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.