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Sandbox versus Linear Gameplay

Posted by vajuras Wednesday March 26 2008 at 10:54PM
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I'm going to write down some notes here from my observations from playing both gameplay styles fairly extensively in mmorpg space with friends.


Sandbox mmorpgs are so broad in their scope that self directed player activities flourish to new heights. If the game allows player invented professions and pure sandbox play- then we lose the "sports gaming" feel.

See, the advantages/disadvantages of World of Warcraft over Sandbox is very subtile. You might not notice unless you play both types of games with friends. In WoW, you are traveling through a narrow funnel. Your activites are focused towards earning XP first and foremost. But because your activities are sooo directed, you and your friends will do the same thing- grind Quests together, etc.

In a sandbox title, your activites might become a lot more broad. We lose the "sports gaming" funnel and become much more broad. Players tend to seek out their goals. The pure crafter types will simply craft, basically ignoring both PVE/PVP. The pvpers will leave the safe areas and venture out into risky terriority to make a name for themselves. The Achiever types are more likely to hit up PVE and perhaps also seek out PVP if thats where they perceive the greatest potential for wealth.

As you see, the main difference between the two styles of gameplay is that players are much more self directed. Give players the ability to become anything they want to really be then they will pursue their goals, perhaps only grouping with friends here and there for comaradie. In games like Everquest, we grouped with friends for survival and earning XP.


Patches / Expansions-

The patches we receive in EVE Online aren't content driven per se. Sure, they add some new Agent missions here and there, ships, and other elements but for the most part the patches add "toys". Also as we have noticed, they had time to pursue a graphical revision which most content driven MMOs dont have the man power to do (or perhaps it's just way too much content to revise in traditional mmorpgs).

Patches for Content Driven MMOs normally include new land masses, more gear (aka vertical progression), and just a plethora of content. The developers are sort of running up a mousewheel, no breaks. My artist friend that works at Blizzard was getting worked to the bone it seemed. Barely had time to hang out and kick it (and this was after TBC expansion).


Socialization -

Socializers thrive a bit better in sandbox games due to the loose barriers put inplace (lack of hard defined Levels). Grouping between veteran and newbie is actually possible in Sandbox games. I think sandbox games have the biggest potential to enrich social interaction bar none. Look at Second Life, its a role players / socializers dream.


Player Versus Player -

Sandbox games normally encourage freedom of choice and loosely defined boundaries. They also encourage living a virtual life. Since the restrictions and boundaries are loosely defined in sandbox titles, the pvp aspect emerges in almost every aspect of gameplay. As sandbox titles evolve, we see even more creative ways to remove hard defined boundaries and put in place more natural restrictions (like NPC guards that can be killed, etc).

Linear MMOs are moving in a different direction. They have discarded the virtual world feel and instead embrace Instancing, Arenas, Capture The Flag, etc. They are basically building rigid boundaries between PVE and PVP.


Player owned Lands and Housing -

Much more likely to emerge in a sandbox as we have already seen in the past. Sandbox games usually strive to allow players to impact the world around them versus Linear MMOs which sort of strive to provide the Illusion of Impact via Instances. Sandbox games usually avoid Instances and instead strive for fully populated worlds run by players.

EVE Online has went to the extent to provide only one server that all play on. Consequences can be dire and player Impact is common place.


Itemization -

Items have much more importance in Linear games. Your gear is a symbol of who you are, your player skill, and your accomplishments. In sandbox games, your items that you use are merely tools. In Classic Ultima Online, there wasnt a "number system" attached to items per se (pre-AoS). In EVE Online, your ship is merely a tool that any player can build for you. Most corps go so far as to provide Ship Replacement programs. In linear MMOs, you usually raid for the best gear. In Sandbox games, most items are player crafted

 Items are usally all somewhat viable in a sandbox rpg. Vets will still pilot a frigate (newbie ship) in EVE Online because its faster then a vet ship and cheaper. Thus, newbie crafters will find a market for their items because all items usually have some value

In a linear MMO, if all of our players are mid-high levels then obviously newbies usually find no market to sell their wares. Linear MMOs must cater to newbies to survive literally this way all levels will enjoy rich teaming and auctions.

 It's not hard to figure out we arrive at a self-balancing system in sandbox mmorpgs. Players will be loathe to wear their overpowered gear for every battle due to item decay / DP. In a linear MMO, I will always, always wear my best items. Since gear is another form of progression, my items in a linear MMO will give me X number of levels advantage making PVP a slaughter usually.


