Tobold's Blog
Thursday, January 06, 2011
Played any good, new sandbox MMORPGs lately?

I thought I was stating some obvious facts, but apparently some people considered my remarks about sandbox games "troll bait". So in order to not derail a thread that was about something completely different, I'd like to discuss the current state of sandbox MMORPGs here, and give you all the opportunity to correct me if I am wrong.

What I believe the state of sandbox MMORPGs to be is the following:

1) The most successful MMORPG with a "sandbox" label is EVE Online. It came out in 2003, and grew steadily to now over 300k subscribed accounts (with players having multiple accounts being quite frequent). Nevertheless CCP stated that over 80% of the EVE players never leave safe empire space. And over the years there has been a lot of PvE content added to EVE. For me it isn't obvious that you can count all EVE players as "sandbox players", as obviously a good number of them is mostly engaged in activities like agent missions, which aren't fundamentally different from running quests in a themepark MMORPG.

2) Sandbox MMORPGs released after 2003 all have less than 100k subscribers, all together. Darkfall is estimated to have about 20k, Mortal Online has less. Furthermore there are about ten times more themepark MMORPGs released than sandbox MMORPGs. I'm calling that "unpopular". That doesn't mean that the people who like sandbox MMORPGs aren't feeling strongly about them, just the opposite. But it appears as if the sandbox MMORPG genre does attract a significantly smaller number of players than the themepark MMORPG genre.

3) I would not consider Minecraft to be a MMORPG, but it certainly is a sandbox game, and it certainly is successful, especially considering that it is a one-man operation and not a big budget game. That opens up a discussion of whether a sandbox MMORPG could be successful if it was more like Minecraft and less like Mortal Online.

Please, try to argue with facts, figures, and rational arguments. If your only argument is that you love sandbox MMORPGs and hate everybody who plays something else, and you just reply with a bunch of insults, your comment will be deleted. But if I made any factual errors, feel free to point them out, preferably with links to proof of the opposite. And I'd like to hear your ideas how a post-EVE popular sandbox MMORPG could look like, and why there isn't one yet.
I mostly agree. Current sandbox MMOs are a shame. They are too old, technically inferior, have cruel user interfaces and are generally not underfinanced / not polished.

Seems like the perfect moment for a good one.
I agree that you can't count all Eve players as 'sandbox' players, but not leaving Empire space doesn't mean a player is doing nothing but PvE. The distribution of resources and risk differs between high-security, low-security and 0.0 space but, with the exception of sovereignty-claiming and capital ship building, all the 'sandbox' activities of Eve are available in high-security: wars and combat, trade, manufacturing, resource acquisition, exploration, etc. The location of characters is no reliable indicator of whether they are played by 'sandbox' or 'themepark' players.
Would you consider Second Life to be a sandbox MMORPG? It isn't the open-PvP combat-based type of game that I think both sides are talking about, but I can think of no better label for it.
I wonder, to continue Ciarente Roth's point, if you aren't confusing "sandbox" with PvP, at least in the case of EVE?

Is "A Tale in the Desert" a sandbox game, in your opinion, and is it a PvP-oriented game? I ask because I don't know, having never played the game; but my impression from your reports on it is that it is, in general, a non-PvP sandbox game.
Tobold, in my opinion the most popular and best sandbox game of all time isn't new. It's Ultima Online.

And I bet between the OSI servers and the free realms and player run shards, UO is still played more than the commercial sandbox games to come out in the last several years.
I suspect all MMOs (that we'd count as MMOs) actually have sandbox elements.
Is "A Tale in the Desert" a sandbox game, in your opinion, and is it a PvP-oriented game?

A Tale in the Desert is most certainly a sandbox game. And it doesn't have "PvP" in the classical sense, because it doesn't have combat. Of all the sandbox games I have played, I liked ATitD best. And it has considerably more sand than EVE. ;)
Very good question.

Interestingly though, if we took WoW out of the picture, what be the subscription count of the next biggest Western themepark MMO? I'm guessing not a huge amount higher than EVE's subscription rate. Plus, if we also consider the "failure" rate of all the themepark MMOs that crop up, the ratio would probably be higher than sandbox games due to the total numbers involved.

