players, the more they find a way to work the system.

    While it’s much harder to balance, the more open your system, the more creative the users will be. As one side gets creative, the other side adapts, and on and one we go, with content added to mix things up as well.

    The PvP does not have to be defined as one player killing another. The economy in EVE is a form of PvP, since one trader is competing against another for profit. Same deal with miners. In UO you had vendor PvP, trying to outdo your neighbors vendors to attract customers. Ultimately a zero PvP sandbox is, imo, impossible (or just incredibly boring).

  21. Swift Voyager says:

    The biggest problem I have with the themepark is not that it ends, though that is certainly a problem.

    What really gets me about themeparks is how you are defined by your progress towards that end. If you’re at level x and the cap is 2x then you’re automatically excluded from content above x level content, and additionally, any content below x level content is obsolete for you. That also leads to barriers to grouping and mudflation problems.

  22. Tesh says:

    Swift, isn’t that more about the leveling system than the theme park mentality, though? True, they are synergistic, but you could have a theme park without leveling, and you’d still get bored once you’ve been through all the rides.

  23. mandrill says:

    @scott, one thing to remember about EVE is that everything is PvP. Everything you do in game has an impact on other players, either to their detriment or advantage.

    You run a mission (do a quest, to those of you living in WoW or WAR land :P) solo and sell the stuff you salvage from the wrecks. A real person buys that stuff and uses it to make their ship better, or builds something out of it and sells that to another player. The fact that they bought it from you means that they didn’t buy it from someone else, with the result being that that someone else takes an economic hit (albeit a small one) from you running a mission where you never even saw another player’s ship, let alone talked to them in a chat channel. Everything in EVE is PvP, not all PvP is about combat and ganking.

    This is the sandbox, this is where the depth and scope of EVE rears its head and shows you that its not all about doing what you want in the game world. Its about how your every action has an effect on other players. With games like WoW and WAR there are only a few limited options for affecting another players game experience, and most of them are based around Combat PvP. There is your rollercoaster; fun for a while but it soon gets stale. There are no moral choices, no ethical decisions, no dilemmas, and sooner or later no fun unless another rollercoaster is built with slightly different scenery.

    BTW Fallout 3 does end, and very definitely. if you finish the main quest you have to start again from the beginning (or keep playing without finishing the quest, I’d like to see how long you can do that without running out of things to do.)

    PS, If I see you in space scott, you’re toast btw :P

  24. Scott says:


    Nah, EVE isn’t my cup of tea. I have enough trouble staying interested in the more action-based space MMOs; a space RTS/RPG hybrid does nothing for me.

    I don’t see EVE as “everything is PvP” but rather I see it as one of the few titles out there which made an earnest attempt at making PvE and PvP meaningful to each other rather than drawing a line in the sand and dividing the players between one or the other.

    But I do appreciate that EVE embraces more aspects of PvP than *just* combat.

  25. Swift Voyager says:

    Tesh, even without levels you still have the same end result because of quest rewards and difficulty. Even a themepark without leveling is going to have some gradient effect that makes the quests get harder and have better rewards as you progress, otherwise it’s not a very good themepark.

    So, whether it’s leveling, gear, experience gain, gold, etc. There’s always some carrott that draws you forward and once you have that carrott, there’s very little reason to go back and get that carrott again. Heck, in Wizard 101 (an extreme example of the themepark), they only give you full experience for the first time you complete a quest, 50% the second time, and 0% after that. So, there’s very little reason for anyone to repeat a quest once they have the good loot drops from the boss in that quest. Also, since you’r likely to get better gear from the next quest anyway, why bother to repeat any quest except the top tier quests?

    Leveling problems are a whole other discussion.

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  27. James says:

    I know this has been dead over a month but I did stumble upon it. First off the notion that people who want sandbox MMO’s are pk/ganker types is nuts. I am neither and theme park mmo’s are lucky to hold my attention more than a month.
    Syncaine is right it all comes down to PvP for both types of MMO’s. Without PvP Theme parks are just cooperative offline Role Playing games with a social network. And the notion that sandbox MMO’s are just lazying developers isn’t based on reality. If a sandbox was that easy to develop you would see more of them. Theme park should be easier because all you are doing is creating a path through shiny rides.

    What makes sandboxes fun(speaking mainly of preTrammel UO and preCU SWG) for me is the immersion aspect. You get to be drawn into the game and you bring the to the game what you want. In UO players created guild quest, guild wars, guild towns, and player run taverns. None of this was in the game except the ability to place a house. OSI in the beginning actually responded to player idea. They added things to one player tavern on our server including npc vendors,bushes and even made it a guard protected zone for awhile. And something to think about UO is the only game I can remember where you could give a player blacksmith your armor without knowing him. Have him take it and repair it into his inventory and then give it back to you. It might be just me but the high risk of open Pvp, open Looting and non of the other safety nets made a closer and tighter community than any of the current theme park MMO out now.

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  29. Anonymous says:

    its = its
    it’s = it is

  30. decoy says:

    If the problem with themepark is that “eventually you’ve been on all the rides,” then the problem with sandbox is “there are no rides”

    I dislike EVE because it mistakes lack of content as a design choice.

  31. Anonymous says:

    Just a note, UO did not implement a sandbox mode before the concept existed, except maybe in MMO gaming. But then in the genre of mmo gaming, UO did a lot of firsts. Games like Sim City (1989) had modes literally called “sandbox” where you could build to your heart’s desire without restrictions and no end. :)

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