An Unpopular Sandbox

It’s been a long while since something Tobold write inspired me to write a post of my own, but we have one today. Tobold’s point is that sandbox MMOs tend to be less popular than themepark MMOs. This is correct as far as it goes, but drawing that conclusion from the facts available ignores an elephant in the room.

The point that gets missed a lot in these kinds of discussions is that “PvE” is not incompatible with “sandbox”. Tobold points to the oft-repeated data point that 80% of EVE players stay mostly or exclusively in Empire. But that doesn’t mean that they aren’t doing sandbox-type stuff, it just means they’re not dabbling in EVE’s version of FFA PvP. The themepark in EVE is more or less limited to mission-running, which, while an important part of the game, is scarcely the whole of what’s available, even in Empire. I would venture to say that very few Empire-based players stick exclusively to missions, while just as many never much fool with missions at all, and most such players mix mission-running with other stuff such as mining, research, industry, trading, or even PvP – remember that corp wars allow for PvP in Empire, and there’s also factional warfare to consider, although I don’t have a good grasp of just how popular that may be now.

Sandbox games are less popular than themepark games, but observing the fact does not imply a general rule that this must therefore be the case. Indeed, such a conclusion ignores the biggest and most visible single element in the hobby – World of Warcraft.

There’s general agreement that the MMOs of the generation before WoW were better sandboxes than those that came later. The reason is obvious, and that’s WoW itself. It accrued huge success, but is that success because it’s less of a sandbox? Even bearing in mind that WoW, as themepark-oriented as it is, still has some sandbox elements left? I would argue that WoW, as bitter as many of us might feel toward it, has a whole lot more going for it than just its themepark nature – good controls, a sense of humor, a big mostly seamless world, good writing, vivid art design… I could go on. I think it’s both a tremendous stretch and very superficial to say that WoW is popular because it’s a themepark.

Certainly, the perception is there, fueled by WoW’s very success. Other developers, chasing the WoW money with big-budget titles, stick to the proven formula. Sandbox games may be innately less appealing to a broad audience, but we wouldn’t know, because nobody is even trying. The only developers pushing the sandbox envelope are rinky-dink little indie houses whose games have little chance of even middling popularity anyway. It’s a false causality.

8 responses to “An Unpopular Sandbox

  1. You may want to check your 2nd sentence – you may have reversed things… (either that or my English comprehension is out of whack)

    Other than that there is a bit of a “pop music is more popular than jazz music” with all these “sandbox vs themepark” posts. While quantitatively true , it’s never the whole story and jazz has it’s market share… Humm actually a comparison that works due to the relative complexity of the music and the games.

  2. Actually I was more wondering why there hasn’t been any major sandbox game *since* EVE in 2003. My conclusion is not that sandbox gameplay is principally unpopular; in fact, if you count every player in WoW who is *not* following the themepark quest lines and is instead engaged in more sandbox-like activities like playing the market etc. as a “sandbox player”, WoW probably has more sandbox players than EVE.

  3. @Tobold
    “in fact, if you count every player in WoW who is *not* following the themepark quest lines and is instead engaged in more sandbox-like activities like playing the market etc. as a “sandbox player”, WoW probably has more sandbox players than EVE.”

    Would that not be more akin to “metagaming”?

    “Metagaming is a broad term usually used to define any strategy, action or method used in a game which transcends a prescribed ruleset, uses external factors to affect the game, or goes beyond the supposed limits or environment set by the game.”

    For example, in Guild Wars, your main game is to follow missions and quests to complete the story. Yet, thanks to the Hall of Monuments, we have a new “metagame” where players are trying to gain points toward Guild Wars 2. Using search tools for buying and pricing of rares, using wikis to track what accomplishments you need to get those points…you’re basically not following that prescribed game.

    Personally I think if every game offered something within their game that drops the themparking, if you will, like the collections in EQ2 or Rift, achievements and other hidden goodies in various games, every MMO could essentially be a sandbox…excuse me…metagame.

  4. If someone wants to launch a successful big budget sandbox MMO, they would do well to spend more time studying offline sandboxes like GTA and the Elder Scrolls games than the current crop of MMO sandboxes (imo). Throwing a big budget at something like UO or launch SWG (which was done, btw) is not going to net you more than EVE numbers at best. Most players like for there to be some scripted content to suck them into a game and it’s setting, even when the game that content sits in is a deep sandbox with a lot of freedom.

  5. Insightful post, Ardwulf, I enjoyed reading it. Yes, I’m sure there are many folks out there (Goblins like Gevlon who’s whole goal was to hit gold cap, for example) doing things other than quest – instance – raid, repeat.

  6. I dunno. I’m starting to suspect that most people like their entertainment to be directed — in fact, that most people don’t like to set their own goals if there’s any sort of other option available, which is to have those goals presented to you ready-made. By that definition, sandbox games will never be as popular as themepark games, but maybe I’m just a pessimist.

    I’ll admit to wavering between the two. I love love love sandboxes, but sometimes it is just SO damn relaxing to get on the little car and follow the ride. The older I get and the less time I have, the more I end up swinging between the two extremes of the pendulum — some days I just want some silicate and a shovel, other days I just want to relax and have someone else do all the hard work for me while I enjoy the funny quests.

    Good post either way.