I'm excited for this new generation of MMORPGs. As I said in my other column last Friday, I can't wait for the MMO apocalypse—where the genre collapses and rebuilds—because I believe it will usher in a new era of innovation for online role-playing, and we're already started to see that happen today. For the longest time, sandbox MMORPGs were almost nonexistent. Before World of Warcraft cemented the "theme park" style of MMO, there were plenty of them, but they quickly fell out of favor in the face of Warcraft's success, and only recently are they starting to make a comeback in the indie community.
With games like The Repopulation, Albion Online, Crowfall, Camelot Unchained, Black Desert Online, and countless others, developers are finally starting to harness the creative power sandboxes contain. But will any of them ever be able to topple the greatest sandbox MMO of all time?
I don't think so—at least not while EVE Online is still drawing breath.
MMORPGs are the most unique genre of video game because, more than any other, each one tends to evolve rapidly over the span of its lifetime. Consider how much opinion has shifted from Elder Scrolls Online, which started off incredibly rocky and is now what many consider a fantastic MMO. That's because, over the course of years since those brutal first days, the Elder Scrolls Online has been rapidly changing in a way that few other genres of game could ever manage. Whole concepts are stripped out and replaced, and new content is being unveiled and stitched onto the foundation to provide new frontiers to explore.
In theme park MMOs, this rapid evolution typically takes the form of subtle refinements to how the game plays while also laying down new road for players to drive forward on. Because linear progression reigns supreme in theme park MMORPGs, all these types of games need to do is continually pave roads at a pace that doesn't upset their audience. They're like transcontinental highways being unveiled one province at a time. Players wait at the border until the next stretch of road is complete, and then they rush forward. Rinse. Repeat.
The result of this type of development means that, even though World of Warcraft is over a decade old, when a new theme park MMORPG launches, it doesn't feel that far behind. Sure, World of Warcraft has a huge edge in terms of total available content, but because both emphasize such narrow player goals (increasing your level and then increasing the stats of your armor), those distances can feel skewed. Even if World of Warcraft is miles ahead of the competition, both are driving on a flat, straight road and you can always see WoW on the horizon.
Sandboxes are different, however, because their design philosophy emphasizes horizontal progression—not always getting more powerful, but widening your total skillset. Looking at EVE Online, there's no one metric for measuring your character's strength in combat because you spread your skill points over a wide range of disciplines, and even a character up into the tens of millions of skill points could be relatively weak in combat deciding on how they spent them.
EVE Online is also over a decade old, yet the difference between EVE Online and newer sandboxes—say Albion Online—feels extreme.
That's because, unlike theme parks, sandbox MMORPGs don't simply just lay down more road for players to travel forward on, they build intersections of roads that form complicated webs of growth. The hallmark expansion of a theme park MMORPG is the addition of new dungeons and zones to explore, but the hallmark expansion of sandboxes introduce more functionality to the core game, widening the ways in which you can play it. The difference between EVE Online and other sandboxes begins to feel like the difference between downtown LA and a rural midwestern town.
From EVE Online's first days, there has been a staggering number of additions that are beyond the scope of a new dungeon or zone. Each one adds important functionality to the game, making it a more robust and versatile experience. And EVE Online has been developing these additions for over 13 years.
Albion Online, despite being impressive in certain ways, just can't compete because launching a game that is as robust in features would be a huge strain on resources and development time. And because those features are so much more than a new character class or dungeon, that distance between them feels so much more expansive.
I've been really enjoying Black Desert Online lately, and as in depth as some of its mechanics can be, it's still missing so many of the core features that makes EVE Online the amazing sandbox that it is—even seemingly small features like being able to search character profiles to gather intel on them is a huge aspect of EVE that many other sandboxes lack. While I expect more and more features will roll out in the coming years (the same for Albion Online), both of these games are trying to catch up to an MMO that has had a decade to mature.
That's the ultimate curse of sandbox MMORPGs. While they might be reasonably complex at launch, they're still just little seeds that will need time before they can blossom and grow into their wonderful complexity. With EVE Online having such a huge advantage over any of the new ones coming out, I'm not so sure that any of them are going to be stealing its crown as the king of the sandbox any time soon.
If anything, EVE Online will probably need to die before a new MMORPG takes its place because the bar is simply set too high for any of the current ones to reach. While Albion Online and many others certainly have a promising foundation for which to build on, the overall lack of so many features means it will be quite some time before it's able to go toe to toe with EVE Online.
That problem is exactly what sandbox MMORPGs can be such a tragic sub-genre, despite the fact that I adore them to death. All of the best ones are the result of years of evolution, and while the new ones can have their charms, I'm always painfully aware of how limited in scope they are in comparison. There could one day be a sandbox that finally rivals EVE Online's complexity, but I doubt we're going to see it magically spring up in the next year. It's going to take a long time. A very long time.