Why True F2P Sandbox MMOs are a Niche Market

themepark game

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


Nice article





I had thought sandbox meant to play with others, I like the clarification!

I always got the idea that sandbox meant 'no major restrictions'. Like, Oblivion is a sandbox game because while there's a main plotline, you can go off and do whatever you like pretty much anytime, while Zelda isn't a sandbox game because you're fairly sharply limited by what you have, how much of the plot you've done, etc.

I wouldn't have lumped MMOs into 'sandbox' or 'themepark' style gaming, personally, but I can see the meaning behind it.

Also, with regard to the 'I wouldn't play a text MUD' bit - I know how that feels. I had friends in college who espoused the character options, class choices, world, and design of WoW, but sneered and wouldn't even consider trying Achaea. :/

Edit: Wow, I ramble a lot.

Most of the visual sandbox MMOs are boring. EVE-Online? Gah!

I've always wanted to try EVE... but the paying part... eww.


yeah screw that

Not as much as you think.

hrrm. Where I thought sandbox meant you could do things, but only in certain areas of the game.


I do!

"Players are likely to just blow up all the rides."

Too true... but, then, with choices like watching Megaton's most beautiful moment from FO3... it's not like the developers don't see that coming...

...but blowing stuff up is soo cool!

It is =)

Blowing up the rides is a problem how? :)

...That picture. I just stared at it for a second, then I lost it. Haha.

It's probably the best picture associated with any article we've ever had



I admit...I busted out laughing, heheh.


Picture was the highlight, text less interesting


Agreed. The picture really made my evening. Thank you!

It's better than the article, too.





Heh silly people.

HOW did I overlook that before now?!


*dies laughing*

Boobs, almost!!

Great article


It was nice reding this article.

Loved this article. There really are endless possibilities for MUD characters... well provided you're willing to drop a little (read: a lot) of time and possibly money.

And yet, one of the more common complaints about Achaea is (or was) how static the world is.

That's because a majority of players expect the  admins to change that. They sit around on their rumps (guilty) and complain about nothing changing. They should go out and try to changet he world itself.


There's only so much a player can do without divine intervention. We can do small, interesting things on our own, but the really fun stuff needs a God or a Celani to run the NPCs and alter the world to fit what's happening.

Very True.

But from the bulk of what I've seen (granted, not on Achaea) those who most often complain don't actually go out and chat with an NPC a bit to grab a divine or celani's attention, or toss up reasonable ideas, or otherwise poke or prod their ideas to the forefront of things. They, instead... go out and complain to other players that they're bored and have nothing to do, which in turn bores those other players.

You don't just complain - you complain while you are fishing

static? I am playing it for six months and it had at least 3-4 -big- changes this period..

That is the key in my opinion, you are limited to the world constructs that you are in every other 3D based engine. Least in MIDS everyone is really unique and not just a cookie cutter of what everyone else is limited to.

Very True.

I agree with most except the maximum power being reached easily. I loathe games where everyone is running around at the level cap. I don't want a straight hack and slash game but I don't want the progression to be embarrassingly easily either. I always want to have the ability to hunt and progress should I have the desire even at a high level.

I have to agree with you completely. I say it all the time.... we have too many demigods because they made it way too easy now. Getting demi in a week should have never ever been possible.


But something after demi would be nice, to expand your character experience, all demi's do now is obtain essence so they dont lose demigod if killed. (well the do a little more than that but its a main thing)

I've been playing Achaea for 9 years and I'm no where close to dragon.


Looks like I picked the wrong game.

The nice thing about Achaea is that dragon is only one goal of many.

I heartily agree with this. It's nice to be able to have so many areas of play that you can try to reach mastery in.

This resounds with me very strongly. It almost crushed me completely to see everyone just hitting Demigod like it was nothing when my journey to demigod lasted... 5 real years? But then again I wasn't an insane basher.

There has been 1-2 new dragons each day, for at least 3 days in a row now.


Sadly alot of people need visual stimulation nowadays, but Muds are the game of choice for anyone with imagination. Sure it would be nice to look your enemy in the eye while you behead them. But we can imagine it, especially with IRE's excellent writing staff.


As for what you said:

  • 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.


These stand out the most to me. We used to have several open world PvP objectives that enhanced one faction or another. But sadly the playerbase complained about them so much that many were removed. It was mainly because as a member of an organization you spent 90% of your time defending or claiming these things for your org through PvP conflict.

