Visiting an old friend of the MMO blog world.

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.

About SynCaine

Former hardcore raider turned casual gamer.
This entry was posted in MMO design, Random, Rant. Bookmark the permalink.

39 Responses to Visiting an old friend of the MMO blog world.

  1. victorstillwater says:

    Personally, I like the idea of calling it a Dominion Game. Sounds cooler. :)

    Anyway, that’s a whole lot to think about again. :)

  2. Quietside says:

    I wonder when a company will try to position themselves to make the best use of both models. It seems to me that some innovative design could allow for not only the sandbox experience of creating your own fun, but also include themepark elements from the designers. Or, better still, player created ‘sandbox’ content spawning ‘themepark’ elements for less driven players.

    An example, in DF if i want enchanting catalysts i can get them myself or trade for them, but my time is very limited, and the chat system aggravates me.

    If my clan or myself could place a councillor NPC in a city and set a ‘turn in 10 of x, reward y’ quest, open to anyone who shows up we now have something that looks like the standard, vanilla, starter quest. Multiply this by hundreds of different items, and a flagging system (for bounties, or deliveries if there was local banking in the environment) and you have a player driven model that can generate enormous quantities of player-defined quests. Additionally player-owned and placed NPCs could be used to drop developer written quests.

    Thus players who want the headaches and risks (like me) associated with city ownership, dominion style play, economic pvp or other free-form aspects of the game can have their fun. The more casual, easy=fun gamers can find the direction that makes their gameplay experience worthwhile.

    my 2 cents

  3. Wintersdark says:

    You’re absolutely right, but I understand the themepark players disgruntlement at the terms used (grunt vs hero, etc). No one wants to be called a sheep, a grunt, or a follower. So (dispute the actual accuracy) yeah, it’s going to raise hackles.

    A lot has to do with peoples motivation for gaming. Some are looking for a challenge (in game, or out in terms of creative challenge), others are looking for a way to unwind, and want to be entertained and don’t really want to be challenged.

    I think there wouldn’t be a problem at all if not for the inherent negative conentations when describing themepark players; even when they are not really intended to be negative.

    • Kilratha says:

      Yeah and I do not like to be called lazy, slothful, or unmotivated, but I am not crazy enough to think that I am not. No matter how negative these words are, or how we conceive them to be, it does not take away the reality.

  4. sid67 says:

    this does not mean MMO X is 100% sandbox or themepark, and I think at least some of the confusion arises from this fact.


    And to make it worse, Metaphors are awful when used as a label because they are subject to misinterpretation.

    Consider how many paragraphs it took you in this entry to clearly describe what is/is not a Sandbox or Themepark. That in itself should be an indictment of why it’s such a poor word choice.

    I think a smarter choice of words describes the specific feature of a game. Skills or Levels. Raid or Dominion. Negative Sum or Positive Sum.

    If I said a game was a negative-sum, skill-based raiding game with player owned structures, you would know what that meant even if such a game doesn’t exist.

    • SynCaine says:

      “If I said a game was a negative-sum, skill-based raiding game with player owned structures, you would know what that meant even if such a game doesn’t exist.”

      While true, that’s a long-winded way of saying sandbox, and having the other person at least get 90% of what you are saying. I think there is a difference between the two terms being totally wrong, vs needing to go into more detail when debating specifics.

      In other words, both DF and EVE are sandbox games, but that does not mean that they share the same exact characteristics, and when you look at the details one game might be more ‘sandbox’ in some areas than the other. The approach and mentality from the players perspective to both is similar, but the details are not. I don’t think that makes ‘sandbox’ a bad term though.

      Themepark is the same way, but if anything is easier to use. A heavily dev-guided MMO is a themepark. How the details break down might vary, but again the player-mentality is similar. You are lead vs leading.

      • sid67 says:

        I’m just saying that if I were in charge of the internet, everyone would do things my way!


        Seriously though, I just find it’s not only an ambiguous description, statements like “Darkfall and EVE are both sandbox” can be misleading.

        Because outside of a handful of esoteric design decisions, the games don’t resemble each other much at all.

