Tobold's Blog
Thursday, April 15, 2010
Is EVE Online a sandbox game?

Simple people like simple classifications. Thus they will explain to you how EVE Online is a sandbox game, meaning non-linear, open world, unlimited freedom to find your own adventure. As opposed to World of Warcraft, which is labeled a themepark game, only one linear path to the top, with the game taking you by the hand and leading you from ride to ride. So everything is nicely classified, put into a drawer, and we can stop thinking. Can we? The reality, like always, is a lot more complex than this simple black and white classification into sandbox and themepark suggests.

The trouble starts if you want to sort more than two games into those drawers, lets say in addition to EVE and WoW we also want Final Fantasy XIII and Second Life. Now instead of drawers we have an axis that goes from extreme linearity to extreme freedom, with FFXI and SL occupying spots near the extremes, while WoW and EVE are suddenly finding themselves much closer together in the middle.

Yes, World of Warcraft is more linear and offers less freedom than EVE Online. But I recently reported how I made over 1,000 gold with a ultra low-level character in World of Warcraft by fishing in Northrend, which certainly was a "sandbox episode" of playing WoW. And if you find yourself in the rookie or help channel of EVE Online and ask "Hi, I'm new and a bit lost, what should I do?" you will generally get the answer "run missions", which isn't all that different from the "do quests" answer you'd get for the same question in World of Warcraft. Funnily enough it is those simple people with their simple classifications which on the one hand will violently defend the superiority of the freedom of EVE Online, while on the other hand being totally unable to find that freedom in World of Warcraft. It exists, you just need to ignore those "go this way for fastest leveling" neon signs the game offers as help.

And those "this way" signs are there for good reasons, which is why even EVE Online added them. You don't want new players to be lost right from the start and get the same impression of EVE Online which Ixobelle linked in a previous EVE comment. When I first played EVE back in 2003, there were no helpful career missions explaining you the basics of the various EVE career paths. Now, 7 years later, EVE's famous learning curve is a bit less vertical, and the game makes a greater effort to take the new player by the hand and guide him towards the content. Which is exactly what the principle of a themepark game is.

Ultimately this is a problem of willpower and imagination. There are players in EVE which get hooked on the mission systems and who are running missions all day long, basically playing EVE like a themepark game. The freedom to do whatever you want is a scary thing, because it requires you to decide what you want, and take the risks involved with that decision. Following the neon signs that point you towards a reasonably safe way of linear progression is the more comfortable option. And that is okay. Doing whatever you want *includes* following the beaten path. It is better for EVE Online to offer that possibility to take the guided tour. It is up to the players to decide whether they want to stay on or stray from the path. Whatever the game is.
You ignoring elephant in the room:

EvE has player controlled sectors and economy is entirely player driven.

Sandbox MMO is not about whether you choose instance a or b. Its about whether you can influence the world and make others see it
I'm not so sure that it's really a failure of imagination. Sandbox games are virtual world simulation, and how do you decide what goals to set in the real world? By being forced to cope with basic necessities (how can I eat? sleep? etc), seeing what other people do, and growing up inside that world and culture.

Games don't really force people to gather basic necessities - your character won't die if you don't feed it. Newbies don't often get to see role models because they don't hang out in newbie zones (this btw is one of the things that WoW et al got right about having capital city hangouts so close to newbie zones). And with a VR, growing up IS the newbie experience.

I'm not 100% sure what my point is, but even in the real world, we have a lot of pointers telling us what options are available and how to use them. Is it really fair to expect people in a virtual world to go with no pointers at all?
Yeah, the term "sandbox" to me isn't so much about freedom to do what you want to do; it's about being able to build and shape things in the world. Literally, to take the sand in the box and make a sandcastle out of it. And of course to knock over other people's sandcastles (that's why sandboxes always seem to be so PvP focused).

Sure WoW has more options and alternatives than most themepark games, but as long as you can't shape and influence the world, that doesn't make it a sandbox: it makes it a great themepark.
I'm with Max and Carson 63000 on this one. I quite like their definition of the "sandbox" term.

