Are Sandbox MMOs Dying Out?

EVE UI

You'd think the EVE UI makes the game look boring but you wouldn't be completely right

Tobold sparked an interesting debate today when he posted an article comparing the popularity of the megre number of sandbox MMOs available verus the large number of themepark MMOs. Obviously the success (measured both in player count and revenue) of the theme park sector vastly outweighs and overshadows their sandbox cousins. So does that mean sandbox MMOs are going to the way of the dodo, cassette player and online privacy? Are they a dying breed, only currently enjoyed by a handful of archaic, old-school dinosaurs who refuse to move on with the times?

T-Dawg raised a lot of good points in his post and, on a first glance, he’s absolutely right that those theme park games trounce the sandbox ones. However, I can’t help but feel that a lot of weight behind the success of the theme park sector comes from World of Warcraft and if we accept that it’s just something of a freak anomaly given that not even a single other Western MMO has come close to it’s subscription rate and remove it from the equation then the gap between the popularity of games like EVE Online and Lord of the Rings Online is greatly diminished.

Of course there is no denying that if you totalled up the number of subscribers to each sub-genre then, even without considering WoW, the theme park games would still win the day. Again though, this could just be due to the fact that more theme park MMOs are produced than sandbox ones and thus the subscription totals are inevitably always going to be higher just due to the fact there’s more types of those games available to play.

I suppose one could argue that the sheer higher number of theme park MMOs is an indication of their higher popularity and, yeah, that might indeed be the case. The logic of supply and demand would certainly back this argument up. My response, however, would again be to look at the anomaly of WoW and the impact it’s had on the industry. Without a shadow of a doubt it’s success has spurred on the creation of a vast number of similar games yet, strangely enough, not a single one of them has even come close to achieving the greatness that WoW has. This fact would suggest that it’s not a simple case of the public demanding theme park MMOs but rather a combination of being in the right place at the right time and a huge amount of hard work and quality control.

Maybe the cynic in me though (damn him, he’s always popping up) would concede that there’s something more enthralling (perhaps even enslaving) about the theme park design and it’s step by step, hand holding approach. Human beings en masse like to take the path of least resistance in any situation and thus a game which offers clear indication and suggestion of what to do next combined with continual and easy to obtain rewards is frankly going to be more popular.

Personally, I don’t believe sandbox MMOs are dying out or will die out and I think all they need is the time in development, budget and polish that their theme park counterparts often get in order to achieve their full potential. We’ve seen a fair number of theme park MMOs be developed by large companies with vast budgets and lots of time to perfect and polish, allowing them to release their game in the best possible light and at it’s pinnacle of completion. Unfortunately though sandbox games seem to have not had this opportunity as of yet and, aside from this being a great shame for the genre, I think it also makes it truly impossible to know if given the chance if they would be able to compete with the likes of WoW.

And who knows, maybe Blizzard’s next MMO will be a sandbox one, blow everything else out of the water, hit 20 million subscribers, and in five years time we’ll all be blogging about how theme park MMOs are dying out.

-Gordon

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38 Comments

  1. Rades says:

    I don’t know where the separation is between both the term Sandbox and MMO, but the meteoric rise of Minecraft over the last year makes me really think sandbox games are still very strong in gaming. Perhaps the epitome of “sandbox”, Minecraft is definitely Multiplayer Online, I’m just not sure of the “Massively” yet. And it’s only just entered Beta! Considering the scrawny team behind Minecraft, I think it’s going to be one of the biggest gaming success stories we’ve seen in a long time.

  2. Jason S says:

    Give me a well designed, decently run, and well populated fantasy style Sandbox MMO and I’m there. And I’m sure there are many more people out there who would agree. Problem is the two best Sandbox MMO’s are both sci-fi based (EVE and SWG) and that market doesn’t appeal to many customers.

  3. Moxie says:

    I agree with Jason… I enjoy fantasy games and I enjoy Minecraft, and I’d definitely be interested in a fantasy sandbox sort of game. Sci-fi and post-apocalyptic just doesn’t appeal to me.

  4. Epiny says:

    I think if you built a Sandbox MMO where someone with a limited play schedule, say less aprox. 5 hours a week, could make a realitive impact on or participate in then you would create an extremely popular MMO. I can log on WoW and do something moderatly productive in a 10-30 minute time span. It could be something completely fluffish, questing, trade skills, whatever. The point is that on a very limited play schedule I can participate in WoW. The same can be said for WAR, AoC, and LOTRO. I can not say the same for Sandbox style MMOs. They require a much larger time investment to be a part of those games, or to feel as though you are a part.

    I have been saying this on blogs all over the place; a sandbox MMO based around socializing would do very well right now. Facebook and Zynga has primed the none gaming community to try new things. If it was browser based you would have a multi million sub hit.

