Theme Park VS Sandbox, Pt. 1

26 12 2011

The MMO genre has a very definite schism in it; a hard and clear split in design styles. The sandbox style – games like EVE Online – which set out a short list of rules and otherwise let you do what you want, and the theme park – games like World of Warcraft – where events you can experience are put specific places in the game world and, to experience them, you simply gather up your forces and go there. The question as to which one is better is not an easy one, and I’ve failed and failed to figure out how to tackle it concisely, so without even a draft for the next part, I’m callin’ it now: this is a multi-parter.

In a theme park MMO, you need only fit the prerequisites (at least character level and party composition, at times gear and competence) and then be in the right place at the right time (e.g. a raid instance); what you do happens in a loosely enforced order. Quests are presented to the player upon entering a game area for the first time, and the completion of quests leads to further quests. Your path through the game is a guided one. The learning curve, at least up to “end game raiding” is a shallow one. This game is on rails.

In the sandbox, the players provide most of the content. There are NPCs, there are resources, there are areas, but the players are allowed (and, in fact, encouraged) to explore at their whim, and to interact with and engage one another. These games allow a tremendous amount of freedom, especially in contrast to the “game on rails” experience of the theme park MMO. The learning curve is very steep, as you often have a great many abilities and a vast number of places you might explore. The events are often unpredictable as these games are almost strictly PVP-oriented; anywhere you go, you might find yourself ganked.

A note on “ganking” here: ganking in a theme park MMO can very quickly be deemed as griefing, as when a player is repeatedly halted on the same part of the ‘game on rails’ by enemy players, that player’s progress through the game content is stalled, their fun easily spoiled. In a sandbox MMO, ganking is far more accepted as you seldom need to be anywhere in particular for your progress. Ganking in these games is actually good, in that it encourages players to rally together, forge friendships and alliances in the game, as well as form rivalries and name enemies. The lines that are drawn are not (usually) developer drawn.

Enmities in a theme park MMO are more or less strictly controlled by the developers; when you create a character you choose a faction and that is your side; those are the people you fight for or with, for better or worse. Love them, hate them, indifferent: you’re stuck with them. In a sandbox, you can just defect (without rerolling).

Older (and less heralded) games, like Matrix: Online and Asheron’s Call allowed player decisions to influence and even create event content in those games; players could effectively ally with NPCs, defending then and extending events that weren’t meant to otherwise endure. The fight over Morpheus’s remains, that player alliance defending the giant NPC demon-thing (the names in the event escape me right now) are all player-driven events. We don’t see these kinds of things in theme park MMOs. Why not?

The pejorative view is purely that “it’s too complicated”, but there are simpler (and sadly sensible) reasons boiling down to why this schism exists at all: these two families of games have very different target demographics. If asked, either camp would probably use terms like”difficulty” and “hardcore” to differentiate one another, but from this writer’s perspective, on fundamental difference comes down to time.

Theme park MMOs, especially considering the more recent design changes, have been heralded as being focused on their solo game. Part of this is a no-brainer: casual players are far and away the bigger market. Why are they the bigger market? I feel, personally, that the real division bell is time.

Some players have (or at least can make) extreme amounts of time for a single game. 40 hours a week is work, the rest of their week, minus a handful of hours of sleep a night, is game-time. Their responsibilities external to the game are few or otherwise mitigated. I don’t mean to be pejorative here, and surely such extreme amounts of time are not strictly required to play a sandbox MMO, but it’s clear that the minimum amount of time required to get ahead in a game where players are the content is substantial. Since events in sandbox MMOs often take place due to player actions, round-the-clock awareness and involvement in these kinds of games is extremely helpful, if not necessary.

WoW – and, more recently, TOR – allow for a player to log in, jump into a raid queue or do a handful of quests, and not log in again for a week or more if they choose. More time in the game certainly gets you ahead farther and faster, but it’s not as required to get much out of the game. You can still experience much of the content while logged in only a few times a week, little fear of falling behind. Paradoxically, its tauted strength is how restrictive it is. Sure, there are some wide-spanning quests, but consider that most modern questing systems show you right where the quest objective is on the map.

So, which one’s better? That really depends on the amount of time you have available. We might see a shift towards EVE-like games as mobile devices become more integrated into our games (if you can take a moment out of a meeting to check on your resource farming and state of your forces) but until then, people who have 40+ hour/week jobs, families, and real world commitments…or simply people who don’t have the desire to commit more than a handful of hours a week to a single game vastly outnumber those who have the desire and the time to play a full-on-sandbox.

I concede it’s possible that the amount of time necessary to get the most out of EVE is actually smaller than I suspect, but I doubt it. EVE seems like a three to five hour per night minimum game to me, whereas I know many people who play WoW once a week for a Saturday afternoon and they have a really good time with it.

Are they wrong? No. Why? Because they like it, and they’re allowed. Tons more on this later.

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