I know all of that is hard to measure but my underlying point, I guess, is I don't believe sandboxes are unpopular per se, rather it's just that they're are fewer of them on the market, giving less variety and selection for the player base. Also I believe it's really just the total dominance of WoW that eclipses them rather than the themepark MMO model itself.

I think the opportunity for a new sandbox MMO is ripe at the moment and what that genre needs is a game with as much polish as MMOs like WoW or Rift. All of the ones that come out at the moment are half finished and buggy and no doubt that puts a huge number of folk off.
Dear Tobold,

The year is 1400. Do you know of any significant land mass westward of the coast of Spain?

The year is 1696, all the world has seen is that every swan is white - as confirmed by numerous observers from ancient times until... well a year later.

The year is 2011 - for all we know there are no successful sandbox games, as well as other sapient life in the universe...

The problem with inductive reasoning is well known and pretty irritating, so don't fall for that fallacy please :)
There is an ugly truth to "sandbox mmo's," and that is they're basically just themepark MMO's without any content.

You want a good sandbox MMO? Take WoW, then remove 95% of the quests, most dungeons, and all raids. Viola, you have a sandbox mmo!

In other words, none of the sandbox MMO's have anything that themepark games don't. The sandbox games simply lack anything to do other than grinding and world PVP.
The problem with inductive reasoning is well known and pretty irritating, so don't fall for that fallacy please

Where did I do any inductive reasoning? I just stated a list of points that I consider to be pretty much factual, with no reasoning involved at all.

I think you were simply reading things into my post that I didn't write. I did not say "there will never be a good sandbox MMO", and in fact I'd be grateful if you could point out any developments you are aware of.

Or at least your ideas on how a good AND popular sandbox game could look like. Is it just a question of money and polish? Or would such a game have to move beyond the narrow confines of "free-for-all PvP"?
Ciarente started down this track already, but I wanted to reiterate anyway that a life in high sec doesn't necessarily constitute playing on agented missions or the like.

He mentioned a goodly number of high sec sandbox activities already, but the biggest one for me would be playing the market. The production and research and everything else that goes into being successful in a completely player driven market system.

It's about as sandboxy as it gets, and it plays biggest in the high sec regions to be sure.
Mr T, if I were to guess that you're in the age bracket of 35-45 would I be correct? It's not related to this post in particular but would help to put your blog as a whole into context as gamer's experience, knowledge and expectations vary wildly with age. Alternatively you could tell me to mind my own business.
Mr T, if I were to guess that you're in the age bracket of 35-45 would I be correct?

No, you wouldn't. I moved out of that bracket and am slightly older than that. :) But apart from making me old enough to have played sandbox games like Elite, my age doesn't really play any role at all in the context of this particular post. Because, as I said, I'm just listing things I consider to be facts, without any conclusion from my part, and offer you all the chance to correct me if you think I am wrong.

What my age is, or whether I like sandbox games, really has no influence whatsoever on the subscription numbers of the sandbox MMORPGs of the last 5 years.

He mentioned a goodly number of high sec sandbox activities already, but the biggest one for me would be playing the market.

Where do you see the difference between playing the market in a game like EVE and playing the market in a game like WoW? Would you consider WoW to be a sandbox game if we removed all the quests?
Hi Tobold. I'm one of those 80% of eve players who never leave empire. Most of my time is spent exploring for fun or playing with markets.

I'd say that the current standard for sandbox games is a bit of a dead end. There's this belief that sandbox == pvp, when those concepts are fairly opposed. For a sandbox to be successful, it needs to attract builders. People who want to inhabit the world and grow in it and with it. Those type of players will shy away from a game where any random asshole can destroy your efforts.

Even in sandbox games where you don't directly attack each other, like a tale in the desert, it's clear that your competition in most trials are the other players. Getting to a goal first, or making something bigger than others, or even just requiring lots of people, promoting the build up of factions.

