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The Marriage of Theme Park & Sandbox

Suzie Ford Posted:
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As the MMO genre has evolved over the last several years, one of the most enduring arguments that has constantly cropped up is the notion of theme park versus sandbox. There are passionate proponents on both sides of the issue that constantly war against one another and spend a copious amount of time disparaging one another’s favorite games.

What is it that drives this argument time and again and is it even possible to consider that the two varieties could actually meet in the middle somehow? I suspect that we must first develop a working definition for each of the two types of games before trying to answer that question. From there, we’ll take a look at how Carbine Studios plans to bring the two together in WildStar.

I found a great definition of a theme park at GiantBomb.com:

Heavily driven by developers from the very start, new players begin with a set path to follow. The developer controls the experience, from the first time a player logs in with a new character and every time after, until that character achieves the level cap for that particular game. Developers restrict the attractions offered, often only allowing one ride at a time. In other words, once on there’s no turning back until the ride stops!

As for a sandbox MMO, this was said at MMOsite:

A sandbox MMO is a game that drops you into a player driven world.  Players are given tools, and sand, and they get to make whatever they want with it.  just like when you were a kid in your sandbox with a shovel and pail.  You didn't have much fancy stuff, but you had fun.

So now that everyone is clear on the definitions of each, the discussion must turn to whether or not the two can ever be reconciled to one another. According to most posters here at MMORPG.com and anywhere else in the MMO space, it’s not very likely. Yet developers continually try and some even meet with at least partial success. After all, their goal is to cater to as large an audience as possible and bringing in gamer fans of both theme park and sandbox titles is attractive enough to give it a shot.

Last week, Carbine’s Jeremy Gaffney took to the official site to talk about how the WildStar team is working to make a truly hybrid theme park – sandbox game. From the ideas he put forth, the team seems to be on the right track.  Check out some of what Jeremy had to say:

WildStar zones will embody both types of game play. After all, story is important to Carbine and there has to be at least an overarching storyline for players to follow. Jeremy called it a ‘guidepost’ series of quests. He said that they could be skipped but that most players will do them anyway. What Carbine is adding, however, are quests and events that will cater to the sandboxers in the game. Namely, players who take the time to explore will find non-linear quests and activities in which to participate. They will be rewarded for their wanderlust. Jeremy did admit, however, that these quests come from a static pool and can really only be considered ‘semi-sandbox’ types of quests. In higher level zones, however, the team is actively working to make all quests dynamic, rather than even partially static.

Jeremy gave a great in-game example of how Carbine is trying to bring the two types of game play together in a coherent fashion:

“Settlers: In areas of the towns, there are areas they can build up that are pretty theme-park-y and linear – let’s say there is a field hospital in a zone that puts a long-term buff on players, or a mount vendor who once you’ve built the shop, is available to other players until the shop decays. So, interesting, but pretty static. On the other hand, right now you could get a campfire which gives a buff to other players and place it anywhere in the zone – and now you have an interesting puzzle: Whbere can you place this where the most other players will use it?”

Gaffney goes on to opine that this is a true sandbox dilemma from the standpoint that there is no “trivial solution”. It’s totally up to the player to determine the best answer to the question rather than up to a quest giver or a game developer to decide what is optimal. Furthering the idea of sandbox in this example is the fact that, the more players who utilize the campfire, the more experience a player gains. Carbine wants players to help each other and to decide the best way to do that.

The discussion is ongoing on the WildStar forums and it’s a worthy topic. Carbine strongly believes that a true hybrid theme park – sandbox MMO can be created and aims to be the first truly successful game company to do so.

What about you? Is it possible to create a hybrid or not? Let us know in the comments!


Suzie Ford

Suzie is the former Associate Editor and News Manager at MMORPG.com. Follow her on Twitter @MMORPGMom