        In fact, purely from a game perspective, Darkfall has more in common with Warcraft and EQ than it does EVE.

        • SynCaine says:

          Until I give up the crown though, the internet plays by my rules.

          And we are talking about similar things here, just from different sides. From a game perspective, DF is closer to EQ than EVE. But from a player mentality (as in, wtf do I do today) DF and EVE are very close, and nothing like EQ/WoW. Now how you design your rules to foster that mentality varies, but I think that makes up the core of the ‘sandbox’ term.

    • Akjosch says:

      sid67: “Consider how many paragraphs it took you in this entry to clearly describe what is/is not a Sandbox or Themepark. That in itself should be an indictment of why it’s such a poor word choice.”

      Why that? I mean, try explaining what a “Lie group” is (for the record, official definition is: “a group which is also a differentiable manifold, with the property that the group operations are compatible with the smooth structure”; see Wikipedia or Wolfram MathWorld for details) in terms which are easy to understand for the average internet user. Does it make the concept not useful just because it takes a while explaining? Not at all. It just means that the concept isn’t quickly explainable, nothing more, nothing less.

  5. Coppertopper says:

    This is an interesting post. I was reading Keens blog about his recent introduction and play time in UO and the idea of plopping down a house anywhere seemed way more ‘sandboxy’ then what you had to go thru to get a house built in Darkfall. And here you are addressing that exact thought. I hope future game devs see things similarly as ,no doubt there is still market for a pure themepark MMO, no game suffered for adding sandbox elements (in the form of housing, an abundance of useful player craftable items, some sort of impact on the world players see, ect., not exactly FFA pvp).

    • sid67 says:

      Persistent Objects. Placed objects that exist after you leave them. Perhaps we should say “Placed housing” vs. “Player housing”. EVE has such objects.

      This goes hand-in-hand with what I’m saying about describing the FEATURE, not some ambiguous term like Sandbox.

      If we start talking about Persistent Objects, the nature of what we are discussing is much more clear than if we talking about types of Sandboxes.

      • Malakili says:

        If you are really going to make this argument, then we might as well just get rid of genre names all together.

        Its a useful distinction, it can be explained in about 15 seconds spoken to someone who has no idea about computer games, and the fine toothed comb that we are using to define individual games is useful to almost nobody outside of those who are “academically” interested in discussing game design.

        • sid67 says:

          Sandbox is not a genre. It can’t be. As Syncaine wrote above, games are rarely 100% Sandbox or 100% Themepark but some combination of both.

          Which means that Sandbox is really a sliding scale describing some ambiguous flexibility quality. As such, some games are more Sandboxey than other Sandboxes.

          As I pointed out in my entry, even WoW can be considered a Sandbox because it’s an open ended world. And as Coppertopper is pointing out, UO was more of a Sandbox than Darkfall.

          Such ambiguous metaphors don’t make for a good labels of a feature (let alone the label for an entire genre).

          Now compare that to the specific words I am using. You don’t even need a 15 second explanation.

    • SynCaine says:

      About UO: Housing anywhere was a major problem for the game, as literally every free spot of grass had a house on it and the world looked a bit ridiculous. Plus all of the network problems that created. Its also important to keep in mind that the UO Keen is playing now is far closer to WoW than the UO of 97. It’s a completely, completely different game.

      • sid67 says:

        It only works in EVE because the scale is so much larger. Even so, you could still break the system if you placed 70,000 cargo containers next to each gate in Jita.

      • Mig says:

        If I remember right, he is playing on a private server that is Pre-T2A.

      • bonedead says:

        Good news! There are finally free spots to place houses! I have a two story log cabin in Trammel about 2 minutes away from Britain. /flex

  6. valkrysa says:

    Dang, now we’re all going to owe syncaine money every time we use the word sandbox™

  7. Bhagpuss says:

    The sandbox is in your head. As far as I’m concerned, all MMOs are “sandboxes” because I use them to do the things I like doing.