I'm always looking for a sandbox game where I can build my sand castles without constantly worrying that someone will come by and stomp on it. :P
Far too many sandboxes let other players come by and knock down your sandcastle for no other reason than it was there.
I've said it before, make a care bear EVE where empire and highsec are PvE only, with no way for other players to interfere with you in those areas, and I'd crawl inside that game and never come out.
Publishers and investors look at sandbox MMO's and declare them not popular enough to invest in, when I think the reason they're not popular has to do with the open PvP. I'm sure ATiTD is a good game, but it's primitive graphics are enough to keep me and I'm sure many others away.
Elite! Such a great game. I, too, played Elite. What a change that made to the gaming world! The secret mission was such a startling addition to a game at that time. Do you remember the special feeling of amazement and pleasure you had when it was first revealed to you? It shows that a sandbox world doesn't have to be bereft of quests. I'm sure Eve was strongly influenced by Elite.
Could this all just be a function of time commitment? The vast majority of players are going to have somewhere between 2 to 20 hours per week available to play. If they can enjoy a game in that window, they will play it.

Sandbox games, in general, require the player to be more committed in order to feel a sense of accomplishment. You can't play Darkfall for an hour or two every couple days and get anywhere. EVE is somewhat more casual friendly due to the offline skilling up system. WOW is obviously built for those with a few minutes here and there.

I'm surprised that Samus was the only one to mention Second Life, because it is the epitome of a casual sandbox, and not surprisingly, it has millions of players.
I see that Thorolfur Beck, co-creator of Eve Online, has said he was very influenced by Elite. Here is an article in which he said so:
I'm inclined to agree with Gordon when it comes to WoW comparisions. We should be looking at WoW as the exception to the rule, and not the rule. When WoW is removed from the metric comparisions Sandbox and other MMOs do very well.

The problem is most developers aren't looking at MMOs this way. They see WoW and go "we want a piece of that". They are delusional enough to think that THEY will be the ones who can make a Theme Park MMO without falling into the trap the other 100 have over the past few years. I'm not saying ignore some of WoW's features, but no one can compete directly with WoW.
When WoW is removed from the metric comparisions Sandbox and other MMOs do very well.

To be fair, lets remove the most successful theme park MMO and the most successful sandbox MMO from the comparison. Once you remove WoW and EVE, you are left with LotRO, WAR, AoC, EQ2, CoX, STO, Rift, and a bunch of other games on the theme park side. And you are telling me that the sandbox side with Darkfall and Mortal Online is doing good in comparison? How good is the second-best sandbox MMO doing compared to the second-best theme park MMO? Not very!
I don't think we are working from a consistent definition of what sandbox is. I don't see how running missions makes a game less sandbox. Sandbox doesn't have so much to do with what you are doing as to how controlled or directed you are in what you do. The sandbox is I do what ever I feel like doing right now. run a mission, build something, shoot someone, mine a rock, scan down a radar site, whatever. Even if I spend most of my time being a freelance mission runner, I am not being directed in where to pickup a mission, what kind of mission to accept and how many missions to do before moving on to the next mission hub.

Similarly, just because non-sandbox games tend to direct the flow of the game using quests doesn't make the quests themselves a defining feature in making the game not sandbox. Rather, the game is not sandbox because your generally only given a single reasonable course of activity in how to progress your character. While you might be able to spend time looking around or even crafting as an alternative activity, the main form of developing your character, leveling, can only be done efficiently though questing. and that questing for a given level happens linearly in a choice of perhaps one to three location in the game world. That is themepark or non-sandbox as I understand it.

So what is our definition of Sandbox and can specific activities like missions or quests be excluded from the sandbox by their own nature?
Tobold, there are no AAA-Sandbox MMOs on the market. Do you even know how EVE started?

Comparing the success of these games is like comparing sale numbers of rusted nails and high-quality screws.

Now, you can be of the the opinion that the reason that there are no AAA-sandbox MMOs is that there is no suppliers who expect any demand. But that is exactly the point where I disagree with those potential supplies; and many others join me in that opinion.

In contrast to singleplayer games, we play MMOs too many hours to look forward to play very similar ones one after the other.
It's hard to classify games as sandbox and non-sandbox. The term has been coined for marketing purposes, so there's little in terms of classification.

I'm not sure how the term 'sandbox mmo' oroginated, but it probably has something to do with the butterfly effect triler for EVE. And there you actually don't see anything about freedom of choice - it's more about the effects of the single shard EVE is running on and the impact of single player's actions on the actions of all other EVE players. Instead of PVE or PVP its more about accomplishments you can reach with others, the alliances and wars you can start, its about how epic all this is when every player is in the same shard.

Freedom of choice is present in WoW as it is in EVE. The game is different, you do things in another way, but you still have the choice.

