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Editor's Note

Jon Wood, the Managing Editor of, gives his opinions on news, games, and all things MMORPG.

Author: Stradden

Missing Sandboxes - Some thoughts on their rarity

Posted by Stradden Thursday June 26 2008 at 11:00AM
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I’ve been giving some thoughts over the last few days about the direction that MMORPGs have been headed. Looking at the games that have launched in the last year or two, as well as the games in development that are scheduled to release in the next year or so, it is clear that the industry has sifted away from its sandbox roots and is becoming firmly entrenched in the guided experience game design.

I should start out by saying that I personally think that there is room for both design styles in the genre, and I honestly do enjoy the guided experience model. With that being said, I feel very strongly that the genre needs another good, solid sandbox game to remind us that there are approaches out there that differ from what has become the norm.

Some of the reasons that the guided experience has become the dominant design choice for MMOs of today are pretty obvious when you give it some thought:

World of Warcraft: While I hate to admit it, the success of WoW may be the biggest obstacle standing in the way of a big, AAA sandbox launch. It would be hard to argue against the fact that Blizzard’s World of Warcraft is the bar by which the genre is judged. When investors hear the MMORPG acronym, WoW and the WoW design model are what come to mind. It’s a proven system, and when you’re talking about money, proven is better.

Easier to Design: The thing about encouraging players to do whatever they want in the world is that you have to provide support for the unpredictable. In a guided experience MMO, developers can control and localize the content. They know roughly where the bulk of their players will be at any given level and can tailor specific content with that in mind. In a true sandbox game, this becomes much more difficult.

Choice is Bad: After having attended a number of Game Developer’s Conferences, there are a number of tidbits of information that I have picked up. One of those pieces of information is that studies show that, on average, people don’t like too much choice. That’s one of the reasons, for example, that character creators often have a simple method and an “advanced” option.

Sandbox-style games ask players to make all kinds of decisions. In fact, in a good sandbox game, nearly everything is a decision. A guided experience is exactly what it sounds like it is. Players are left to make very few decisions on their own and are told exactly when and where the action is.

Technological Concerns: While this may seem like a bit of a thin argument, Technology does raise an interesting concern when talking about a sandbox game vs. a guided experience MMO. Currently, the best example of a AAA sandbox MMO is EVE Online. Eve Online uses some of the most sophisticated server technology to allow all of their players to exist together on a single server.

In my opinion, any AAA sandbox game would have to have this feature in order to be successful, the public would demand it. That being said, in this scenario, something would have to take a hit and it would most likely be graphics. EVE is able to accomplish their stunning graphics because being set in space gives them the advantage of having to render only a small amount of the vast universe that their world encompasses.

Doubtless these aren’t the only reasons. That’s one of the reasons that I wrote this blog entry. I’m curious to see what you all think about the subject of sandbox MMOs. Instead of simply complaining that none are being made, it might be helpful for us to get to the bottom of the issue.

ShinDaiShi writes:

I tend to agree that the mojority of vocal people on the internet are examples for and/or proponents of game design to the lowest common moron.  Unless something happens to change that view of the average gamer, we will never see another good sandbox design game.  When gamers currenlt  follow the current most poplular character specs and raid startegies like slave and vehemently argue that is the only possible way to do things, designers can only assume that guiding their gaming experience like they were trained rats is the only possible way to design games.

Thu Jun 26 2008 11:08AM Report
ProfRed writes:

People are making them, but they run out of funding or go under the radar for too long.  We can just pray that one makes it out of the gate and if enough of us play it will grow to something great.  Support the lesser developers since the large seem to only want to bend us over.

Thu Jun 26 2008 11:15AM Report
Terranah writes:

I wonder how big a hit to graphics we are talking.  I think as long as the graphics are well done it is okay.  Even WOW is tolerable to me because they graphics have an artistic flair about them.


If we could take a step back in graphics though, say to SWG type graphics, that would be even better. 


I would love to play a AAA sandbox mmo, but it doesn't seem likely.

