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Community Spotlight: The Sandbox Never Got its Chance

Posted by MikeB Saturday September 17 2011 at 12:59PM
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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.

Sulaa writes:

Well World of Darkness will be F2P from what CCP suggested , and that for me imho kill sandbox. Player driven economy and item shop where you can buy it and /or having exclusive items , is totally contradictory.   


Well as for sandoxes and history. 


UO and SWG were released before MMO went mainstream with WoW. 

After WoW there was no good sandobox.

Well EVE Online but that is:

1) hardcore sandbox (full loot , most complex game in mmorpg market , etc) 

2) setting in space , where you play with your space ship - kinda obvious that it is far from what is most popular setting



So after that we got only small indie games , that are more or less bloated , filled with bugs , exploits , small community , very narrow orriented (mostly on pvp only) like Darkfall / Mortal Online , or very specific games like Wurm.


So since MMORPG's started to get big as a markey sandbox never got it chance.


Full loot  , ganking everywhere , narrow game focus , that wont work.


Make good sandbox game with no loot from players , but with item decay , providing nice PvE and many diffrent activities, provide limits in PvP like you free from pvp zones , unability to attack if level diffrence more than 4 levels (if game is level based) , etc    AND release a nicely polished , relatively bug free game relased by big company that can provide good support and you will have much more subs than SWG  or UO ever had.


It won't compete with WoW that's for sure , but won't be niche product.


Of course SB purist won't call this sandbox anymore , but let's face it if you're looking for UO v2 you won't find it , at least not as AAA game.


What game I am looking for? 

Well this is not sandbox , but themepark with many sandbox elements , but ArcheAge is on my watch-list. 

Just preety please let this game go P2P as to play it as f2p will miss the point for me . Last game I am waiting for tbh , not waiting for miracle just for solid p2p game. 

If I won't get it , well guess it will be time to say final goodbye to mmorpg's  as I am not playing any mmorpg atm : (

Sat Sep 17 2011 1:24PM Report
klinnear writes:

I think many Sandbox (Non-purist) would like a hybrid style MMO.  There are many of us who like some elements from Theme Park games and many elements from Sandbox games.  Unfortunately we are never given games that provide us with elements of each.  It always seems to be one or the other.  If we had a game which provides quests in order to gain experience, raids that provided valuable rewards (not gear oriented or if gear oriented it would be in attachments or schematics) and early stage storylines and then lead into a more sandbox style game at End Game, I think you would gain support from Sandbox lovers and Theme Park lovers.  So for End Game you add to this large open worlds where exploration can be as much a part of the game as anything else, a player driven economy, complex crafting (not everyone can craft, you have to dedicate yourself to achieving high level crafting skills) a pvp system that is fair (not hardcore looting etc) and make the pvp rewards impactful game objectives (like control of a zone, open up of extra schematics, etc) and a combination of profession and skill systems where you can pick a profession for particular bonus effects, but skill trees are open to everyone.  (Think Star Wars Galaxies 32 profession skill trees).  Instead of them being profession trees take the sandbox skill selection (a bunch of skill trees that a person can spend points into) and the Theme Park Profession (gives bonues).  So for example in a game like Star Wars you might see a bunch skill trees like Pistol Skills, Rifle Skills, Trapping, Healing, Melee, Technical Knowledge, (Thus a Bounty Hunter might put some of his skills into Rifles, Trapping, with a bit in Melee and Healing but because they are a Bounty Hunter by profession they get bonus skills toward Trapping skills.)  This is a very brief simple example but I think you get the point.  Here you get the element of having a Profession or Class like in a Theme Park, but you get the open customization of creating how your particalar character will be skilled.   You could do this with Armors and Weapons as well.  Make all armor and weapons open for everyone, but have small bonuses for particular Professions.  Anyway I could probably go on and on about how you could combine elements from both to create a hybrid and have it be a great game but I will finish this with one last thing.  Add to the game a quest or dungeon generator (Neverwinter Nights 2 I believe has it) so that the players themselves can generate content.  This would greatly help the sandbox game by allowing those who are more creative to help deliver content for the game.  Especially within their own guilds.  Guild initiation quests, guild training missions, you name it you could create some great content that could help drive the game during the lull periods that we wait for Developer content.  Anyway, just my ideas on this subject, which I don't think is anything new really, but I think the focus needs to shift from Theme Park versus Sandbox to how do we take elements from both to make a really great MMO experience, because I don't know anyone I have ever played MMO's with who didn't want more customization, exploration, etc from Sandbox, and also liked to quest, follow storylines, raid, etc from Theme Parks.