  5. Shall we compared the number of people playing farmville and/or Facebook games and declare MMOs in general are dying out? Of course not. Just another Tobold false controversy post. *rolls eyes*

    Sandbox mmos require more self directed effort, thus fewer people play them. Its a simple relationship.

  6. wilhelm2451 says:

    I’m with Kirith. This sandbox thing seems to be more of Tobold with an axe to grind than anything else. There was no purpose to bringing up the relative size of the sandbox MMORPG market in his first post except to troll, and his second post was more of the same.

    Sandbox MMORPGs have a smaller audience. This was well established before his post and he added nothing to the discussion except further evidence that he doesn’t like sandbox MMORPGs.

  7. Drannos says:

    I agree; I don’t think its a fair comparison to hold sandbox games up to themeparks, even when you take WoW out of the equation. They might both be “massively multiplayer” but they appeal to different kinds of players (or differing moods in the same player).

    Tobold is clearly not a sandbox game player; his various posts on EVE over the months are proof of that. Those two posts are just him repeating himself, to incite a response.

    Minecraft *is* proof positive of the popularity of sandbox games – the key being accessibility, as Epiny says. I don’t have time to grind out skills in Darkfall like the young’uns. I need a sandbox game with the accessibility of a themepark, because most days I might have an hour or two, at most.

  8. Tobold says:

    But if you declare the most popular themepark MMO an anomaly and don’t count it, you must accept the counterargument that EVE might be an anomaly as well. How exactly does the sandbox MMO market look if you remove EVE from the equation?

    You guys are trolling yourself. I never said sandbox MMO games are dying out, I was simply listing numbers to give people a chance to contradict what I considered facts and point me towards better numbers. There isn’t a single judgement in that post Gordon linked to, just facts and figures. If the facts and figures are unpleasant to you, that is hardly my fault.

  9. UnSub says:

    Minecraft and Dwarven Fortress are very much sandbox games, but ones that are typically played single player (although Minecraft has a multiplayer component that allows for separate public and private servers). Those games are played individually (or in small groups) and then sometimes you show off your creations to other people.

    You can also play both for free.

    Second Life (and its ilk, like Entropia) are also sandboxes and ones that have managed to hang around for quite a while, but it is arguable that they are ‘games’ per se. Online environments, sure, but a game?

    Would a sandbox MMO that tries to emulate Minecraft work? Love kinda sorta walks that path a bit and my brief experience in that game was players yelling at each other for destroying the wrong things.

    I can’t see a sandbox title coming out in the near future that is going to attract huge numbers of players. An indie one might hang on long enough to pick up a following, but it isn’t going to set the market on fire. Some titles like Fallen Earth have tried to walk a middle line but have failed to take off.

    • Gordon says:

      I think a large part of the failure of many sandbox game is their lack of funding and polish. Releasing stuff that’s half finished and lacking content is never going to succeed. I’d like to see a really well polished and complete sandbox game come out and then measure how it fairs.

  10. Stabs says:

    Although this has become less true over recent years I’ve always thought that WoW is something of a hybrid between theme park and sandbox.

    Theme park is “here’s that ride, and you go on it”. So WoW puts in new dungeons and some people go in the new rides but some fly around Azeroth looking for beautiful sunsets to screenshot, some twink and stand outside Orgrimmar duelling all comers, some obsessively collect minipets. There’s not a huge difference between playing the auction house in WoW and playing the market in Eve.

    And of course originally WoW pvp was completely sandbox – explosions of violence often spontaneous in contested zones.

    • Gordon says:

      For me, the distinction lies between how able one is to affect their surroundings. In a true sandbox game, I’d expect to be able to really control things and affect other players whereas in a themepark game like WoW I’d just expect that every action I do has no consequence for anyone else..

  11. Epivaso says:

    I think that these discussions will always do on until there is a clear definition of “sandbox”.

    When I was a little kid, and I played in my sandbox, I did not try to kill (PvP) the other kids in the same sandbox. We did build houses, castles and roads and played with our matchbox cars and miniature soldiers in the world we created.

    I personally think that a true sandbox game would be based on the basic idea of minecraft, where players can really create their own environment. If that Idea could be done on a truly “massive” scale with added things like a truly extensive crafting system I think you would have the basis of a true Sandbox game. Add PvP to the mix for those interested in that kind of activity and NPC groups with their own rewards and agenda (per definition “kill all players and wipe them from the world”) and you would have a game would subscribe to in a minute.

  12. Nils says:

    Declaring WoW an anomaly doesn’t sound right to me.
    That having said, there are no AAA-sandbox style MMOs on the market. The currently biggest one started in a garage (EVE).