To me, Tobold's definition of "sandbox" seems more like "varied theme park".
Sid67 made the same point recently. IMHO, no game is pure sandbox or pure theme park. Those are just platonic ideas. But it's certainly possible to say if a game is more like one or the other. Eve can be played like a themepark game, but it doesn't really support it as well as it supports other playstyles.

You make an excellent point, and I believe you have made it several times before.

Perhaps the problem lies in these terms? Every time you bring up "sandbox" and "theme park" a number of people explain what those terms "really mean". But is that really useful? They don't mean anything really, do they? To be fair, in the real world a sandbox is just a boring theme park (or a part of it). Someone built the sandbox, placed it there for children to do stuff in it. Just like with theme parks.

The point you are making, I think, is that these terms don't help us in the least. You talk about "freedom", and that's much more helpful. Goal orientation, really. Some games provide us with more goals, objectives, and others with fewer or even none. PvP is a goal. In those games, it is up to the participants to set up their own goals.
I agree with everything you say.

But, like others, I don't think you are talking about theme part vs. sandbox. Instead, you are talking about about how much freedom a new player has in a MMO.

This property might be connected with sandbox/themepark, it may even be a part of it. But it alone doesn't define these termes.
I think your example contradicts your point, rather than makes it. Eve has rather weak theme park elements (the missions), but that is still what some people end up doing.

It's kind of like a power plant which sometimes gives guided tours to visiting politicians or schoolchildren: that is less than 1% of what it is about, but it will still be how some people experience it.
freedom to do whatever you want is a scary thing, because it requires you to decide what you want, and take the risks involved with that decision.

I'd like to comment on that quote a bit.
I tried to understand myself and asked myself the question: "What do I want when I start a new MMO?"
The anser is always the same: "I want to become powerful."

Obviously, it is rediculous to assume that you can become very powerful in an MMO. Especially so in a sandbox game, where NPCs play less of a role. Power in comparision with NPCs (especially stupid ones) doesn't mean much to me.

Still, that's what I want. There also are other things I want: For example I want to experience the game as world. A credible, immersive, consitent world.

"What gets me addicted (positively) to a game?"
I become addicted if I have the feeling that I am about to accomplish my goal.

The game should also be fun to play. That is, it has to have a responsive user interface, preferably nice graphics and sound, etc.

The worst thing for me is if I cannot influence the speed at which I become more powerful. It's like somebody telling me that I can earn 1mio €, but I will have to work for that for 20 years and there is no way at all that I can accelerate it. That just doesn't motivate me very much. Which might be the reason that I am commenting on a blog right now instead of working :)

In WoW I can become quite powerful in BG-PvP. That is certainly due to equip, but also a bit due to skill. I can also become a very good PvE player, such that people ask for me, because with me as a tank the encounter is easiert, or because I'm always at the top of the damage meter, or because I can heal two people where other healers go oom trying to heal one.

All these things happened to me in WoW.

In Eve I had the terrible GUI, no influence on the speed of me becoming more powerful, except for eraning money, which doesn't mean much, since you can actually buy it legally (that makes a difference to me) with €.

Especially in the beginning this destroys my economic game. The military game is non-existent, because for that I need to wait months. Mining is terriblly boring.

So, I'd love to love EvE, because it is one credible, immersive, consitent world. Moreso than any other MMO I know. But these three flaws totally ruin it for me.

In Eve you have to decide on what you want. I did. But what I want, Eve doesn't offer. The castle I want to build cannot be built in EVE, or only if I play it offline for half a year first. I won't do that.

In my opinion EvE should remove skills altogether. If they want to give me freedom, give it to me! Don't make me log in every day to set my training queue! That's even worse than the fact that I have to pay for just setting my training queue. I just forget to log in!
I think in practice Eve isn't a sandbox for a new player.

Most people are told join a corp, run missions and that's what they do.

People talk about other newbie professions but most of them really aren't.

If you go pirate with a new character you are a free kill to older players.

Ninja salvaging involves one of the most difficult skillsets to get the hang of.

