Theme Park MMOs vs Sandbox MMOs

When you’re playing online games, do you like to hit the ground running and explore on your own terms, or do you prefer a more structured experience with a comprehensive tutorial and clearly defined tasks?

Whether the theme park approach to MMOs is better than the sandbox approach has been a long-running debate amongst MMO players and developers.

Theme park MMOs tend to provide a more linear experience, while sandbox MMOs allow players more freedom, possibly at the expense of an adequate tutorial, a structured storyline or superior graphics. Developers’ resources are not infinite, so trade-offs often have to be made between the number of potential outcomes players can experience and the amount of high quality, carefully crafted content within a game.


Sandbox MMOs

MMORPGS evolved from Multi-User Dungeons (MUDs), which date back to the mid-1970s. These text-based games included a lot of references to Dungeons & Dragons. The format was therefore free-flowing, with a lot of scope for creativity. The sandbox games that evolved from this philosophy, such as EverQuest and Ultima Online, allowed players maximum scope to explore their worlds.

Eve Online is a great example of a sandbox MMO. Players form alliances called corporations, and a lot of the action evolves from conflicts between rival corporations rather than events pre-determined by the developers.

Sandbox MMOs appeal to players’ instincts to explore the world of a game on their own terms. They may be more challenging, unpredictable and rewarding, particularly for advanced gamers, because they allow players to use their creativity to exert a lot of influence over the way the storyline unfolds.

On the downside, if the other players are not very creative, the game can become a repetitive mob grind with little to no developer-structured content to fall back on. Players may also spent a lot of time and resources recovering from frequent deaths when they wander into areas that are too challenging for their level.


Theme Park MMOs

Theme park MMOs take players on what is essentially a pre-planned journey through an immersive world. They have more limited potential outcomes than sandbox MMOs, but this can allow developers to create superior graphics and engaging, cohesive story lines.

Throughout the 1990s, single player games such as the Final Fantasy series fed player expectations in terms of graphics and game play. These games were early precursors to theme park MMOs.

The original, or “vanilla” World of Warcraft is probably the most successful example of a theme park MMO. Players could level to 60, the maximum level, almost entirely through quests.

One of the highlights of theme park MMOs is that players almost constantly have something to do. These games guide players from one zone to the next, often through carefully planned quests. This may minimize the time spent mindlessly grinding mobs to get to a sufficient level to tackle more challenging content.

Nevertheless, theme park MMOs are often criticized for their linear feel, with detractors arguing the potential outcomes are too limited. They may have a shorter shelf-life than sandbox MMOs as it can be far less fun to repeat the game after getting one character to the maximum level.


A Balanced Approach

As MMOs evolved, many games offered some combination of the sandbox and theme park schools of thought. In the early stages of a game, the theme park approach is often valuable to inexperienced players, or players who are experienced in MMOs but are new to a particular game. On the downside, it limits player creativity and can be boring for experienced players who have a good grasp on the game.

Many MMOs that are currently popular, including World of Warcraft, Guild Wars 2 and The Elder Scrolls Online, combine the two approaches to some degree. Tutorial stages, which allow players to get to grips with the controls and dynamics of the world in a limited environment, are a feature of most new games these days. These games allow players more freedom to explore their environments and decide on their own priorities as they make their way towards the endgame.

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