Tobold's Blog
Tuesday, August 06, 2013
There is no such thing as a sandbox game

Over the last years various MMORPG bloggers have used the terms "sandbox" and "theme-park" to describe games with less or more directions given to the player on what to do. The same concept in earlier years used to be called "world" versus "game" MMORPGs. There are people who would like to live in a virtual world, and there are people who want to play a game. Both are okay, and any given MMORPG to some extent allows both, but there are clearly games that go more in one direction or more in the other.

In the years since the release of World of Warcraft, which is much on the "theme-park" or "game" side, a lot of clones have been made, and so the market is full of "theme-park" or "game" MMORPGs. As that didn't really work out for most game companies, the latest craze is believing that to make a "WoW Killer" you should rather make a "sandbox" MMORPG. Thus all the hype about Everquest Next being the potential savior of the genre.

Unfortunately using the new terminology is leading people astray here. They believe they want a "sandbox", and not a "theme-park". But because the term theme-park is so badly chosen in the first place, and designed as an insult more than a definition, people aren't really aware about the choice there actually is. Using the old terminology of "world" vs. "game" is a LOT clearer, because it shows the inherent conflict between the choices much better.

Look at the description of Everquest Next, and it becomes obvious rather quickly that EQN is *NOT* a pure "world" MMORPG. There are lots and lots of game elements in EQN, and just a slight improvement over the current generation in terms of "world" elements. Everquest Next is still very much a game about killing fantasy monsters to advance in level, about getting to the level cap, about getting the best gear, and all the other standard "theme-park" or "game" elements.

But what is your level in Real Life? You don't have one! Because in a pure "world", without "game" elements, you are not defined by numbers like your level or your strength score. You do have knowledge and skill, you do have possessions which can bring a certain status, but a life in a world isn't possible to put into a few simple numbers. If you wanted to play a "sandbox" or "world" MMORPG, you should play A Tale in the Desert, but most people trying that would complain that there are no character classes, no levels to gain, and no monsters to slay. In short, people *SAY* they want a "sandbox", but in reality they want a game with a bit less hand-holding than current generation MMORPGs offer.

If you have a system of levels and experience points, and a lot of players that can exchange information via the internet, people by trial and error quickly find out the best way to get to whatever top that game offers. Removing hand-holding game design elements like quests can make that optimum path a bit more obscure. But most players have a significant part of "achiever" player type motivation, and will always try to progress as quickly as possible, even if that means optimizing the fun out of the game. The original Everquest had people stay in one spot for weeks, killing the same respawn over and over, because in the absence of quests that was the fastest way to advance. If you want to rather stress the "sandbox" and "world" parts of a MMORPG, you would not just need to remove quests and dungeon finders, you would need to remove leveling, or at least remove the link between game activity and leveling. There is a reason why in EVE Online your skills go up with real time, and not with time played or time spent doing a specific activity: It frees you to do whatever you want instead of optimizing your progress.

There is a good possibility that Everquest Next will be a good MMORPG: The Storybricks based dynamic NPCs have great potential, and there are bunch of other good game ideas. But Everquest Next will by no means be a "sandbox" in which you can do whatever you want. It will be a "game" with a progress on rails, even if those rails might be somewhat better hidden than in current generation games. Because players want that "game", they want the illusion of constant progress and epic treasures. They don't really want to live in a world, they want to mash buttons to kill monsters for xp and gear. A MMORPG without the "G" at the end, something like Second Life, is not what most people want from the genre, regardless of what they are saying.

I'm referencing a post I did, just so that you can have the terminology of what I'm trying to say:

The post I have, focuses on game aspects and is a two part, 6 step analysis of gameplay. The focus is that the designer usually sets up the first 3 steps (Goal, Conflict, Disaster), and the player performs the last 3 (Reaction, Dilemma, Decision).

As you give the player the choice in what the Goal, Conflict or Disaster, the game becomes more "sandbox". This can happen either through design choice or player skill (Mastering Super Mario, and going for an extremely low score for example).

As you take from the player end, you make the game more "theme park". The reason World of Warcraft is so on rails, is because the player for the most part isn't choosing what to do or feel.

You come up to a quest giver, and they react to the situation, and the make the decision to ask for help. You either say yes, or you don't progress that storyline.