    Let’s demetaphorise this and talk about actual themeparks vs sandboxes. I’ve never been to any Disneyland/World or any comparable mega-theme park. I’ve been to a few smaller ones over the years, though. I went on one or two rides, but I don’t really like fairground rides. Mostly I strolled around, watched other people, sat in the cafe and chatted to the people I went with. In other words, I was in the themepark but it was just another place to do the same things I’d do elsewhere – observe, soak up atmosphere, chat, eat and drink.

    I’ve spent far, far more time in the sandbox, or as I think it’s more rational to call it (since I have never actually even seen a “sandbox”) “The Beach”. I love the seashore. I’ve spent countless hours beachcombing, collecting driftglass, walking along the littoral and looking at the water, the sand and the sky. Sitting on the sand watching people. Digging holes and piling up the sand.

    What I’ve rarely felt the need to do, though, is use the sand to “build something”. Why? Just being there, on the beach, soaking up the experience is enough to fill my senses to bursting.

    MMOs are just chock-full of stuff to do, whether they are labelled “sandbox” or “theme park”. It’s a false dichotomy. The user dictates the use, not the producer. If you find you can’t use a particular MMO as a “sandbox” it’s just a failing of your imagination.

    • Malakili says:

      Misses the point, in a huge way. Your last sentence says it all really. If you have to use your imagination whats the point? Am I going to “pretend” I have a house in WoW, or actually buy/build one in another game? The difference seems pretty obvious.

    • willee says:

      Bhagpuss- you do a good job of explaining your position on all these topics. The issue i think is that…and don’t take this the wrong way although it may be hard not too…but you are not “normal”. By that i mean you have a perspective on things that i think is really in the minority.

      Most people don’t go to a theme park to chat, eat and drink. You can do that at the local bar. Likewise, most people actually enjoy getting excited, having adrenaline rushes etc. You have stated (correct me if i’m wrong) that you actually do not enjoy these things.

      And there is certainly nothing wrong with being that way. But the problem comes when you make the types of statements you made above (particulary the last paragraph). You state your view which i believe most would consider to be in the definite small minority as if everyone else who doesn’t share that view is wrong.

      That is to say, i don’t think your view is wrong when it comes from your perspective, but i don’t think too many people share that perspective.

      • SynCaine says:

        Bhagpuss can defend himself, but from my point of view I never take what Bhagpuss writes as him stating “This is how everyone should think”. I’m fairly sure he understands he is in the minority with his playstyle and approach to gaming. Rather, I think he does a good job of giving everyone here a different perspective on any topic, which I really appreciate, and sometimes from those minority views come ideas that can be adopted for the majority.

        • Bhagpuss says:

          Yep, I’m well aware that the way I play is a way off from the Mean (or probably the Mode, really). And I certainly don’t expect everyone, or even anyone, to change the direction of their gameplay because of anything I say. I do also exaggerate for effect, in classic rhetorical style.

          On the other hand, mine is not a unique position. I’ve met and chatted to quite a few people in various MMOs who take a similar approach. Anyone who’s played regularly on EQ2’s Test server (admittedly, that’s not going to be whole lot of people) will have heard plenty of mind-numbingly nit-picking discussions in the Test channel on a variety of non-achiever-based ways of playing MMOs. The craft channel in Vanguard used to have a few, too.

          All I’m really saying is that MMOs are what you make of them. Some do give you a bigger range of tools than others that let you do more with less imaginative effort and I’d agree straight away that there’s a qualitative difference between having an “actual” house in Vanguard, an instanced house in EQ2 and pretending you have a house in WoW. But if they don’t give you the means to make the house, it doesn’t mean you can’t have one anyway and get pleasure from it.

  8. Pingback: The Eternal Debate « Shadow-war

  9. victorstillwater says:

    Hi again.

    Not sure where to put this, so I’ll just write it down here. Bought three months of DF instead of Final Fantasy XIII using your referral link. I hope the cut of the thing goes to your account properly. :)


    • SynCaine says:

      Nice, thank you. EU purchase right? I’ll keep an eye on it, because I have a few odd things happening with the CP account right now (says a sale was made, but the amount is $0)

      • victorstillwater says:

        North American purchase. :)

        Yeah, I’m on your server. Please don’t kill me. :)

        Also, if you didn’t see my response to your comment on my blog, I didn’t sign up for NEW. I actually picked semi-randomly a Clan that was recruiting and had a cool name. Clan is called Dark Hand of Valor, and I was surprised when I checked the political map and found out they had assets and whatnot.

