Are Sandbox MMOs Dying Out?
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.