I guess what I'm trying to say, is that people are more likely talking about Sandbox and Theme Park within the "Game" dynamic, and not necessarily between a "Game" and "World" dynamic.

The whole character level/skill level paradigm used in games is directly analogous to how real life works. That's where game designers got the idea in the first place. Everyone on the planet has a real-life level plus a whole bunch of skill levels and a clutch of achievements to boot.
Nonsense, not a numerical level that is displayed anywhere. What job level are you? What level of father are you for your children? What is your driving skill level? You can't answer any of these questions in real life.
EVE Online is a good example of a sandbox game. But it also proves your point. Its not terribly popular. I think a friend of mine summed it up best when I asked him what do you do in EVE Online? He answered "Whatever you want".

But I find Minecraft a great alternative. Not exactly an MMO, but can be multiplayer. Its as complicated or simple as you want to make it. Lots to do. Randomly generated places to explore.

You can create a house, a castle or the Kingdom of Westeros.

And with mods, you can expand the gameplay endlessly.

Perhaps Cubeworld will end up being a good bridge between World of Warcraft and Minecraft.
"Everquest Next is still very much a game about killing fantasy monsters to advance in level, about getting to the level cap, about getting the best gear, and all the other standard "theme-park" or "game" elements."

mmmmm... I am sure they said that EQN have no levels, maybe be better you verify your info about the game. They too said EQN have horizontal progression, so my guess is that too have no gear progression. Maybe they have skill progression, but we need see what they are really doing.

IMHO, they are being ambitious. They are tyring advance both sandbox and themepark elements.

They advance themepark with storybricks (better mob and NPC AI), public quests/dynamic events more fluid and organic.

They advance sandbox with all destroyable world and being a giant minecraft like sandbox.

While they not talked a lot about crafting, I saw they said it is like SWG but better and that you have ever an use for copper, mithril, iron, anything you are crafting. The latter really remember me SWG, where I stored copper with 999 conductivity for use later.

Now we just need wait and see. IMHO, no plans survive to implementation, but if they have sucess at make work 80% than they promise, the game will be a huge advance.


Tobold, better you verify all info you gathered about EQN, because I saw you are giving opinion not based on facts. EQN will have no levels based on what the devs said. Devs too said mobs give no xp and that public quests can be advanced with crafting and haversting.
@João : They just don't call them levels. Quote: "Your character will progress through learning these skills and mastering the classes". In the end "mastering" the warrior class won't be any different from levelling a warrior.
I think it is more similar to skills, like SWG old system.

Maybe a better comapration be TSW skills. Take note TSW don't have levels, and that makes grouping for dungeons a not easy task.

"Mastering classes", I guess it is more akin to discovering diferent classes, because they said that there are 8 class disponible when you create the toon, but there are 40 classes total. Can too be related to open diferent skills in a skill tree.

Anyway, they said kill mobs don't give xp. IMHO, "leveling a warrior" or any other class will be not possible if you don't have traditional quests (public quests will span months) and kill mobs give no xp. Maybe each time you use a swrod or use a warrior skill you are a few better at it?

And if kill mobs do'nt give xp, there are only two reason for kill mobs:
1. loot and mats for crafting, farming;
2. advance the public quests, for example make the goblins move to other area.

IMHO, what I saw make me think that horizontal progression can be reference to:
1. get better gear;
2. get better skins;
3. get better houses;
3. open more classes and skills.

IMHO, they can do gear, skins and houses be craftable. If they make the crafting similar to SWG (tehy said they intend to do it), better gear (better stats) is just a matter of find the best mats, but they can add something akin to a fantasy setting, like use drake oil for create a fire sword.

Anyway, forgeting all these conjectures, they were very specific: classes don't have levels.

So, if you think they are lying, better you say directly they are liars.
The problem with a sandbox is that most people want some kind of forward momentum.

Even if the most popular sandbox games, you have a storyline, it's just that you can drop the storyline and do whatever you want and then head back to the storyline.

The problem with MMOS in this respect is that most MMOs for what I assume are technical reasons more or eliminate any trace of the players actions within 10 minutes of them leaving the scene. That makes satisfying sandbox play pretty hard to pull off well.
Looking for more info, I found this

"So our progression system is not based on levels, it’s based on tiers. There’s a shallow tier pool, because one of our focuses is on horizontal gameplay. We definitely have vertical gameplay, where a player increases in power in a particular class, but remember, there’s 40 classes. There’s a lot of classes out there to gain, and each one of these is advanced individually.