Sat Sep 17 2011 9:24PM Report
Arawnite writes:

A PvP sandbox can't just be a chaotic free-for-all slugfest, there has to be enough structure and tools available to allow us to wage war against one another.

In my opinion, the best PvP MMO in the future will be one that has many RTS elements as well as RPG elements, and encourages territorial acquisition as well as the building up of defenses to hold that territory.

Sat Sep 17 2011 11:15PM Report
jinxxed0 writes:

People that want Sandbox games don't really want sandbox games. They want the game to be a sandbox to a certain extent. They want themepark rules in place that make it easier (or whatever) for them.


If thy really wanted a sandbox, they'd be playing Second Life. You have absolute control in it. You can join any world that someone has created, fantasy, sci fi, ninja, cyber punk, even specific things like naruto, or FF7, theres thousands to pick from.  All it takes is about 2 days worth of learning SL and you're in there.


Theres plenty of systems people have made where you can level up and gain skills and even gather resources. Theres tons of MMOs people have made within SL. 


But I guess sandbox players just want the illuson of a sand box where they make premade things and only have access to premade things where the players just unlocks them.

Sat Sep 17 2011 11:54PM Report
Arawnite writes:

jinxxed0, can you wage war in second life?

Sun Sep 18 2011 12:16AM Report
Eladi writes:

@Arawnite, and thats exsactly the comment that "kills"the sandbox :P

Sure it be nice if every singe mechanic in a sertain game is suported but sandbox does not egual war/pvp. it can be in a sandbox but its not part of its definition.

Minecraft is a sandbox and while it has some combat its clearly not its master piece. SWG was a sandbox but it did not have full loot and even had some quest/themparks.

a sandbox is nothing more then a game world whit rules that lets you play however you like whitin those rules instead of walking a pre determen path set by the developer.

ArcheAge will be the new sandbox and it got lots of features for all types of gameplay styles. themepark,war zones,pvp,crafting and farming comunity building and nothing has to be done, you can choise to do it in any order whenever you like to or not like to do someting


Sun Sep 18 2011 12:58AM Report
Arawnite writes:

I understand that sandbox does not equal war/pvp...hence why I specified "PvP sandbox" in my original comment.

and I agree on Archeage, looking forward to it myself

Sun Sep 18 2011 2:12AM Report
zellmer writes:

Yeah, reading this spotlight you have to immediately stop and say:

"What the, has he never played the original Ultima Online.....?  It fits about 95% of his no mmorpg has ever stuf...."

It was flawed in a lot of ways, but it was also insanely fun in many ways also.

Sun Sep 18 2011 2:56AM Report
Taiphoz writes:

It's the developers that killed sandbox games end of story, the developer mantra moved away from giving the player freedom to build what they want to spoon feeding them little chunks of content so that we can force them down the road we want.

Theme Park games making developing far simpler because it removes a lot of the complexity to a game and boils it right down to the brass tac's.


Sun Sep 18 2011 9:05AM Report
Amaranthar writes:

Who cares about this argument anymore?

It's simple. Give me what I want or I don't spend money...x an unquantified mass. Do you feel lucky?

Sun Sep 18 2011 11:23AM Report
Alumicard writes:

There is no problem with sandbox games but with human thinking. 

Why invest time in a sandbox game, when you can have the same result in a fraction of the time playing a themepark? The character development is just way to slow for people nowadays. I bet few people know how it is to macro 3 days 24/7 to raise a skill 1-2 pts. And yes macros were allowed back then and there was even a guild made of bots (google borg asherons call).

Well my point is, people nowadays want to see results faster which might be because the whole world became much faster with more input (cant find the correct word) 


PS: GIVE BACK UCM, Unattendet Combat Macros

Sun Sep 18 2011 12:44PM Report
WSIMike writes:


Your argument has absolutely nothing to do with Sandbox MMOs versus Theme Park.

Theme Park MMOs can have slower leveling every bit as much as a sandbox can. Conversely, a sandbox MMO can have a faster leveling speed as well.

Non-linear progression, player-driven goals, completely player-driven economy/trade/etc, ability to build or destroy homes, strongholds etc... purely skill-based progression where "you are what you do", and so on. Those are examples of what a sandbox MMO is.

The rate of leveling has nothing to do with it.

Sun Sep 18 2011 5:56PM Report
HappyFunBall writes:

They did have a chance, but most game designers chose to follow a more structured path with their designs.  I think EQ was just too hard-core for the masses, but instead of smooth out some rough edges EQ had, then went WAY TOO FAR and dumbed new games down.  It seems like designers felt they couldn't have a sandbox without full-looting too, and didn't try to hard to develop many of them at all.