Hauling NPC goods is no longer an economically viable profession.

Zero, zero space is out of bounds for newbies.

There's trading which is just spreadsheeting and mining which isn't really a game since the only reason to do it is to progress in Eve while concentrating on something else. (I sometimes mine in Eve on one PC while playing AoC on the other).

So where is this sandbox of infinite possibilities? Join corp, run missions.
I agree with Hirvox that sandbox and themepark are more two ends of a spectrum than a dichotomy. Almost all MMOs include some directed content and some player-driven content.

That said, EVE is pretty clearly on the "sandbox" end of the spectrum. Sure most people run missions, but you don't have to. You can mine, haul, or even PvP pretty much right from the start. In games like WoW entire categories of content like PvP battlegrounds, raiding, and serious crafting are level-gated, meaning that you *have* to do the scripted content first. That makes a big difference.
"Especially in the beginning this destroys my economic game. The military game is non-existent, because for that I need to wait months. Mining is terriblly boring."

This is what tells me that you never tried the "military game" and that you never got your head around Eve economics. You can fly a absolutely decent frigate within hours and if you practice a bit you can wreak quite some havoc with it. But you have to train your real-world skills for that. Sure, ingame skills help a lot but as soon as you forget about the "click orbit and autofire"-fail-style you will see that Eve combat is quite interesting even for beginners.

For economics i have to say: Nobody really cares how much ISK you have atm. The important question is: How fast can you replace the ISK you just lost. And again nobody cares if you replace them by scamming, missioning, begging or selling PLEX, thats totally up to you. This is what Sandbox truely means. YOU have to make a choice how to become important or wealthy or powerful. It's not predefined like in WoW with itemlevels or such bullshit. In Sandbox games you actually have to convince other people that you are powerful. How you do that is completely up to you.

However...i agree with you that mining is boring as hell...
@ plague:

I hear the powerful-frigate thing all the time. Point is: You need days to train the necessary skills. Then you need to equip the frigate and that costs a lot of money from a newbies point of view. Millions !

Then you can't really afford to loose that one frigate..

Finally I'm not really powerful: What I can do is to attack slow ships that have slow turning weapon systems. The ships need to be alone and if they are a bit connected and I indeed blow them up, they will put a bounty on my head and friate-killer ships is coming and blowing me up. Great. Look how powerful I am.

Actually I also need to be in low sec space and there is a good chance somebody else blows me up with a single surprising hit.

So: Even If I, as a newbie, wanted to read through endless internet pages and train my RL-EVE skills instead of playing. Even if I ventured into low sec space with my frigate that I cannot afford to lose. Even if I manage to find some non-excorted merchant who has weapon systems that I am immune to due to angualr speed. Even if his shields/armor don't recharge faster than I can damage them. Even if he has some valueable cargo. Even if I somehow manage to 'loot' that cargo safely with a freighter (which i cannot afford to lose). Even then I will soon be blown up by his revenge.

I am not powerful that early in EVE.

And again nobody cares if you replace them by scamming, missioning, begging or selling PLEX, thats totally up to you.

Well, I do care ...

Begging or selling PLEX is not my style. Selling PLEX actually destroys the whole 'immersion-advantage' EVE got.

Missioning is terribly easy/boring after the first few days.

Good scamming is impossible to do without building up a good social network before. That takes months. Months of boredom.

Trivial scamming (contacting and lying to people) is not my stlye.
Ok dear...i guess you're ignoring my arguments because you never been there and never even tried to get into serious pvp in Eve.

Let's conclude this with your own "Fazit" (you german right? ;):
You can't build your castle in Eve, it's just not the right game for you.
Interesting to note that a lot of stuff added since launch (missions, tutorial, faction warfare) caters to players who want a more directed game-play experience. I guess ccp realise that not everybody wants total sandbox freedom. It is amusing how even the hardcore players who proclaim "You haven't experienced EVE until you have don X in Y region" are somehow missing the point of a sandbox game.

