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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.