Economies -

Linear MMOs will pretty much always have poor economies that suffer Mudflation. Items are a symbol of who you are thus Developers are loathe to take that away. Items mean everything. Thus, linear MMOs are more subject to adding on more and more gear with each expansion. It's a never ending race for the best loot. World of Warcraft PVP is at Season 3 now. Each season adds new gear my friends tell me. For PVE, they are always adding new top end dungeons

Economy is a lot more important in a Sandbox mmorpg. EVE/CCP for instance has economists on staff. Player crafted goods is pretty much always a must for this system. Item decay also usually accompanies it. Players truly immersed in the universe realize that these items are merely just tools. However, players from Linear MMOs view items with much more importance and worship.

This is why Sandbox players and Linear players clash so much. The mindsets are totally different and we really dont have a whole lot of insight or information to share. Our gaming styles are completely different. What would work for a linear MMO would be a disaster in a sandbox usually. Vice versa.


Death Penalty -

Both types might include a death penalty to get a risk/reward system happening. In a sandbox MMORPG though, they are more likely to explain death and make it logical. In eve online, death is explained via clones. A harsh DP is more likely to emerge in a sandbox mmorpg in which is trying to pursue a more realistic economy. In a linear MMO- emphasis on economy is downplayed. The best gear is earned from dungeons and raids. Therefore, the need for a harsh DP is less sustained.


Player vs Environment -

This is much more emphasized in a linear MMO because this model strongly relies on the "carrot chase". Loot is just really another form of vertical progression. These types of games are also much more likely to pursue "Instant Gratification" and other material items.

PvE is much more emphasized here because Developers view "Levels" as somewhat counterproductive to PVP. The presence of Levels is what will cause the harsh division between PVE/PVP as well since newbie players are helpless

In a sandbox title, levels probably wont exist (Starport) or they pursue the motto "All items are created equal". So, a newbie in a sandbox game can partner up with other newbies and kill a vet like we see in EVE Online / Starport. In a linear MMO this just cant happen

There is no way for PVP to provide a rich experience in such a model without the heavy use of Instancing, Arenas, and other venues. PVP will more then likely be partitioned by Levels / Rank to keep the competition fair. Fairness, ironically, is what the goal is for linear MMOs.


Grouping -

Grouping can actually flourish much better in sandbox games. Due to the natural restrictions, there is not a hard rigid defined group limit. So the more the merrier. We have lost our "sports gaming" feel we have in Linear MMOs in which we can only bring a set number of players.

However, ironically, due to the heavy freeform nature grouping might actually take a hit. We lack the "funnel" traditional linear MMOs have. Activites are too broad. Crafters dont have to kill anything in a sandbox mmorpg. They can simply get a loan from a friend and start investing this capital into their venture. In a linear mmorpg, we are much more likely to see more grouping because the activites are so restricted and funneled.

This can be fixed for sandbox mmorpgs to an extent.


Paranoia -

Sandbox mmorpgs emulate virtual lives. Thus, the Rules of Engagement are in play. In EVE Online, I've never been on an op where they told us where we are going. You dont find out til you arrive at the destination.

In a linear mmorpg things are a lot less serious. Guilds are less suspicious of new players. They usually dont think the new player is a potential spy. In EVE Online, this is a constant worry making it tough for some players to find a home


Alternate Identities -

Sandbox games will normally not worry so much about giving players many slots to make an alt. Linear MMOs will always encourage the generation of "alts" (making multiple characters). This is their model. All levels must always have activity to present a healthy population. They can do fine if all pop is high level but rerolling would be lonely you see due to barriers between veteran and newbie

Thus, linear MMOs will always encourage alts. City of Heroes gave rewards once you reached highest level and allowed you an exclusive new race. World of Warcraft I hear will do the same shortly. This is their model....

Sandbox mmorpgs, due to barriers between vet and newbie being loosely defined, suffer much less from this problem. Thus, they normally dont worry so much about alts. EVE Online provides only 3 slots and most players only use 2 at best. City of Heroes has bout 9 slots and World of Warcraft offers a lot of slots as well.



Anofalye writes:

I like both.  Either sandbox or linear is fine with me.  I hardly care.  You want to make an hybrid bastard of the two?  Whatever happen, as far as it is merely sandbox vs linear, I will like both.


However, in a sandbox I must be able to understand the game and figure my goals.  And in a linear I must still have some form of choice.  So I guess, I like them to be not 100% pure on either side.  FF style would make me cringe.  Second Life sandboxing would also make me cringes (beside the many flaws it has, merely considering the total openess with lack of goals).


I would restrain from saying, again, what is important for me.  But in this case here, either is fine.  I prolly prefer any hybrid to a pure concept, but again, as long as I have some freedom and some direction, I am happy.

