The boards these days seem to say the same things: "we're tired of this quest-based, linear, WoWesque theme MMOs are going through now." I can't say I blame them. I, too, want a good game like Ultima Online or Star Wars Galaxies. In terms of design, they were great. If we could get players to play them correctly, they might be around today.
One of the things many around here claim is that a sandbox is great because it has no rules. I beg to differ. A sandbox has rules, and it's up to the players to uphold them or the sandbox dies. Even EVE has rules, and for the most part, players uphold them. Otherwise, the game would tank.
We don't use terms like munchkin or twink these days. Probably because the games we play make no distinction between munchkin or twink play, and regular play. The goal in the games today is to advance as quickly and efficiently as possible, because there isn't anything else to do.
But back in the early days, we were given a set of tools as players and subscribers to craft our world. If you think about that, it's a very special thing to be able to do. We were the ones, collectively, that were responsible for "making the game work."
The moment I realized that sandbox was doomed was about the middle of 2004. That was when a dancer/musician in Star Wars Galaxies got a GM award for "most helpful player." There was only one problem though. The player wasn't even at the keys, and hadn't been at the keys for months.
The character ran on a repeating script which endowed all who saw the character's performance for ten minutes with a buff. This was initiated when the servers went up, and the character was performing until the server went down. The character became so popular that all of the other entertainers on the server had no patrons. Everybody wanted the buff, and everyone went to where the buff was at.
I've met some entertainers in that game that were really fun to see, and made going to the cantina work as a nice immersion device and anti-grinding measure. Probably the worst thing that could happen to that profession, and this genre as a whole, is when they got that stat enhancing ability. Because all of the sudden, nobody cared about making the game work for everyone. They just wanted the buff, and they didn't care if they went to an entertaining player or an artificial script to get it.
Now in all honesty, I really don't think the GM knew what he was doing when he gave out the award. He probably saw constant crowds around this character, and thought this character was a good entertainer.
But what was really shocking for me was the response from the playerbase on the boards. It seems that most players in SWG really thought the buffbot was the most helpful player, because the buffbot buffed thousands of players a day at all hours. Also, they thought the entertainers who entertained at the keys were lazy or selfish for not setting up the bot in the same way. To the players who depended on buffbots to grind, the spirit and intention of the game--at least the cantina game--was of little consequence.
Buffbots are not unique to SWG. Asheron's Call had them too for enchanting and portals, and they were just as popular. I heard the rationalle for buffbots a thousand times, "I pay for the right to have a bot," or, "I just can't risk not having a buff or an enchanter on call." But there was something about 2004 in SWG that was different. For the first time, players en masse rejected the intention of the design for the sake of contrived convenience. It showed me that the majority of powergamers had no use for a virtual world with all it's nuances. Players did not want to be burdened with the responsibility of making the game world work, and saw the game world as an unnecessay obstacle to what they really wanted: PvP and PvE dominance.
The publishers say that they want to attract the casual player. However, it seems that everyone I talk to on these boards seem to complain about the time spent grinding, and the herculian task of doing raids. If anything, the games today are more hardcore than I have ever seen, if one defines hardcore as putting in serious hours. The fact is, these games get subscription revenue because of the serious hours necessary to play. This doesn't change between linear and sandbox.
What has changed are the players, and what the players are willing to do to make the game work. Specifically, players don't want to be bothered with the duty of maintaining the suspension of disbelief, and they feel fully within their rights to metagame, twink, stack, OOC, macro, or complain about any mechanic or subsystem that prevents them from min/maxing on demand.
And now you PvP folks come to the boards and say your PvP sucks, and you want FFA like Ultima?
We'd simply go back to making bots, munchkinizing our characters, camping for loots, AFKing, and griefing RPers. Enough of us couldn't handle the responsibility of resisting these things before, and I suspect that we wouldn't be able to handle it now. As a result, all the interesting and good players who made the games work in SWG, AC, and UO went to games where such things wouldn't be a concern anymore: games like WoW.
Hence, is it any wonder why we have no more complicated script functions, no interdependency, clinical cookiee-cutter character options, bland instances masquerading as worlds, and hardly any RP tools like character customization and emotes?
Sandbox games take compromise on our parts for them to work for the players that are arriving there. That means not to go rushing off to the macrobot if we can't get a buff right away. It means indulging a bit of light RP when you are waiting around, if only to maintain the suspension of disbelief for others. It means not complaining if we can't get into the fight right away because we have to fix our armor, or heal our stats. It means fixing our problems without guildalts, and shared accounts.
And seeing that we probably aren't willing to circumvent our well-worn ways of twinking out our game, I don't see the next sandboxes being much of an improvement over the earlier ones.