Thu Jun 26 2008 11:56AM Report
Hexxeity writes:

So far, no sandbox game has given the players sufficient tools to create content for other players.  THAT's your hurdle.

Thu Jun 26 2008 12:50PM Report
ProfRed writes:

Ryzom started with the free expansion Ryzom Ring Hexxeity.  Players could make their own zones with scenarios/monsters/npc's and even take control of them to tell stories.

They were online while players were, or for 5$ more a month they could be on at all times, across multiple servers too I believe.  Now the game is returning!  Should be some fun.  I like this approach though.

Thu Jun 26 2008 1:25PM Report
saluk writes:

There are technical reasons that make developing sandbox games hard, but single server is a technical problem by itself (and being set in space doesn't help as much as you might think). 

There are two things that a full sandbox (make any object anywhere) will cause problems with graphically for a land based game - unoptomized/technically complex scenes, and lack of baked shadows.  There are what I see as fairly simple solutions to both of these issues.  You have to limit building in some way (look at the recent spore creature complexity meter), and you have to rely on dynamic shadows.  Most games these days tend to use dynamic shadows for nearly everything, so for a next-gen system this shouldn't be a problem. 

Also, for a sandbox game I think the single server issue is actually EASIER than a quest train.  With a quest train you have 100% of your population start in zone 1, then most of them level up and you have 50% of your pop in zone 2 and 50% in zone 1 (but double the pop from before) and it just goes like that until you level out.  When it's stable, you probably have at least 25-50% of pop in the first few zones at all times if the end game is lacking; or maybe its more back loaded with 50% of pop in the last few zones.  So you end up with all of the players more or less in the same spot.  This is BAD for a single server, so you have to shard it.

In a sandbox game, you can distribute nodes more evenly and make enough various places attractive that people will spread out.  If an area is too crowded, people can move away and build somewhere else.  You can even make laws to force players not to build to close to each other, in order to keep the amount of players in one location manageable for a zone server and clients.

I agree on your other points though.

Design-wise, open games are many times more difficult than linear ones, and it's true that too much choice can be really bad for most players.  What is needed is a guided sandbox that allows you to hop off the rails when you no longer need training wheels.  But I think this would be the hardest of all to design.

Thu Jun 26 2008 2:00PM Report
meleemadness writes:

Yep, an open sand box requires too much individual thought.....that style appeals more to grown adults than it does to kids.  most kids need someone to pull them through the world/content. 

Most kids (actually all) are reliant on their parents.  They provide everything....I mean everything.  So, their mindset is no different when playing a game.  if the content isn't served to them they will lose!

Unfortunately, it appears to me, most developers aim towards the younger generations.  The instant gratification society.  Ppl need to see tangible rewards and see  hence WoW's success (and it runs on any computer).

I would pay $20 a month to play a game like SWG, rated mature.  It would obivously be targeting older folks who have the piddly $20 to pay as well as the mature rating.  The fee itself would keep many of those who do nothing but bash games away.

Anyway, I am growing older and I am starting to wonder if I will have to learn coding to develop my own game!

Thu Jun 26 2008 2:17PM Report
boognish75 writes:

Sandbox, it always brings mind to no content, the best sandbox and mostly the only sandbox i have enjoyed was saga of ryzom, it was so full of no content that they released the ryzom ring expansion that let you create your own content, if an mmo is gonna be an empty sanbox where you are suppose to do what you want when you want maybe devs should look into saga of ryzom for inspiration instead of charging the players for empty sandbox games that offer a zillion useless skills to do a zillion useless things, i guess i am trying to say if yer gonna give people an empty shell for a game and call it a sand box, ya might wanna put some sand in for the players to build stuff with.

Thu Jun 26 2008 2:53PM Report
Sevala writes:

I could not agree with Stradden more. Commercially speaking...sandbox styles are dead/dying. Most games are a WOW clone. Seems like we've reached a creative plateau for the most part on commercial games. Less creative talent, less ambition, less likly to take risks to change the face of MMORPGs. Their only desire is money. They lost, what I believe is the most important driving force behind a "GREAT" game...and thats simply the desire to actually create that make something truly special...regardless of the profit margins.

