Perfect Ten: The 10 qualities of MMO sandboxes

    
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Perfect Ten: The 10 qualities of MMO sandboxes

What is a sandbox MMO? At first glance, it seems like a pretty easy question to answer, especially if you’re going by Kickstarter projects, which will inform you that sandboxes are good and themeparks are bad. But the actual definition of what a sandbox is remains fuzzy, and it often contains some pretty bad assumptions, as we chronicled ages ago in Bree’s old column about how open PvP does not a sandbox make. It’s not even a major requirement.

Where our approach differs here is that I don’t think “spectrum” is entirely accurate either. Rather, it’s more that there are certain qualities that sandboxes possess that help them feel like sandboxes, like you’re playing in a large-scale world instead of just basically doing what you need to do and then clocking in for the separate endgame mechanic. So let’s look at 10 of those qualities that tend to show up and examine how some games like City of Heroes get into more sandboxy territory.

Twang.

1. Character progress with lots of lateral options

In Ultima Online, you have a lot of different skills you can level up over time, and if you decide to change what your character does, you can do so, but you’ll have to level up some new skills (or swap them in from other characters using soulstones). But that’s about it. You don’t choose to be a Paladin and then get locked into Paladin forever, unable to do anything else. Heck, there are a lot of other skills you’ll want to focus on other than your core Paladin competence, so to speak.

This needn’t always be skill-based, either. As an example, Final Fantasy XIV definitely has character classes, but those classes are variable, and you can always swap to a different one. You are no stronger as a Gunbreaker by bringing Black Mage to the level cap, but you do have a wider array of options.

2. Player housing

This one is almost a no-brainer, but it’s not automatic. EVE Online has player-made structures, but it’s not really housing in the traditional sense. But housing is a frequent quality of sandboxy games simply because it’s an avenue of progress and advancement that in no way is about additive power. Your goal with housing is people spending a lot of time in the game creating a social space rather than one that is possibly mechanically useful.

Zoop.

3. Level agnosticism

It’s not true to say that sandboxes never have levels. But it is true that in lots of sandboxes, levels aren’t really the only thing you’ll be chasing. World of Warcraft recently added a feature letting you sync down to a fellow player, but by and large, once you’re done with a zone in that game, you’ll never need to go back to it. By contrast, even if I never have a need for leveling through Kholusia in FFXIV ever again, I’ll still be going back at times for other things, and I may very well be joining up with a friend there to do content that gives us both worthwhile rewards.

CoH, of course, was always excellent about this; hanging out in the middle levels of 30-40 gave you enough space to do basically everything, to the point that actually leveling started becoming more or less secondary.

4. Robust and influential crafting

Crafting is a big part of sandbox games, but part of that is actually for reasons that might not be immediately obvious. It’s not that crafting has to be there; it’s that crafting is an obvious way for more player progress and gameplay without focusing on smacking monsters. It’s a way to develop systems that give you a project to take on bigger than just “let’s kill a big furry thing.”

Influential is also important. There’s a lot to WoW’s crafting at this point, for example, but everyone knows that most of it doesn’t matter in the slightest, and crafting is a secondary concern in the game at best.

Chop.

5. Open PvP

As mentioned before, this is not the determinant of a sandbox game. Heck, when talking about modern UO, it’s not a constant thing in that game, and I don’t think anyone would seriously argue that UO is no longer a sandbox. But it would be disingenuous to think that it has no connection with sandboxes. Allowing players the freedom to fight is a very sandbox-ish feature.

6. A shift-free top-level structure

I’ve argued before that this might be the most important thing on this list. There are four games I’ve mentioned so far with sandbox-ish traits: FFXIV, CoH, EVE, and UO. In all four cases, the stuff you’re doing when your power progression via levels/skills is over is the same as what you were doing before. You don’t hit your needed skill level in EVE and suddenly start queueing up for raids. The game begins as it means to go on.

Obviously, there’s more to it than this, but this is an important part of what makes something feel more like a sandbox. If all of the fun content is only available at the level cap, then the game is split in twain between “leveling game” and “main game,” and that’s a bad thing.

Swish.

