By people who pay attention to my gaming habits, I'm accused of being a themepark-only sort of MMO player. And lately, they're right... but it's not for lack of desire to get lost in a more free-form MMO experience. No, the problem with sandboxes is a simple one: there hasn't been a really good one in over a decade.
Don't get me wrong, there have been some decent games in the sandbox arena: from UO and SWG to Darkfall and the quasi-sandbox ArcheAge, it's not like we've been completely lacking in the less scripted and directed MMORPG department. But, not to beat the dead Tauren, I blame World of Warcraft. No, not for the ridiculous swell of WoW-alikes we've seen since 2004, but rather because so many games that have had huge budgets in the past decade have stubbornly chased that dream of Blizzard-like success. I blame the notion of $15 dollars a month being a guarantee so long as you have raids and quests and an LFG tool. I blame the collective groupthink of the industry that assumes there's only one way to do things because it worked for one bolt of lightning moment in time.
I'm not going to evangelize you all the virtues of a quote "sandbox" MMO here for you. You all know the drill by now. And I'm not about to say I think a sandbox MMO could be as big as WoW. That kind of mentality is what got us here in the first place. I love it when developers try to make their own game, even if it's not so incredibly successful that it rocks the foundations of the industry. I love Guild Wars 2, because failures and all, it tries something different. I love Elder Scrolls Online for the same reasons, just as I loved Auto Assault, or Earth and Beyond. These are games, living and dead that at least tried to be something of their own in a sea of also-rans.
I'm no stranger to hype, either. As a part of my job, I'm pitched countless times over how this game or that is going to change the way we play MMOs. In a preview setting, any turd can seem like a golden goose and I'm trying harder these days to not give into hype prematurely. Not because I mind being let down (I believe getting excited about a new facet of my hobby is a key part to doing my job well), but rather because I need to know when I'm being fed BS by preview or demo experience. But then there are some games which make it really hard.
I'm getting a little off point though. Back to World of Warcraft, that lovely Azerothian gem which has captivated me with its on-rails adventure since 2004. This is my point: if we could get one single sandbox experience that has as much polish, care, and life put into it as WoW? Well, then I could go back to a time in the late 90s when MMORPG meant Ultima Online or bust.
The sandboxes of today, of recent times, and many on the horizon have their hearts in the right place. But they lack the budget, talent, and overall design polish (so far) to hold my attention. I'm not trying to be superficial, but any game I'm going to spend hundreds of hours with better be an enjoyable experience not only in its design context but in its execution as well.
Some of you might say, if you liked UO (or whatever game really), why not just play that? Look at that screen above. UO was amazing in the late 90s. It has not aged well, and it's highly unlikely we'll ever see a real sequel. The closest we're getting is the promising, but still early, Shroud of the Avatar. I don't want to play a game I remember fondly. I want a new world, filled with the conventions and lessons learned in nearly two decades or MMORPG design.
Make no bones about it: the pendulum of MMORPG trends is swinging back in the direction of the sandbox. But whether we make glorious castles in the sand, or leave tightly coiled piles behind still remains to be seen.