When i felt i couldn’t yet pin down the sandbox in EQ Next, i came to think about this- what constitutes a sandbox? Then i read Azuriels EQ Next impressions and, while he didn’t mention the term “Sandbox”, it became more clear.
World vs. game
In a world, you have options- and these options include more than choosing which mobs to fight and in what way (Rift does an excellent job in offering multiple gameplay options for mob slaughter). We all know housing as “another thing to do”. Add an involved crafting system, trade, exploration and maybe even world-building to that and you have some options for players with different play styles. The thing about MMORPGs is that they can be many games in one- there could be your economics simulation (this doesn’t seem to be the correct english word, sorry), a strategy game as well as a “city simulator” and of course your RPG in it- at least.
This possible combination of singleplayer-genres alongside the possibility to play these games with many other players (being some kind of social network, as well- which in my opinion is what made WoW so successful) is what makes MMORPGs so compelling.
There needs to be a game attached to the world- most players will want to have some kind of progress with their characters and they want to be adventurous, fight difficult enemies, craft unique items and so on.
When someone says the “G” in the MMORPG part is the least important, i really think nowadays this just means “the ‘G’ is fine as is, please focus on the other parts”- when you take a look at the newer games, i think they nailed the gameplay part- GW2’s combat is fun, then there are the slightly more strategic combat systems of WoW, EQ2, Rift, TSW and so on, which are also fun in their own way. And if you like your combat really very much on the strategic side- EVE has that covered. So the combat (and PvE-) gameplay is just fine.
Systems vs. Scripts
Now, here are two words describing the same sandbox vs. themepark / world vs. game – discussion, at least from my perspective. What we need to move the genre forward, is an implementation of systems that slowly start to replace scripts. Actually, when i think about that, there is a possibility that EQ Next has this covered. When we compare GW2 with EQN in regards to the emergent AI of mobs in EQN and dynamic events in GW2, it’s clear that in EQN, there’s this system of likes & dislikes (i’m assuming it gets implemented well), which can lead to all kinds of situations and the scripted, cyclical dynamic events of GW2 on the other hand.
Both implementations could lead, for instance, to a village being attacked by orcs/centaurs. If these orcs from EQN serve as a faction instead of mobs, you, as a player, can make a decision to help the orcs attack the village- this option is not available to you in GW2, since the centaurs are going to attack you anyway.
Now, i wonder: what will EQN do if a part of the players decide to defend the village and another part is helping the attackers? PvP would be one option- it wouldn’t be FFA-PvP, but could be restricted to this area and to this moment until the attack is either completed successfully or not. But there might be no need for that. When you don’t allow players to attack each other, this might come out as some variation of a MOBA- the only targets being the NPCs. Now, i’m really making this up as i go, since we don’t know if it’s going to work this way in EQN or not- but what was revealed at least allows for that speculation.
You can expand that line of thought, of course. Boss behaviour instead of instanced dungeons- you could let raid bosses lay down a camp somewhere in the open world and let them spread their influence outwards. If the world is big enough, there’ll always be places where these mobs could hide for some time. A trade system instead of an auction house, placing resources in a “realistic” way in the world, making rare resources rare and not just attainable at later levels. Making prizes local, allowing for caravans. Implementing a degradation system for items, so you can’t use what you have for eternity.
Player-to-player vs. Player-to-Environment
The systems in a Sandbox MMORPG should focus on interactions between players. Your equipment degrades with time, so you need a crafter to build new armor or weapons or to repair your stuff. Prizes and resources are local, so you need traders to bring the items to your area. Mobs are free to roam, so you might need experienced adventurers in your area to allow you to farm the resources and enable trade. And so on. These interdependencies need to be build into the core of the game, allowing/encouraging/forcing players to interact with each other. The trend in MMORPGs has been self-sufficiency- and this needs to be stopped.
Do we want a Sandbox MMORPG?
Is “Sandbox” the solution to the problems in the genre? Is there even a problem? The term “sandbox” is a vague one, and everybody’s going to have their own opinion about it. But that’s not really what many of us want- what we’d like to see is an MMORPG that we’ll want to play for years, not months- it’s just that i think at least some of the stuff mentioned above would be helpful in being that game.
As Azuriel put it: “All long-term compelling MMO content is player-based”. Again, i agree. Whether the game providing that is called Sandbox, Themepark, Sandpark or Themebox doesn’t really concern me- but there should be (another) one.