Sandbox vs Themepark
Here’s a quick aside post, since it’s topical on Twitter right now, but I want to say more about it then a series of 140 character posts can justify. This is just the way I see sandbox MMOs and “themepark” MMOs, so your mileage may vary.
To me, a themepark MMO has a very linear design: you start at level 1, and progress to the level cap. Your primary motivator is questing. Questing is designed not only to give you a framework to earn XP, but also to move you from one side of the zone map to the other, and eventually into the next zone where the threats are more “level appropriate”. The progression is measured, and there’s always going to be a place in the world where you “belong” according to your level, gear and abilities.
Sandbox MMOs, on the other hand, aren’t so interested in directing you in a focused direction, although they can nudge you towards a specific part of the world. Quests aren’t as important, as they don’t exist to drive a player to the next zone. They’re mostly for busy work, earning money or rewards and for passing on whatever story the devs feel they want to impart. Quest chains aren’t so important either, because quest chains generally serve to push stories and to make players move from one location to another. Instead, sandbox games allow players to move freely through the game world, or at least a moderately restrictive level ranged zone.
World of Warcraft is the best example of a themepark, while EVE Online is the best example of a pure sandbox title. Questing in WoW is the main progression driver for location and level. In EVE, the skills are trained over time (real-world), and technically, a new player can move into nullsec space on day one (although the wisdom of such a move is questionable, but there are practical reasons). WoW‘s zones are level-appropriate, containing creatures, dungeons and raids that are keyed to a level range. Players are expected to complete a set of quests in a zone before moving into the next zone. WoW‘s design is so solid that two players who do not play together, but who meet at a zone border will most likely be exactly the same level when they meet; that’s how engineered WoW‘s themepark is. EVE on the other hand, allows players to fly from one side of the universe to the other. There are decent reasons why a new player might head to 0.0 space: to join a corporation’s POS, for example. In all honesty, a new player is perfect for 0.0 space because he has less to lose. He probably has no implants, and his starter frigate will be replaced, gratis, if it’s destroyed. This makes new players a viable resource for more powerful players, as scouts, decoys, or small-time haulers.
There are many reasons why people dislike themeparks, but I believe that the near-scriptedness of experience is high on the list. Playing a themepark game is like being forced to color inside the lines because the “lines” are actually 70 foot tall iron walls, and your crayon is bolted to a railroad track. Once you run through a connect-the-dots series of quests once, twice or three times, you really don’t want to do it a fourth time, but because the game is so tightly controlled, the logical alternative – striking off on your own — isn’t supported by the themepark model. It can be done, but there’s zero structure. You’re just killing the same things you’d be killing if you took the quests, but without the XP, loot and cash rewards.
There are just as many reasons why people dislike sandbox titles. Because the focus isn’t on PvE questing, the dark shadow of PvP seeps in to fill the space. If you’re not interested in PvP, there’s little else to do to keep you occupied because usually what quests are available are mind-numbingly repetitive, sometimes auto-generated from a finite pool of text and rewards. For some, the sandbox world is also too unrestrictive. No on wants to log into a world and play a game without a goal in hand. In sandbox games where the goal is “whatever you want”, this can be disorienting for a lot of people. It leads to boredom, or into play styles that people really don’t like to engage in (like being ganked by more aggressive PvPers).
The space between sandbox and themepark is a very gray area. I think any game that tries to bridge the divide ultimately ends up siding in one direction more then the other by either including too many quests or by adding too many free-form elements that give players more options then they know what to do with. Sadly, the answer isn’t as simple as moving to sandbox if you’re tired of themepark, or vice versa, unless you crave guidance that sandboxes don’t offer, or crave the struggle that themeparks don’t offer. Maybe some developer will someday find the perfect blend of the two, but until then, it’s a good argument to play more then one MMO at a time.