For years after arguably the first Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game (MMORPG) Ultima Online; many games have attempted to recreate the free form sandbox that it was highly praised for. Released in 1997 Ultima Online created a stunning graphical MMORPG with immense depth to the likes of which had not yet been seen. In 2003 Ultima Online boasted 250,000 concurrent subscribers, again a feat that had never been accomplished before. Even today Ultima online is recognized as the pioneer to all MMO’s proving that not only were MMO’s possible, but also highly successive. The key attraction behind Ultima Online, and the source of many copy cat attempts, was its sandbox environment.
The dominant quality within all sandbox MMO’s is freedom. This freedom allows for seemingly limitless amount of choices. These choices come in the form of customization and goals. In a sandbox environment a class structure (In regards to Rogue/Cleric/Warrior… etc) is completely absent. The power sets that you choose are dependent on your play style. You define the strengths and weakness of your character and are not held back by any archetype restrictions. There are also no factions/realms, the only friends you may have come in the form of guilds/clans/corps. There is not a prevalent direction within the game, no series of enticements created by the developer to reach a certain stage. The only goals of a sandbox MMO are the goals that you put forth.
There are varying degrees of developer presence between different sandbox MMO’s. The idea of a quest is largely used with more structured MMO’s (World of Warcraft, Lord of the Rings Online, Warhammer, to name a few). Quests will play a backseat role or no role at all in a sandbox. Non-Player Computers (NPC’s) are also generally rare in a sandbox. The developers leave the populating of the world largely up to the player base to create the sense of immersion and massiveness. Another form of developer presence is limits. These limits that are sometimes seen in sandbox MMO’s as skill point caps(Ultima Online, Mortal Online), a system that does not allow you to master all trades at once, however this is a much more liberal system than a hard level cap (seen again in your structured MMO’s) that is accompanied with archetype/class systems.
Freedom is the driving force behind a sandbox MMO, between sandboxes though there is also varying degrees of freedom. There is a ‘guided freedom’ approach or a ‘pure freedom’ approach. These differences in freedom are largely noticed within the first few hours of a sandbox MMO and are often shed once a player gains knowledge of the game. At this point players are often left alone to define their goals.
Within a ‘guided freedom’ approach you are often first placed in a solo instance (A world separate from all players). Here you learn the ropes and can occasionally come back to these areas to allow you to progress in the game with minimum risk. Once done the solo instance (if there is one) then you are placed in the multiple player universe, however the protection of your character is still present. This is noticed when either Player vs Player (PvP) combat is forcefully turned off, or there is a heavy presence of guards. Eventually these ‘new player luxuries’ are dismissed and the presence of the developers slowly recedes.
Pure freedom skips the new player luxuries and places your right in the world. Instancing is a foreign concept and is nearly never used. The world is open right from the start; you are not forced to complete a series of starter missions. Once started, you are also not funneled into linear paths in an incentivized order. To accompany the open world and nonexistent developer presence (In the form of NPC guards or non-enabled PvP) your are placed in an open world, free for all PvP world.
A common mechanic and largely celebrated by your average sandbox enthusiast is the capability of loss. Within a sandbox your items and cash are not protected from death. In some cases stats are at stake. Sandbox MMO’s play on the line of life or death where the fear of death is a largely motivating factor. The capability of loss brought on by death causes players to weigh their options before making action.
Today many MMO’s release in an attempt to capture the essence of a sandbox game. Sandbox development is largely headed by indie companies. These companies include the maker of EVE, Perpetuum, Love, Mortal Online, Earth Rise, and Darkfall. Each and every year the sandbox market grows both in games produced and subscribers. EVE online is recognized as one of the few games that since its launch has continually seen subscriber counts rise. There is clearly no end in sight for the continuing growth of the sandbox MMO.
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