It’s based on player accomplishments. It’s not skill based, so you don’t have to use your mace over and over again to level your mace skill up. But your tier three warrior, in order to advance to tier four, has to collect a full suit of tier three armor. You have to have spent enough points in that class. You have to have accomplished a certain amount of things in the game in order to have advanced.

It’s not grinding XP. It’s not completing a thousand quests or whatever it is. That’s just not how it is. And we reward you with advancement in lots and lots of different ways. Whether it be participating in a Rallying Call, or doing quests, or engaging in any emergent AI that happens to be near you."

There are some info too about how to open diferent classes:

"Right, the assassin trainer won’t give you the class until you’re a really high level rogue and you’ve done a whole bunch of things. And the paladin for example, [Dave Georgeson, Director of Development] mentioned a life of consequence—if you haven’t been making the good choices and being an upright and justice influenced person, you can’t be a paladin. They won’t let you, because the game knows what you’re doing. So you have to live—in some of these classes, we restrict it to how you’ve been acting in the game."

About crafting (IMHO, it is revealing be a lot similar to SWG crafting):

"McPherson: So, we’re not ready to discuss the details of crafting, but we’re going to be playing in a very rich, deep world—as [David Georgeson] mentioned, you can take a weapon and make it out of multiple parts. And, the reason you want to make it out of multiple parts is because each character class, and each multiclass build, will have different requirements and different ways that you can augment and fine tune it. Weapons have a huge role in that. Armor has a huge role in that.

Butler: Weapons are actually recognizable, for instance. With acuity and experience in the game, I can look at your weapon and I can tell what its properties are, just by looking at it.

McPherson: I can go, ‘Oh, I see what you’ve done. You’ve made it out of this material."

This too make it be like SWG crafting:

"And because of the way our world works, resources—if you’re an MMO player, copper is the newbie metal, it’s the metal you find right outside the starting city and eventually you don’t need it anymore. Because of the way our game works, copper is always useful, because copper has specific qualities. Iron is always useful, mithril is always useful. All of these things are always useful to you, depending on what you want to make."

And this is similar but a few diferent than SWG, and IMHO it's an advancement:

"If you want to make a weapon that does electrical damage, or a weapon that is really good against undead, you need to find the right material to make it out of, and that could be any of the materials you find in the world."

With relation to housing:

"McPherson: So, player housing in EverQuest Next is not something we’re talking about yet, but you can imagine, with Landmark and all the awesome building that will happen, what our player housing will be like in EverQuest Next.

Butler: The tool that we used to create the world is Landmark, right? So you have the same ability to build things that we do."

As soon as a game has levels, the game becomes focused on "levelling."

I think Wurm online is about as close as you can get to a true sandbox. You can look for combat -- or not. You can explore -- or not. You can build a fiefdom -- or not. This is why most new players stand around and say, "what do I do?", then run off, get killed, and quit.
@ Bill....

Eve purports to be a sandbox but really, it only tolerates one type of game-play --- pvp ganking. All activities therefore line up like dominos to support that prime activity. Eve is not a sandbox -- it's a sandpit.

I think you are not seeing the "crazyness" they intend to do.

There are few tiers (4? 5? 10?) and 40 classes. Players not open tiers and classes with xp or skill points.

They open tiers and classes with achievements.

I will use GW2 as example, but it is because I know better the ahcievement system in GW2. The game will count all things you do, how many regions you explore, how many orcs you kill, how many kills you make using a sword, how many items you crafted, how many items you dismantled for get the mats, how many beer barrels you drunk, how many elves you killed, how many dwarves you killed, how many gnomes you putting, how many players you kill on pvp, how many houses you burned down, how many princess you save from dragons.

So, if you get a full set of tier 3 warrior armor, kill 50 orcs using a greatsword, kill 100 goblins, kill 500 mobs (any) using axe, you get all achievement you need for unlock tier 4 warrior.

Ok, it is a kind of grind, but it is not the same XP or skill grinding.

People will complete diferent requirements just doing anything they want in game. Go harvest a few, you can open a new crafting class. Kill a few more mobs, you can open a new class. Destroy the orcs supply, you can open the "command" class. Start a bar fight, you can open the "street fighter" class.

There are a lot of possibilities with this system.
People really can be stupid about how they describe things.