I think that Lusternia at least (I cannot speak for other IRE games as much) needs to get back to the basics like this. BUT it needs to be made fun, not the 8 hour a day watch a denzien to protect them just to see them killed at the last minute and have to start the whole 12 hour process all over again type of thing. But something a little less tedious and more entertaining. Our game is trying and hopefully we will succeed with things in a way that makes you want to participate and not log off in frustration.


And of course better AI would be great, but that could be said for any game on the market. And with the advancements made in the AI field daily, we may get there in IRE.

You never know, IRE may be bought out by a corporation soon known as Skynet >.> (sorry had to go there)

I thankfully missed the trial and pain of landmarking, heard it was great, and by great I mean awful.  Something a little more optional/less time consuming would be great though. Something from within the article though, is gamers overall disdain for MUDs, which is understandable, as many new gamers lack the fundamental necessity for playing one...an imagination.  Being media fed their whole life, activities that foster imaginative growth are lacking, thus leading to something as "boring" as scrolling text on a page underwhelming and a waste of time. 


tl;dr Go play outside, then play Achaea, it's better that way


I for one was raised on my imagination. I'd play for hours outside making up games and rules for them as I went along ( noone ever liked my rules though ). It takes a little extra imagination to enjoy a text game but for anyone that enjoys a good book they fit just fine.

I agree with all these comments! MUDs don't spoonfeed you; they require imagination for immersion. But they're all the more rewarding because of that! Also, spending time outside is good for your soul!!!!!

interesting point of view

good for the credit

What gaming really comes down to for most people is: does it have animated graphics?


I played a really cool sandbox type game. It mirrored Ultima Online in a lot of ways, but allowed more freedom on building things. The developers of that game released videos of their next sandbox type game, using the same mechanics as the previous, but with more features and with better graphics. The only thing people commented on was the graphics.


Pretty colors is where gaming is at for most people, no matter the features.

ANSI is colourful. >_>

Do want the background colors :°

Now if only we really had a say over in-game events. We actually WERE able to leave the gods blown up/side with the orc necromancer/take out a flamethrower and blowtorch the ice demons.

awsome picture

I agree. An Iron Realms theme park would be so cool.

too true, at least about people being confused as to what they really should be playing

it always makes me sad when people dismiss MUDs before actualy giving them a go. They don't know what they are missing.

This is rather disappointing to myself as well. Still, I will try!



Me, too. -_-

Those flying ships In Lusternia must be sweet.


Overly complicated, like everything else. 

A lot of "Sandbox" games these days loose focus on whats important in an effort to do everything and please everyone, there is still such a thing as too much.

They want a game where you can build and destroy things as you please, yet when offered the chance at it through text you tuck tail and run. When shown a demo with better toys all they see is pretty colours. What is the world coming too? Pretty soon all games will no longer be played for the sheer enjoyment of the story, or to hack and slash your best friend to pieces as he sits next to you and before you rub it in his face. Instead they see is shiny and new, and flock to it like moths to a flame. While I’ll admit there are bonuses and downsides to everything, it’d be nice to see a truly sandbox graphic game where simply turning around a corner quite literally drops you down the rabbit hole into a seedy tavern where you can order whiskey and weed before getting your face smashed in by an imp. And know that most if not all the game was made up of different players throwing in their mix of an apsect into the game for others to enjoy.

Ah well all I can do is hope and dream. But good article anyways mate!

There's always hope, sir.

Text based games make coding soooo simple! Well, to be perfectly honest you really don't even need any such knowledge to make cool things here in MUDs, since the commands do it for you~ At least in terms of crafting items in-game. When you're going a bit further out, like building areas and things like that...it still probably doesn't get terribly technical. Though I wouldn't really know.

and that's why we're all mudding


Flying ships in Lusternia :P


Actually this is a rather complicated article for me

Actually crafting allows for personalized touches

I've seen a few games out there that are daring to try merging sandbox and themepark elements; being able to create, to leave your mark on the world with readilly visible things, while also offering the 'static' objectives of themeparks, like what we have in IRE text games if I'm not mistaken when it comes to the definitions here. Without a doubt, though, I must agree that it's a niche market. Themeparks have the capacity to gratify players quickly and visibly, which is what a lot of people like. Look at all the people that play games just to get the next piece of Epic gear or what have you, compared to those that could build something lasting, be it a simple home or a whole player-city. Long story short, average patience makes average people want quick little rewards more than slowly earned but amazing rewards. Lovely article; good points to think on!