I'm not sure why you call some MMOs 'Sandbox' and others not. Really. You think you know what it means, but truly I doubt it. And if it really is derived from sensitive dependence on initial conditions, then all game servers are sandboxes in the same degree, beacuse what counts are the effects of actions, and not the quality or type of the actions taken by players.
True Tobold, but are you telling me that EVE and WoW are really on the same level of success? If we are going to remove EVE from the metric then I think we enter the slippery slope of removing others. My personal opinion is that a sandbox social MMO will be the thing that truly topples the MMO market. If you get those people who DON’T play video games to play yours because it’s basically facebook with pretty avatars, then you’ve won the war.

Based on pure subscription numbers, not genre, WoW is the anomaly. All of the other MMOs have relatively close sub numbers.
Anyone mention Dawntide yet? IIt's been in open beta for the best part of a year and WAI are constantly patching. I've probably spent about 20 or 30 hours there in total and it looks pretty solid to me.

Last time I logged in there seemed to have been a server wipe because my character was gone, and I had more graphic bugs than in the previous version, but I'm sure they're making progress.

Wurm Online has a pretty solid reputation. Read some of Beau Hindman's pieces on it. Xsyon also looks interesting. Alik Steel at Entertainment on Saturday's given that some good coverage.

My problem with sandboxes is that I just don't have the time to do them justice. I'm over 50 years old and I'm quite conscious of how long things take. In my 20s or 30s I would have loved to throw muyself into a sandbox world like any of the above, but now I somewhat begrudge the amount of time it takes to get anything done there.

That's not a fault of the games, it's a function of my diminishing time to appreciate them.
Empire space is still sandbox...

It and 0.0 space are interconnected by myriad sandbox elements.

The player economy is pretty darn sandbox.
Where do you see the difference between playing the market in a game like EVE and playing the market in a game like WoW? Would you consider WoW to be a sandbox game if we removed all the quests?

Honestly? Yeah. Now, if we were to literally remove all quests and other themepark aspects, I think we can agree that there wouldn't be quite the same audience for the game any more...

...But yeah. The market in isolation is the epitomy of Sandbox. The content and competition while allowed for by the tools of the game are player created. Some don't value their time and cause everyone that does to throw up their hands in despair. Others would nab up all the cheap raw materials they could and cut scathing margins to try further drive others out of the game for a while.

Some would 1 copper undercut no matter what, until people start playing their own game to bring this persons items below market value, buying them all out then removing their own listings before purchasing.

All that and more driven entirely by what strategies the players use.

I think however that the WoW economy is a really rather basic one. And if I was playing for the sole purpose of the market, I'd definitely jump back to EVE rather than WoW.
I'm not sure how the term 'sandbox mmo' oroginated, but it probably has something to do with the butterfly effect triler for EVE.
I doubt that the definition of a sandbox is in the scope of this discussion, but the concept of a sandbox MMO dates all the way back to MUDs and Ultima Online. Also, there were plenty of sandbox single-player games before the leap to MMOs. The Sim series, the Tycoons, the Grand Theft Auto series and so on.

Funnily enough, the GTA series is roughly at par with WoW, LotRO or STO when it comes to the player's ability to interact with the world. You roam around freely in a world with respawning NPCs and indestructible terrain. The story and the world progresses along a preset path as you complete missions, but you can choose which missions to complete and when. Or you can choose not to and just roam the world in search of mayhem, items and secrets.

I'm not sure why you call some MMOs 'Sandbox' and others not.
All modern MMOs are sandboxes to a large degree, so the distinction between sandbox and themepark is relative at best. Which MMOs focus more on the game-designer driven goals and narratives? Which focus more on giving the players the tools to define and implement their own goals and narratives?
From what I have seen, "sandbox" was applied to tabletop RPGs before it was applied to MMOs. Its use their certainly predates WoW, EVE, or any other title I know of.

However, despite having used the term longer, tabletop RPG players have even less agreement on what "sandbox" really means than do MMO players.

The problem is that not everybody agrees on how much freedom you need to move from being "on rails" to "in the sandbox". The most extreme level of sandbox is of course to plop the players down in a described world and ask them what they want to do, providing no plot hooks or adventures for them. The extreme of "on rails" is you tell them exactly what they're going to do today or what module you're running.

