Today most MMOs are “theme park” style. Just like a real life theme park such as Disney World or Universal Studios, theme park games are those where the user experience is very controlled and there is no place for user-generated content. In theme parks everyone pretty much does the same thing as everyone else. In games this means that players all go from one thing to another in a very linear way. For example, all level 1 players start off in the newbie area and move to different areas as they level up their character. This type of design is what most gamers have come to expect from single player and PC games.
Summary and Definition
In contrast, the term “sandbox” is used to describe a type of game that is very open-ended and allows the player a lot of freedom. Children who play in a sandbox basically make their own fun which is the basic idea behind a sandbox MMO. Ideally, this type of design would have people play in a persistent virtual world that they can make changes to and influence. Also, many people think of this kind of MMO as having no classes or levels.
Sandbox MMO Games Features
Here is a more detailed explanation with a list of the top features of sandbox MMOGs.
Dynamic World – static persistent virtual worlds that never change are for theme park MMOs. Sandbox game worlds change frequently because players are allowed to change the environment in various ways. For example, in the old school Ultima Online a very exciting but chaotic housing system was built into the game in which a player can just build a house on any flat open ground. Of course, this did result in an eventual lack of free land in many places but this is the type of feature that gamers want in a sandbox game. Other elements of a dynamic world are migrating mobs, random spawns of resources or NPCs, weather or seasonal changes, cities/fortresses that can be built/captured/destroyed by players, terraforming tools, and so forth.
User-Generated Content – another thing that sets sandbox MMOs apart is user-generated content. This is a design element that gives players the tools to items, maps, stories, etc. One example is Second Life which is basically nothing but a server where people are free to create anything they want. A more simple example is Star Trek Online’s Foundry. The Foundry allows players to create quests and stories which can then be played by others. A voting or rating system allows players to give feedback.
Open World/Free for All PvP – unlike the other features enumerated here, player vs player content is generally not considered an essential feature of sandbox-type titles. However, if PvP is included in the game, open world or unrestricted PvP gives the players more freedom than arena combat or dueling.
Player-Controlled Economy – in a theme park, people cannot set up their own booths or sell items themselves. Everything sold in under the control of the owner of the theme park. The same is true of theme park games where most or even all items are bought and sold in stores in the game that are run by in-game characters. In contrast, sandbox MMOs allow people to set up their own business by buying and selling items to other players. A good example of this type of content is Eve Online.
No Classes – games like Runescape where characters are made but have no classes are a minority these days. Most will lock you into a specific role when you create a character. Like, when you make a new character and choose the vampire race, your avatar will only be able to use certain items and learn skills that are specific to that character. Sandbox games that have no classes are in the minority although they do exist.
No Levels – this is a controversial idea because for many the idea of no levels is crazy. People do enjoy leveling up so thinking of an MMO with no levels seems weird. Games like Second Life have no levels so sometimes people even ask the question “is SL a game at all?” because it is very confusing and not at all what a traditional game is like.
Skills, Crafting and Professions – another feature that many would like to see in a sandbox MMORPG are non-combat skills. These can also be called crafting or professions. Examples of these types of skills are tailoring, weapon-crafting, potion-making, farming, etc.
Eve Online – Eve is what people normally give as an example because it is a well-known niche MMO that is very sandbox-like.
Second Life – an unusual online virtual world where people can create whatever they want to
Star Trek Online – not the entire game but the Foundry is very unique and creative
Uncharted Waters Online – 3D MMORPG with deep gameplay that is based on the themes of exploration, trade and discovery. It has over 75 professions, 100 skills and a very sophisticated economic system wherein prices fluctuate daily because of the differences in the supply and demand of various goods.