Does it have to be a sandbox?

The MMORPG industry is a slow one. When a trend emerges, it takes time for developers and/or publishers to react and release games incorporating said trends. The heavy years of “WoW clones” were 2007-2010 while for the players, at least those vocal enough to put their thoughts into writing, it was clear since 2009, at the latest, that they wanted something different. Back then, we weren’t all too sure about what we wanted- we wanted “different but familiar enough”, a vague statement. Games like Star Wars: the old Republic, The Secret World, Guild Wars 2 and Wildstar tried to find a comfortable spot. Since 2012, maybe 2013, with the announcement of ArcheAge and Everquest Next (haha), it seemed clear that players want MMOs to return to sandbox design. Slowly, this new batch of MMORPGs arrives: with ArcheAge last year, now Black Desert Online and soon Shroud of the Avatar, Camelot Unchained, Star Citizen, Shards Online, Albion, the Repopulation 2.0 and so on. MMORPGs seem to be going back into a niche and are happy for it, while MMOs are going ever more mainstream (The Division).

With Black Desert Online, there’s this odd discussion whether it truly is a sandbox or just a glorified themepark with a lack of content.

What is a “Sandbox”, anyway?

I’ve read that a “true sandbox” has to offer its players more freedom in terms of building structures in the world (although we all know that if they’d do that, we’d live in Dong-land).

The discussion about whether or not an MMORPG is a sandbox is quite old and done, really. Everybody who tackles this topic- and me too, will throw the definition of “sandbox” (Wikipedia even redirects to “open world”) out there: it’s about an open world instead of linear level design. Taking this definition verbatim, there are many MMORPGs that are a sandbox- namely all MMORPGs taking place in worlds without artificial barriers and invisible walls. That would be true for Rift or Wildstar, for example. While we all have different views on that, here’s the part of the definition that gets me:

Their main appeal is they provide a simulated reality and allow players to develop their character and its behavior in the direction of their choosing. In these cases, there is often no concrete goal or end to the game.

No concrete goal or end to the game. Let that sink in and think about the reaction something like this would get from MMO players- we’d be telling each others about missing endgame and a pointlessness of the leveling process and we’d be asking where the content is. On the other hand, having no concrete goal or end to the game is also standard operation for MMORPGs- you can play World of Warcraft for battle pets only, or for good-looking armor, or for achievements the auction house and so on. There are as many motivations to play this game as there are players. You could argue, of course, that you beat the game by beating whatever content is the “most difficult” in the game right now- but this still is not a defined ending.

I need to figure that focus-thing out for future screenshots.
I need to figure that focus-thing out for future screenshots.

Now, i do know that when MMO players debate about a game being a sandbox/themepark, they’re not talking about that definition shown above- because that definition doesn’t allow for much discussion in MMO space. I know that when we talk about “Themepark”, we talk about developer-created content taking the front seat. When we’re talking about “Sandboxes”, we think about player-created content and “emergent gameplay”, whatever that means. But even if we’d draw the lines there, things get blurry- is Neverwinter a sandbox, then? Because players can create content there- or are these players simply hobbyist-content-developers?

In the end, if you walk away from that Wikipedia definition of open world, no end, no goal, you will never come to an objective observation whether one game is a sandbox or not, with one exception: when a game gives players almost complete control of their environment (while providing some rules instead of content) like EVE does. But we don’t want EVE- at least the majority doesn’t, not even the majority of the vocal minority, while most of them state they do want a (pve-)sandbox. Giving players freedom also seems to include the ability for players to ruin other players’ enjoyment of a game.

I think the key here is in a small part of the definition cited above: simulated reality.

Simulated reality and options

Sandbox or Themepark doesn’t matter, really. What matters is if an MMORPG is trying to build a simulated reality / virtual world and provides players with options in how to spend time in the game: things like pve, housing, crafting, trade, fishing, pet and mount collection, character looks, character builds and yes, even pvp- they need to be central to the design of an MMORPG, because, MMORPGs are good because they provide all that- they’re basically a gaming genre-mix. When you take this into account, you will find that Everquest 2, an MMORPG of the “Themepark” subgenre, in the end offered more ways to play it than Darkfall or Mortal Online, both “Sandboxes” do.

Is Black Desert Online a Sandbox?

Is BDO a sandbox? For me, it’s too early to tell. Right now, i get the feeling that the best course of action would be to continue questing to finally arrive at a few quests that might teach me BDO’s many systems. A real sandbox would have to offer a significant player economy, as well- at least in MMOs. You’ll have trade as an option in Black Desert Online- trade, that is- as in ArcheAge- about transporting special goods from one place to the other and buying/selling to NPCs.

The furniture merchant in Olvia
The furniture merchant in Olvia

I’m only level 11 and i’m already able to trade, go fishing, collecting, milk cows (a daily quest), go mob grinding or questing or simply explore the world. However, i do feel that i need to reach Heidel City for the game to truly open up. And i think Black Desert is a game where having Alts makes life a lot easier. So these are my plans in that game for now: reaching Heidel City through questing with Nuria, the Witch and then go and create the Valkyrie. Although i feel “on rails” in this part of the game, i’m convinced that by the time i reach level 50 at the latest- and it seems to only take a double-digit number of hours /played- i’ll be free to play the game in the way i want to.

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