I still believe there is a market, albeit perhaps not as mainstream still for this style of game.  Perhaps it fits better now within a complete emersion RP atmosphere.  Most people interested in a more sandbox style of play would be willing to sacrifice on graphics I would imagine...I know I am. Personally I loved (pre-cu) SWG, and is still rated as one of, if not the best MMO's I've played.

Either way, with the means becoming easier and personal opinion is that we will have to look forward to Indie companies to start setting a new bar for the industry. At the very least, I'd say its really up to the people looking for something special to at least give them the opportunity to succeed. Look for the potential and creative style. Even if a launch isn't perfect at first...theres alot better chance of a Indie fixing it over a commercial company.

I'd expect more Indie companies to  launch into the MMO market soon, and would suggest everyone keep their eyes open.

Thu Jun 26 2008 3:09PM Report
Yeebo writes:

Why on earth do MMO designers think sandbox = lets make a bunch of systems, dump players in the middle of them, and expect them to make their own fun?

My favorite sandbox games are all offline.  Morrowind, Fallout I and II, hell even GTA.  Each game offers tons of freedom.  Yet all of these games also have rich compelling stories to uncover.  They give you plenty of freedom to either follow along a the main story, any number of smaller self contained arcs, or just mess around with a deep set of systems. 

In many ways Morrowind is one of the richest Sandbox environments I've ever experienced, and there are dozens of quest chains in that game...with tools that allow you to design even more and distribute them over the net.  That is a good sandbox. 

Conversely, I don't see why having some sort of directed content to follow is so antithetical to having some deep systems to mess around with when you aren't questing.  Take the pre-NGE SWG housing, crafting, combat, and character development system and stick it in a world with as much content as WoW (or even 1/3 that ,really), and I'm a happy clam.  Hell, give players a simple levelling option where the game assigns stat points as per the role that you've chosen each time you level or earn a skill point, or let them tunr that off and micromanage everything.  Offline RPGs have been doing this for 20 years, why the hell hasn't a single MMO tried it? And why do designers think everyone that enjoys story arcs wants to be led around like a five year old?

Until MMO designers figure out how to balance content and  freedom  as well as offline game designers, Sandbox MMOs will remain a niche market.  Most consumers when forced to pick, will go for content and entertainment over freedom and deep mechanics.


Thu Jun 26 2008 4:00PM Report
gotha writes:

Some games seem to be heading that direction  Darkfall might be coming out of the dark,  earthrise seems like it will have sandbox features,  Champions online is shooting for a skill system and hopefully will add some sand boxist features too it,  then there is also mortal online.  So there is some hope.

Plus I think eve online shows people that Sandbox games are great long term investments.  It is one of the few games from its time that continues to draw is crowds and grow.  One of the few games that recieves a graphical upgrade and is still successful.  They key selling point to an investor for a Good sandbox MMO is retention of players.


Thu Jun 26 2008 4:58PM Report
JB47394 writes:

I was just reading a blog about how PvP is falling short of expectations.  It occurs to me that sandboxes and PvP (among others) are experiences that qualify as niche.  The devotees of those niches are very enthusiastic, to be sure, but each group represents a minority.  The mainstream wants to be lightly entertained, not have some dramatic experience that leaves them with hands shaking or ready to reach through the screen to strangle someone.  The majority of players would like nothing more than a pleasant diversion - and they don't want to work for it.

meleemadness: "Yep, an open sand box requires too much individual thought.....that style appeals more to grown adults than it does to kids.  most kids need someone to pull them through the world/content. "

This pretty accurately mirrors the sorts of things that PvP enthusiasts say about those uninterested in PvP.  I'm decidedly an adult, and I don't particularly care for making the effort that is required to derive any fun from a sandbox game or a PvP game.  I bust my tail in other areas of my life, such as my work and my family, but games simply don't deserve my energies at that level.  It's not why I play them.  So I'm more than happy to have a game give me some pretty clear leads on what I might do next.  If I'm gonna expend the time and energy to be creative, I'm gonna do it elsewhere in my life.