I've longed for an updated UO since it came out.  I loved being able to walk around anywhere I wanted and do what I felt like doing, and having many different choices.  I wish there were even MORE choices.  I wish you could just go chop a tree down, gather wood, and start building a cabin.. hell, find a part of the world for yourself, and build your home there, build up defenses, add farm animals, crops, etc.  Anything you wanted.  You can do this to a degree, in UO, but it's not as straight-forward as this.

I miss games like this.  I know UO is still around, but they can't seem to get any new engine they make, "right".  The game was riddled with bugs and exploits for YEARS too. That didn't help it, or the genre.  They are on what?  They're 3rd or 4th new "updated" client, and even the latest one is in PERPETUAL BETA?  WTF?  Beta, AND, it doesn't have nearly all the functionality as the 2d client with addons like UOAssist and so on.  Why they couldn't make a UO2, or a new engine with ALL the functionality it needed to survive (or be equivalent of what you could do with the ancient 2d engine) is beyond me.


Are we really stuck with:

1) Make character

2) Visit all NPCs and pick up all quests

3) Go to infinite respawn area with level X monsters

4) Kill them until you get no exp and finish all kill and fedex quests

5) Loot garbage loot

6) Head to town and sell junk and turn in quests

7) Go to step 2, changing areas every X levels.

I'll just code a script to do this for me.  It's more challenging, and hell, even enjoyable/rewarding than playing the "game".

Sun Sep 18 2011 6:07PM Report
Deathwing980 writes:

I feel its the fact that most gamers today aren't in for the full experience and the fun of having to create a persona of their own and bring that persona out and project it into the character that they create in the sandbox game, i enjoy'd playing sanbox games like Ultima Online for one reason...

It kept making me come back... it wasn't the lack of quests or the lack of direction for starting off new, it was the community of players back then.... Sandbox MMO's were just full of great community players and still are today, look at EVE online though its got small numbers compared to other games its got a community thats willing to help new players out and teach them the ropes before they blow them up for learning their secrets xD


its the players who teach other players who in turn either work for them or just leave and start a new adventure of their own doing what they want.. thats what made sandbox games so much fun, you'd have real players giving out real quests such as bounties or find me this many items and give you cash or other items in exchange for it... or try to kill you and if that were the case you'd just kill them and loot their corpse before the guards or NPC's came and kill you xD


Overall... yes they had their chance, and they still have a glimmer of hope to bring it back in force, they just need to find a balance between it like EVE did... its got quests for players who want to quest but its still the open Player driven environment that Sandbox games require and you can still carve your own empire into the spacial navigation charts.


Mortal Online is a great example of the Ultima online approach, and its great for people who want to try it... theres a trial out now, give it a shot and if you have friends and enjoy the game a lot donate some money and buy a subscription to allow them to develop the game further

Mon Sep 19 2011 1:02AM Report
haplo602 writes:

IMO sandboxes will never get much traction in the current MMO landscape. You need a different kind of player for a sandbox. He needs to set goals for himself and be imaginative about them. Explore the world rules and mechanics and bend then to his advantage.

A themepark player simply looks for the game to set his goals. Reach a level, get a particular equipment, complete achievements if implemented, finish the story etc. Those players will never succeed in sandboxes if they don't get a guild/clan/corporation with strong leadership.


Also it is a lot harder to create a working sandbox. Themeparks create lanes for each character class and balance them. Sandboxes are a FFA for any style of play allowed by game mechanics. And the developer has to be more carefull about the rules and mechanics. They also need a grander vision of the game, since it takes years to develop a sandbox (look at EVE).

What most sanboxes lack is a history tracking mechanic. Something that records the player history of the world and keeps it archived in a readable form. None of the current sandboxes seems to have it.

Mon Sep 19 2011 3:13AM Report
Juiceman writes:

ryzom was fun but WoW was too powerful a force and the game never regained traction, not unlike swg + its not so great changes.  simple as that.  it would take some genius to reimagine and reinvigorate the sandbox genre and have it be fun for the "masses", as well as profitable..

Mon Sep 19 2011 4:06AM Report
Cacophanist writes:

Perhaps take a look at World of Darkness:

It might offer up some sandbox delights. 