The described game sounds a lot like Wizards 101. Bleh.


was so fun to read, i was smiling at the end of it. 

Know what's even better than AI? When that NPC you're passing my just happens to be possessed by an admin and strikes up a conversation. Best thing ever.


I don't think I've ever had that happen to me (except this one time in passing), but it does sound amazingly cool. Though I probably don't go on enough these days...

good read


You really can't get anything like what you get here at iron realms!! Choose between graphics or gameplay depth.

Sometimes, I am at a loss at what to spend my time on concerning entertainment. There really isn't any impressive MMO out there. And the article does make a good point on that. I definitely fall in the category of what do I enjoy playing? I don't know. There's always the PS3 for some time-sink fun... Anyone for Monster Hunter 3D?


I would ride the Siren all night long :P

jk lol


This was an interesting read. 

DotA- the ultimate in time-sink fun

I guess I never thought about MUDs being considered sandbox games. I suppose the 'free roaming' aspect make it pretty close. Sandbox concept has become a standard concept and staple in a lot of games, including RPGs. Regardless, you have to have the open world and free roaming in order to make an RPG a 'real' RPG these days. Good article,

Set your own goals, no ultimate plot to complete, design your own items. Yes, that fits.

Learned about sandbox games and didn't know they didn't have SDK! Learned a couple new concepts.

I never thought about the psychology behind why some things are "cool" for other people. The idea that having more customization such as housing allows people to further express their personality and character is a very good point.  I think we all seek to have uniqueness in our characters and having more customization available allows for that.  Thanks for the read!

good read

Are great ways for players to create areas however they want!



LOL at the article picture hehe.

yay for bethesda games

What she said.



nice article!

good write up, I enjoyed this article


More lively AI.

Well, having any AI in IRE games would help too. Or did he mean something else when said "a game we all know"?

Well if you're lucky you'll stumble on real intelligence.  Of course there is AI in the game though, those denizens wouldn't be much more than elaborate text rocks without it.


I read the article and it sure was enlightening... seems I have missed all the lingo of sandwiches and all :).


My wife tells me all the time that as much as she loves text games, she would love it if MKO had a graphical version made in the style of Oblivion. I have to say, I too would love it if that were to happen, but it would have to be offline only IMO. Just as some chewing gum for the brain when bored. Off topic? Its too early for me to tell.

Great article,
IRE is the true Sandbox.

cancer awareness month!

Is awesome. 

is all you need.

Horizontal progression? Cap reached "easily"? Lol. You can reach max level in WoW in what, a month of steady playing, not even 'hardcore'? Assuming you just got it, that's like 100 bucks.

That won't get you tritrans with trans survival and antidotes, the general rule of thumb for 'pvp ready'. Stop hyping with bullshit.



And it should be treated as such...

In general, folks want to be handed "bling" easily.  Like housing.  They want easy pvp and pve so they can feed their inner bully.  And reading?  How horrifying.  

Very interesting.

I agree.

Good point.

Me too.


Credit please!

Well played, sir.

I've never been a huge fan of Sandbox games, but with Iron Realms, there's a roleplaying element that's just not seen elsewhere, and that makes it a special kind of environment.  Things get tedious with no story or linear gameplay, but in this kind of environment, you're able to craft your own story, which can be rich and filled with turns and betrayal, romance and heartache, combat and conflict, and it is truly engaging, because you don't feel like these are the events that happened to Cloud Strife.  They are your events, your own built linear story.

Iron Realms makes sandboxing awesome! 

Also:  Sandboxing: A new more interesting version of boxing wherein the combatants strap sandbags to thier hands and feet.  True, the hits are slower, but KO's are more frequent.

Personalization and Customization is what IRE's all about.


I'm a huge fan of houses in the games for so many reasons. My only problem with houses is that it comes with a significant responsibility because of game mechanics. Houses are neat toys and ways to make your own little world inside a world, but they are a huge nightmare of a security risk. Seasoned veterans of raiding and pvp are always waiting to see this in an enemy city


Buxomandvivacious     A quaint bedroom   (unknown)

Rockhardabs               A quant bedroom    (unknown)



You farsee rockhardabs. He is in kinsarmar.

Woo, instant raid point.

Result: House repossessed.


I don't envy the administration trying to balance housing development against the player population and the pvp ramifications of too many houses. They do a good job with a quirky system.