Thu Mar 27 2008 12:14AM Report
Anofalye writes:

For example, EQ/Oblivion are prolly the most sandboxing I can be happy in, more than that, I felt lost.  And City of Heroes is prolly the most linear I can be happy in, more than that, and I felt trap.

Thu Mar 27 2008 12:16AM Report
vajuras writes:

Cty of Heroes was a hybrid of sorts. I'd like to write a good blog on that one day. It was linear all the way but we had a little of sandbox happening with the blurred lines between Classes and lack of transparency (not all Defenders heal, etc I only know you might support me).

Was a good game in its own special, grindy way.


I like your posts bro you're open minded, just ready for a good game. I thnk Champions Online will be good look me up when it comes out we can grind up to cap heh. It's gonna be CoX on steroids!

Yeah Oblivion was a great sandbox I love it so. Yeah you got it thats the idea.

Thu Mar 27 2008 1:24AM Report
Teiman writes:

You can have both.  Fallout  1 have linearity and sandbox (this why is a classic).  Morrowind has sandbox and some linearity. And Oblivium has linearity and some sandbox.

Thu Mar 27 2008 4:04PM Report
Teiman writes:

"However, in a sandbox I must be able to understand the game and figure my goals. "

In a true sandbox, you create your goals, and youy don't need goals. You do whatever float your boat.

Thu Mar 27 2008 4:05PM Report
Hexxeity writes:

Why do you refer to games in the past tense when they are still going strong?  It's a little weird.

Anyway, let's dive in:

-- Please note that players who like linear games are probably not interested in every player "doing his own thing."  I for one like it that there are a lot of people with similar goals, even if those goals are not entirely self-directed.  It means I'll have someone to play with (not just chat with while I'm playing).

-- You say it's good that different player types can do different things, then you poo-poo content based expansions, which are pretty much the bread and butter of the Explorer-type player.  Hmm.

-- Your comments on socialization astound me.  Are you saying people don't socialize in EQ and WoW?  Are you saying vets and n00bs don't group in CoH?

-- Re: PvP -- Aion is not a sandbox, yet they are planning to integrate PvE and PvP in a pretty interesting way, not segregate them.

-- I won't even address Player Housing because I could not care less about this subject.  And I'm not the only one.

-- Itemization:  CoH was not reliant on gear at all for years.  Even  now with Inventions, you can still be completely effective even if you don't bother with them.  New games such as Spellborn and Hero's Journey are taking the same route, so clearly gear is not a linear-vs-sandbox issue.

-- I have nothing to say about economics, but I will say that I'm glad you understand that linear and sandbox players are completely different.

-- Death Penalty:  Better explanations because a game is sandbox?  That is BS and you know it.  A game's writing and lore have nothing to do with this.

-- I can't even address your PvE statements because you hate PvE and I don't.

-- Grouping is NOT better in sandboxes.  If it's open PvP, then yes, you do get into a group-or-die situation.  But the easiest, most fun grouping I've ever seen is in CoH, which is linear.

-- Paranoia:  You LIKE this?  Ugh.

-- Alts:  The most linear game ever, FFXI, discourages alts more heavily than any game I've ever known.  Of course, I happen to LIKE alts.

Anyway, it's pretty obvious we'll never see eye to eye, but maybe in the future you could state your preferences in a way that's less forced and more accurate?  False generalizations don't really help an argument.

Thu Mar 27 2008 4:26PM Report
vajuras writes:

Hex comments-


-- Grouping is NOT better in sandboxes. If it's open PvP, then yes, you do get into a group-or-die situation. But the easiest, most fun grouping I've ever seen is in CoH, which is linear."

You might want to read my blog again on that bullet point

-- Itemization: CoH was not reliant on gear at all for years. Even now with Inventions, you can still be completely effective even if you don't bother with them. New games such as Spellborn and Hero's Journey are taking the same route, so clearly gear is not a linear-vs-sandbox issue.

Thats a myth CoH has Hamidon enhancements for their end game. I played CoX for a long time so I *know*. Now they have Inventions which makes the title even more item centric

-- You say it's good that different player types can do different things, then you poo-poo content based expansions, which are pretty much the bread and butter of the Explorer-type player. Hmm.

I have nothing against content based expansions beyond that they strongly rely on constant carrot dangling.....

Thu Mar 27 2008 6:10PM Report
vajuras writes:

Missed some of Hex comments

-- Your comments on socialization astound me. Are you saying people don't socialize in EQ and WoW? Are you saying vets and n00bs don't group in CoH?

No they dont group much beyond bringing lowbies to high level content to powerlevel them. Sidekicking is okay but the lowbies are still missing many vital powers. Vets will of course take a real high level over a lowbie anyday, any week

-- Re: PvP -- Aion is not a sandbox, yet they are planning to integrate PvE and PvP in a pretty interesting way, not segregate them.