I don't have a problem with folks who are enthusiasts of any given form of entertainment, so long as they can remain civil about it.  So here's hoping that y'all can get a solid sandbox experience out of your next MMO.

Thu Jun 26 2008 5:12PM Report
Sevala writes:

Yeebo is exactly right. Sandbox does NOT (should not) equal empty world, low content, low quests, and no story.

There should be a great storyline to follow, something that can really capture the players imaginations and attention. There should be just as much content, quests, etc, as any other RPG. The sandbox portion, IMO, should be character driven. Progression of your own character is in your own hands, what you do, how you add to the world, how you choose to interact with the world around you. For the most part, it should play like other RPGs...except players shouldn't be forced down certain paths.

Players should have the option to follow or ignore the story and certain content. Or at least alternatives to make their own destinies and names in the world. Even if you just want to sit around in a tavern/bar/pub and socialize...or if you just want to craft...or anything else you might desire over the "grind" or when the "grind" becomes too tedious/boring. Customization of character and personal development is the key.


Fri Jun 27 2008 12:22AM Report
idol2000 writes:

The problem with sandboxes *is* one of lack of guidance. Just being plopped into a sandbox frustrates people who don't even have a clue what they could be doing.

The big sandbox EVE Online has a tutorial that took me over a day of playing time to complete and after that I still didn't have much of a clue what I could be doing next. Players creating content for each is other is all fine and dandy, once you have settled down in the world and made contact with other players. Before  that, these other players might not even exist.

There has to be content that eases new players into the sandbox experience (and by that I don't mean intimidatingly huge tutorials) and ways to make the player-created content more accessible.

Fri Jun 27 2008 3:22AM Report
thamighty213 writes:

SWG did it 5 years ago so whats the problem oh yeah the Moronic breed of gamers that WOW brought to the MMO scene not after a challenge just something to pass 30 mins with whilst massaging their E-P33N

Fri Jun 27 2008 11:08AM Report
eric_w66 writes:

SWG and UO both stink as sandbox games. UO was only successful as it was because it was the only thing out there outside of text based MUD's for the most part. Once choice (EQ1) entered, people left in droves, either driven away from the endless grind of skills (Template of the Month) or the PvP issues (why they had to add Trammel, just to keep the few people they had left), or people just wanted more focused gameplay.

SWG, well, it stunk all the way round. It WAS a giant sandbox full of sand called 'suck'.  Even MORE mindless skill grinding than UO. "Oh, I got nerfed, time to lobotomize myself and become a doctor/merc/whatever now!"

The more "choice" you give the average gamer, the less choice there is. People always gravitate to the "most powerful" things, even in sandboxes (especially in sandboxes, because of the requirement it seems of being able to drop skills and add new about immersion killing).

Fri Jun 27 2008 10:46PM Report
UnSub writes:

The issue with sandboxes is that of control. You give players freedom, given them a world to control... and then see them abuse it and other players. UO and SWG get talked about in hushed tones as if they were perfect 'worlds' but the same people tend to gloss over all the problems that letting players have such freedom presented. Ganking. Looting. Player housing congestion. And so on.

Or it forces devs to start curtailing the freedoms in the game to stop the abuse, which then impacts on other players and removes the sandbox element. Probably the most perfect example of a sandbox available right now is Second Life. You can build your own content, anyway you like. But a lot of people don't consider it a MMO because it doesn't have a game tacked onto it. Also, a lot of controvery exists around Second Life precisely because people used the freedom of its sandbox to create content that is controversial to the mainstream.

It's not a lack of creativity that has seen sandbox MMOs fall away from popularity. The fact is that players of video games have tended to prefer playing a game that sets out what they have to do instead of trying to create their own purpose or having to co-exist with what other players have built before and leaves no room for them to build. Sandboxes also tend to require more time to 'work' in, which also limits the size of the audience.

