Having now seen the issue from both sides, I’d like to talk about something I’ll call ‘Sandbox Envy’. Sandbox Envy is basically what happens when you read about the really cool stuff happening in a sandbox game and compare it to what you do in your game (most applicable if that MMO is a themepark, and this increases the more ‘themepark’ your themepark is).
Think about the difference between watching the famous “MORE DOTS” Onyxia video from WoW versus reading about a massive heist in EVE. The Onyxia video works because anyone who has ever done that encounter can relate to what is happening; only (hopefully) their raid leader was not as extreme in calling for DoTs. The story of an EVE heist is interesting because it’s so unique, it has aspects of real life applied to a virtual world, and it just seems to reflect everything great about the Massive and Multiplayer parts of the MMO genre.
Sandbox Envy occurs because such stories are the SportsCenter of the MMO world. They are the highlight of in-game activity, and they don’t include the countless hours of preparation, downtime, or ‘nothing happened’ space that also exists. Baseball on SportsCenter is always action packed and full of great plays, and if all you know of baseball is what you see from SportsCenter you might think it’s that way all the time. If you actually watch baseball, you know it’s 95% ‘nothing’ with a few critical moments of action (and this is coming from someone who loves to watch baseball).
If all you know of EVE or other sandbox-style games is what you have read from blogs, you might go into the game expecting 1200v1200 fleet battles, bank scams, or masterful market manipulation to happen daily. Instead you log in and find that mining is really boring, those epic moments happen once in a blue moon (to you), and that built-up hype you created for yourself is quickly crushed. If you are on a 10 day free trial, it’s very easy to walk away after a day or so and write the game off. Worst still is then claiming you have ‘played’ the game and it’s nothing but really boring stuff, without quantifying that when you say ‘played’, you mean for a few hours on a free trial. But context is about as common on blogs and message boards as those 1200v1200 fleet battles you dreamed of joining.
Sandbox Envy also occurs because too many gamers lie to themselves about the type of player they are. Not many accept that they just enjoy half-assing it and getting rewarded, and not many want to ‘work’ to experience something great. Most players ARE the grunt in an army; they just don’t want their game telling them that. Not many dream of mining the billions and billions of ISK needed to make a Titan, while everyone would love to be the pilot letting off a Doomsday shot at a critical moment in some history fleet battle, their name forever link to that event.
Themeparks fit in nicely here because the NPCs don’t mind repeating for the millionth time that you are indeed the one true hero who saved them. They work well because basically everyone can acquire ‘epic’ rewards for doing ‘heroic’ actions and being the world’s hero (at least in your phased version of the world). What they don’t offer is those truly unique MMO moments because the rails don’t allow for that to happen, but even if they did most would not be willing to put in the ‘work’ to get there. If anything, because the opportunity does NOT exist, the average player does not feel he is ‘missing out’ on something, or that the best stuff is not ‘accessible’ to them.
Not that this makes a sandbox superior, at least not to all gamers. While a themepark will never offer that ultimate high, it does (or should) offer a steady stream of good entertainment. Even better, the best experience is frontloaded, so as a new player you experience the fun of leveling, new gear, new areas, and new quests faster at the beginning then you will towards the end. In contrast, the first few days of a sandbox are usually spent aimlessly trying to find your way, with little to stop you from having an outright boring experience if you don’t know what you are doing. Hell even a veteran in a sandbox will find himself doing ‘boring’ stuff like traveling for 25 minutes just to reach a location, or other ‘boring’ stuff like skill grinding or farming for cash.
EVE has enjoyed its massive success in part because of its rich history of player-driven events, and those events have perhaps been its greatest advertising tool. Yet they also create somewhat of an illusion, because while the ‘action’ in those stories is great, day-to-day action in EVE is far more mundane. The true decision any gamer has to make is whether they prefer the steady and somewhat guaranteed delivery method of a themepark, or the overall slower pace with far greater spikes that is a good sandbox.
For me personally, I don’t view MMO gaming as just something to kill time, but rather as my primary hobby. With so much dedicated to it, I don’t have trouble seeing the ‘value’ in those down moments that ultimately lead to the great highs, and the steady stream of themepark content is now a little too familiar for me. In a way, once you get use to the highs of a sandbox, it’s difficult to get excited about the peak of a themepark. At the same time, I completely understand the appeal of a themepark to someone just casually spending some time with a game. For them, they don’t want to ‘work’ to get some entertainment, because to them it’s not worth that much. Sure experiencing the sandbox high would be great, but not at the expensive of all the downtime associated with it.
Perhaps that is indeed the natural evolution of the MMO player. We all start at the casual level just poking around. Some of us enjoy it enough to want more, and we shift from the game becoming recreation to a hobby. If the above is true, and a company like Blizzard knows it, maybe that Blizzard version of EVE is not as far fetched? What better way to ‘advance’ the millions of casuals playing WoW today then to get them into a Blizzard-branded ‘next level’ game?