But where is the line that when you cross it, you change game type?

I play an MMO called Fallen Earth and I've seen the arguments there as to if it's sandbox or not. Some players follow missions from start to max level, other players create their own content by holding events or staging PVP matches. The former could be argued as "on the rails", the latter are certainly playing like it's a sandbox, but how do you decide what the game really is?

I think ultimately this becomes an argument not about what a game is but about what the terms you're using really mean. Until a definition can be agreed on, you're just arguing words, no facts and issues.
"I think ultimately this becomes an argument not about what a game is but about what the terms you're using really mean. Until a definition can be agreed on, you're just arguing words, no facts and issues."
My point exactly.
Here is a definition of Sandbox. While I disagree with it almost completely reading it puts in the right track of what I would consider a Sandbox.

It would be a gameworld, and not a game ('worlds vs. games' by Tobold come to mind) in which the only given thing is the inanimate world. All the characters there should be Player Characters. And while the definition in the link has it wrong, I think that what the author thought of was that a Player of a sandbox game should be able to do everything that is within the lore of the game.

In example: In WoW you have NPC merchants and stores - in sandbox there should be no such thing, but every player should instead be able to earn money, build or buy a building and turn it into a store, then set up contracts with Player controlled caravans and Player controlled producers to bring goods into the store and then stand there selling the good or pay another Player to stand there and sell the goods. Other players would be responsible for keeping the peace of the towns, which would all be built by players.

Now, if you carefully read the abovementioned article about games vs worlds you'll get the answer why games that are labeled 'Sanbox' tend to be less popular. It's all about filling the gaps between in entertainent value with brutal reality.
Two points for now:

-That 80% figure very misleading. Blizzard has said that 70% of WoW players never get beyond level 10. What percentage of WoW players do you think never go beyond the newbie zones? Quite a lot. Probably more than half.

-A big problem with Sandbox games is that they try to allow players to have an impact on the world (which is HARD) and try to have lots of PvP (which is HARD). Trying to do two hard things at once from launch on a shoestring budget is a recipe for disaster. IIRC, Eve on launch didn't have any of the territorial conquest stuff that we associate with it now and only added it in later. That was probably very wise. If I was making a game, I'd make sure that the basic foundations and the newbie experience were rock solid and then add in the territorial conquest bit as an expansion and as basically something to keep the end-game players busy.

My ideal game would be to have things start off pretty much 100% on rails (like the Age of Conan newbie game, that worked well) and then have things gradually get more and more sandboxy. I don't think that dropping newbies into the middle of a sandbox is ever going to bring mainstream success unless the game is very focused on one activity.
Darkfall is a sandbox without any sand and lots of grind -e.g. complete trash

Eve has some sand but it also has grind and boring as hell

UO is a sadnbox but its the oldest MMO on market (with 2d graphics still)

Themepark MMO (lotro, WOW ,etc) are of highest quality and more popular

Sandbox mmo would not be ever as popular as wow or farmville ,but I wouldnt judge their potential by Darkfall or let alone Mortal online.

Its actually a wonder those horrible abortions are still alive
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All MMO's are sandboxes, the very name connotates the idea that you have more freedom in an MMO than you do in Doom or Command+Conquer. There's not a single quest or raid in WoW that you're required to perform as far as I know.

To stretch out the sand metaphor more appropriately, EVE/Darkfall etc is like going to the beach, and WoW/LotRO etc is like going to a beach resort such as Sandals. Some people prefer the openness (and to like, dig holes with other beach goers), some people prefer the "stuff" to do/consume. It's just a question of how much structure you want in your sand.
But if "sandbox" and "themepark" are just semantics, how did the guy from Massively determine with just one hour of gameplay that Rift was a themepark game, and not the sandbox MMORPG that he wanted to play?
The problem though is that you can play market games in themeparks. Many people do as opposed to farm. The only difference is the scale in EVE, and that goods are destroyed. The principle is the same in both. You can see it in a themepark's consummable market.

I guess a better question would be "Why aren't big-name developers making sandboxes?"
Damn, looks like I missed the one MMO topic I’m most passionate about. I’ll just give my two cents quickly since probably nobody will read this anyway.