7. Player-driven stories

There’s a lot of leeway here because “player-driven stories” can cover a whole lot of different ground. It’s possible to have a game with storylines run by developers and lots of player-driven stories. It’s also possible to have games with player-generated content and games without, and you can certainly debate over how player-driven some things are. Do the various in-game theater companies in FFXIV qualify? The player-run but GM-supported RP events in CoH? The warfare of EVE?

But the point remains. It’s a very sandbox quality to have players at least in some capacity serving as the story generators.

8. A living, separate world

It’s hard to pin down sometimes, but there is a certain feel to some games that things will keep happening even when you log off. Other players will craft things and compete with you in the market. Dynamic events will occur. There are projects to complete on a timetable that is at least somewhat under your control, and how much you do or do not do within the game has a consistent effect.

To put it more simply, if I log out of WoW, I assume I’m going to log back in a day later to more or less the same landscape. There are no houses that will have changed, no markets to watch closely as things become genuinely more or less scarce, no significant server-wide competitions. The only difference will be that more time has passed.

Splish.

9. Persistence through updates

Lest you think this is something every game has, I would point out that Star Wars Galaxies arguably failed at this one with the whole NGE/CU update that rewrote core parts of the game pretty substantially. But the point remains that as a general rule, these games should feel as if there is persistence over time, rather than a continued rotation of borrowed power.

Put more simply, there’s an expectation that your character remains under your control, but the world will change as new things occur.

10. A strong community

We’ve talked a lot in the past about how games get the community they design for, and this is part and parcel with making something feel like a sandbox. The more different playstyles feel as if they’re in opposition to one another, the worse your game is doing on a sandbox quality because these are games in which community is not just present but desired. You want to have a sense among players that you are all part of the same basic family.

And if your game makes you see other people as tools or impediments to enjoying yourself… well, something has already gone very, very wrong.

Everyone likes a good list, and we are no different! Perfect Ten takes an MMO topic and divvies it up into 10 delicious, entertaining, and often informative segments for your snacking pleasure. Got a good idea for a list? Email us at justin@massivelyop.com or eliot@massivelyop.com with the subject line “Perfect Ten.”

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Michael18

Fun read!

But I wouldn’t call FFXIV a sandbox. It’s actually a typical example of a themepark MMO, imho. It’s just designed so well that some common problems of themepark MMOs do not occur here or are less pronounced.

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MolleaFauss

Aye, was about to say the same. The gear grind is there, it’s only well and better organized that is – a bit – less of a grind (mind, I’m only halfway through stormblood), but if you want to raid Extreme or Savage you have to do it.
The good thing is that the game doesn’t force you to do it so you can do a lot of other things and still enjoy enough of the game.

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Thomas Koren

agreed, especially since the housing in FFXIV is handled so badly that it practically might as well not exist for 80% of the users.

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Schmidt.Capela

IMHO you aren’t really talking here about sandboxes, but rather about virtual world MMOs. A sandbox can do away with most of what you described here and still be a sandbox: a place where altering the environment, or playing with the alterations done by other players, is an integral part of the game.

As for me, while I love single player sandboxes, I now mostly avoid MMO ones. Point 5 — Open PvP — is a major reason, but not the only one; I also hate how sandbox MMO devs tend to force interdependence down our throats (in a game I’m either self-sufficient or I’m not playing), and even without that sandboxes tend to foster more competition than I enjoy. Take non-instanced housing, for example; if I claim a certain spot for my house, I’m not just getting a house, I’m also preventing every other player in the server from claiming that spot — which kinda makes me feel like a jerk.

Thus, I tend to stick to offline, single-player sandbox games. There are multiple such games where I easily have many hundred, in some cases over a thousand, hours; Minecraft, Dragon Quest Builders 2, Subnautica, Sims 3, Spore, previous versions of Animal Crossing (I’m skipping the current one until it’s feature complete), Sim City, Starbound, Terraria, No Man’s Sky, Stardew Valley, My Time at Portia, X3, etc.

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kjempff

There is no consensus of what sandbox means. Seem to mean very different things to different people.
Also with a lack of categories, so that everything can only be labelled themepark or sandbox, makes it even more undefined. There is also the mistake of reverse labelling, ie it is not a sandbox (in someones perception) therefore it is themepark, and vise versa.
We desperately need some categorizing options/attributes in the mmo verse, for this case and other stuff.