I've seen people playing Defiance claiming that by not having a clear path to gear upgrades, you eliminate the 'gear grind' of WoW.

You turn around and ask them, "So how do you get upgrades then?"

"Well, by doing Arkfalls to get keys, to unlock boxes... Or keep checking the vendors to see if there's an upgrade."

"And is there a way to ensure you're on the right track to getting that?"

"No, you just have to get lucky."

"So instead of localizing your activity to something which is more likely to give you gear that's useful to you specifically, you have to perform the same activity as everyone else, for a shot at the same reward as everyone else. How is that less grindy? If anything it's MORE grindy!"

It's like people who claimed that GW2 was going to avoid the theme park trap by having dynamic zone quests and level scaling.

But the fact is, the 'dynamic quests' were basically the same as WoW's quests, except the questgiver roams, and isn't always available. Yeah. That's a real improvement. And you still needed to hit a certain level and certain gear level in order to survive in the next zone, so you will still be killing X number of rats in order to progress to the next area, which is just as 'on rails' only there's less interesting story than WoW's coherent quest chain to accompany it.

What it WAS was a slightly better way of pulling the wool over the eyes of those who could be fooled by it. But MMO veterans? We've been around tracks. And even if you weren't savvy enough to see right through the charade as soon as it was introduced and break it down into its components, you sure as hell got a feeling of, "But I'm still doing the same thing..." nagging in the back of your mind while playing.
Actually, I think Firefall is very sandboxy at the moment. You can thump for resources, explore and mine for resources, buy/sell/craft with resources, clear out 'mission' nests of enemies, or defend/re-capture strategic points from a regularly-invading enemy.

None of these needs to be completed in any order, none of them are linked, there is no specific zone for any difficulty - all difficulties will be scattered around all areas fairly randomly, and pretty much all activities yield resources for crafting/selling.

After you've completed the tutorial, there is no over-arching quest-chain to lead you around by the nose to various areas or increase your skill. You're dumped in the world and told to 'go play'. Shoot some things. Have fun.

Funnily enough, though, the most common question I saw on the start of Open beta was: "How do I quest?"
There is an optimal way to every goal.

The point of "Sandbox" is that goals themselves can be defined without being extremely roleplayish.

You can play as a miner doing nothing but mining in EVE without being obviously wrong. Try to do it in WoW!
"[...] but a life in a world isn't possible to put into a few simple numbers."

Tell that to an actuary.

And, besides, just because the numbers are more obfuscated IRL, doesn't mean we still don't easily compartmentalize people based on some arbitrary sample of their high scores. I worked at my job for X years. My salary is Y. My college GPA is Z. The car dealership doesn't care if you're a great father if your credit score is _____.

You don't have to accept these numbers as being representative of your accomplishments or worth... but neither do you in WoW. Or anywhere. And just like levels limit you in what kind of mobs you can attack or which instances you can zone into, your "money in the bank" score will determine whether you can get a mortgage for a house (or one at a decent interest rate).
You can play as a miner doing nothing but mining in EVE without being obviously wrong.

That might actually be a good litmus test! Will it be possible in EQ Next to progress by just doing exploring, gathering, and crafting? Or will you need to kill thousands of mobs to advance as in most other games?
People will complete diferent requirements just doing anything they want in game.

Yeah, like LotRO class deeds where you can access extra talents when you use a given skill X times. Guess what, people don't "increase it during normal gameplay", if the talent is even remotely useful, they grind it to death....

You can play as a miner doing nothing but mining in EVE without being obviously wrong. Try to do it in WoW!

Trivial, I would say. My main is a feral druid from day one and I always played feral druid. If there were a miner class, you can bet that there would be people playing that as well.
Just because the specializations are not the same and/or are not obtained in the same way (choose class+level vs choose skill+buy bigger ship), it does not mean that the basic idea (= specialization) is exactly the same.
From the (limited) information that has been revealed so far, I expect that crafters/harvesters will be able to advance in their respective "skills" without combat. Unless perhaps for nodes guarded by monsters, then they can hire mercenaries/get guildies.

I also expect that trading/selling Landmark "blueprints" for housing will be a thing, with the better "architects" charging you for designing a home for you.
"[...]Will it be possible in EQ Next to progress by just doing exploring, gathering, and crafting? "

@Chris K.
"[...] I expect that crafters/harvesters will be able to advance in their respective "skills" without combat."