A sandbox MMO is a game wherein much of the content is created by the player base. My favorite instance of this was Star Wars Galaxies, with its player houses, player cities, and completely player run economy. Minus the clunky mechanics, boring combat, and bland worlds it was almost perfect for me. There’s something very satisfying about the world you’re playing in being influenced so heavily by the actions of other players. Sandbox MMORPGs are dynamic, truly dynamic, and have more potential than any other genre. The whole point is that your own creativity can decide how much you enjoy the game.

You log into WoW, everyone is huddled by questgivers, or in specific parts of a specific town, or queuing up for meaningless PvP, or checking the static locations of herbs, or following the path of their on-rails quest helper. You log into SWG (before the NGE update) and people could be searching for the best quality mineral deposits, negotiating with economic contacts, building and outfitting a personal house in a nice location, inspecting various player shops for the best deals, attacking cities of the opposing faction… Or grinding, there was lots of grinding…

Unfortunately, games like Darkfall have gone too far in the wrong direction and given a bad name to sandbox. If a developer could give it a real shot, without trying to be a niche hardcore shallow PvP gankfest game (don’t get me wrong, I love PvP but only when it has purpose), they could do wonders with today’s technology and knowhow.
Maybe thats why no developer tried an AAA-sandbox before: Everyone agrees what makes a good Themepark-MMO, but no two people seem to agree on what makes a good Sandbox-MMO. I've read about three different (and partly contradictional) definitions here alone and I know at least one Sandbox-Fan who would sort all of those still into the Themepark-Category and demand something even way more sandboxish.

Sorry if i didn;t understand you correctly - it seemed to me that by laying out all the negative examples you were implying that positive outcome was impossible. Which is inductive reasoning.

I cannot tell you of any developments i'd be aware of, but as for my ideas - of course i have plenty.

As some people in this discussion wrote already i also feel that the current approach to sandbox gaming is reductionist and pvp-biased.

My (somewhat) educated intuition is that there is a sizable multitude of people with creative inclinations that would appreciate a "builders" game done right (that is - with quality development - AAA)

PvP is the other culprit - in my opinion it is integral feature for a world to feel right, but it is somehow savagely implemented - either as free-for-all or nonexistant. I feel that a cascading set of options for inclusion can be present in one virtual world at the same time to satisfy all (wow does a lot of these, but also a "strategic war game" opt-in gameplay within the world seems interesting to me)

and last but not least - content. sandbox gaming is largely interpreted as formulaic or game-rule based gaming, as opposed to discrete or "hand-crafted", specific content gaming. in that respect (as far as my contacts with developers have shown) it is viewed as a trick to bypass content creation.

In my opinion that is wrong. i'd rather think to a rulebased, "procedural" content sandbox environment as a framework. You could (and should!) have guided hand-crafted content implemented in it, on top of the sandbox environment.

Rudimentary development and implementation of such features are visible in both EVE and WoW. Public quests in WoW are a type of (savagely reductionist) procedural content, Pilot Certificates in EVE are an attempt to provide guidance in addition to a sandbox "my choice" gameplay.

In conclusion - my opinion (or rather hope :) ) is that the lack of successful sandbox AAA game should be viewed as an opportunity to fill a significant niche rather than a "proof" for a deadend development direction
I think one of the possible issues is the barrier sandbox integration in a game presents to latecomers. The more a game implements player's ability to change the environment in a direction chosen by them, rather than the developers, then early-adopters have a greater chance to reach dominant positions. If you (and your mates) can gain huge wealth, set up empires or companies with vast resources and put yourself in a near-unassailable position, most new players are going to think "sod this" and try some game where they at least have the chance of getting the end-game they see others playing.

Although I love the idea of EVE, seeing the well-established players with their huge bankrolls, massive corporations and GSV-sized ships was dispiriting with the implied vast grind to get anywhere close. Whereas WoW (which I play) has at least the possibility of reaching the developer-imposed BiS limit of personal power.
But if "sandbox" and "themepark" are just semantics, how did the guy from Massively determine with just one hour of gameplay that Rift was a themepark game, and not the sandbox MMORPG that he wanted to play?

Maybe because he's an idiot? But seriously, it's probably because the lines are becoming blurred to the point where sandbox is practically code for "Asian-style open PVP" MMOs.