    While it would certainly help to define ’sandbox’, before talking about it (I believe it is about being able to influence the world around you and not just your character), this much can be said:
    Cloning EVE and making it a AAA-gamer is a certain success. 300k subscribers who play a 13 years old game with one of the most terrible UIs ever? Come on, dear investors!!

  13. Bhagpuss says:

    The whole sandbox/themepark thing is a false dichotomy in the first place. The user, not the designer, has dictated the function in every product since the first stone axe. If I buy a kettle and put flowers in it, it’s a vase. If I play WoW and spend most of a week trying to climb up to the Secret Gnomish Airfield (which I did) then it’s a sandbox.

    The term “sandbox” in the context also seems to be degrading in value as it becomes more and more tightly associated with certain specific behaviors (crafting, economy, building). The point of an MMO being a “sandbox” is that it’s somewhere that doesn’t dictate to you how you should play in it but leaves you to get on with playing how you want play.

    By my definition there are no “theme park” or “sandbox” MMOS, just gamespaces that provide different equipment to play on or with. If you want to do certain very specific things you may have to go where that type of equipment is provided, but there are a lot more things you can do anywhere than things you can only do in a specific place, so the spaces are more similar than they are different.

    I tend to play all my MMOs the same way and it works pretty well in most of them.

    • The Necromancer says:

      Wow, I think that you have just summed it up perfectly Bhagpuss. They really are quite the same. The way you play an MMO is up to the user there really is no conventional way. Everyone has their own path in an MMO.

      Sandbox games aren’t really meant to be all about the specific behaviors exhibited in some games as Bhagpuss mentioned. If you search it on wikipedia it basically means that a sandbox MMO is an open world, which most MMOs are.

      I’m unsure what your meaning of a sandbox MMO is, but for me basically every MMO is a sandbox MMO with a few exceptions. (Warhammer Online etc.)

  14. [...] of the sandbox vs theme park comparisons, Gordon of We Fly Spitfires believes that, if you just removed WoW from the equation, sandbox MMOs like EVE Online, Darkfall and Fallen Earth compare favorably, population-wise, with [...]

  15. numtini says:

    Back in the ancient days, when we road around on Ostards and such, it was pretty much taken for granted that playing an MMO wasn’t for everyone. It was a niche market. Most people think WoW proved us wrong. I think WoW proved us right.

    What makes a particular “MMO” popular seems to be how far it can distance itself from being an MMO. Is WoW really an MMO? What’s so massive about it? 99% of the gameplay consists of solitary play where other players are an annoyance or instancing. How is sitting in a small section of a city and being instantly wisked to a dungeon somehow more “massively multiplayer” than sitting on battlenet and joining a game of Diablo 2?

    World of Tanks is a fantastic game. I think the future of multiplayer gaming. But they call themselves an MMO. They’re not.

    Sandboxes aren’t dying as part of MMOs. The industry has just redefined the MMO to be things that it never was before.

    • Stabs says:

      WoW still feels pretty big to me. I’ve been doing the dungeon finder thing a lot recently and each time I meet 4 strangers. Meeting new group after new group interspersed with ganking and being ganked in the open world and chatting to my guildies is a fairly complex multi-layered social experience.

      I live in London, it feels like a big city, There may only be fifty people on any one stretch of pavement but if you go for a long walk and meet fifty here fifty there fifty round the corner it feels heavily populated.

      I don’t think you can judge the complexity of WoW’s social experience just by saying you’re in an instance with 4 people which is not massive.

      • numtini says:

        But are you ever going to meet them again? I have very good friends that I met 10 years ago at the Mudhole in EQ1. I just don’t see that happening anymore in games like WoW because the world part is de-emphasized to the point of being absent.

        • Stabs says:

          I don’t meet most people I meet in London again, it’s still a massive city.

          Possibly it’s semantics but the argument that WoW isn’t massive because it’s not sociable has always struck me as odd. The two qualities are rather different. Arguably WoW has become more massive as it’s become less social with cross server instancing and puggable raids.

          • The Necromancer says:

            You are so right, the world can be as big as it wants but if people don’t want to talk to each other you can’t claim the world is not massive.

            It’s massive but not sociable. So what?

    • Epiny says:

      You understand that when MMOs came out having more than 4 people playing one game was a big deal. Having 20 or more people playing a game was Massive. Having thousands of people on one server, regardless of how it was broken up, was unheard of. Dungeons are private now while in EQ they were open for everyone to be in at the same time. That is really about the only major change in segregating your player base over the last 10 years.

      Azeroth has fewer loading screens than Norrath. It also has more people playing it, not only playing it but playing on each server.

      Stop trying to troll people by comparing a B.net 1.0 chat room to WoW.

      • numtini says:

        @epiny

        Yes, I’m quite aware of the history of MMOs. I go back to PBM games in the 80s like BSE (essentially Eve by post), not to mention being a 13 year vet of UO where I still have a subscription and own the Lich Wood Keep on Atlantic I’ve played… well everything. FFS I even played Underlight and the Wish beta.