Mon Sep 19 2011 6:12AM Report
Sharook writes:

if ppl are demanding a sandbox, they actually want a world simulation which allows enough freedom for themselves to not feel restricted and with their actions having a perceptible impact on the world, if just a small one. most today's so called sandboxes don't give you that, because they just offer an empty generic environment with too little simulation behind it (e.g. same stupid spawning rules for useles npcs) and an arbitrary, meaningless gankfest on top of that. simulations are much more complex and difficult to make compared to the ordinary theme park wich uses static mechanics.

allthough i could imagine with a 30-50 mio budget one could make an outstanding sandbox game. i don't know what budget the less successful sandbox games had (e.g. mortal online, darkfall online), anyone knows? they certainly didn't have enough - and probably a lack of vision.

i wonder why noone ever tried to make a "sandpark", a sandbox with themepark pockets in it.

allthough not being my type of game, the proof that sandbox games CAN be successful is EVE Online.

sandbox games most probably wouldn't become mainstream today, because the majority of the audience is used to WoW-ish types of games. which doesn't mean that this has to be the case forever. i agree with haplo602 with what he said.

on the other side, IF a new sandbox game was able to deliver a quest engine which provides a sort of red thread to the player by creating quests from the current world situation, they can't be so much worse than the hand-made kill x, ferry y, quests, can they? not after dozens of games and thousands of quests with no meaning. it might not be easy but it can't be so hard either. just noone tried so far.

Mon Sep 19 2011 6:14AM Report
Thorqemada writes:

Second Life is a sanbox as much a sandbox can be but i suffers from the usually very bad performance and unreliability and the rp is much to hardcore for newcomers.

Someone wanted me to join a GOR rp group and when i must read books for a year to understand whats happen its fail.

Above poster wrote it right, mmos should go back to virtual worlds offering different biotopes in different areas, a virtual world with a simulation engine that runs that world, themepark areas, sandbox areas, borderzones for the rvr, wildlands for exploring, civil war and chaotic regions for the ffa, a working economy that matters, a look like witcher 2.

In the end its no matter to me if its fantasy of science fiction but eve already covers science fiction so medieval fantasy would probalby have a better chance.

WoW is the perfect treadmil and its Blizzards biggest sin to let it stagnate all the years instead of taking a tiny part of the money they make and offer a new wolrd experience where they easily could have offered sandbox gaming and rvr and all this things liek it happened when the americas where discovered.

Mon Sep 19 2011 7:12AM Report
Thorqemada writes:

A Mechwarrior MMO could offer this as the setting allows it, with the very different region, uneven number of warring houses, the border regions, the pirate kingdoms, its sf but vastly different to EvE!

I would not release it with the clans, i dont like them that much, the time b4 is more interesting bcs of the lack of ressources and the need to use yourressources very efficient, the chance to stumlbe over lostech etc.

When the clans appear open its more like eve where industrial power matters and its less adventurous and lost its soul, the mistery.

Mon Sep 19 2011 7:19AM Report
Keushpuppy writes:

Ac...nuff said. It was still the best one yet. So many of the features of it would be a big hit if it came out with todays game engines. Open world / dungeons, no quest chains to follow, chance to get best loot on any kill and the list goes on....

Mon Sep 19 2011 3:33PM Report
Z3R01 writes:

I would like a Pve focused sandbox.

No full loot, no territorial alliance drama, just me, a skill system and a ton of crafting, gathering, social and open world pve content all optional.

Complete freedom without that negative pvp focus feeling that makes the entire games extremely limited to anyone but the most aggressive pvpers.

Tue Sep 20 2011 6:51AM Report
happyfarts writes:

sadly I missed the chance to try UO and SWG in their prime. I only tried Eve, Darkfall ... and MO, but just the trial.

EvE is a great game, especially once Incarna settles in properly and they sync Dust 514 with it (a concept totally new to gaming in general).

I wish them all the best but I am and will always be a sucker for fantasy. Darkfall promised a lot pre-launch and, admittedly, my anticipation swelled my expectations. MO and DF both had flaws.

I don't mean to  chase off more casual players, but I believe a sandbox should have full loot and FFA PvP. However,  it is essential that is contained somehow. DF was considerably lacking in this area when I last played it. Aside from being unwelcome in large npc cities, there was no mechanic in action to discourage PKing

Another problem is that just because there FFA PvP does not mean the game is merely about PvP, There needs to be a lot more non-PvP content introduced

MO seemed to get hte crafting right from what I read, i.e. give the player as much room to experiment as possible and a multitiude of mats to use with respective results. I didn't get to verify this easily because MO was so raw at the start I didn't have the slightest clue what was going on, what I cud do, etc. Surely a decent tutorial cudnt have hurt "their" sandbox

Fantasy sandbox is a topici hold close at heart. I know every player might have his own needs and wants from a Sandbox MMO, but to me a true Sandbox MMO is a game which can fit all those various players wants into one online world without having to resort to drawing a lines and telling the player it can't cross them ...

I swear I'd make the bloody game myself if I could, but all I have is an idea. 

Wed Oct 12 2011 2:55PM Report writes:
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