MMO dev Raph Koster disambiguates sandboxes, themeparks, simulation, and stagecraft


Veteran MMO developer Raph Koster, who himself is working on a sandbox MMO couched in a metaverse, is back with another dev blog this week on the origins of the genre – and more specifically, the origins of the ideas behind the terms sandbox and themepark. Koster notes that many gamers assume sandboxes predate themeparks, which would be true – for MMORPGs specifically. But if you broaden your scope to the text-based MUDs that were the foundation upon which graphical MMOs were built, you’ll discover that in fact it was the themeparks that came first, and who better than the lead dev behind Ultima Online and Star Wars Galaxies to do it?

Koster has perhaps inadvertently crafted a brief but detailed history of MUDs here, so it’s worth a read just for that if the MUD era was a bit before your time as it is for me. But MMO players will at the very least be interested in the clear line between the scripted quest content of DikuMUDs and the themepark MMOs of the mid-aughts.

“When people today say sandbox versus themepark, they mostly mean simulationism versus stagecraft. [World of Warcraft] is a giant amazing piece of stagecraft. So is [Final Fantasy XIV]. But EVE [Online] is basically simulationist. […] [S]imulationism was born as a way to make fantasy worlds richer, more immersive… in a sense, to ‘make the ride better.’ Despite the knock against it today, it was not seen as a way to offload the effort onto players – back then, that’s what MOOs were for. In fact, [Ultima Online] was fully intended to have the same sorts of quest content that LegendMUD did. […] Contrast this to EverQuest. EverQuest was based on Diku gameplay, end to end. At launch, it had no quests, really, despite the name. Zones had level ranges (though infamously, lots of ‘zone sweeper’ mobs). It famously only added any crafting because the dev team saw it in UO during beta. Today some folks like to say it is ‘sandboxy’ but I’m here to tell you that it was absolutely a Diku-style themepark, of the pre-scripting period. […] [And] when we put linear narrative quest content into Star Wars Galaxies, we called those portions of the map where those narratives lived ‘themeparks.’ We didn’t have anywhere near enough of them, because ironically, we didn’t pick up the Diku lesson and have nice templatized quest systems.”

Koster argues that what WoW did differently from its predecessors was spend outrageous sums of money to make the entire game – or rather, the entire leveling part of the game – linear narrative quest content.

“Before WoW, you played a Diku-style game to kill ten rats,” he writes. “After World of Warcraft, you had a quest to kill ten rats. It seriously changed everything, because both sandboxy and themeparky games had a problem with guiding players. It’s hard to get across how big a revolution that was. We had chased simulation in part because of cost and scalability, which was a horrendous problem for us all[.]”

Finally, Koster touches on the incorrect assumption that sandboxes require PvP (a drum I have been banging for a very long time – remember back when CCP Games claimed a game’s not a “true sandbox until you can stab someone in the back”?): “[B]ecause UO set the template for ‘sandboxes,’ and then EVE reinforced it, a lot of people identify sandbox gameplay with ganking, full player vs player environments,” he explains. “But they aren’t equivalent. UO had that for simulation reasons. Galaxies did not. Any given game can decide where to draw that simulation line. UO was trying to solve governance problems using simulation, out of a belief that to do it by controlling players would be too expensive. We were mostly wrong. I say mostly, because social media today shows we were partly right also. Bottom line: sandbox does not equal PvP combat.”

I’ll leave you with one more quote that certain themepark devs might stand to take to heart.

“Sandboxy stuff – worldy stuff – simulated stuff – is how your themeparks get better. And the biggest reason why the themepark line has dominated is because it tackles mostly solved problems, compared to building a true alternate world. It’s stuff that single-player game designers know how to do. Breadcrumbs, dialogue trees, cutscenes, progression paths. Expensive, but at heart predictable for the developer. Alas, also for the player, after a few run-throughs.”

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