There must be something to the sandbox design as it was recently announced that Skyrim has sold over 3.4 million copies in just 48hrs, not including digital sales. This outpaces every game this year with the only exception being Modern Warfare 3.
While Skyrim is obviously a single-player game, the Elder Scroll series has always utilized a sandbox design allowing players to truly have the freedom to do whatever they want and go anywhere. This includes, but is not limited to, murdering, stealing and looting, something that most MMORPGs are too afraid to do these days.
The Elder Scroll series takes a realistic approach to crime, where if the player gets caught they must face the consequences of it, either by going to jail or being killed. In the case where the player can escape, they become essentially bared from that town or city, which in itself is pretty cool.
Skyrim also doesn’t pigeon hole players into a specific class, allowing them to user any gear and weapons they find. Players also have the option of completely reworking their perks or skills if they decide they don’t enjoy the character they’ve created without having to start over.
These sort of features have always been used against sandbox MMORPGs, with the argument being they’re just too “hardcore” for mainstream players. I call BS on that. I think the reason the Elder Scroll series has grown into the RPG juggernaut it is, is because players love the freedom to do anything they want. Stealing from or killing friendly NPCs are one of the great hallmarks in Elder Scrolls. How fun it is to go back later on it the game, kill your NPC trainer and loot their awesome gear.
One thing to keep in mind is that Skyrim is a single-player game, so all of these sandbox features are one sided. Meaning no one is going to steal or attempt to kill you unless you attacked first, so there’s really no sense of constant danger for the player as there would be in a MMORPG.
Even so, I think MMO players are getting tired of the same old theme-park system nearly all MMO games today follow, at least I know I am.