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Community Spotlight: The Sandbox Never Got its Chance

Posted by MikeB Saturday September 17 2011 at 1:59PM
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This week's Community Spotlight focuses on the thread "The Sandbox never got its chance" by precious328. As the title implies, precious328 is asserting that the sandbox sub-genre of MMOs never got its chance to shine:

There really is no true definition of "Sandbox MMO". However, the ultimate idea is geared around self-sustaining content, e.g., player economy, large worlds and versatile progression. There is no set path that will lead you to the end; there is no point A to point B.

The only chance the sandbox genre ever had, if you would call it that, is with Star Wars Galaxies. Its ultimate demise scares the hell out of developers, as if SOE's / LA's failure was because the game was considered a sandbox.

If you take a look at the master list of MMOs, you will find very few games with the above characteristics. There are probably less than 10. Regardless, the top three active Sandbox games, IMO, are as followed: Eve Online, Darkfall, and Mortal Online. None of these, with mild exception to Eve, experienced AAA development and marketing.

It's never been written that a sandbox game must be hardcore, e.g., first-person, full loot pvp, and full of void material (walking for 15 min without performing some sort of action. However, most naysayers depict the genre as is.

What a shame...

Does the community agree? Let's find out:

robert4818 feels the reason sandboxes never took off has mroe to do with some of the sandbox fans themselves:

I would argue that its the Sand Box Fanboys who have really ruined the genre (if you can argue that the genre is ruined).

Its not the naysayers who insist that Sandbox means  Full Loot, Large empty worlds.  Its generally the SB Purists who shout down anyone who doesn't want those things in there.  Many base their ideal on old UO, they try to emulate that as much as possible.  Suggst a game have quests "Go back to wow", suggest no full loot pvp (or non-open pvp) "Go back to wow". etc.

eludor argues that it was the additional required effort, complexity, and lack of direction that hampered the sandbox genre:

IMO...For a good deal of people who play games (not necessarily gamers), everything that makes a sandbox successful in world requires too much work. Folks who enjoy player housing, crafting, political systems, and other forms of self-sustaining content are often quite differant than the must level to end game ASAP and do that content, make a new toon and do same thing crowd.

SWG was pretty complicated for the average new to gaming person. I know people with little gaming experience that just rush through everything, skipping storyline (not impressed by TOR's VOs) and play just to lvl and gain loot.

Lots of people require direction, and when left in an open world they don't have the desire nor creativity to contribute.

Emeraq disagrees with the OP entirely, noting that with Ultima Online the genre did actually have its chance:

OP I disagree, Ultima Online still fits that description. I remember playing it on and off in the year 2000, and the entire time I was hoping and wishing for an MMORPG that actually played a lot more like a console RPG with classes, levels, story and quests, and regardless of what people say about the genre today, it's obvious that I wasn't the only one that wanted it.

IMO Sandbox did have a chance, and many players preferred developer quests and content over RPing their own.

Like Emeraq, I also feel the genre had its chance. I wasn't there for Ultima Online, but with Star Wars Galaxies, which also did significantly well before the NGE, and later EVE Online, I'd say the genre has had more than ample chance to shine. Sandboxes are naturally harder to cultivate, given that they require creativity on part of the userbase and are not wholly dependent on developer content. As such, it's not possible to release a sandbox game in the same way as a themepark MMO and just go off the initial subscriptions and sales to say whether or not it failed. A game like World of Warcraft comes with a significant amount of content built in and gamers either enjoy it or they don't. Sandboxes tend to build up over time, which is what we saw with EVE. This is problematic for the genre as a whole as it would take a long time for people to even recognize that a new sandbox game was succeeding unless it reached critical mass quickly (Minecraft). Combine this with the complexity and investment noted earlier and you have a genre that is basically pretty niche and hard to market to wider audiences, something that became much more desirable after the meteoric rise of World of Warcraft.

I feel if you're looking for the next great sandbox game you'll probably want to keep an eye on CCP Games' World of Darkness. Now, they've not said anything on the type of game this would be, but given the IP and CCP Games' expertise at designing a succesful sandbox MMO it would make perfect sense for World of Darkness to be a legitimate new sandbox game. The game will be niche from the get-go and so there is no reason for a company like CCP to shy away from their roots here and pursue a themepark-style MMO.