Happily it remains true that EVE places gives fewer signposts than WoW like games and places fewer artificial restrictions on your character. The skill system is the only real artificial limit. I guess ccp felt they needed to have some progression mechanic in the game but sometimes I think it is a pity they included it. Nevertheless you can still do a surprising amount with a brand new out of the box 800k skill-point character.
Ok dear...i guess you're ignoring my arguments because you never been there and never even tried to get into serious pvp in Eve.

Mmh. Actually, I tried to cover every single one of your arguments.

How hard I tried to get into EVE is certainly debateable. Last years I spent about one month of about 30 hours/week to get into EVE.
I am repeating myself: I'd love to love EVE Online! :)
As some might have mentioned, what exactly is "Sandbox".

I also agree it has nothing to do with having "Freedom to choose". Alot of people seem to think ALOT OF CHOICE = Sandbox or if you have all the choices available to you ALL THE TIME it's "Sandbox" . Surely that is wrong?

....ok i'm getting a deja vu again, someone blogged about exactly this.

EVE imho still pretty much follow a themepark design up to a certain point. I suppose very late game [corporation level] a corporation can shape the world, but as a little peon mining on a rock doing missions there's ZERO sandboxing going on there.

How many MMOs are there where you can literally "shape the world" ? SWG have player cities which imho is pretty sandboxy not only in a cosmetic way but in travel + trading . However to me the actual -gameplay- is still pretty much themepark [i.e. you pick a class, you do missions, you level and level some more] .

Second Life is probably a true sandbox, but now it's debatable whether it's a GAME . SL is like giving me a Oblivion-Editor , i can shape the world, i can create whatever...but i'm not playing a game :/.
I can influence the world (of Warcraft) by going and killing people's questgivers and taking the settlement as my territory (fur teh alliunce lul!), thus making it very immersive and totally like a living world. I can even bring someone with a Jeeves and a mammoth, thus adding regent vendors and repairs. And if I'm an engineer I can bring a mailbox as well! I now have a fully functioning settlement.

See, I just made an impact on the world in the supposed god of themeparks. Seems like a pretty crap definition of sandbox to me.
e, I just made an impact on the world in the supposed god of themeparks. Seems like a pretty crap definition of sandbox to me

Not too bad, but futile, since players nowadays just stand around in Dalaran and wait for in BG/Arena/dungeon-queues.
Even leveling players.
Not too bad, but futile, since players nowadays just stand around in Dalaran and wait for in BG/Arena/dungeon-queues.
Even leveling players.

That's not entirely true. I've recently spent a couple evenings with someone else taking over crossroads for as long as we could, and it took less than half an hour before we got overrun by players who came to the rescue of their territory.
I once had to log out dead, since they even made sure we weren't able to res and run away.
Max and Carson 63000 seem to be ignoring what the term Sandbox in a game means. Since genre is defined by other like genres, and the game that defined sandbox is Grand Theft Auto 3, then a sandbox game is a game where you can "make your own fun".

Now many games have some sandbox to them, and usually the better and more complex the interactions the more "sandbox" a game becomes.

For example, Just Cause 2 is defined as a sandbox style game. The open world spider-man games (starting with Spider-Man 2) were sandbox games.

Even a google search for sandbox games results in the Wiki article on non-linear play.

So what you guys are trying to say is that EVE is a sandbox game where you can influence the world and others can see the impact you have made. But there's no term that comes to mind for that second part.

Not all sandbox games have that impact clause, so even though EVE has it, does not mean that all sandbox games do as well.
@SilverTemplar: Second Life is a toy, not a game. You could maybe play games while in Second life, but that's like playing games with your GI Joes.
@Plague: "In Sandbox games you actually have to convince other people that you are powerful."

You are not talking about sandbox games, you are talking about something else. In this case the guild application process of WoW is a sandbox game, as you try to convince others that you are a good player, and only need gear to be equal to them (if not better).

You can scam and beg in WoW ("can I haz G pleaze? lol), and Gevlon (and the crown prince of Dubois) has shown that you can BUY your way into a high level raiding guild.