Personally I have to go with the (wrong and lack of better) idea of, if it is not themepark then it is sandbox. And to me the defining thing of a themepark is purely a question of something vague as .. is the world a bi-product of the game (Themepark) or is the world an entity that could be imagined as existing without a game (not a themepark). It is actually so clear that the definition is the word itself, is the world like an actual rl themepark, an artificial area with themed rides to try out … Or is it like an unaltered (naturally and logically occuring) world governed by a set of rules.

You know you are in a themepark when… The npc ask you to kill the roaming wolves and you turn around and see a wolf to kill. Then you walk 20 steps and there is a field haunted by ghosts that you are asked to deal with. And right next to that a merchant and a kobolt infested mine entrance…this is themepark aka artificial/unbeleivable world.

I know these things are about how it feels individually, but still I think this can be generalized to some extend.

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kjempff

Some ideas for using attributes instead of labeling themepark or sandbox.

Virtual World vs Themepark vs Lobby.
Story Driven content (developer micro manage your experience) vs Open ended content (developer supplies opt-in content without narrative) vs Players as content (developer supplies rules but no content).
Character Progression and/or item progression (sub cat. Minimal progression / horizontal) vs pure sandboxes (minecraft, destructable world).
Scaling vs Fixed.
PvP and/or PvE.
Just brainstorming…not thought through …

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Robert Mann

True of what we have, but some of it is not required whatsoever. A sandbox game can be broken down to two things:

1. Player choice. Players will have the most freedom and choice in a sandbox style game, but that comes with a sacrifice of the developer feeding the player goals as easily.

1.A. PvP: Where games that support open PvP are a choice, choosing to avoid games that have that is a choice. The idea that PvP is centric as a choice, is neglecting that people choose to specifically avoid PvP as well. Both are valid choices, and both need to be something sandbox games look at. Essentially, I deny point 5 as valid, because the opposite is also valid. To claim PvP as a choice, while denying that a disinterest in PvP is a choice, would be the disingenuous connection. Thus I daresay that point 5 is wrong, in that it mentions one without supporting the other… each is a valid portion of what a sandbox can be. Having PvP games is a good thing, but it needs balance, and that has been skipped over in sandboxes. It has left those who yearn for a sandbox without the PvP with nothing to date, except for the vague hope that Fractured will be really cool when it releases.

2. A more involved world. It’s pretty simple, but the content of a sandbox is less the combat, and more the world. The deeper you go down that route, the more content you tend to have. It can be annoying content for people (where others might like it), but that’s a design issue more than anything. There’s plenty of methods to make the ‘boring’ content more interesting… at least for certain people. Some people, of course, must kill something actively or bounce on their space bar while crying ‘go’ constantly. (Hyperbole, of course.)

What else you don’t see included here: Level agnostic, and strong community.

Those are separately developed from being a sandbox game. In fact, I’d note that the PvP and backstabbing that occurs in many directly conflicts with the strong community idea. You have groups that are tight, but they are also closed. They are so afraid of spies and outsiders harming them, that you end up with a fragmented tribal aspect to things, only shattered when the big groups come along and force everyone else to join or wipe.

My take on the discussion, you are all free to disagree if you wish of course!

Damon Anderson
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Damon Anderson

Sandbox MMO’S have always been my games of choice. I am not at all a PvP player, never was, anytime I tried to be it was not my thing, although I don’t mind being in a PvP environment at all as long as there is good PvE content and methods to deal with the inevitable attacks that come when doing PvE. However a truely PvE focused sandbox is I think what I have been wanting in an MMO since I have been playing these types of games, also with elements of theme park in the mix, which may exist but I have not played. I am planning on playing ESO in a few weeks or so and from what I have seen it seems like that’s the concept there, so looking forward to that. I think the thing about sandbox MMO’S that I found most enjoyable, especially thinking back to UO, despite the fact it had no quests to speak of etc, was that no two days of game play were the same, I would explore or do a dungeon run and never knew what was going to happen, that was because of the other players and whatever interactions, “good” or “bad” that would result. Good article, thanks.

