Where a good sandbox is like a mountain climb with incredible peaks along with plenty of valleys, playing a good themepark is like taking a nice walk on a familiar path; at no point are you overly thrilled, but the activity as a whole is enjoyable and ultimately you feel good about the time spent.
Most themeparks ‘fail’ because that steady drip of entertainment drops below an acceptable level, and people drift away (or you do something really dumb to instantly piss them off, like Allods with its cash shop). This is especially true if the themepark tries to use the sub model, because now there is further pressure to justify not just your time, but also your monthly cost (trivially low as it may be). At least under F2P, it only takes a tiny subset of all players to whale it out and keep things going (short-term anyway; long-term the need to keep those whales spending inevitably dooms the game), rather than a majority vote of happiness that is the sub model.
For years WoW held a choke-hold on themeparks because of how good+popular it was (not the post for that breakdown/discussion, but hopefully you understand that WoW wasn’t successful just because it was well-designed). The fabled coming of a WoW-killer was announced often, and each failed. If you were going to play a fantasy themepark (or ‘Sci-Fi’ that was fantasy reskinned), you might as well play the one with good content that all your friends are playing, right?
Realistically the only entity capable of ‘killing’ WoW was Blizzard itself, and thanks to New Blizzard making one mistake after another with the game since WotLK, that process has been underway for a few years now. WoD was able to lift WoW as much as it did because the hype was “a return to Vanilla”, but clearly New Blizzard wasn’t able to produce what really made Vanilla WoW, and sub are once again dropping.
While New Blizzard was working hard on stopping what should be an unstoppable juggernaut, SquareEnix re-released FFXIV, a themepark that is, in a way, Vanilla WoW in 2015. Not in terms of content, systems, or any specific design (all those are evolved and better), but Vanilla WoW in terms of keeping you on that nice, steady, enjoyable walk along that familiar path. Much like in 2004 WoW didn’t do any one thing amazingly well, in 2015 FFXIV doesn’t have a ‘killer feature’; it just has basically everything you could want, all co-existing beautifully in a world you want to spend time in and with a character you want to progress further, with plenty of ways for that progression to happen.
Themeparks don’t need a Burn Jita event. They don’t need to push the envelope in terms of battle sizes, or economic complexity, or to build and sustain the history of large player groups and rivalries for a decade. You don’t play a themepark expecting the peak of something like BR5 to happen, because you also don’t play it for the hours and hours of valley that makes something like BR5 possible and matter as much as it did. And you most certainly shouldn’t attempt to design your themepark to achieve this, because you will fail, horribly.
At least so far, SquareEnix seems to understand this with FFXIV. While the pace of content updates is very high, few if any of the updates are highly controversial or change/remove something you previously enjoyed. They add stuff, and generally the new stuff is good so you will experience it, but it if doesn’t happen to click with you, you aren’t disrupted or upset.
The other very important thing for any MMO, themepark or sandbox, is that updates should add content, not replace it. EVE is amazing in this regard, and FFXIV is good as well. WoW hasn’t been for some time. Most of the time a major addition to WoW effectively replaces something else, which can not only cause disruption, but also doesn’t create the massive content juggernaut that the game should be.
Take something as simple as leveling; in WoW every level increase should extent that part of the game (the best part of the game for many), but with every increase the leveling rate is also increased, so while you have more levels, they come quicker, and can be accomplished with less content consumed and time spent. That makes sense if you are dead-set on everyone sitting at the level cap, but for those that wish to experience an older zone as it was meant to be played, they either can’t (outlevel it) or can but only though additional hoops (stopping xp gain, limiting what items you use, etc).
Right now I’m ‘behind’ in FFXIV, with my main class at 38, my highest crafter at 25, and my miner at 21. If I was playing WoW, at lvl 38 I’d quickly outpace my current zone, everything would be a cakewalk due to item inflation, and it all wouldn’t feel like it did for those who hit 38 originally. Forget experiencing dungeon or group content ‘as intended’. In FFXIV none of this is the case. Every dungeon run has felt appropriate, every zone feels alive, and group content (fates) are still very popular (imagine playing WAR a year after release, being in a mid-level zone, and being able to complete every PQ with a group; that’s FFXIV today).
Other related little bits:
I recently opened up ventures for my retainers, as well as the dye and materia systems. All three open up once you complete some quick and easy, but totally optional quests. We talk often about exploration in MMOs, but way too many games have exploration limited to going to a pre-set and easy-to-spot landmark and getting an achievement, which is more achiever content than explorer. In FFXIV ‘exploring’ is, in part, finding these optional quests that open up more content for you, which is awesome.
Ventures for your retainers also tie nicely into the economy, crafting, and the roles system. Since you have to equip your retainer, and how well you equip them impacts the rewards you get, crafting lower level gear is viable/valuable, and your retainer can only level up as high as you have that role, be it combat or gathering (no crafting). Since you can have multiple retainers, this further encourages (though doesn’t force) you to switch and level different roles to open them up for your retainers as an option. The ability to switch roles on your character is already a great feature, and retainers add just one more reason why.
The dye system is fluff, of course, but is one of those “every game should have this” system, and again feeds into crafting nicely. The materia system is, as far as I see it right now, mostly an end-game thing, although you can use it earlier to give your gear a little boost. Creating materia by first getting gear to 100% bind, and then breaking it down, is another nice system that again ties other systems together. Since you can equip retainers, maybe you don’t automatically break down all your older gear? It’s not a major decision point (you can always craft or buy gear), but it exists, it adds depth to the game, and it’s a tiny little piece of a much larger, yet all inter-related puzzle that keeps you playing/paying.
FFXIV rightly deserves its spot as the top themepark MMO out, and hopefully current Square-Enix doesn’t become Old Square-Enix ala Blizzard in the years to come. If they continue down the path they have traveled so far, we’ll wonder if any MMO will ever topple it, much like we did with WoW back in 2007ish.