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

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?


  1. PSST, just below this article is one called “PAthfinder Online – the sandbox theme park mmorpg”. Lol, I guess it is not segragating the two to fit in this argument.

    Any ways, since wow is here, I wanna speak about it. The wow theme park elements were almost non existant in WoW vanilla and almost USUALLY reserved for dungeon progression. Such as the arriving the big doors of the Cathedral, getting locked in an arena like pit awaiting the boss, having to stride the chains to get to Molten Core. Following the story there epically. The “Holes” in the areas are the magical sweet spots where we made home. We would find the down time in an empty forest a great place to meet up, hang out, host guild meeitngs, to silly things like run around in a pool and take screen shots… Meet others. It was a living world. Even the glitches were awesome. There was a torch on the wall you could jump on, it was a glitch where you would fall in the graphic of the wall, and then sink to the ground in STORMWIND. You were in a the matrix, with nothing but flat landscape. You had to hearth out, unstuck, or just restart. These little things were awesome finds that enthralled all and made the game “Alive”…

    The theme park arrived with patches, where they blocked you out of the torch in the wall, where they made you jump into a literall rollercoaster by making you controll a dragon, controll a giant robot, do bombing runs on a gryphon, soon… The dungeons were little worlds of their own, that held better xp and loot. Then they made the roller coaster by auto grouping and taking the dungeon ride all day. Everything else died. The little spots in the forest, the explorative community, everything. All dead Gigabites on the wow servers that you pay stupidly for. Stupidly more than a cell phone plan, Stupidly more for an actual annual pass to a real theme park… stupid.
    That said, WoW is the best example of how theme park can and will destroy a game. It really depends on implementation and direction. Wow Lost both.
    Sand park almost always has to do with techincal hardware. The open server persistant world like EVE requires the server type, therefore the dungeons. No instances, etc.. I think Sandbox is a gimic. Even MINECRAFT as “free” as it is, you are in the constraints of using THE tools that are provided. For a true sandbox, you need to be the creater of a game… and even then that is LIMITED to your software engine…sandbox is just a gimic to get you into a different role playing experience, like dungeons and dragons just changing the dice ever so often…

  2. Sandbox in theory, however in practice there are none that do the job, The more high profile ones of recent years havent hit the mark, Mortal and Darkfall were hugely disappointing – both in terms of quality, difficulty curve & game populations. EvE is by far the most successful, but the excel style drop down menus are a turn off and, for me, make it quite a dull experience.

    So far the linear theme park games have been more fun – its where all the money has really been pumped in recent years – and as such those games just seem to be better quality, better thought out, better populated and as such a better experience – until endgame whereby it all falls down.

    They should mix the two genres, give the early game some structure, story and directed gameplay to drag people in, and gradually as they progress introduce & push them into the sandbox so that by endgame they can make their own content instead of grinding.

    Sounds easy to me —- devs take notes & get it done people!

  3. I agree with mixing the two genres, ive felt like that for awhile now.

    I dont want to entertain myself, thats not why i play video games or watch movies or listen to music, i want to be entertained.

    I love the concept of sandbox but it just doesnt work for me.

  4. Thanks for the comments, guys. Always nice to hear the opinion of you guys.

    Buttlord (such a subtle name ;) ), I definitely agree with you that WoW was a lot less of a theme park MMO at launch. It’s like Blizzard perhaps were not quite sure of how much they wanted the game to be a guided experience and then gradually decided to push more and more into that direction.

    Your take on the limitations of the sand box MMO is a valid concern. Like I said about a sand box MMO needing to give enough power to the players, there are always going to be limits to what you can do in a game and that can ultimately be very frustrating to players that want a sand box game.

    Xaras and Germaximus, I think mixing the two genres into one game is one possible way forward, but the question is if it is possible to create a game that truly embraces both of these concepts. Would you create a vast open world with different “theme park spots” or would you build your theme parks so that players could affect the contents? And how do you then make sure that the way players are affecting it does not break the tight experience that the designers intended for you to have?

    The new “Pathfinder Online” MMO is supposedly going to try to mix sand box with theme park. It’s going to be interesting to see how that turns out. If we’re looking at a successful new hybrid or if it will make for a very confusing game design.

  5. For me the difference is all about the endgame …. with the theme park style the endgame always steers towards dungeons & raids, forming isolated groups and locking them away in instances, fragmenting the community which gets more and more acute the closer to endgame you get. This to me seems to defeat the object of MMO.

    Sandbox style seems to focus more on bringing those groups together towards endgame, Sieges, Guild Conflicts and the like – and this is the element that brings me more in favour of the sandbox. MMO should be about community, bringing player groups together and keeping them interacting with one another.

