We all love labels, and MMO players are no exception. One of the ways in which we differentiate one game from another is to label them as either “theme park” (or on rails) and “sandbox”. As with all labels one size doesn’t usually fit all, but one can still distinguish notable examples of one type or the other.
UO, for instance, was an early sandbox game, as was Asheron’s Call. More recently you have A Tale in the Desert (Egyptian sand, no less!), Star Wars Galaxies, EVE and Fallen Earth. On the theme park side you have the 800lb gorilla, of course – WoW – and LOTRO, AION, and in fact most of the MMOs released in the US and Europe in the last half-decade. For the most part, sandbox games are outnumbered by theme park games.
So what makes one game a sandbox and another a theme park? In very general terms, theme park games tend to have much more structured progress from level 1 to the level cap and usually beyond. Progression is clearly defined and the activities players carry out to achieve said progression are clearly marked and clearly chained (usually in the form of zones and quests). On the other hand, sandbox games don’t usually tell you what to do and when and some may not have levels at all, like the early SWG or the entirely skill-point based EVE. In theme park games, progression through the content is one of the major aims of the game. In sandbox games, you’re often left to define your own progression, assuming you want to progress at all and not just spend all your time picking papyrus on the banks of the Nile or shooting down other players’ spaceships in remote star systems.
The thing is, while you can progress through sandbox games in any way you want, since there’s no actual obligation to progress in a particular direction or at all, almost every sandbox game I know of has gradually added more structure, more theme-parkish elements, over the last few years. SWG is an extreme example of this – the revamp and NGE period added levels, defined classes and roles by entirely stripping out the mix-n-match profession choices, and provided a number of clear paths to go from level 1 to level 90. It’s almost heretical to admit that the NGE had any redeeming features at all, but I’ve been back to SWG since then and in some ways it did improve the game; sadly, in many ways it also killed the game’s heart and soul.
In fact, all the sandbox games I mentioned as examples above – ATITD, EVE, FE and SWG – have been modified and overhauled to add more structure since they first came out. EVE, a notoriously difficult game to pick up as a new player, has attempted to make this initial experience a little less disorienting by providing more structured missions and quests that attempt to introduce a player to the various types of activities that are possible in the game. Fallen Earth did much the same thing a year or so ago. (I’d be interested to know, from readers who play or have played that game, whether Darkfall has ended up adding more structured elements or if it remains exactly as it was at launch.)
The reverse trend isn’t as prevalent, probably because it’s easier to add rides to a sandbox than it is to add sand to a theme park. EQ2 is a pretty good example of a hybrid game: it has always had questing progression (though that too has been overhauled and streamlined in the last few years), but it remains possible for a player to ignore the standard rides – adventuring, gaining levels, doing dungeons – and to concentrate entirely on other aspects of the game such as crafting, collections, or designing awesome housing décor.
The debate between proponents of one type of game over the other can become quite heated, as MMO debates often seem to do. Sandbox fans tend to deride theme park games as somehow less authentic and lesser, while theme park fans point to the fact that sandbox games lack focus and don’t actually offer anything to “do” in the long run. Those aren’t facts – they’re purely value judgments. So is the argument that one type of game has less retention potential than the other: I know players who have been faithfully playing WoW since its release, just as I know players who have never played anything other than EVE. (That said, those are extreme examples; most of the players I know have played both sandbox games and theme park games at one time or another, if only because most MMO players I know can’t resist the lure of trying something new every now and then.)
The most common argument I hear is that the two types of games appeal to radically different types of people, but that’s also untrue. What they do is appeal and cater to radically different playstyles. That’s not the same thing. Theme park games tend to provide a very structured experience with very clear – and equally structured – rewards; sandbox games, on the other hand, give you the freedom to make your own fun every time you log on. Some days I just want to log on, kill shit with my friends and have fun, without thinking too much about how I’m going to create said fun; other days I want to create commercial empires, find rare housing items, or just rumble around the world doing my own thing without caring about whether I’m getting rewards or whether I’m moving forward.
I’ve played both types of games over the years. While sandbox games generally appeal to my playstyle preferences more than theme park games, I don’t hate on the latter and I’m currently playing the biggest theme park of them all: WoW. I knew what to expect when I went back, and I’m enjoying the hell out of the rides this time around; when the theme park is as varied and slick as Azeroth has become, it can be both enjoyable and compelling to try all the rides, at least for a while. We’ll have to see how it goes when boredom and burnout start to set in.
But boredom and burnout aren’t exclusive to theme park games, as I know from experience. Arguably, sandbox environments aren’t as oriented toward achiever, A-type personalities, which might mean that the people playing them aren’t as prone to getting bored when they’re not presented with a constant influx of new challenges and new things to do; but I’m no Nick Yee, and I have no research other than observations over the years to back that up. But even sandbox players get bored, because it’s human nature to get bored when we’re doing the same type of thing day in, day out; and since we play games specifically in order to be entertained (among other things), we tend to not be tolerant of becoming bored in them.
After years and years of stringent empirical research (read: spending my subs every month on over a dozen different games), I’ve come to a couple of conclusions that suit my playstyle and make it easier to avoid that feeling of ennui and lack of focus when I log in. If I’m playing a sandbox game, I’ll try to make time for the structured activities now and then, partly because they’re enjoyable and partly because they provide a change in pace, especially since one of the biggest boredom-triggers for me is doing the same thing every time I log in. (I eventually burned out of SWG, years ago, because my trading empire was sucking up all my time. There’s only so many factories you can plop down and load all day long before you start wondering when your beloved game turned into a full-time job.)
And if I’m playing a theme-park game, every now and then I just get off the rails and take off into the wild blue yonder. Granted, I can’t suddenly decide to start a manufacturing empire in WoW (though I certainly could decide to start an auction-house empire), nor can I spend time finding cool stuff to decorate my house with – still one of my pet peeves, Blizzard! – but that doesn’t mean I can’t bring my own sand. Sandbox play is as much a state of mind as it is a type of game design: to some extent, it’s purely the decision to avoid structure for a time and create one’s own fun. Anyone can do that, in any environment.
Ultimately it doesn’t matter what you play, or why, or how, as long as you’re having fun. And one thing I’ve discovered is that no matter what you play, it’s who you play with that makes the biggest difference over the long term. If you’ll pardon a rather tortured metaphor: friends are the best sand of all.