Moving forward I think it unlikely that many 'pure' sandboxes such as UO will ever come again, but MMO games with sandbox elements are going to be increasingly common.

Sun Jun 29 2008 11:53PM Report
craynlon writes:

ok bevore i scream


i probably should diversify a bit:
Background: I played Lineage2 (Sandbox?) for 4 years and now DDO and Conan (non Sandbox?)

now to the topic:

1. what defines a sandbox game ?
negatives: grindinging instead of content (as in story/quest content)
positives: player choices

2. could you envision a pvp-less sandbox ?
if you would make a sandbox without pvp you would have a grinding game with trade options, if you remove pvp from that sometime down the line you end up with second life.
if you would have a sandbox with ffa pvp it probably would only attract a very small portion of the market

what i would like to see:
content rich games with lots of player choices like mass effekt or kotr where you can have a deeply involving story but the choices you make (good or evil) have an effect. maybe a bipolar view good/ evil is a bit boring in the long run but in the world there could be a number of fractions all with their own goals but set inside the lore content of the world (opposed to player controlled guilds that struggle for power)

a sandboxed game imho is the easy way out for a dev that hasnt much budge. its like handing a child pen and paper to let it draw for some hours compared to buying a comic book. its a cheap sollution and probably better for the imagination/ education of the child but its not modern enterntainment customers are use to

Mon Jun 30 2008 3:57AM Report
lilune666 writes:

Too much work to design and maintain, games of this style are definitely very demanding on programmers.

Mon Jun 30 2008 1:21PM Report
Shohadaku writes:

EVE's success is not that space makes it easier to render, it's that EVE is ZONED. EVE is brilliant because it worked zoning in with the theme of the game.

 A sandbox game will keep people for the long haul. If developers had the balls to break the mold. Snadbox is not as easy to produce, but I think you can have great success if a strong sandbox game gets made. Look at Grand Theft Auto. It's the sandbox in that game that caused it to be one of the most successfull games ever made.

I for one hate being led in a MMO like cattle.

Mon Jun 30 2008 1:48PM Report
craynlon writes:

would you guys define age of conan as a sandbox or a non sandbox game ?

i mean is a string of quests that tells a story from one location to the next equal to "being led like cattle" ?

as a producer of a game with story you need to have a start and an end of that story like "princess is missin" -> "princess is found"
what happens in between can be branched "kiss princess", "kill princess", "burn down lair".. but that doesnt change the fact that content needs to have some kind of structure.

if the sandbox is like "princess spawns somewhere randomly surrounded by mobs" i would call it a boring game.

Tue Jul 01 2008 1:26AM Report
Sevala writes:

In my opinion it would not be defined as a sandbox game. There isn't many, and most that were have either been abandoned or ruined completely.

In your example...I guess the best way to put a sandbox terms, would be more like, "Princess is missing", example would be, based on your own might have the option of kidnapping a princess for ransom, or going to rescue a princess, or just ignoring the whole thing.

Sandbox is more about dynamic choices rather than the same outcome for every player. There is more than one path for a player to take.

I'll use a common example, and take player arch-types from SWG (pre-SOE sucking it up). Players had a large choice of skills to choose from to build. You had a decent number of combat skills for people interested in killing, pvp, looting, etc...also you could choose crafting and make a successful pure crafter/merchant type, without having to ever fight anything if you choose...and of course there was the always interested and most often over looked musicians/dancers...a player type who would just for the most part frequent cantinas (aka bar, inn, etc).

Again...this is all really opinion, and thats only one part. Other examples are player placed buildings, structures, cities, etc...player economies. Pretty much a game that allows players to shape/impact the world around them, content, and social aspects of the game.

Sadly, often times sandbox is equated with lack of content...which is not what it means...just sometimes a bad side effect, or game design. At least in my opinion, sandbox is really just a term used to describe a more player customizable enviroment.

Sandbox style games are indeed more complicated to setup, design, program, and mostly to maintain correctly...and are often over looked as viable designs by current developers.

Tue Jul 01 2008 1:59PM Report writes:
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