        • SynCaine says:

          Oh I’m definitely going to kill you then, INQ is at war with DHoV, and they live out of Apautan which is close to our alliance city of Talpec :)

          They seem like a solid and active group though, you should be in good company.

        • victorstillwater says:

          Oh god.

        • victorstillwater says:

          Sorry. That was the first thought that popped into my head.

          To be more diplomatic, let me say this. I look forward to seeing you on the battlefield… perhaps a month from now, when I have a skill above 50.

        • sid67 says:

          ROFL. Don’t worry about it Victor. His in-game name is easy to spot (Syncaine), so you can single him out from a distance.

          He’ll just wonder why some dude named “Vic Rules” is plinking him with arrows and then running away.

        • SynCaine says:

          Plus I’m no all-star when it comes to play skill anyway. Nice that you will be in the area though.

        • victorstillwater says:

          Character name is Victor Stillwater, as per my blogging name. :)

          If you see me running past your town naked, it’s me trying to get to the actual town I’m supposed to stay at. :)

        • bonedead says:

          You need a lot more than a skill above 50 heh. But SynCaine and Paragus are nice when they run into you. I was spared once due to my huge internet popularity.

  10. victorstillwater says:

    *hugs everyone who is also in Darkfall*


  11. Randomessa says:

    I’ll admit to being a tad confused by your position here (blame it on my not having eaten for the day, or any other reason you might conjure). You equate themepark players with “grunts”, yet haven’t you said elsewhere that a sandbox enables you to embrace your grunt status, in contrast to a single-player game in which you want to be the hero? Perhaps I’m missing the distinction.

    Obviously (?) your point trends towards the position that a recreational activity only has value as long as you are competing/striving/improving/creating etc. and perhaps I am not a “typical” gamer myself, but I just have no interest in competing during my “playtime.” I compete for resources, jobs, wages, a better deal at the garage, etc. all day, and when I come home at the end of the day I don’t play to win, I play to relax (you touched on this, but again with this implication that such play is without value).

    So, I have vacationed off the beaten path in various countries, and yet can still enjoy a trip to Six Flags. There’s a time and place for backpacking around Europe, and one for sitting in the lap of luxury (if one can afford it).

    FWIW, I could not care less whether or not I am a “grunt” in the games I play, and I have no problem with being “DPS #98272” in, say, a warband in WAR. I do not need to be the hero or the queen or the star of the show. Rather, I play themepark games because I am a controlling bitch: I want to be in control of my own experience at all times, and if others can impinge on my gameplay – as they can in a sandbox, since (mostly) ultimate freedom is the reason for showing up – I want no part of such an experience.

    • SynCaine says:

      You got the main point. The thing about a sandbox is that most people in it are grunts (like in the RL), the difference being in a sandbox you have more opportunity to be a ‘real’ hero, rather than a the 1000th person to be told they are a hero by an NPC.

  12. sid67 says:

    Oversimplifying MMOs
    –Sid67 (Serial Ganker)

  13. Max says:

    Here is the question though. Say one wants to make a good sandbox game. It is known that it wont hit WoW subscription numbers , but its not the goal. Goal would be to carve its niche in MMO space, for intelligent , resourceful players , who enjoy playing with and against other people

    Question is how big that niche would be . I know shadowbane sold around 100k boxes. Would that be a good realistic target? eve has 300k+ but I read that less than 50% of people there ever ventured into 0 sec space.

    I see that for a good sandbox game it has to have tools for players . At least on the level of UO. To date no game so far provided that. It also has to be a quality product – not ridden with technical problems (like SB and to a lesser extent DF) .

    I do see biggest challenge is bringing a stable client/server to market with decent tool and some content . Without middleware it doesnt seem like something an indy company can make. so far all pvp centric projects failed on this front miserably.

    Only exception is eve (and it still not issue free and was total disaster at launch) and it seems to be doing allright

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