I'd love to see a AAA player-content driven MMO that is more like the beach than Sandals. It might take removing PVP combat entirely though to make it work, at least in the beginning.
Well the perfect MMO for me, would be a ever changing world, with no lvl cap ( and thereby no endgame )

Your character would advance through life, at a relative slow pace, and make et possible for the delevopers to create content and update the game continuously in small bits.

A lvl should take a long time to get, but there should be alot of fragments within a lvl that you can progress on, etc. optain new skills and abilities, get item and mounts and what not. So you feel an overall progress of your character, regardsless if you play 20 hours a day or 1.

So the goal of the game ( is to live the virtual life of you character and go for a undestined furture.

My point being that the Developers have to make small but constant updates, random events and most important No ENDGAME !!
So, I originally started this out by trying to define "sandbox" vs "theme park" but my arguments didn't even convince me. I am starting to thing that the term sandbox is actually meaningless or only used to define games that are poorly designed and left somewhat baron. So, instead of going down that route I will just say what would I think would make a great and possibly "sandbox" game.

1. A full, well designed and interesting world. It can have NPCs to make cities seem real or to fill roles designated by players, (guards, merchants, butlers, whatever) and for game administration, etc.

2. Quest and even giant spanning quest arcs should be available to people that want to do them.

3. Player quest system. The game should have a built in system so that guilds and players can create quests for other players or guilds.

4. Crafting should be highly developed and complex. All items in game should be craftable.

5. Open market. There should be no auction house or NPC markets except for newby items if that. Players should be able to set up shops or pedal their wares themselves. (Think SWG)

6. Loot should only be used for component drops that fit the creature killed and should never contain items that are better than crafted items.

7. All items should decay with use though not quickly.

8. There should be open world PVP though the penalty should be sever enough for it in certain areas as to make it extremely rare. In other areas it should be expected or encouraged.

9. There should be some form of player owned housing which would be defined by the genre of game. Players should be given as much leeway as possible without detracting from the environment.

Anyway, I could go on and on. To answer the original question, Yes, I definitely think a "sandbox" MMO could be viable and as profitable as a "Theme park" I am just not certain what the defining factors of the two are. However, the way I thing of the two, it would take a major company with loads of capital to use and a commitment to making a sandbox game. In a sandbox there has to be far more content as there is no focus on any one thing where as a themepark everyone is funneled through the same content. Thus, I am pretty sure it would take more money to make a great sandbox than it would to make a great themepark.

For this reason I think it will be some time before we see anything truly great. Hopefully I am wrong.
I played A Tale in the Desert.
What an awesome style of game. If you can get past the ugly graphics/models/interface the game play is really fun and addicting.

If building everything yourself from the tools to machines that make stuff to the buildings that you put the stuff in isn't enough. there are epic builds that the whole community shares example. Pyramids and Aqueducts that give bonus to the entire community as well as regional research that many players can take part in.

A new game is badly needed and I want to craft everything. Clothing/Armor/Weapons grow crops terraform the environment (if I want to make a cave/mine I should equip a pick axe and start digging). I want to raise animals and build cities/ports/bases.

PvP is important and has to have limitations. I would not want to be a noob and get killed while harvesting crops.
In game macro is useful for players who are casual.
In a game like that the whole community can work together to accomplish great tasks and or prepare for battle/siege.

I think the community should start out in (caveman)and together advance to sci-fi Futuristic technology.
Continuous upgrades to all items and repairing should be ongoing so you dont wear a loin cloth in a space port.
territory control would be awesome as long as you dont loose everything you worked to make and PvP and death should have consequence. sometimes pvp is needed to shut up a mouth piece and show them manners.

I want to explore and hunt
Opening new areas for the community to explore as they advance. (build boats-planes-portals to travel to new islands or under sea or sky/space.

skills will be ever evolving and not limiting you to a few skills but all letting you try and decide what you want to master.

Starting off with nothing was kind of fun but very confusing. I would not want to start out as a cave man if the community is already more advanced.
Community has to be easily accessible. When I fist start I dont want to be alone. Joining a clan/settlement should be something that just happens like a random starting spot or joining a region to learn with others.

I love doing quests but dont want to have to if I choose not to.

Politics I have never herd of in a game before A Tale in the Desert. Very interesting and adds that much more for the community.
Laws are something that regions can vote on and have real political debates.

Anyway the Sandbox idea can be limitless and I would play
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