IMHO, you are looking EQN from the wrong perspective. I quote you two for show how.

SOE is being more ambitious than Anet and they are aiming high for a Revolution.

Using that Star Trek movie analogy again, they are not only re-starting the story line, they are changing all rules.

I was trying understand how they intend to make tier advancement and open diferent classes. They said there is no xpand that there are no skill poinst you gain using a weapon. How?

Then, reading that you need get a full set of tier 3 armor set for open tier 4, it hit me. It is an achievement system like GW2. In GW2 there is a long list of possible achievements more daily and monthly and living world event achievements. The possible achievement goes from kill 1000 harpies to find 10 jumping puzzles, to kill 100 mobs with a sword, to explore all secret places at Kryta zones. And there is an achievement for use the diferent racial armors (I think you gain the title "Emperor"). Bhagpuss say they used achievements for substitute the quest log, because the living world events need the player complete a pre-determined number of achievements linked to that event for get the reward (loot and a title).

IMHO, SOE want use an achievement system for substitute the xp bar...

So, I am not sure if "progress", "advancement" and "levels" will have the normal sense of the word in EQN. We will continue to have the grind, they can ask for kill 500 mobs with an axe for get an achievement for advance warrior to next tier, but they too can ask for "kill a dragon" achiement for open the "dragonslayer" class. So, what they are saying about open the paladin class make sense, be good guys or you cannot be acepted to the paladin league of boy scouts. Be sure to help every grannies to cross the street.

How that apply to crafting and harvesting? Using an achievement system for control the "progressing", I guess it is like forge X number of copper bars for open blacksmith class, forge X number of copper swords (pommel + blade) for open weaponsmith, forge X number of copper helmets for open armorsmiths. How they don't want the things to be too much grindy, they said you will not need craft 50 barrels for advance crafting, problably the X number will be one or something low. But see you, no xp bar and no skill points.

Advancement on tiers of harversters and crafters problably will need complete some more dificult achievements. Mine X number mithril nodes, craft X number of fire swords. As they said players can combine materials for craft diferent kind of items, my guess is that the crafting system is similar to SWG, so it is possible to progress in crafting with no need to get out the starter city, just buying the mats.

Harversting can be more dificult to progress, because there are mobs around. But there are diferent underground levels and problably the deep ones have the most rare mats, so it is possible you just need go deep bellow the starter city for find some rare nodes. And how they said mobs will move out a zone because player made them run out(storybricks advanced AI), some zones and underground areas can be cleaned by adventurers where harverters will go with no mobs for attack them.

Anyway, if it will use an achiement system (we really have few info now, but they said it will not use xp or skill points), advancement and progressing can be diferent from what we see at any otehr MMO.
"But because the term theme-park is so badly chosen in the first place, and designed as an insult more than a definition"

Couldn't agree more on that...Some people not only use it as an insult for others, but also because they think they are cool and awesome if they position themselves to the other side..

Anyway, speaking of MMOs, in my opinion early wow have achieved the sweet spot between world and game and this is why they got that success in my opinion. Now they are clearly favor the game...

Thanks Tobold for calling gamers out on the fact that they don't want to play real sandbox games.

If we did, dev's would be making them. But we don't. So let's stop pretending we do.
Skills and stats can have individual levels but an overall level that suddenly makes you x times better than you previously were is the problem in MMORPGs and RPGs in general(mainly due to math calculations).

Part of the reason I like UO and Mabinogi so much is because the first one doesn't have over all levels and the second one more heavily relies on your skill level (per skill) than the generic overall level stat which gets into ridiculous numbers (I'm over level 2000) but a normal bear can still pulverise me if I don't fight perfectly.

In both cases you got stronger and you got better at doing stuff, if you practiced getting stronger and doing that specific "stuff". I don't become a sword master by cooking a thousand cakes (though, that would be awesome. And possibly yummy)! ^_^
To want a sandbox involves just wanting a box full of grit?

I always imagined it rather like a school playgrounds sandy area - with monkey bars, slides, climbing frames - as well as the sand.

So true sandbox is just about a box full of grit?

Sounds crap. Had no idea that that is the notion?
Not at all. I want a sandbox game with lots of different activities. What I don't want is a sandbox with a "win condition", linear progress, and an end game.
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