Sandbox vs Theme Park: Which is the better form?

Apr 22, 2013

‘Sandbox’ is a term we have all heard of time and time again but when put it in the same sentence as ‘Theme Park’, the relationship may seem cryptic. I’ll give you a hint, we are simply referring to an aspect of game design focused on how the player interacts with the world the game takes place in. For example, World of Warcraft is a ‘theme park’ style game in that what transpires during your play experience is pre scripted, narrated actually and allows the player to ‘go on a ride’ through the content the developers have provided. Of course that doesn’t mean it isn’t a great experience or exciting to play as I am not doing it justice from my description but it does give you a pretty good idea of the track I am taking.

Sandbox on the other hand is quite frankly the opposite. In the past it has meant open ended or a literal play ground where you can go anywhere and do anything at any given point. While those are still true and accurate statements, in the above comparison, sandbox means something more particular. As far as story telling goes, sandbox refers to the way the game unfolds and evolves, which is purely organic and not deliberately predetermined. Think of a hand full of sand, sitting still it is uniform but moving it around means all the small granules of sand are ‘affecting’ each other, thus changing the composition and pattern of that same handful of sand. In story telling, this means that a player experiencing a true sandbox game, has an actual and literal impact on the gaming world which is a compounding variable for game design. Ok so you are calling me out on my illustration, yea yea.. a handful of sand huh? Well how is simply moving some granules around going to give me a unique experience?

Your at the beach: first of all every beach is different and it is different because of what affects it. The sun, wind, water, animals, footprints, etchings seen from 30,000 feet, rocks and time. Each time you come back it’s the same beach, but things are different. Sure some major formations are still there and yes the sun still sets over the water, well at least at my beach but the important thing is all those things make it what it is and I’m walking on a beach traveled by many before me and subjected to the elements since the beginning of time. If that was World of Warcraft or another theme park based game, the beach would be the same for everyone and once a year during Winter Veil, a gnome would have a “!” above his head waiting to tell me about Greatfather Winter and his seemingly eerie greeting that never changes year to year.

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If each person plays a part, then you can expect the game to organically unfold and provide different experiences to players continuously. In an MMO setting this could mean taking down a rival guild, not only yielding rewards, but potentially eliminating that guild from the game, leaving other players to go after the newly formed guild. An appropriate dose of this type of play could prove viral as alliances are formed and broken and server wide contests are fueled by dynamic goals across not just combat, but trade, resource gathering, politics, ethics and social channels like never seen before.

There are two final thoughts I want to leave you with. The first is what an MMO in best case scenario means to accomplish and second, what actually happens for those playing it.

The ideal MMO: Would feature a system that could ‘learn’ the actions of those participating in the game, not only in combat but at the auction house or the backwater guild in the underbelly of a bustling city. What else is an MMO supposed to do but emulate the real world? Thus the players inside that fictional, fantasy setting are affecting each other as they lie, cheat, steal, harvest, craft and kill one another. (their characters)

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What happens: Production costs are so high that you can’t help but be spoon fed fetch quests and pre-generated content. It isn’t wrong, or bad story telling, it’s the simple truth. With game development easily taking the better part of a decade these days, especially for MMORPG’s, how can you expect developers to make a game any more complex? Well in short the answer is because no one has currently made an MMORPG with sandbox qualities, at least down to the core and seen it work. Sure there are open world RPG’s out there but that is not what we are really talking about here. So it would be hard to justify spending money on something that hasn’t been supported yet.

The exciting news is that one is on the way. Last year, Pathfinder and Paizo teamed up with a developer to make just that, a living, breathing MMORPG experience that was fed player generated content and forum feedback to create an ever-changing fresh experience just like a real fantasy society would operate. A kickstart event was held and the goal reached, past expectations, in just a little over a months time and currently the game is in alpha. As a thank you to loyal fans they gave away product packages and provided many in game rewards as well for many tiers of support. The good news is, Pathfinder Online is nearing completion and tabletop enthusiasts can rejoice that finally a ‘REAL’ MMORPG is almost ready to play.

Remember, theme parks are fun but after a few times on the same rides, it just loses it’s luster! A good sandbox and shovel or mud wrestling is always fun, jump in!

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