I will say this upfront so we are all on the same page, the definition of a sandbox/themepark is more opinion than science. It’s more general approach than X+Y=Z. Its shades of gray, and themeparks can have sandbox features, just like a sandbox can have themepark features. Finally, a game being X or Y does not instantly make it ‘better’ than another.
Ok that last part is a lie, sandbox > themepark. The rest is true though.
In a previous post, I described why the original premise of Ultima Online was so exciting to me, being an RPG without the content coming to an end. To me, themeparks very much have an end, even if they don’t say it as directly as a single-player RPG does.
In EQ1, if you played enough, you eventually hit the level cap, had “Best in slot” items, and had slain the toughest big-bad. Until an expansion, you were basically done. That, to me, is the key difference of the sandbox vs themepark distinction.
In contrast, while you could easily hit the skill cap in UO, your character was only ‘done’ until you decided to switch up those 700 points, something that was done somewhat frequently. Likewise, while you might have a solid collection of the ‘best’ gear, the fact that gear not only broke but could also be lost meant you could never have enough. The same goes for gold. In most themeparks X amount of gold is ‘enough’, while in something like UO/EVE/DF, more is ALWAYS better.
Continuing the ‘never done’ theme, another key sandbox characteristic is how you view the world. In a sandbox, most regions of the world retain some value, and you end up going back for one thing or another. You are never ‘done’ with a city, zone, or dungeon. In a themepark, you out-level or out-gear content, and once you are done, that’s it (for that character).
On the other hand, difficulty is NOT a characteristic of either sub-genre. EQ1 was a difficult themepark, but it was still a themepark. That mobs could kill you, that you needed to group, and the fact that it took a considerable amount of time (as compared to themeparks of today) to reach the cap does not mean EQ1 is suddenly a sandbox. You still went from zone to zone, you still out-leveled content, and, again, you eventual maxed out in levels/items. Now the fact that it took so long and was difficult is another topic, but change all mobs in WoW to elites and add an death penalty, and how different is WoW from EQ1?
Another distinction between a themepark and a sandbox is how you approach goals. In a themepark, you have ‘hard’ goals, while most goals in a sandbox are ‘soft’ goals. In EQ1, you log in to go after item X, because item X is the best item for that slot for that level range. You do it, because, well, that’s what you do. In a sandbox, you go into a dungeon to farm to get more wealth (be it general farming for gold or specific item farming because that item has high value, either for you or for others), and you then use that wealth to further progress whatever over-arching goal you or your clan have.
This goes back to that finite vs infinite content thing; in a sandbox your goals evolve based not just on your actions, but the actions of those around you. You very much live in a virtual world, and when big events happen, they matter. In a themepark, what other players are doing really has little impact on your game. The big exception here were EQ1 rare spawns, which I would call a pretty sandbox feature (and is it any surprise that current-day themeparks have removed this feature?), but by and large the distinction holds.
In many ways, a themepark is ‘simpler’ to get into, because the ultimate goals are more readily available and controlled. The EQ1 devs knew exactly how long it would take the average player to hit the level cap, or how long it would take to gear up to advance through raid content. In a sandbox, the devs don’t control when a large war breaks out, or which areas the players deem high-value (they can attempt to influence this, but it’s never an exact science). The word ‘dynamic’ is overused, but here it applies.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, sandbox vs themepark is as much a player mindset as anything else. If you are not bothered that your content might end, if a certain amount of unpredictability is not required, if a hard-set path is an attractive feature, then you don’t view a themepark as ultimately flawed.
But I do. Those things ultimately go against what I want from an MMO, which is an endless world that entertains me rather than a set amount of content to share with others. Of course, themeparks have their time and place; they are good for bursts of contained content. Show up, view the shiny lights, sit and watch the show, leave. Very un-MMO, kinda shallow, but still entertaining.
Long term though, I’ll be in the sandbox, setting up my mines.