    When you start a themepark style MMo the interaction between players is there, people cooperate with each other while finding their feet in game, its the instances later on that ruin it. So keep the themepark style opening but rather than focus on instance endgame go more towards the PvP, GvG, WvW large conflict endgame instead.

  6. That makes sense. As I wrote in the article, the end game of theme park MMO’s really does have some serious issues that must be resolved somehow.

    A theme park leveling experience coupled with more emergent gameplay from a sand box design as you get to grips with the game sounds like a very cool idea.

    I guess Warhammer Online also tried this approach, with lots of question as you leveled, then switching focus more to PvP and capturing enemy territories.

  7. Sandbox every time

    The trinity for me in a great game is
    24/7, persistent, realm vs realm conflict

  8. I have to wonder how many people really did putz around in the forest?

    I mean, that seems viable for a MUD or small browser game to support, but really it sounds as if its such a tiny demographic that to get upset at a commercial monster not catering to a tiny demo seems to be not knowing whats going on?

    Of course the commercial companies like to leave you with the impression “Oh yes, this is your special little space” if thats the impression you get. They wont break you out of that – unless your just not as profitable to cater to.

  9. I’m personally a huge fan of the sandbox MMO’s I’ve tried a few RPG’s (single player) and they just don’t work for me, the scripted content just gets to repetitive after the first 10 or so hours. and without the ability to really affect events besides living or dying, it doesn’t do it for me.
    However, I started playing EVE about 8 months ago, and I’m totally hooked on the sandbox approach. there’s just something so compelling about it, not just the aspect of being able to affect important events in game, but about the aspect of the inherent danger. EVE is not like WoW where if you die, you spawn as a ghost and then walk back to your body, and all your stuff is still there, if your ship dies, you pretty much loose everything that was on it or in it. But the great risk can also come with great reward, like if you manage to gank a faction battleship that is fitted with faction or officer mods (i.e. stuff that is insanely expensive to buy, and very hard to get in dungeons.) there is the satisfaction of completely ruining someone else’s day. then there’s the profit factor, if some of the officer/faction mods survive the ship popping, you can steal it and then resell it for full price, and you’ve made a tidy profit! Some of you may say “That’s not why I play a game, just to piss other people off!” then here’s my advice, stick to WoW and never touch EVE, because for easily 3/4 of the EVE population, making others frustrated to the point of crying is their number one objective. (myself included) XD

  10. I think the determining factor on which is better is directly related to the person playing.

    Leaders and A-type personalities will prefer sandbox games.
    Followers and laid back personalities prefer theme park.

    I may be wrong in a small percentile for the general populace… But, there are 5 co workers of mine that play Eve. They are all A-type and one is a Director and two are Supervisors. There is also an enlisted E8 counted in there and the IT Audit Manager. Those who play WoW are mostly laid back. They come in and do their jobs and go home with their only ambition to get a good raise. There are 4 people that play WoW and all of them are like that.

    It would be interesting to do a study on personalities and MMORGs. That might help designers create better games that cater to the groups that play them.

  11. Ratatoskr, I think that might be more down to peer grouping. You are more likely to be drawn into games your friends and peers are playing.

    I know lots of kids play both, and I know lots of adults play both – but the reason most people play is because their friends do.

    I bet in your workplace you’ll find that the 4 that play WoW are friends or have freinds that play that game and thats why they play it. – and likewise with the managers you have there.

  12. One of the things about MMO games of the sandbox type that makes them so special is the fact that when you are in the game playing, you are always able to create storys. and tales that will live on for years.

    Of course there are storys to be made in regular MMOs, the opportunities are just less, and few will have the ability to intrest more people than those from the same guild.

    The fact is that the tale could be the one reason you actualy act in the game.

    One example of player determination from EvE Online when part of the actual gameplay ain’t so fun but the story that unravels is of great value:

    Bear with me and watch for 5 mins and you will get the idea of my point.

    And personaly I don’t like the idea of mixing linear gameplay with sandbox, if you want sadbox, then you want it from the start, if you can’t handle it then you should move along.

    As some of you already have pointed out: The sandbox environment content will never get better than its inhabitants, So the complex game that meet new players keep the undedicated away and ensure a playerbase more likely to try to actualy respond to the playerdriven envirement becouse they have survived the lerning process for the sole reson to be able to.

    This can’t be said without this classic pic:

  13. Has anyone ever set up a sandbox style MMO and then paid people to play powerful NPCs?

    Another approach to a mixed model combining freedom and missions with the ability to (a) draw in great content from expert storytellers and (b) give people the choice of how involved to get?

  14. Shadanwolf, you said the following…have you looked into Pirates of the Burning Sea?

    “The trinity for me in a great game is
    24/7, persistent, realm vs realm conflict”

  15. Sandbox for me; IMO Ultima Online 1999-2004 was a perfect example of how this sub-genre should be implemented.

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