Kaylriene recently posted on Sandboxes and Themeparks. I love reading the different perspectives people have on this sort of topic. World view can be so incredibly different based on your own experiences and when you started. This particular topic was one once near and dear to my heart, too. Reading Kaylriene’s post appears to have restoked the coals. So. *cracks knuckles* Let’s do this.

I agree with much of what Kaylriene wrote — but I never thought I would see the day where any iteration of WoW was accused of falling into the ‘Sandbox’ camp. I can agree though that WoW Classic was certainly further toward the sandbox end of the Sandbox <—-> Themepark continuum though.

Eventually I want to give my own take on what a better MMO formula might look like. But first… There was an assumption that we’re all on the same page on the definitions though, and I’m not absolutely certain that’s true. So defining our terms to talk on the same page might be helpful after all.

Sandbox Games

Sandbox MMOs rely heavily on principles of emergent gameplay and player-driven story creation. Rather than tell a story of a war through a scripted quest chain, the sandbox MMO developer is more likely to create a system where guilds may officially declare war on each other. Then allow for land ownership and scarcity of certain resources to drive the conflict.

Without the rails allowed by the theme park style of MMO, there is often a strong element of players needing to find their own fun and set their own goals.

Ultima Online and Asheron’s Call were early examples of this style — with EVE perhaps still holding top dog spot for this style of MMO at present.

Outside of the MMO space, you can see examples of this concept too — Minecraft being a big one. And the slew of survival-esque games that followed.

Theme Park Games

By comparison, theme park games tend to be more of a directed experience. You are passed around from NPC to NPC, each with their own story to tell and set of specific actions you need to complete for them.

Your goals are often set for you and rather than making stories, you are being told stories.

World of Warcraft — including Classic, I would contend — falls into this camp. Final Fantasy XIV, Elder Scrolls Online and truthfully, most of the big MMOs today.

Sandbox and Themepark aren’t Binary Though

A game doesn’t necessarily have to fall into a single camp. It isn’t just one or the other. Games can absolutely layer directed content over a player-reactive world. Even WoW contains some elements of each.

Or, you can simply choose to ignore the theme park entirely and go wandering through the garden. This doesn’t necessarily increase player agency or world reactivity, but it pushes the needle a little further toward the sandbox end by having the player find their own fun.

My Ideal MMO Looks Like…

A world first and foremost. A place to virtually live. A place you can settle and build onto — even if this comes with limitations on place, so as not to create a littered landscape.

Give it an economy similar to EVEs — where players of all skill levels can contribute in some fashion, even if it is simply in the creation of component pieces that other players would then turn into the end products usable by still other players again. And ensure there is a mechanism by which these created products can leave the economy again.

You might be with me so far. I suspect I’ll begin to lose a few more people here though — so I’ll note that the next aspects aren’t strictly speaking necessary for a ‘sandbox’ experience. Just my ideal version of one. :)

Location should matter as a core tenet of the game. I’m not entirely against fast travel, but I am against fast travel that requires no decision making on the part of the player. What do I mean by this? Well, for example in Asheron’s Call you could recall or open portals to a very limited number of locations.

You could bind to a dungeon that you wanted to go to, and then summon a group in as a form of makeshift LFG if you wanted. But this was a choice you had to make and it had an opportunity cost against binding to another place. Otherwise you moved on the power of your own feet through a seamless world.

Global storage if it exists at all should be minimal, getting the necessary resources from place to place an undertaking that carries risk and requires some forethought.

There is more I would like, but many of them orient around being a PvP game. And as much value as that can add, I no longer view it as a necessary component. So this is the detailing of the sandbox elements more or less.

Now, throw on the Theme Park! Layer it all over the top like a fine sauce.

Bring on the quest driven stories. Make the people of the land matter with their own needs and stories to tell.

Bring on dungeons and instanced raids (although world bosses should absolutely also be a thing)!

Annnnnd I’ve done a terrible job of explaining my vision — turns out this isn’t the sort of post I should try work on over lunch at work. I didn’t fully finish it there, but then a late night tonight due to heading out for one of my sons’ Birthday has also lead to less time on this than I would like.

But you know what? It occurred to me just how much I was (attempting) to explain the vision behind the Ashes of Creation MMO. Which is no doubt why they managed to extract a Kickstarter backing from me. So perhaps go read their description as well for an additional view of what I mean — although they also talk to the dynamic aspects which I haven’t raised at all.