        The thing about pre-wow MMOs is you never know what was going on. The world went on when you weren’t there. To me, that was and is the appeal. Right now, I’m wasting time on a laptop and taking care of my daughter, but in Eve things are actually happening. The universe is changing. A once dominant alliance is collapsing and will probably failcascade and never come back to power again.

        That doesn’t happen in a game like World of Tanks. That doesn’t mean WoT is a bad game. It’s the best game I’ve started in years. It’s a fantastic game. But it’s not an MMO, no matter how much they say it is for marketing purposes. It’s different.

        But really, what is the difference between WoW after 3.3 and a purely text lobby like WoT or Bnet? You don’t meet people. Nothing changes. And you instantly transport to a multiplayer adventure. And that’s not a problem, it’s a great game. But it is a difference.

        • Stabs says:

          With the greatest respect because I love those games too (and was a professional PBM GM in the 80s) you’re trying to own the word MMO in a way that doesn’t make sense to most people.

          Massive
          Multiplayer
          Online

          That’s all it means. Not some mystical implied property that harks back to the Golden Years.

          • Bhagpuss says:

            I think you’re talking across each other for a reason. The games Numtini is remembering weren’t only MMOs, they were MMORPGs. MMORPGs are now a subset of MMOS, whereas back then they were the whole set.

            It’s not really tenable to dispute that WoW is either Massively, Multiplayer or Online but, depending on your definition of “Roleplaying Game”, an argument could be constructed that it’s not an RPG. An argument that could, I’m sure, be made more convincingly against World of Tanks.

            In the end it’s ALL semantics, because language is what we are.

            • Nils says:

              Semantics are a problem here, indeed. But can we agree that WoW removed its focus on a virtual world over the last few years ?

              • The Necromancer says:

                Most definitely the game’s (WoW) primary focus has definitely been shifted. Although in Cataclysm I think they are trying to bring it back. WoW is considered as a MMORPG in fact (only my opinion), but WoW is considered to be a lot more watered down compared to other MMORPGs. Focusing on more of a linear leveling system going from one place to the next, but they are definitely trying to bring back the sense of an open world with the arrival of Cataclysm and the changes in environment, and the better quest lines.

  16. Nils says:

    Numtini is right.

    In EQ you would run around. In current WoW you sit in a city and teleport to dungeons, BGs, arenas, raids. Every so often you level, but that is a single player game and designed that way.

    The only “virtual world”- thing left in WoW is the auction house. And that isn’t an economists dream, really ;)

    Sure it is nice that you can jump around in that City and even go outside and onehit ‘mobs’. You can fly around at super sonic speed and pick up flowers or dig up irrelevant things. But that’s fluff and it feels like it.

    WoW is still a nice game. I play it currently. Writing this while waiting for a battleground. But the reason I am doing this is that there is no reasonable AAA fantasy virtual world I can play and pay for.

    • The Necromancer says:

      What do you mean by run around? Can you please explain because in Wow you can “run around” explore the scenery go fishing. Maybe it doesn’t have as much of a role-playing feel as other games but it is considered part of the genre non the less.

      • Nils says:

        The point is that it feels like there is no point in running around. Something that is occasionally hard to understand:

        Just giving players the option to do something is sometimes worse than requiring them to do it.

        Fun Fallacy

        • Pascal says:

          Nils, I roughly agree with you. I’ve had debates with players where I’ve asked them:

          “If you could have a post in Thunderbluff that you could click. Within 1,000 clicks you will get four pieces of epic gear and you will die ten times. And randomly something exciting will happen or you will get a fluff reward. Would you click it?”

          The vast majority of them responded by saying no, when, in effect – that is exactly what they are doing with World of Warcraft. Make no mistake, a very popular game, but one that to my mind is so focussed on repetitve, scripted content in the name of gear that is nigh on pointless.

          The problem is, however, that players have over their MMO generations come to expect and believe that a game is only as good as the gear rewards it gives you. They are there, playing, to “earn” loot. They are (generalisation) not playing because they enjoy being Hughbert, the hungry Dwarf or Bellal, the horny Draenai. They are not there to explore fantasy worlds, to escape from reality, enjoy the vistas from peaks in strange lands.

          It’s all lolwut u rld need noob gear driven, reward gameplay. And that’s the problem. Their focus is so much on their rewards they cannot comprehend playing a game where you have to shape your own rewards, like you must with EVE or other sandbox styled games.

  17. Pascal says:

    Gordon, have a look at Project Entropia. It is about as Sandbox as possible and the implications of a game where people are actually earning a viable living (And in a few cases employing others) is astonishing. It is not very well know, but it is close to EVE and they have some exciting prospects.

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