Your entire definition of sandbox can be applied to WoW (you can even buy gold, legally [selling pet codes] or illegally).
I'm sure that if a totally new MMO genre appears next year WoW will be that too. :)

Anyway, we might as well discuss film genres. Obviously Star Wars is a chick flick, just see the sexual tension between leia and han, even the triangle *squick* they form with luke... Wait, no, it's a melodrama due to Luke's daddy issues and the loss of it's family. No, no, it's a war movie due to all the battles...... etc.

Star Wars is SciFi, WoW is themepark and Eve is sandbox. The rest is nitpicking...
Not too bad, but futile, since players nowadays just stand around in Dalaran and wait for in BG/Arena/dungeon-queues.

I agree it would be futile, but who said it has to have a point? I was demonstrating that you can make an impact on the world and give it some basic (albeit temporary) amenities for a time in WoW.
@Wyrm, they both are MMOs, and have elements of both Content based game play (theme park) and non-linear game play (sandbox).

The discussion is about the confusion of whether to include player IMPACT to the game as part of the definition of sandbox, which I argue should not be part of the definition.
Just as Nils I would love to enjoy EVE but I simply cannot' I've tried it for four months when the game came out and I tried it again two years ago but I just could not stay interested in it.

I actually resented how the game stifled my freedom and tried to force me into a specific playstyle that I did not enjoy.

To some players the high end politics and PvP of EVE is the 'hight of freedom and power' but to me it always seemed very hollow. It felt too 'sandboxy' in the 'little kids playing stupid games in a sandbox' kind of way. I saw nothing creative in that aspect of the game and it seemed the design of the game wanted to force me toward that path by making any part of the game that was enjoyable to me either hit a brick wall or become incredibly boring.

I wanted to build something more solid then just a 'castle made from sand' and EVE just did not provide me with the tools to do it. I actually found WoW way more conductive to what I wanted to accomplish in a MMORPG.
I'd like to say that this discussion actually was very fruitful for once. I learnt a lot about the differences of WoW and EVE and in my opinion EVE developers should really have a look at it. Thank you (every commenter).

It kind of depends of what impact we're talking about.

The impact you have in WoW is merely inconvenience other players and it's not persistent: the flight master will respawn. That is a poor definition for Sandbox.

On the other hand if impact means changing the open world politically by conquest or physically by construction then we're solidly into Sandbox land.

What I meant by my post is when you start discussing definitions then we fall into the semantics trap. Any definition that you can apply to one genre can be applied to the other making the battle rage on.
So what you guys are trying to say is that EVE is a sandbox game where you can influence the world and others can see the impact you have made. But there's no term that comes to mind for that second part.

Not all sandbox games have that impact clause, so even though EVE has it, does not mean that all sandbox games do as well.

Well it is all again arguing about semantics of what "sandbox" actually mean. I did put a qualifier there - sandbox MMO

Some people say sandbox = variety of activities. From that point of view WoW is a definite sandbox.

But the terms thempark/sandbox came up to separate variety of activities in wow vs UO. both have variety of stuff to do. What is different in UO?- the interaction with actual non instanced world and people.

Sandbox doesnt mean game is automatically good, Shadowbane and Darkfall are examples of sandbox games without sand (and loads of sh!t instead - bugs and technical problems).

WoW is an example of good themepark game (nothing you do matters and changes anything at all , but it is fun ride)

EvE I would say an example of boring sandbox. There are many things you can do, but its all timesinks
The ironic thing is that in an actual sandbox (ie on on playground) you really cannot permanently influence that 'world'. Whatever you build in a sandbox will fall apart as soon as the sand dries up so at best you are left with sand mounds that the wind will erode soon enough. :)

Also any 'PvP' in such a sandbox that is meant to have a meaning will generally result in hurt feelings and the other kids taking their toys and going home.

This is also my view on EVE which is why I do not take any talk of a 'sandbox world with meaningful consequences' seriously. To me it is as 'serious' as talk of WoW raiders being the 'best' players.
Playing WoW for me was like riding Its a Small World to enter the park and then have the whole themepark available to me.

