The Merits of "Sand Box" versus "Theme Park" MMO's

Posted by on November 26, 2011 - 18 Comments »

MMO’s can roughly be divided into two categories, those that strive to entertain the players and those that strive to let the players entertain themselves.

These two fundamentally different ways of thinking about game design have become more and more distinct in the MMO space over the last 5-10 years. Some players swear by the unconstrained freedom of MMO’s that leave it up to the players themselves to create the gameplay, while others thrive on the content stuffed MMO’s that take you on a more or less pre-planned journey from one end of a fantastic world to the other.

Let’s take a closer look at these two design choices and what it means for the players that play them.

The “Theme Park” MMO

The “Theme park” MMO’s focus on creating an exciting thrill ride for players that will take them to see all the exciting sights of the game world and ensure that they are constantly provided with assignments to complete, so they are never bored or confused as to what they should be doing next. It really is very much like a real life theme park, where the planners have thought about the path through the park that visitors are going to take and ensured that they are constantly presented with cool rides for them to try out.

The premier theme park MMO is of course the almighty World of Warcraft. At the time of the release of WoW back in 2004 it was very much not par for the course to have MMO’s that were so stuffed with quests that you could pretty much get from level 1 to max level by doing one quest after the other. Furthermore, WoW was quite good at ensuring that the player was led from one area to the next as they exhausted the quests in the zone. The result was a game that was virtually free of grinding random mobs and free from the confusion of wondering where you should be going next.

In the original WoW (what is popularly called “Vanilla WoW”) there were still a lot of holes in this theme park experience. I remember several times in my trip from 1-60 where I found myself needing to grind out a few levels before I was strong enough to start the next line of quests. The design of the quests themselves and the placement of quest givers was also something that was still quite unrefined. Resulting in lots of time spent slogging around from one quest to the next, instead of spending time actually completing your missions.

This was rectified to a large part in the first expansion pack “Burning Crusade”, which provided much tighter “quest hubs” that centralized the quest givers into one area and gave you a bunch of quests that all needed to be completed in close proximity to each other. Further refinements and developments have been added in the following expansions, and it’s hard to argue that WoW is not the most polished MMO out there in terms of providing a playing experience that is constantly guiding the player and keeping a great flow in the game.

Many other MMO’s have tried to ape this successful implementation, with the most recent being Star Wars: The Old Republic, which adds in another layer to the theme park formula by throwing in a strong main narrative for your character that is constantly pulling you along further through the game world.

The strengths of the theme park MMO’s are fairly evident. They provide gamers with things to do in the game and a sense of purpose for doing them. In a good theme park MMO you are taken from one interesting experience to the next and you are always seeing new surroundings and trying new things. It’s a great ride. Until the end.

And that is the major problem with theme park MMO’s. By design they are fairly linear in nature. You provide a string of fun and enjoyable experiences to the player, but eventually the player is going to come to the end of that string and then what? Then the game changes completely from being all about continually moving forward and seeing new things and instead becomes repetition of the same content over and over again. From level 1 to the level cap the theme park MMO is catering to the players that love seeing new stuff and travelling down a path of constantly shifting content, but once you hit the level cap it is suddenly all about grinding and seeing the same places ad nauseam.

It’s a problem that no theme park MMO has managed to crack so far. WoW provides a fair amount of different activities to do once you hit the maximum level, with daily quests, PvP battlegrounds, raiding and instancing, but there is no escaping that this is still just forcing the player into repeating the same activity over and over again while they wait for the next expansion pack.

The “Sandbox” MMO

The “Sandbox” MMO is a quite different beast from the theme park MMO. The sandbox MMO is designed as a frame that players can play in and a big toolbox that allows them to make their own content. In a sandbox MMO you will find very few quests that fill out your leveling experience and it will be much more up to yourself to decide where you want to go and do said leveling. The experience that sandbox MMO’s generally aim to provide is that of a truly massive and open world for the players to explore and form for themselves. These games really appeal to our lust for exploration and pioneering spirit.

Eve Online is a good example of a sandbox MMO. Eve Online relies very much on emergent gameplay that players create as they play the game. This is usually in the form of the various events that unfold in or between the player corporations that are the guilds of Eve Online. The conflicts between warring corporations make up a huge part of Eve Online’s gameplay and it is fully created by the players themselves. Building factories and locking down a system or planning and executing a large fleet attack on an enemy are all events that occur without any direction from the developers of the game.

This creates a great sense of possibility for the players. Even though most of them are just a small cog in a much larger machine, there is nothing stopping them from eventually gaining significant influence on the way that the events of the game is going to unfold. Even the lowliest of pilots could potentially one day be the leader of a great corporation. Or perhaps the sneaky man inside for a rival corporation. Your destiny is what you make of it.

But there are also significant problems with the sandbox MMO design model. One of the primary ones is the fact that they tend to throw players into the deep end of the pool with just the barest of instructions to keep them from drowning in overwhelming complexities. I recently saw a thread on a large gaming site forum asking for a good beginner MMO to play. One person suggested Eve Online and was promptly laughed out as if he had just made an especially humorous “your momma” joke. And understandably so, because while Eve Online is a great game in many respects, it is about as easy to get into Eve Online as a MMO newbie as it is for George Lucas to stop fiddling with the original Star Wars movies (i.e. seemingly impossible).

Sandbox MMO’s are also inherently dependent on players actually managing to create some compelling content. A sandbox is pretty great when it’s filled with incredible sand castles but not so much when it’s just a pile of sand and a whole bucket full of cat droppings. And it really is all up to the players to create the great experience in sandbox MMO’s. You can’t rely on your tightly designed content to provide fun for the players even if all the other players are being complete idiots.

Finally, the sandbox MMO is ultimately only ever as strong as the tools that it provides to the players. The developers need to ensure that the players are given enough power to be able to create meaningful gameplay content, while at the same time they have to ensure that they don’t have so much power that they are able to completely screw up the game world and ruin the fun for everyone. It’s a very fine balance to hit and something that is absolutely critical for a successful sandbox MMO


Ultimately there is no result that you can underline and say that a theme park or a sandbox MMO is the superior game. It all comes down to what you prefer as a player. It is fully possible that you can enjoy both types of MMO’s even. Maybe some days you just want to sit down and blast through a fun experience that someone else has already written for you, and other days you really want to be the master of your own game and immerse yourself in a world that is driven by players like yourself.

What type of MMO do you guys generally prefer?