Come to Lustrernia, we welcome you with open arms, your possessions will always be safe. A tad pricey to get one, but so worth it.




hrm...sounds like the 99%/1% thing...except this time we are in the 1% woot!



You know, it might be a niche, but doesn't mean that it can't be a large amount of people. There are plenty of games that target the right group of people, made a hefty profit and acquired a number of devoted fans.

I totally approve of the idea of flying ships. And flying ship combat. ...and then flying ship team combat. Forget player classes!

Sounds marvelous;)

Interesting article.

I would agree here. I think the graphic games are limiting where text games are very muchmore customiizable.  We're not limited by a few immages to choose from.  We've got our emagination to build on. text games less limiting than these graphical games.  I think a lot of people dismiss text games out of hand though unforchunetly.f

Imperian needs more of the third one.

it would be even better if you didn't need artifacts to be easily competitive with a lot of options. Or, in the case of boats, having the credits themselves 

I agree. IRE games are free, but nobody said it'd be just as easy (or cheap) as hitting the level cap.

nice read

good article

While I love most of the IRE games and they offer a great deal of options when it comes to RP, they are still extremely restrictive in the things they give players control over. They are still fun, but it would be nice if you could do more intersting things without the need of divine help, because lets face it, most of the realms suffer from lack of active divine, and also extemely biased divine. I personally feel that the Divine are one of the biggest detractors of the IRE games, though I think Lusternia probably has some of the best.


this sounds about right

I concur.





in muds

I love creation games, but like this article points out, to make anything really cool in some of these games, you need to have have or acquire the right skills for it. There are games that make creation fun and easy, like Little Big Planet or the Blizzard RTS games.


Sandbox, despite its literal sense, hasn't been defined to me as building, but more like "do as you see fit" in a non-linear and open world. So, these people you talk about and their desire for sandbox play, how many of them really know what "sandbox" you're talking about?

someone asked me how i could play a text-based game for so long and keep interested in it. i tried to explain what this article said--that it was a sandbox game where anything can happen and there's horizontal progression. i don't think he got it.  oh well.

Yay sandbox


Lets make a sand castle.


It's a comment.



I wish Digging for Ire wasn't so glitchy. It almost always 'freezes' for me and doesn't give me a credit, then when I get it to load finally it says I can't dig the same story more than once, even tho I never got mah credit. xD Oh well, thanks for all the other free stuff and the wonderful game of Aetolia! Plz add Changelog reading ability to the Firefox IRE toolbar!

I would just like to say....I <3 an IRE themepark. :3

Great article!

This should be an awesome rollercoster!

Very thoughtful!- I'm a player of a few sandboxes you mentioned above, or was. Now I mainly play MUDs, but I still appreciate rich skill development and horizontal growth. Lusternia is the only one I see that certainly encourages or makes it easier anyway to get that growth in.

Nowadays, the tendency in game development is to spend a lot of time on models/texturing and sometimes art. But when they reach the deadline, it seems the studios don't have enough time to finish the content and features they wanted to include at first. But as most players actually are just satisfied with cool graphics, they still make this choice as it's the most lucrative.

The players seem to begin realizing this recently, which is good and I think big studios will have to try harder in the next years to satisfy gamers.

Minecraft, wich is not really a MMO but still is, in my opinion, a true sandbox game; has made a lot of people understand that.

At the end of the article, you talk about SDKs and building content, which is the base of a sandbox game.

In a MUD, you can build the graphical content of the game as the SDK is basically your mind. But I still think it can get better with providing tools to create real personalized content. For example, I saw in some indie MMO called Linksrealm that you could create your own realm with an editor and then integrate the map you built on the general game map (with some entrances/exits transitions of course) and then give any players you want the permission to access this place.

It would be awesome if some similar system could be implemented in MUDs. Example: You, as a player, have access to an ingame editor (which uses a script language) totally roleplay introduced (let's say some "divine artifact"). With this editor, you can shape rooms as you want to (here is the tricky part where devs must choose which degree of liberty they want to give the player to preserve the world consistency) and then set a main entrance and exit which you'll later link to the MUD map. Of course, the items you can put in this zone are items the player has gathered during adventures. And whynot being able to place monsters/creatures that again, you, as a player have captured. From this you could have some player-made dungeons with again player-made scenarized quests in it.

I say it again, the hardest part in this would be balancing to let the player enough freedom, but still have some restrictions to keep the world consistent.


That's all, hope it was not too bad english :p.

