The Daily Grind: Is the sandbox MMO resurgence the result of nostalgia?


This morning’s Daily Grind question arrives from Kickstarter donor n3v3r3nder, who wants to talk sandboxes.

Do you think of the recent emergence of sandbox MMOs is based only on nostalgia? Or is it a necessity to push the genre forward as a whole?

Here’s the thing: I tend to think of nostalgia as a bit of a cheap word; when used pejoratively, as it so often is in MMO land, it’s a way of dismissing people’s memories, feelings, and opinions without having to provide an actual argument. We sink to absurdity when we suggest that, say, someone who is actively playing an older game or an emulator is just doing so “out of nostalgia.” That just isn’t how nostalgia works!

Even so, much of game design is predicated to some degree on nostalgia. Games from Albion Online to Das Tal openly declare classic Ultima Online a core influence. Any MMO that’s a sequel, a spiritual successor, or part of a branded franchise is brazenly using nostalgia to attract loyalists. It’s not something unique to sandboxes.

But “only” on nostalgia? Nope. I’d say the recent emergence of sandbox MMOs is based on money and a genuine desire to push the genre away from on-rails, curated gameplay and back to untamed virtual worlds. A huge number of gamers enjoyed and still enjoy that gameplay, and the market is simply shifting, however slowly, to try to meet that perceived demand.

Maybe you say differently. Is nostalgia responsible for the re-emergence of sandbox MMOs?

Every morning, the Massively Overpowered writers team up with mascot Mo to ask MMORPG players pointed questions about the massively multiplayer online roleplaying genre. Grab a mug of your preferred beverage and take a stab at answering the question posed in today’s Daily Grind!

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Honestly, before I even tried MMORPGs, I THOUGHT that the “sandbox” model(or, like an extreme version of it) was the standard for MMORPGs. I didn’t think that a persistent world would dare pretend like “the player” is the sole hero of the world, or that the storyline was the only thing that mattered in the place otherwise presented as a full world. It didn’t make any sense to me.

So from my point of view, the Sandbox-type MMORPG is the natural progression of MMORPGs. Companies that had no clue how to innovate or change their formula at all churning out Theme Park after Theme Park made absolutely no sense to me.

I’ll predict something even further. Sandboxes are headed toward letting players choose to play the “game” the way they want. Rather than even forcing the player to fight, players will eventually even be able to take on civilian life or play sports alongside the RPG trinity fighting through dungeons outside town. Cause what’s the point of having these richly-developed worlds if all we’re gonna do in them is fight?


I think it’s twofold. Most of the cheating and exploiting that goes on in MMOs at this point is mostly due to network speeds – or rather, the balance we have to strike between what is processed on the server vs what is processed locally on your PC due to network speeds. Anything processed or stored locally can be manipulated. The more you’d like to allow your players to do to the world and the more interrelated the different game/ environment systems become the more you open yourself up to exploits. I think we probably have the raw horsepower to simulate a world, but at this point I don’t think we have the bandwidth to get it to a massive amount of players in a secure and stable fashion.

The marketing is a good point too. I’ve suspected for a long time that the co-opting of the term for the genre – “MMORPG” – for every sort of online game under the sun was bad for we virtual world fans. Instead of being looked upon as a niche or fanbase upon ourselves, we are just a lost minority among fans of the quest hub to quest hub cash shop driven dressup games, massively instanced corridor themeparks and graphically rich lobby shooters. The resurgence of the “Sandbox” term was a positive, but even that is mired in debates of PvP vs PvE and definitions of leveling vs skilling up. IMHO “Sandbox” came about as related to Sand Castles – ie, BUILDING things inside the world, but w/e; I’m tired of debating the semantics or terminology and am waiting for a genre title/meme to emerge that defines what gamers like me are looking for so we can again stick out as a potential customer to these genius market analysts still chasing the WoW dollars and strike off again towards the Metaverse.


disUserNameTake Axiom1320 
Ultima Online and Star War Galaxies were examples of that. There were many items in the game world that didn’t convey any power and you could actually spends hours just messing around with the items to expand your own role playing. Shoot, SWGs original version of the dancer was just for RP only. 