Turing fail
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Turing fail

Thoughtful, well-written piece. I understand commenters’ responses to open PvP- it can introduce tiresome, unwelcome/un-fun stress. Full disclosure, I haven’t been playing EVE Online lately, since real life during the apparent end of days is challenging enough…

That being said, IMO open PvP can make otherwise mundane game activities, e.g. resource gathering, challenging, pulse-pounding adventures. I’ve turned the tables on EVE gankers/griefers more than a few times, and these events are some of my best gaming memories. EVE has communities (and individuals) dedicated to griefing griefers.

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Kanbe

I agree that open PvP can make for pulse pounding adventures, but that’s not always a good thing. For me that pulse pounding can quite literally turn my stomach. I’ve gotten so stressed out by games at time because I’m worried someone is going to come along and s**t all over my day when I’m doing stuff in the dangerous space.

To each their own but I just wanted to point out that the pulse pounding rush isn’t for everyone. Though that’s why I don’t really play EvE or Albion despite liking those games.

Turing fail
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Turing fail

Do you find a difference between stress caused by PvP vs. PvE? I’m taking a break from EVE and playing Warframe in solo mode because I don’t want to deal with people.

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Kanbe

Yes the PvP portion of things can cause me quite a bit of stress. On the other hand, while I’ve had things go belly up with PvE often enough, stress has ver rarely been involved. In PvE I can usually pick what I want to tackle and understand how challenging it is or isn’t. If I screw up or a group fails, that’s on me or the group as a whole.

On the PvP end, I don’t usually see options that let me choose the level of risk short of, “Just stay in the low level noob zones.” Cutting off the majority of the game map isn’t something I appreciate. So when I venture beyond if I see even signs of another player I run in the other direction for fear of meeting them. If I run into a gank I see that as something I have little control over and that the outcome is inevitable that I lose unless I manage to outrun it. That causes me stress and I dislike being fearful of seeing other players. Why play an MMO then?

Turing fail
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Turing fail

Thank you for expounding upon/explaining your perspective. From what you’ve written, EVE is almost certainly more trouble than it’d be worth to you- you’re certainly in good company there!

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Robert Mann

It can be, but excitement in and of itself isn’t always good. As Kanbe noted, it is a turnoff to some people, and it can be for various reasons. The idea that excitement is the primary goal of all gaming is wrong to begin with, there are a variety of motivations that aren’t on either the dopamine or the reward tracks.

Turing fail
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Turing fail

To be clear, I wasn’t suggesting excitement was the only path. For me it was sometimes nice to have the grinding torpor of mining spiced up by someone attempting to murder me.

I’m not always in the mood for “excitement”, and have taken a break from EVE lately.

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Robert Mann

Aye, and that’s reasonable. The point was that for some people it isn’t a path they are interested in going down. With all the freedom that a sandbox can offer, there is no reason that it should be restricted to those who like that path.

MilitiaMasterV
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MilitiaMasterV

I was just recently in the hospital for chest pain/heart fluttering/trouble breathing, I can do without the ‘pulse pounding’. In fact, that might even be lethal at this point.

Turing fail
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Turing fail

I’d definitely avoid anything that elevates blood pressure were I in your shoes. Hope your condition improves quickly and you return to full health. I’m curious what you’re playing now days?

For me, No Man’s Sky on “creative” mode is pretty chill.

MilitiaMasterV
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MilitiaMasterV

Lately? I don’t even have a game. I was watching streamers on Twitch play some things…most recently was watching a guy do a first time through Mass Effect trilogy (I never got to play that…)…but the streamer started to do things that irked me around the time he got into Mass Effect 2…so I have stopped watching.

(He was making me angry with certain topics, and doing things that make me think he didn’t bother to read stuff that happened on his screen/has no short term memory and can’t remember where he’s been so he’ll do the same loops over and over again of areas..like how do you even forget your own ship in-game once you’ve ran around it multiple times? He would also rail on people in his chat who were trying to be helpful and call out people being dumb, when he commonly does dumb things…just making me wish I could be the one in control of the character so I could do some things…I pondered getting it {$30 for trilogy! But they are releasing a ‘revamp’ of it sometime next year/year after…so probably worth waiting.}, but the control schemes issues he was having make me think I won’t enjoy it either. Also, I tend to get motion sick from shooters.)

