Why True F2P Sandbox MMOs are a Niche Market
Gamers often hear the phrase "sandbox" these days. It seems every open-world game, linear or non-linear, is being hyped as sandbox gameplay. While industry hype and developers often try to blur the line between open-world and linear gameplay, it's easy to forget the true meaning of sandbox: the gameplay is up to your imagination, right?
We Want Themeparks! No, Sandboxes! Errr Sandparks!
If you're active in any of the major game site forums, one thing you'll hear often is that gamers want a more personal experience. Sure, the specular lighting and ambient occlusion is nice, but what is the endgame like? Is the community active? Does it have player housing? In fact, as a perfect example, here's a quote from an MMORPG forum in a thread discussing what the perfect sandbox game would have;
Originally posted by *****
- Item decay.
- Horizontal progression. Maximum power should be reached easily, but after that there should be lots of options to expand without any bounds of classes
- There should be several open world PvP objectives that can be captured or raided by the in-game factions
- Player-owned flying ships. Combining a player-owned house with a mount (driving the ship).
- More lively AI.
Sounds like a game we all know, right? Of course, I recommended they try any one of the Iron Realms games, particularly Lusternia for the aetherships, and the response I get is "I wouldn't play a text MUD". This is just an isolated example, but I think it's a good representation of how core gamers don't really know what they want!
Sandbox Gameplay in MMOs
Released in 1997 and considered one of the earliest sandbox MMOs, Ultima Online is still highly praised today for its player housing system. Aside from the fact that houses are just oversized storage containers, why would anyone want player housing? Especially when they're sitting in their real house playing the game? Some reasons include;
- Objects of envy. In a sandbox platform like Second Life, players are really seeking an enhanced social network. Having an expensive couch is a status symbol just as much online as it is in real life.
- Opportunity for self-employment. Users who are proficient with sandbox toolkits can sell pre-built real estate for real cash to other users.
- An extension of your character's personality; a place to display trophies collected, a place inside the game that you created, making the user feel like they've contributed to the game world.
So when gamers ask "Is it sandbox gameplay?", what they're really asking is "can my sandbox environment become a direct reflection of my online persona?". Sadly for these players, the graphical MMORPG genre doesn't offer much to work with. Toolkit-driven platforms like Garry's Mod or Second Life are aimed more towards programmers.
Why Sandbox MMOs Don't offer SDKs
The closest thing RPG gamers have to real sandbox gameplay are SDKs (software development kits). Bethesda is famous for their SDKs, as players are able to create entirely new areas, weapons and quests using the same tools as the developers in popular games like Oblivion and Fallout. However, devkits require a knowledge in scripting and 3d modelling, so there's a high barrier to entry in the modding scene. Even worse, SDKs aren't always compatible with Mac or Linux, leaving those gamers out.
Text games fit the mould of what sandbox MMO gameplay is all about; players shaping the world, creating a unique experience with the simplest of tools - their minds. So while both hardcore and casual gamers have become accustomed to drag-and-drop interfaces, their creativity is limited by either their programming skills, or the capabilities of the game engine itself. When offered a toolset that gives them everything they want and more, they turn and flee the other direction! That's why true sandbox gameplay is a niche market - gamers want their sandbox surrounded by a theme park. Too bad for them, developers will never give gamers a sandbox inside a theme park. Players are likely to just blow up all the rides.
Editor: Tony Celentano