Quick note to start with: Playing the relaunch of The Elder Scrolls Online just reinforced how much better FFXIV is at being a thempark MMO. I might still try to get back into ESO at some point, but after spending 15 minutes with it, I’m more than fine waiting a bit longer.
Anyway, FFXIV. Having finally hit level 30, I’ve dug more seriously into leveling other roles using other (non-questing) systems, and man oh man is it fun. As I keep saying about FFXIV, what makes the game great isn’t the addition of some new magical feature, but rather taking the existing themepark formula and significantly refining it towards perfection. Rift certainly wasn’t themepark 3.0 (thanks Trion!), but FFXIV is. The order of significant themepark evolution now goes EQ1->WoW->FFXIV.
When I play MMOs I want to play my avatar, which is why I’ve always hated alts. I don’t want to be a bunch of characters in a game; I want to be ONE character in a world experiencing things. I don’t have multiple people playing my account, so I shouldn’t need multiple characters to play the game.
FFXIV nails this by letting you switch from role to role, and also by making the gathering and crafting roles a real thing rather than just a single skill bar to max out. Finally I can ‘play an alt’ in an MMO while still being my one character. That sounds so simple, but at least for me goes such a long way.
But that feature alone wouldn’t be nearly as great if FFXIV did what most other themeparks do and force you into the normal questing grind until you can do other stuff. FFXIV has that option mind you, there are three separate leveling chains from 1-cap (I believe), but that is but one choice among many (how sandboxy huh?), and you can mix and match all of the options as you go, which is also brilliant. Whether you decide to chase Fates, run dungeons, do guildhests, or just farm mobs for xp and crafting resources, how often and in what order you do all of this is up to you.
What turns a lot of MMO players off from a sandbox is the lack of direction, while what annoys others in a themepark is the on-rails experience. FFXIV has plenty of guided content (and also plenty of not-so-guided content), but at almost any point you can stop the ride and do something else, potentially never returning to that ride again (the main quest chain aside). I love that, because I can play an MMO ‘my way’, but it’s not as investment-heavy as a sandbox often requires.