I don’t know what to do right now. I keep looking for new games, but most of the things I’d try require Steam and I boycott that a long time ago because I don’t support things that try and run a monopoly.

I was intrigued by Baldur’s Gate 3 (Never played the originals) because I like DnD type stuff, but I saw the price tag for an alpha game and winced at it…so that’s a wait till it drops/improves.

I haven’t tried No Man’s Sky because it was WAY TOO MANY COLORS for my brain to handle.

There’s just a lot of options, but nothing drawing me in enough to be where I go next.

Turing fail
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Turing fail

I played Mass Effect- all three- on Xbox. I think a friend of mine had issues with the PC version’s control scheme too, which I didn’t experience with the console version. As I recall, there were some pretty hectic/intense combat moments, so you may want to take that into account for your health.

MilitiaMasterV
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MilitiaMasterV

Heh, I’ve experienced so much in the gaming world, that it takes quite a bit to get my sludge in the veins going/responding. I actually watched the streamer play through a horror genre game before that. (Dark something anthologies : Little Hope), and it barely budged me even with all the attempted jump scares. I laugh at scary movies. But yeah, I am trying to be a bit more careful. I’ve always had high blood pressure (runs in the family, uncle was on meds for his since age 25), and whatever this is…

(Complex, haven’t figured it out, they actually claimed my heart is ‘healthy’ after doing 4 EKGs and a echocardiogram even though I had a-fib/”hypertrophy” of left ventricle/2 tachycardia events on monitor one of which was over 200 beats per minute, along with finding an abnormality under my lung between the outer skin/lung on cat-scan, and enlarged lymph nodes in my lung which they biopsied which triggered a 103 fever and found grannulomas. I’m currently at home with a heart monitor for a month, and another catscan scheduled 2-3 months out…and whatever they poked in there has triggered what used to be a hacking cough after eating, to become a more regular cough/fits sometimes.)

…isn’t likely going away anytime soon.

As for these games, I’m also not sure I want to get Mass Effect because I played SWTOR(Another Bioware game) somewhat in a few times, and every time the dialog wheel stuff just kinda, doesn’t say what you wanted to say, and it irks, and makes you want to reload and redo it multiple times…I played both KotoR 1-2 all the way through, and there’s just a certain level of ‘I’m not sure I can handle that anymore.’ going on…I could probably get over the control scheme issues if I really wanted to give it a go…

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Utakata

“5. Open PvP”

“10. A strong community”

When two opposing ideas come together in this fashion, for me it could only mean one thing…

11. Toxic is, toxic does…

…no thanks. Well until they throw put PvP for the most part, then I might take a 2nd look at those game. Until then, good luck with those games! o.O

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Utakata

“That’s a little harsh, isn’t it Uta?”

Maybe…it’s just certain types of behavior that’s encouraged isn’t a community I want to belong to. This in no ways stops others from seeking that out, as this is my opinion of it of course. So we’ll have to just agree to disagree here…

That said and I’ll admit, PvP probably needs sandboxes for it to work with a no holds barred mentality. On the other hand and pigtail, sandboxes don’t really need PvP for it to work. Devs instead tend move their sandboxes down that Open PvP route, because of the former point. And it should be no surprise to anyone why many of us balk at and bolt from sandboxes because of that.

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Robert Mann

Not really harsh, I made the point differently. What it does is create closed communities, abuses, and extra effort from people to be jerks to other groups. It creates a strong sense of shared fear and distrust. I do not consider it a strong community at that point either.

MilitiaMasterV
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MilitiaMasterV

Yeah, I’ve heard people use all sorts of rationale for why PvP should be allowed…the big major sandbox I played for a long time actually had servers that literally shut it off on them, but they eventually hooked them up to the PvP servers so you could travel between them ‘if you want to’…it lead to a whole bunch of interesting conundrums…like we weren’t allowed to PvP, so if we had problems with our neighbors, it was just griefing that would go on between you until one got annoyed enough and left. (Or a GM ruled against you, and imagine who GM’s side with when they have friends…because they also play.)

But if you were on a PvP server, you could’ve just killed them (Or they’d kill you) and that would’ve theoretically ‘been the end of it’ (Except it’s not…because often that turns into someone having a grudge, and working their behind off to take you down another way, by for example, joining your group, working from within, then later down the road betraying you and taking all of your hard earned work…or just getting strong enough to punish you, or by finding allies to wipe the dirt with you.)