Once I got off that insidious ride, I spent all my time at the bumper cars.

As long as I'm not forced to ride a track like a roller coaster Ill be happy.
The long term success of these "games" in general will depend on seemlessly offering as much variety of content/play style as possible.

They should have arcade type experiences, seemless tutorials in a variety of areas, themepark adventures, PvP competition as well as sandbox type functionality.

My take on the word "sandbox" is that it's a blank canvas. As opposed to a ballfield, a swingset, or the monkey bars, you have to create your own activity and/or rules for competition. It's going to be more cerebral, but still interactive.

These games are going to have to be as intuitive as possible to start interacting with the world. A long but interesting learning curve would allow progression to the more complex activities. But at the same time, you still have access to all the content at all times.

It took me a year of solo/AH play in WoW before I started grouping and joined a guild. Then I learned about add-ons and macros. Then I spent several months learning and progressing through PvP. I'm still at it 2 years later because of that complexity & variety.

I kind of feel like I've hit a wall with WoW, though. Now that I really understand the game, I wish I had some type of unstructured creative outlet (other than blogging) within the game itself.
@Max - you're right, after my posts I went through a deluge of posts about Sandbox MMOs, and the blogosphere at least has agreed that Sandbox MMO is as you defined it.

I come from the concept of Sandbox games in general, which does not carry that qualifier.

@Wyrm - yeah, definitions and semantics are important though when you discuss what is it about a game that makes it what it is. Per your example of Star Wars, it is Sci-fi that has Romance, War, etc etc. Same thing with EVE and WoW, as Themepark as WoW is, I've been to RP servers where every night they get a bartender in Booty Bay.
Nevertheless you can still do a surprising amount with a brand new out of the box 800k skill-point character.

Uh, brand new characters don't get 800k skill points any more. They get 80k and a double speed skill learning until 1.6M. Or am I missing a secret UI function somewhere?
How many MMOs are there where you can literally "shape the world" ?

A Tale in the Desert and Love come to mind. Both are more on the sandbox side of that themepark-sandbox axis I mentioned than EVE Online. I'm pretty sure there are others, those are just the ones I know. And they are more "game" than Second Life is.
I don't understand how people argue that because you dont instantly become powerful in EvE its not a sandbox.

So can you now make a level 80 toon right off the bat in WoW? Didnt think so.

The days it takes to become proficient enough in one area to accomplish things alone or with your corp is, relatively, about 2 seconds in MMO time.
In WoW, when you start you are at the base of the pyramid. As you progress in levels, your options become somewhat limited at end game.

In Eve, your options are limited when you start. And as you progress in skills (both trained and learned), your options become more and more.

Eve is a sandbox in the sense that players are tossed into an environment, and given the tools to build and do what they want. Granted is has to be built from sand, and it has to stay within the constrains of the sandbox.
I think that we wouldn't be having this discussion if the expression "theme park" hadn't previously been used in a derogatory way when referring WoW.

Thing is I don't find it's derogatory at all. I'm playing Fallen Earth at the moment and while the game has solid sandbox elements i think it's quite entrenched in the theme park side of the scale. Yes the paths are wider than in other theme park references but you are indeed guided through the game at least in sector 1.

So it's a theme park as well. So what?
I think by calling themepark games, content driven games instead (which they are) would make more sense, and make the discussion easier to bear to those who still feel themepark is derogatory to what they have invested time in.
I like the sandbox element of EVE, I am disappointed at how the devs seemed compelled to keep nerfing and fixing stuff. Changing mineral spawn rates; the upcoming insurance change. The devs are actively shaping the sandbox; it is not a sandbox with emergent player experiences.
How about instead of 'Sandbox' and 'Themepark" we use more descriptive terms and abbrieviate them (like we do with MMORPG).
for example:
PDEC = Player Driven Economy and Content (EVE, Darkfall, Mortal Online to varying degrees)
DDCL = Developer Driven Content Led (WoW, Warhammer, etc.)

Possibly have a set of these which are determined by examining the features of a game, much as the bartle typs and other personality types are determined.
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