I don’t know if we’ll ever see Ashes of Creation in our lifetime. Or if it does come out in an MMO form whether it will even remotely resemble the promises. I’m well over the stage in my life where I was content to hype and hope and wait for an MMO.

But still… If it does. It could be a beautiful thing.

The Ashes of Creation Kickstarter video that took my money!


Gamer, reader, writer, husband and father of two boys. Former WoW and Gaming blogger, making a return to the fold to share my love of all things looty.


Quin · August 20, 2019 at 10:19 pm

I agree. Any aspect of a game with a narrated story that each players experiences in exactly the same way is not a sandbox element. In this way I would agree that WoW Classic had very few sandbox elements, outside of organic world PvP, mob grinding to fill gaps in quest chains and some of the gear progression.

EverQuest had a few theme park elements – essentially the few and far between ‘quests’, most notably the epic quests each class had. But by and large it was a sandbox – level and gear progression was undirected. Quests felt unfinished and mostly an afterthought. However it didn’t have (IMO) key sandbox elements like housing, player-driven crafting (that mattered), etc.

You’re right that games like UO and AC, and then SWG, were true sandboxes, and that it’s a continuum, not an absolute.

Bhagpuss · August 21, 2019 at 12:50 am

@Quin I’d take issue with the idea that EverQuest didn’t have player-driven crafting that mattered. In its original incarnation it most definitely did.

One of my most abiding memories from the turn of the millennium is the time and effort it took me to find a player capable and willing to craft a full set of reinforced leather armor for my druid. It took me some time and negotiation to set up the deal and agree a price and then I had to wait for him to make it and travel to a neutral location to make the trade. It took me most of a Sunday afternoon and at the time it was one of the most expensive and worrisome interactions I’d had with another player.

I did it because at my level there really were no other viable upgrade paths for armor. There were next to no drops that were better, or as good, as Reinforced and even if there were I would have had no idea how to get them. NPCs sold inferior gear that would tide you over and mobs dropped something a bit better but everyone wanted crafted armor. Casters wore Raw silk; tanks wore Banded, then Fine Steel; Monks wore Cured Silk, then Wu’s and so on.

As the expansions rolled in the options outside of crafted armor (and weapons) increased hugely but for a long time much of the best available gear was still crafted or required a crafter to make some of the components. Then there was spell research, a craft without which casters could not progress beyond a certain point without either learning to craft or hiring someone who could.

The economy was unsupported by in-game systems until The Bazaar arrived with the Shadows of Luclin expansion, but players created their own solutions, not least the (in)famous East Commons Tunnel souk. The one thing EQ lacked was a means of removing crafted items from the economy. Spell scrolls vanished on use but most armor and weapons were re-sellable. That said, I don’t recall there being much of a trade in used armor – people generally had it made to order.

Quin · August 21, 2019 at 7:57 am

I do recall that you’re right and that at the low to mid level those armour types were popular and worthwhile. Post mid-level I seem to recall people wore dungeon and other drops – bronze, other items from mobs, all replaced the lower level. Crafting in early EQ always felt a bit half-baked to me.

    Naithin · August 21, 2019 at 10:49 am

    Crafting in AC was a bit of an odd beast.

    It wasn’t so much crafting as it was item enhancement and modification. All non-quest / special gear came from drops in the world, which had a certain amount of RNG to them.

    Finding a perfectly rolled item was your starting point (although unlike ARPGs of today, there were far fewer modifiers to worry about. e.g. for a melee weapon, there was Base damage, value of the item (especially important in PvP — when you died higher value items dropped first), and then melee attack bonus and defense rolls.

    That was about it, so getting perfectly rolled wasn’t too unlikely, but still a fantastic moment to find one. Then it became a matter of applying the necessary materials with the necessary skill not to blow the danged thing up.

    Each enhancement was more difficult to add than the last, and failure meant loss of the item. I had an alt dedicated to learning these skills, had my guild run me through getting the Focus stone and a few other quest things which helped the chances of success.

    You know, I was originally going to say AC didn’t have any crafting that mattered in a sandbox sense, but on reflection that isn’t really true. Anyone could collect the materials and bring them together for trade. But you really wanted someone skilled in the craft to do the work for you.

    And as a skilled artisan, it was rewarding to see your name etched on peoples weapons about the place, as the name of the last successful person to upgrade an item became part of the description. Seeing a weapon you made in the hands of an enemy though.. Ooh boy. Managing to get it back off them though! :D

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