Also, when the PvPers were hooked up to our servers, they ‘raided’ our ‘uniques’ (Think raid bosses that didn’t respawn at the time.) and ‘stole’ them, because they were still alive and gave goodies they wanted. Led to so much drama, because our side heard they were coming and tried to put together a quick group to do it and they ended up fighting over fighting the unique, and eventually one side got killed and the other ‘won’ and killed it, but they used an ‘exploit’ to do it (Who knew casting heal on a raid boss was possible?) and it turned into a GM ruling over the loot and the people who ‘lost’ were actually given the loot…just seriously think about all the nonsense involved there…

Why even participate in that kind of stuff? Why want to?

MilitiaMasterV
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MilitiaMasterV

I agree. PvP doesn’t seem to make a ‘strong’ community to me, except maybe for a small GROUP of people, and I wouldn’t consider that a ‘community’…

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Anstalt

It’s always been pretty straight-forwards to me.

Sandbox = developers give you the tools (bucket, spade, sand) and the players create their own experiences.

Themepark = developers curate the experience you’re going to have, so everyone has pretty much the same experience. You’re there for the rides, even if you might do the rides in a different order to others.

With that in mind, a lot of the things on this list could either be sandbox or themepark, depending on how they are implemented. For example, LotRO’s housing is a themepark feature, because the houses are set by the devs and the hooks are set by the devs, there’s no creating your own experience. Compare that to SWG where you can put your houses wherever you want, create player cities and then decorate your houses with pretty much any item in the game, placing them wherever you want, thus creating your own experience.

On the spectrum topic, I feel it’s a spectrum. All MMOs tend to have some sandbox and some themepark features, so you have to look at where the majority of the features / gametime is spent. If the majority is one way or the other, it’s easy to classify: SWG was a sandbox because the majority of features were sandbox, even though it had the rebel and imperial themeparks as well as some other quests. LotRO, FFXIV, WoW etc are clearly themeparks as that is what the majority of their features are focused on, even though they all have PvP which is a sandbox feature.

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Robert Mann

One tiny thing, Lotro does have some flexibility in where a hook placement actually goes. Which is a slight (very slight) nod to sandbox style play. It’s definitely on the themepark side of things, but even within such a strongly setup experience there’s a hint of freedom to do your own thing.

It’s really low on that spectrum, of course!

MilitiaMasterV
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MilitiaMasterV

I used to have a house out by Ered Luin…but that was many many years ago, and the brokers stole it back and shoved all my stuff in a bin. I haven’t been able to experiment with it since then. Used to enjoy the ability to re-do the whole interior walls with a hook. I had a bunch of event ‘special’ ones to put in. Tended towards enjoying the festive X-mas stuff…even though I don’t actually celebrate holidays IRL. Just more of the I enjoy snow/that time of year. I had a bunch of random event items I should have sold/was trying to sell too…but yeah, I can’t seem to manage to get back into LOTRO ever since my 9 months in burnout from overdoing….every time I try, I just get bored/annoyed by something and wander away…even though I would love to actually do that story through some day. /sigh

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Robert Mann

Yeah, there’s plenty of little annoyances there. I think the thing that makes it really shine to me is the work done on the environment. If I focus on that… I can enjoy the journey there. I take it REALLY slow with friends though.

MilitiaMasterV
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MilitiaMasterV

I can do without #5 in sandboxes JUST FINE. In fact, the more I see that as an option on the sandbox, the less I’m likely to play that specific one.

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Bruno Brito

This needn’t always be skill-based, either. As an example, Final Fantasy XIV definitely has character classes, but those classes are variable, and you can always swap to a different one. You are no stronger as a Gunbreaker by bringing Black Mage to the level cap, but you do have a wider array of options.

FF14 is not a good measurement of character building in any way, shape or form. You don’t have builds. You have extremely little options besides changing classes. Every Black Mage performs like all other Black Mages. The class change is the only redeeming feature about FF14’s class system. Everything else is extremely locked in place and as themeparky as it can be.

FF14 is more restrictive than WoW, and that’s saying a lot.