UO you could do things like cut up a body, it didn’t do anything to base gameplay it had no stats, didn’t count for an achievement but we had guys that would do things like take the heads of  notorious PKs and display them in their house.Even for as rough as UO was you could a lot of things within the world that didn’t contribute to getting more powerful, they were just there to used.

Lord of the Rings Online, Archeage you can actual play instruments. It didn’t have direct gameplay benefit, but players still use it make real songs. LoTRO’s was more advanced than AAs but those are the smalll things that show the development team was making a world instead of throwaway zones whose sole purpose is for leveling. The things is for many of these  new “sandparks” is that those features are almost always left out compared to what was being done on earlier sandboxes.


RagnarTheDrunk “but we don’t have enough to build worlds like that yet”
Do you think that’s really the case?  Or is it more that very few studios/developers want to take the risk of introducing games that don’t fit into an existing market/niche?


Nah bro, it’s just technological improvements that brings all the boys to the yard.

It’s like how electric cars were shit during the late 20th century, but now they’re making a slow comeback.


“Being able to make meta gameplay on the fly due to the amount of set pieces and
systems in the world.”
I would be curious to know what games you have experienced that fulfill this requirement, if any.


It probably has more to do with Minecraft pulling in several billion USD in revenue.


eLdritchMD DigitalQ  like I said…


It’s not nostalgia as much as it is a way for companies to exploit the need
for players to find something… anything that’s different from the current
crop of MMOs. It’s really been far too long. Every MMO that’s come out gets the
wishes and dreams of the previous lackluster MMO that promised the sun, moon,
and stars foisted upon them. It’s been a vicious cycle, and developers have
done it no favors by claiming to be bringing players an improved MMO experience
and then running away back to World of Warcarft’s or Everquest’s
core design when they realize the cost involved in evolving the gameplay beyond
It’s especially prevalent in MMOs that died due to company mismanagement, or
had their core gameplay changed. Many of the new contenders want to invoke Ultima
Online, or Star Wars Galaxies, but when you look at their gameplay
you know in the back of your mind that they’re most likely feeding you lies to
get you into the early access song and dance. 
 Don’t confuse the lack of people not having anything worth playing for
the reason many of them still hanging on to these current MMOs. If a MMO came
out that actually brought back solid gameplay that allowed players their early
MMO freedom, took the lessons of how people actually wanted to play to these
MMOs, and stopped this walled off theme park design then the company that did
it would have a license to print money. 
 Developers have only become proficient at two major things in the last
decade, but neither of them have anything to with making a compelling MMO.
Monetization and double speak are the go to design traits of today, because the
industry has spent far too long chasing after the leading MMO pie instead of
making new forms of gameplay. Yes the costs for making these MMOs are
excessive, but wouldn’t this entail that the companies do their utmost not cut
corners? What happens as these MMOs are built is still a mystery, especially
when developers get ridiculous amounts of feedback about the core dangers in
their design, launch their game, and then act surprised when players leave in
It’s good to see sandboxes come back, but at many times I think the
developers and players are thinking about two totally different things when
they say the word. When I’m thinking sandbox I’m thinking about a game where I
can actually do something other than killing things, or grinding out items.
Being able to make meta gameplay on the fly due to the amount of set pieces and
systems in the world. Being to run into the toughest area and do something like
snatch a dragon’s treasure and leave again while running for my life without
being auto-killed. Doing things not to fulfill some achievement, but because
the gameplay is actually fun when a group gets together. Not this aberration of today that looks like a
sandbox, but ends up being a sectioned off themepark in both map and system

Line with more hugs
Line with more hugs

I guess it would depend on what you consider worse, cheap products or bankrupt creativity.
I know that rehashing your competitor’s product for $100M seems a lot worse than a cheap bootleg to me.