It's not here yet, doesnt count.

Thu Mar 27 2008 6:17PM Report
vajuras writes:

Missed one:

"-- I can't even address your PvE statements because you hate PvE and I don't."

Not true, I like PVE. I play single player RPGs all the time (last beat Mass Effect). This seems to be something people tend to assume for pvp types.

When I want all PVP I do play FPS etc. Yep. But I also adore mmorpgs for the combo

Thu Mar 27 2008 10:51PM Report
Tatum writes:

The two camps are never gonna agree on this one.  I can play a linear MMO, but I get bored failry quickly when I feel the rails.  A linear fan can play a sandbox MMO and get bored fairly quickly when they feel a lack of direction. 

The solution?  We need both linear and sandbox MMOs in the market.  Right now we're just severely lacking in the sandbox area...hopefully that won't last forever... 

Fri Mar 28 2008 12:19AM Report
Hexxeity writes:

CoH's ehancements make a lot less difference than, say, a UO character running around with no armor on, so it is still ridiculous to assert that sandbox games are inherently less item-centric.

Fri Mar 28 2008 9:49AM Report
vajuras writes:

Heh I can tell you never pvp'ed anyone with Hamidons on versus a stock character from the *same* class, same build. Night & Day is the difference.

But let's deal in facts though. Fact: There is countless user reviews on this site complaining about the CoX grind. And you picked that MMO.

Now compare City of Heroes to a pure sandbox like Second Life. How can you say there is not a Sandbox MMO that is not item centric?

Guild Wars is the closest thing you could name. If you would have choosen that one and I would give you props I love GW.

But picking City of Heroes was a poor, poor choice. It is very item centric especially with Inventions. Not bad as World of Warcraft but by far more gear centric then a pure sandbox.

Fri Mar 28 2008 6:35PM Report
Melf_Himself writes:

I think you've gotten your game types a little confused. Sandbox games don't HAVE to be "skill-based", and linear games don't HAVE to be "level-based". Additionally, linear games don't HAVE to be item based. Just because these associations often DO exist, doesn't mean that they have to. With that in mind:

Patches/expansions: Agreed

Socialization: Agreed

PvP: Agreed

Housing: Disagree... no reason it can't be in a linear game.

Items: Disagree... no reason they have to be important in a linear game, and no reason they don't have to be important in a sandbox

Economies: Disagree, as this point follows from your conclusions drawn under items

Death penalty: Ditto

PvE: Ditto

Grouping: Kind of disagree. It can be easy to form groups, but it's much harder for a group leader to ensure that the people in the group aren't retarded.

Paranoia: Disagree. Why can't there be guild intrigue in a level based game? All you'd need is looting and the ability to either hostile friendlies, or for certain information to give enemies an unfair advantage (ie the secret base is located here, and it's undefended at XX times)

Alts: Agree.

Sun Apr 27 2008 10:23PM Report
vajuras writes:

You technically cant be a sandbox and have hard defined "Levels/Classes". The definition of sandbox encourages freeform activity and the option to pursue a virtual life I want to pursue.

Classes- the way they are now, heavily restrict that freedom

Hard defined Levels also tamper with the idea of a sandbox. If there is a firm barrier between players now a newbie's freedom to explore takes a big hit. Also, veterans and newbies teaming opportunities will suffer greatly without a sidekicking mechanism

Items will always be critical to non-sandbox (linear) MMOs. Every linear MMO in our history has always added more and more content (items). Even City of heroes. The only game that would defeat my assumption is Guild Wars whose marketing model actually benefits from players stopping to play (and coming back for expansions). True subscription based MMOs have a much different model so the "carrot chase" is essential

Mon Apr 28 2008 1:20PM Report
vajuras writes:

Btw, to make it clearer, take EVE Online. In EVE, there is nothing preventing a Day 1 newbie from exploring any area of the world (besides PVP / Gate camping, etc).

In a level based game, you want a "funnel" to give players a firm direction. This means empowering NPCs with huge aggro radius for low level players to firmly discourage them from going there.

This makes that model work- because we are giving newbies something to look forward to. "Carrot Chasing" is essential to that model

This is why I purposely talor all my articles towards sandbox gaming. Most of my ideas wouldn't work so well in a Linear MMO. Linear MMOs benefit greatly from heavily gated content- in sandbox games we want loose barriers

The ideals are at direct conflict with each other

Mon Apr 28 2008 1:23PM Report
jamigre writes:

I want UO from the start in 2008 graphics. Why did EA ever kill UO2, and UO:X :(((((

Mon Jun 30 2008 7:48AM Report writes:
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