One of the reasons I'm constantly drawn to MUDs like IRE's is for how I can customize practically any part of my character, and help shape the world s/he lives in.

People will never be happy. You give them too much freedom and they complain about there being no regulations. You regulate everything and they complain about having no freedoms.

IRE themepark ftw



get credit

is breast cancer awareness month.

good article

SWTOR will solve all our problems.

We'll just have to see about that, It can be a disaster...

I do find true sandbox gaming to be fairly dull. On most occasions, I want to be engaged in a well-written storyline, a well-crafted enviornment, and with other characters with developed personalities, not dropped into that sandbox world and told to make my own fun.


Sandboxes can be fun if you're just looking to pass the time, but they usually have to sacrifice a lot of depth to be sandboxes.


I think its a mix of open-endedness and the events (which are more of a linear storyline) that keep the games interesting.


I agree

I can also agree with this.

I don't care what they call it, I like it!

yea sounds like fun!

Sandbox games have always been the most fun to me!


is nice

interesting article


  I think housing is a great idea, because they make you feel cozy, even when in game!

Let's all go to Minia!

Certainly good for a free credit

Free credit.

It is a balancing act between giving players power enough to change things to make it interesting, and keeping the world reasonably consistent.

Doesn't need to be that consistent, in my opinion, though it'd be a lot of work if it weren't probably, to keep it up to the same standard!

What is "sandbox" anyway? Is it just any game with a non-linear structure, like GTA or Morrowind where you can run around the city doing side-quests? Is it something where the choices you make can affect the outcome? Or something else?

I don't know how well you can compare a text mud to any other type of game. Achaea has been a persistent world for what, 13 years so far. An RPG like Morrowind has a limited amount of gameplay hours, and is fully scripted along the way. There might be a branching tree of choices you can make, but they are pre-written. An MMORPG might update its world, but only periodically, when patched with new content. Achaea is constantly live, with the potential for drastic and world-shaping events to occur (even if they don't, very often).

The relatively low turnover time to "write" things, compared to animating and rendering them, is Achaea's main advantage over competing MMORPGs. I don't think it takes as much advantage of this as it could. Having players in charge of all major political organisations is kind of sandboxy I suppose.

That's a term that gets thrown around a lot.I always thought it to mean a game without a defined point, where you can do what you want without being hassled to complete the main quest or whatever.

Is Minecraft a sandbox?

Moreover, Minecraft is a sandbox with sand.


and stuff



But I liked the pretty picture better! Ride the siren!!

Not a bad article at all!

A quote from above:

...a good representation of how core gamers don't really know what they want!


And then we want more player driven games... :)

its true




I have to agree.

at what they do


Lusternia has much more of an engaging world, insofar as denizens are concerned, than Achaea does. Of course, it's the RP that really builds the sense of immersion, and I love both games...

seems to be going in a great direction in this regard, too, though it's still by far the least developed of the IREs! (So we gotta cut it some slack! It's awesome, though!)

cats pooped in sandboxes....?


woke up from a dream where a cat kept attacking my foot as I tried to save the world from an apocalypse. I don't want cats pooping in my sandbox!

what are sandboxes anyway?

It's typically a wooden-framed, sand-filled play area, a micro beach for kids.

Just testing the siren

Or did they change that yet? Anyway, statpacks FTW!

test test

Huh..that article was actually very, very good.


I do think it's harder to compare a game that, like so many others have said, is scripted with many many quests and options but has no interactions with other players.





good thing ire is only nominally ftp

Admit it would be interesting though!

Admit it would be interesting though!

wouldn't you


I prefer water to sand.

i like having the option to customize things around me without a ridiculous amount of programming overhead.  I want a room where sand swirls up the walls?  It's as easy as writing that sentence.  Not so much with a graphical SDK.

Bad graphical games is exactly why my PS3 is nothing but a blue ray player and a digital media device to my old school tv >.> if I want a game, i always return to Ire!

hate graphix



love depth


PS3 games have really good graphics though..lol. @Mitch. Maybe your TV?



i foresee WoW-type games being F2P in the near future!



great article

Going to make an MMO that actually is based in a sandbox.  

i love sand


I can't wait for my first. I've been playing so far, and I really love how you can just do anything. It's amazing. The ability to say what your character looks like alone is beautiful. But I really want to see one of the 'big changes' that everyone keeps talking about. It sounds exciting.

something is in the works right now. stay tuned!



Interesting read


This article put sand in my shorts. Down with sandboxes!


Achaea rocks with text!